The Parsis of India

Parsi fire temple
Parsi fire temple
Photo: Pablo Ares Gastesi / Flickr

If you have a Parsi friend, chances are you fondly call him Bawa or her Bawi. Bawa or Bawi contribute to your friends’ circle with naughty jokes, warm hugs, a great appetite and plenty of good food.

Parsis celebrating New Year
Parsis celebrate
Photo: News Mobile Lifestyle Bureau

If you don’t already have a Bawa or Bawi in your life, go out and find this unique personality to be your friend! You might have to be quick, because the Parsi community is dwindling at an alarming rate in India.

The first thing people say when speaking of Parsis is how tiny the community is. In India, there are less than 65,000 Parsis alive today. The government-mandated programme, The Jiyo Parsi Initiative, encourages young Parsis to focus on adding cute little babies to the community and helping the numbers stabilise if not grow.

A large-hearted prophet…

The word ‘Parsi’ is an ethno-religious term that refers to Pars, the original home of the community that migrated to India to escape the tyranny of invasion in the 8th century CE.

Parsis follow Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism is the religion preached by Prophet Zarathushtra. Zarathushtra was born in modern-day Iran. For the first time in history, he introduced the idea that there is only one God — Ahura Mazda — to whom mankind should direct their prayers, petitions and gratitude. Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest examples of monotheism or belief in one God. The religion he preached spoke of goodness, purity and kindness, and originated somewhere between 1500 BCE to 6500 BCE, making it the oldest religion in the world!

A little ritual…

Parsi Navjote ceremony
Parsi Navjote
Photo: Wikipedia

Parsis are taught to respect the elements of nature and hold in highest regard the Almighty Fire. Their place of worship is the Fire Temple or Agiary and Atash Behram. In most Parsi homes, there is a divo (diya) burning in a sacred corner of worship.

A ritual called a Navjote is held for every young person of the Parsi community between the ages of 8 and 12, in which they are formally indoctrinated into the religion. Underneath a Parsi’s clothes you will find them wearing a Sudreh (vest made of soft muslin) and Kusti (a woven thread wrapped around the waist): symbols of their faith given at the Navjote ceremony.

Parsis are taught the tenets of Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds and to be mindful of how their thoughts, words and actions bear consequences. They are highly encouraged to practise the spirit of tolerance, and hence most Parsis you meet are tolerant, peace-loving and gentle. They love animals and are kind to all.

When the Parsis fled Iran in the 8th to 10th century CE on ships, they took with them the Holy Fire and set sail in search of a safer home. They landed on the coast of Gujarat where the local King welcomed them.

The Qissa-i Sanjan (Story of Sanjan) is the only existing account of the early years of Parsi settlers on the Indian subcontinent, narrating the long, arduous journey from Iran to Gujarat, where they settled down.

A popular story goes like this… King Jadi Rana once presented the Parsi Head Priest with a cup of milk filled to the brim to signify how full his local community already was. The Priest added sugar to the milk, suggesting that the Parsis would not let the community spill over but instead sweeten and enrich it.

The impressed king agreed to let the Parsis stay, asked them not to marry the locals, adopt the local language and clothing and cease to bear arms. Thus the Parsis became part of Gujarat! They speak a Parsi-fied version of the state language, wear the Gujarati style saris as traditional garb, etc.

The original Holy Fire rests in the most revered Fire Temple in a small town called Udvada and Parsis visit here as Holy Pilgrimage. This consecrated fire has been continuously burning for the last twelve hundred years.

To the history books of India

Slowly Parsis moved towards Mumbai city. Dorabji Nanabhoy was the first Parsi to move in 1640, following the arrival of the Portuguese. The British took control of Bombay with the establishment of the East India Company. The Parsis moved in droves to the city and eventually left a huge imprint on its landscape.

Various Parsi businesses like the Tatas fuelled the economic growth of Mumbai and India. Sir Sorabji Nusserwanji Pochkhanawala was one of the founders of the Central Bank of India; Pherozeshah Mehta, one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress, and Cowasjee Nanabhoy Davar set up the country’s first cotton mill.

Great Parsi business ethics are still practised today in companies like The Serum Institute, the world’s most prominent vaccine producer owned by Dr Cyrus Poonawalla and the Tata Group of Companies made strong and sturdy by Mr Ratan Tata.

Parsis Gara saree
Women of Bombay in the 1860s (British Library). Note the different types of sarees: embroidered borders, full embroidered gara fabric and tanchoi self-patterned fabric.
Photo: Old Indian Photos

The socio-economics of Parsi-panu…

The Parsi community has been at the forefront of many social and economic reforms in India. Most Parsi households are well off and form part of the vibrant Indian upper middle-class. Parsis are, for the most part, economically sturdy and highly educated. In Parsi homes, girls and boys are brought up equal and a great deal of attention is paid to a good education.

The Great Parsi Bhonu

Parsis are great lovers of food. The Parsi gambhars (gatherings for feasts) are a ritual steeped in religious significance that have evolved to become regular meet and greets to accommodate the good natured community’s need to congregate, eat and make merry! Gambhars are held for pious, celebratory and sombre occasions. Parsis of all age groups and economic backgrounds gather and enjoy meals often brimming over with meat.

Parsi food is a meat lover’s delight and is available at select restaurants in India. A popular Parsi eatery is Jimmy Boy in Mumbai. Popular dishes include Salli-Boti (a chicken stew with potato straws) and Dhansak (a spiced Parsi dal and rice enjoyed as the mutton variant).

Irani cafés were originally opened by Zoroastrian Irani immigrants to British India in the 20th century, fleeing Islamic persecution in West and Central Asia. In India, Mumbai and Hyderabad boast a number of Irani cafés, which are very popular for Irani chai (tea).

Luminaries of the Community

The Parsis are such a small community, that it takes outstanding brand ambassadors to draw the world’s attention to its very existence.

Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw
Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw

Karan Bilimoria is a British Indian entrepreneur and representative in the British House of Lords. He is known for founding the popular global beer brand Cobra Beer.

Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw was the Chief of the Army Staff during the Indo-Pak war of 1971 and the first military officer to attain the rank of Field Marshal. His military career lasted four decades beginning with World War II under the British Army.

One of the bravest soldiers to serve in the Indian army, Ardeshir Burzorji Tarapore was awarded the highest gallantry award, Param Vir Chakra, for his valour and sacrifice in the 1965 Indo-Pak war. Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major served as the 21st Chief of the Air Staff of the Indian Air Force.

Dadabhai Naoroji
Dadabhai Naoroji

Bhikaiji Rustom Cama was a prominent figure and fighter for equal rights for women in the Indian Independence Movement. Sir Dadabhai Naoroji is known as the Grand Old Man of India. He was an influential member of the British Parliament who stood up for the plight of his native country. He was a three-term President of the Indian National Congress.

Homi Bhabha
Homi Bhabha

Feroze Gandhi is said to be India’s first anti-corruption activist as he exposed the nexus between the government and business powerhouses at the time. He was born Feroze Gandhy in 1912 but was so inspired by the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, that he changed the spelling of his surname from “Ghandy” to “Gandhi” after joining the Independence movement.

Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata was the first licensed pilot of India. He is the founder of India’s first airlines, Tata Airlines, in 1932 which became Air India in 1946. He took the Tata Group to new heights with Tata Consultancy Services, Tata Motors, Titan Industries, Tata Tea and Voltas.

Jamshetji Tata
Jamshetji Tata

Ardeshir Godrej along with his brother Piroj started small manufacturing locks in 1897 and gradually expanded the Godrej brand creating mass positive economic impact that later became the Godrej industrial empire. Similarly there’s also Nessi Wadia of the Bombay Dyeing Group.

Homi Jehangir Bhabha was a brilliant student who attended Mumbai’s Elphinstone College He was instrumental in starting India’s nuclear programme. With the help of JRD Tata, he played a major role in establishing the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai.

Farokh Engineer
Farokh Engineer

Jamshetji Tata is fondly known as the Grandfather of Modern Indian Industry thanks to his business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. He established India’s trade relations with England, America, Europe, China, and Japan. Jamshetji also built the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai in 1903, the only hotel in India to have electricity at the time.

Behram Contractor
Behram Contractor

While we also had cricketer Farokh Engineer, there was also Polly Umrigar, a legendary cricketer who played from the late 40’s to the early 60’s and held the record of the Indian player with most Tests only to be broken by Sunil Gavaskar. Former captain of the Indian Women’s Test cricket team, Diana Edulji, strongly fought against male dominance in the sporting world, refusing once to enter Lord’s Pavilion in England. She is said to be the greatest Indian woman cricketer of all time.

Rohinton Mistry, novelist, short story and screenplay writer, made a name for himself, while humorist and columnist for varied newspapers and founder of Afternoon Despatch and Courier, Behram “Busybee” Contractor, was a name to reckon with in the journalistic world.

Cyrus Broacha
Cyrus Broacha

Padma Shri Sooni Taraporevala is an Indian screenplay writer, photographer and filmmaker best known as the screenwriter of Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay (1988). Homi Adajania is a noted Indian film director and writer, while funnyman Cyrus Broacha is a pop culture icon, TV anchor, theatre personality, comedian, political satirist and columnist.

Boman Irani is a versatile actor with unforgettable roles in over a dozen Bollywood films. You also have the gorgeous Bollywood actor, Perizaad Zorabian, who also spends time with her poultry business, Zorabian Chicken.

The Founder of Shamiana Arts, Cyrus Dastur is a young and influential filmmaker and proponent of short stories through film.

Zubin Mehta
Zubin Mehta

Zubin Mehta is a conductor of Western and Eastern classical music and the music director emeritus of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra amongst other world famous orchestras. He continues to impact the world of music through initiatives that support young musicians worldwide.

Tanzania-born Farrokh Bulsara a.k.a. Freddie Mercury was the iconic frontman of British rock band Queen. He defied the traditional image and was known for his flamboyant persona and four-octave vocal range.

Freddie Mercury
Freddie Mercury

Fali R. Singara is the very famous AIR Radio Jockey, film director, producer and writer. He produced and directed a documentary on Mother Teresa screened at the Vatican (Rome) for the Pope. He also started the first Elvis fan club in Mumbai. Veteran rocker from Mumbai, Gary Lawyer, known for his recording English albums has made a living as a Western musician, through his live shows, playing glorious gigs around the country, to serenading balmy jazz standards.

Mehr Jessia
Mehr Jessia

Keyboardist Zubin Balaporia is part of rock group Indus Creed and also into the Bollywood film industry, composing music for many films. Shiamak Davar is a Bollywood choreographer who put the Parsis on the world dance map.

Long before modern-day actresses took to the international stage in Hollywood, it was former Miss India (1965) Persis Khambatta who was on board the USS Enterprise in the iconic American sci-fi film series Star Trek.

Supermodel and actress Mehr Jessia won the Miss India title in 1986, while Mr India wasn’t far behind. Viraf Phiroz Patel, model, television actor and theatre personality shot to fame as The Grasim Mr India 2005.

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Freyan Bhathena
Latest posts by Freyan Bhathena (see all)

Freyan Bhathena

Freyan Bhathena, a young and vibrant Parsi herself, has been the Founding Editor of a youth-driven Parsi publication, and more recently, the Content Specialist for the Iranshah Udvada Utsav (a Parsi Celebration). She owns her own Content and Social Media Agency.