The curious case of the vanishing Parsis
It is a community which is perceived as affluent, influential, and industrious. But the Parsis in India are fighting a battle with dwindling numbers and orthodox, insular mindsets. Ground reports from Gujarat, Maharashtra and Telangana.brunch Updated: Aug 12, 2015 00:08 IST
That shouldn’t be surprising considering Billimoria is a Parsi. Perceived as a community of mostly affluent number-crunching entrepreneurs, ironically, the biggest anxiety gripping Parsis in India these days is their dwindling numbers.
"The birth rate of the Parsis has dropped dramatically to below replacement levels. In 2013, the last year we have data for, we had just 195 births in the entire country and 950 deaths. We are a community on the edge," says Dr Shernaz Cama of the Parzor Foundation, Delhi, a community organization mandated by the UNESCO to preserve Parsi Zoroastrian heritage.
Cama isn’t painting an alarmist picture. In the last 60 years, even as the country’s population tripled from 318 million in 1941 to a billion in 2001, the number of Parsis fell 39 per cent over the same period -- from 114,000 to 69000 in the 2001 census -- the most recent to classify population by religion. "The population data of minorities in the 2011 census is still to be tabulated," Census Commissioner C Chandramauli told HT Brunch.
When one puts together a Parsi map of India, one sees that a chunk of the population outside Maharashtra (which has the largest number at about 46,000 including affluent Mumbai and Pune) lives in Gujarat.
Illustration: Jayanto; Source: Parzor Foundation, Delhi
But the Parsis in Gujarat and other non-metropolis cities are significant not just because of their numerical strength. They also have a unique place in the cultural history of Parsis in India.
Not all Parsis are rich businessmen who obsess over automobiles. Which is why, to move away from the stereotype of Mumbai-based Parsis – affluent individuals who stay insulated in neighbourhoods such as Dadar Colony, so often caricatured in Hindi films – we’ve looked beyond Mumbai to explore the loves and lives of this fascinating community, in other parts of the country.
After landing in the town of Sanjan when they first arrived in the country, many Parsi families settled down in the port town of Surat, in the fifteenth century, to work in the trading factories that the Europeans (the Portuguese, the British and the Dutch) had established.
As of March 2014, according to the directory of the Surat Parsi Panchayat, the city’s Parsi population stood at 3,584. The number has shrunk further from 3616 in 2004 and 3696 in 2010.
To reverse the decline, community bodies are dangling the carrot of affordable housing – one of the factors that deter many Parsis from getting married – at the young and the aspirational. The Surat Parsi Panchayat, for instance, rents out homes to young Parsis who promise to marry other Parsis and start a family, at rock-bottom rentals.
With monthly earnings of Rs 16,000, Delicia’s parents, 37-year-old office executive Nariosong Billimoria and his wife Benaifer, 35, could not have dreamt of affording the spacious, sun-drenched, one bedroom-hall-kitchen apartment in Surat’s Zarthosti Building, for which they pay a princely rent of Rs 200 per month, but for the panchayat. The market value of each of the flats is around Rs 6 lakh.
"The community takes care of us if we think of the larger good," reasons Nariosong. "Ever since we enter our teenage, our parents drill it in our heads that we should marry only a good Parsi boy," adds Benaifer. "In many cases, the panchayat plays an active part in the marriage itself."
Marriage in a baug
About 40 kms southwest of Surat, in the bustling town of Navsari, the entire Parsi community seems to have turned out for a Sunday evening community feast at Jamshed Baug, a convention centre, to watch Sharmin Pithawalla tie the knot with Rayomand Gole.
Gole, 26, who works at a photocopying shop in Surat, sits opposite Pithawalla, 21, as a white cloth is placed between them. The bride and groom can’t look at each other but hold hands for a ceremony in which they tie threads to a chair.
In another ice-breaking ritual, the bride draws a huge applause when she throws rice higher than the groom. The couple is now made to sit together for the aashirward where the shlokas are read in Gujarati and Sanskrit.
"On an average in a year, affluent businessmen in Navsari sponsor close to 30 weddings and 10 Navjot ceremonies, where our holy thread called the kusti is tied to children to formally induct them into Zoroastrian faith," says Kersi Mandviwalla, the dastur (priest), as revellers wait patiently in a queue before they can dig into a sumptuous spread of Patrani Matchi, daal, chicken and pulao.
"Surat and Navsari are among the most traditional Parsi townships in the country. This is where our history in India began," says Yezdi Karanjia, 79, the seasoned Parsi theatre actor and director, sitting in the small, anachronistic office of the Surat Parsi Panchayat with yellowing wall paint, dusty ledgers and ornate furniture.
Three generations of Surat's prominent Karanjia family get together for a Navroz feast.
The sugar & milk theory
When they first arrived, escaping persecution in Iran, the refugees from Pars (Persia), the Zoroastrian fire worshipers, came by boat to Sanjan, a small town on the shores of Gujarat in the eight century (936 CE).
"Back then, they didn’t have any navigation systems. The sea winds brought us to these shores because God thought that if our community were to survive, Gujarat in India was the place where we could flourish," says Karanjia, the avuncular patriarch of the last surviving family troupe of Parsi theatre in the country, performed in Gujarati. The veteran of more than 100 one-act plays and 42 full-fledged three-act productions says like everything Parsi, the popularity of their brand of theatre is also on the wane.
Before the refugees could make Gujarat their home, Jaditya Rana, the local monarch, quizzed the Parsis. The story goes that Rana questioned the head priest on how they planned to reside in an already overpopulated place.
Nairyosang Dhawal, the leader of the refugees, called for a bowl of milk filled to the brim and a spoonful of sugar. He carefully blended the sugar into the milk, without spilling a drop. Like sugar in the milk, Parsis will blend with the population and sweeten society, said Dhawal. "Pleased with the answer, Rana promised them a home but imposed certain conditions," adds Jamshed Dotivala, president of the Surat Parsi Panchayat.
"We adopted Gujarati as our mother tongue and our women began to dress in saris. We were asked to surrender all weapons and to hold Parsi wedding processions after sunset. These traditions are followed in Surat and other parts of Gujarat even today," adds Dotivala.
Once they found their feet, the industrious and business-minded Parsis flourished in the state. They installed the holy fire called the Iranshah and inhabited the towns and villages of Gujarat making their living as farmers, weavers, carpenters and bakers.
At a typically crowded traffic crossing on a manic summer afternoon the aroma of freshly baked bread and cakes draws us to the door of Surat’s legendary Dotivala Bakery.
Jamshed Dotivala’s son Cyrus, sixth in a generation of entrepreneurs who’ve been running the business, founded after the Dutch left India in 1825, says his two school-going sons are under no pressure to carry the family legacy forward. "We’ve stayed traditional in our religious beliefs but have always kept our minds open to progressive thoughts and lifestyles," adds Cyrus.
"These sweet contradictions -- between modernity and convention -- are what make the annual Navroz celebrations so interesting," says Cyrus, as he invites us to witness Jamshedi Navroz celebrations at a few homes in the city.
The origins of Jamshedi Navroz, date back to more than 3000 years when Jamshed, the king of Persia, ascended the throne on the day of the vernal equinox, when the length of the day equals that of the night.
The Parsi community of Surat turns out in large numbers at its fire temples for the festival. In the religious pecking order, the most revered fire temple is called the Atash Behram. On the second rung is an Agyari fire temple and on the third, the Daadgah.
At the Atash Behram in Sayyadpura – one of the four traditional Parsi neighbourhoods in Surat along with Shahpur, Nanpura and Rustampura – a steady lot of worshippers wearing shiny new clothes and cheerful dispositions, keeps streaming in through the day to offer prayers.
"Being a Saturday this year, many more people can accompany their loved ones," says Porus Icchaporia, 40, a financial consultant, as he cradles his one-year-old son Vivaan. His wife Kashmira is busy browsing through a cart brimming with trinkets, diyas, framed photos of Lord Zoroaster, bangles and other assorted Navroz memorabilia that an enterprising Parsi lady is peddling outside the fire temple.
"Every year on March 21, I visit Surat from Mumbai to set up this stall. I’ve been doing it for 22 years and it still makes for brisk business," says Zarin Sapal as she hands over a dainty little necklace to a girl.
One of the most colourful parts of Navroze celebrations at Parsi homes is setting up the ‘Haft-Seen’ table. In Persian ‘Haft’ means the number seven and ‘Seen’ signifies the letter S. So, the Haft-Seen is a table-ful of seven articles that start with the letter S or Sh.
At the Chichgar household, the honour of decorating the table is given to Maharukh Chichgar 47, a teacher, mom and actor. The first two objects to be placed, she says, are a silver bowl and coin. Then a pomegranate, around which there are flowers. There is a diya lit in the tradition of fire worship and the photograph of Zoroaster the prophet.
Mahrukh continues placing the Sharab, Shakar (sugar), Shir (milk), Shirni (sweetmeat), Shir Berenj (Sweets), Sheera (syrup) and Shahad (honey) on the table. She then adds Sirka (vinegar), Sumac (spice), Samanu (halwa), Sib (apple), Sir (garlic), Senjed (berries) and Sabzi (herbs).
Traditionally, Parsis invite family and friends over on Navroz. There are prayers earmarked for the morning, afternoon and evening. In the evening, everyone prays at the Navroz table and eats from it. "Navroz Mubarak," they greet each other before embracing them.
A mirror is placed in such a way that you can see the reflection of the pomegranate, a diya and the photograph of Zoroaster in a straight line. "You wish for good fortune when you look at all three in alignment and then look at yourself," explains Mahrukh Chichgar.
"At the time of the equinox, the earth turns a little. We believe that this movement is caught in the mirror and the pomegranate moves at the same moment. The mirror catches that lucky moment in the reflection. That is why looking into the mirror on Navroz brings you good luck," she adds.
Considering the manner in which their numbers are depleting, the community will need more than just good fortune to keep their flock growing.
The numbers game
Reversing the population decline won’t be easy for the community. It will involve a change in social attitudes for sure, says Dinyar Patel, a historian and PhD candidate at Harvard University. Over the past few decades, many Parsis chose to have fewer or no children, rues Patel.
“There was little family pressure to marry. There is a strong body of data to show that the Parsi population in India is declining owing to low fertility. This isn’t because of any biological or medical problems; rather, it is because so many Parsis choose to not marry, or marry late, or have few or no children. As a result, the community’s total fertility rate may now be as low as 0.88, whereas a total fertility rate of 2.1 is needed for replacement,” says Patel.
According to Villoo Morawala Patell, managing director of Avesthagen, Bangalore, which is conducting a genomic studies of India’s Parsis, the appallingly low birth rate has been driven by the a cocktail of cultural issues within the community.
“The tradition of marrying only within the community resulted in large numbers of people remaining unmarried in the 70s and 80s. That was when the decline began. At that time it was taboo to even think of marrying outside the community,” says Morawala Patell.
The Parsi community’s self-imposed exclusiveness isn’t helping matters. Conversions are taboo, intermarriage with members of other faiths is frowned upon and non-Parsis are not allowed inside fire temples.
In the last few decades, many clusters of Parsis, particularly in larger cities of western India, began staying in secluded gated communities called Baugs, insulated from other ethnicities.
“They were living in baugs and had their little house and a car and didn’t really bother about getting married. A kind of mediocrity had crept in. The comfort zone created in a Baug lifestyle led to an obsession with creature comforts more than raising children,” explains Morawala Patell.
Kulpreet Freddy Vesuna, 41, a Sikh married to a Parsi IT professional based in Pune, says it is time the community began displaying more flexibility towards spouses from other communities and religions. “While they allow their sons to marry non-Parsi girls, they don’t accept them entirely and don’t allow them to visit fire temples. This is one thing I long for in this otherwise affectionate and energetic community.”
In the 1990s, many highly educated Parsi women realised there were few options within the community when they wanted to marry or start a family. “The women were far more qualified, progressive and smarter than the mama’s boys who stayed entrenched in baugs and couldn’t break away from the influence of their mothers,” says Villoo Morawala Patell. “These boys were not interested in getting an education. All they wanted was to inherit their parents’ wealth and buy cars. This led to in highly qualified women marrying outside the community,” she says.
Intermarriages within the community have become far more common, says Dinyar Patel. According to an estimate, close to 30 per cent of Parsis in the bigger cities such as Mumbai, Delhi and Pune are marrying outside the community.
It doesn't only have to do with educational qualifications or money, it also emerges from a dearth of like-minded people within the community, says Morawalla Patell. “When people in the 13-19 age group look at people to mingle with within their community, there are hardly any teenagers. Bangalore, for instance, where I am based, would have a maximum of 20-25 teenagers and Hyderabad would have about 30,” she says. “Today’s teenagers are not weighed down by the stigma that was attached to marrying outside the community in the 70s and the 80s.”
Many young Parsis are not content toeing the conventional line. Travel agency executive Pirzad Kerman Gandhi is one of these. “Let us not bring our religious faith into matters of the heart. I will play the field and eventually marry the girl I love, irrespective of her religious or ethnic affiliations. I am sure my parents, too, will respect my decision. We are not living in the 18th century any longer,” says the exuberant 22-year-old.
The Parsis of Surat are ready to move with the times, affirms Jaosh Tata, 41, brand manager with IDBI Federal Insurance. “I don’t want my children to grow up in a Parsi ghetto with its dingy bylanes and lack of open space. That’s why even if my parents, both retired finance executives may be a little reluctant, we are ready to move into a condominium on the outskirts of the city.”
The old Surat Parsi neighbourhood of Sayyadpura.
Jaosh’s homemaker wife Queenie says the attitudes of women have changed since the time she was in her teens. “Many of my friends resisted parental pressure and married outside the community. Today’s woman has a mind of her own. When her expectations grow with education, she wants a boy who earns more than her and understands her sensibilities. If they don’t find the men they desire within the community, they look outside. Ultimately, the parents too will come around and support their children’s decisions.”
The Mumbai-based organisation Zoroastrian Youth For the Next Generation (ZYNG) hosts youth meets where Parsi boys and girls get to know each other. The programmes are designed with the ostensible purpose of breaking the ice between the sexes, so that eventually one of them takes the initiative and they get married.
Critics say many such programmes have degenerated into non-serious speed-dating exercises. Apart from workshops that focus on the tenets of Zoroastrianism and light-hearted entertainment, they also have cheesy sessions such as
Love, Sex Aur Dhokha
Recently, a series of provocative ads designed for the Jiyo Parsi campaign came under fire for its depiction of members of the community as a species which should procreate as a strategy of survival. Some of the taglines for the ads included: “Who will be snooty about being superior if you don’t have kids?” and “Be responsible, don’t use a condom tonight.”
The Parsi of 2015 doesn’t quite know whether to break free, or conform for the sake of the community. Yezdi Karanjia sums up the dilemma dramatically: “How can we forget our past? Our elders have ensured that we’ve kept the connection with our traditions alive. If we keep marrying non-Parsis, our community will become extinct.”
Photos: Gurinder Osan
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In Dahanu, Maharashtra, the 180-people strong Parsi community is surviving in the face of industrial encroachment and rising land rates, while trying to revive their chikoo farms
If it weren’t for one Parsi man’s obsession with botany, we’d consider the chikoo as exotic a fruit as the kiwi. But fortunately for India, in the late 1890s, Sir Dinshaw Petit insisted on trying to grow this South American rainforest plant in India, so thank him for your chikoo milkshake.
Thank the Parsis of Dahanu-Gholvad too. Because there, about 80kms from Mumbai, four generations of Parsi farmers have put their sweat, blood and knowledge into their chikoo vaadis, making the region one of the highest producers of the fruit in the world.
Fruit of Labour
“The Parsis of Dahanu are the latest batch of Iranian immigrants to have settled in India,” says Farzan Mazda, a 29-year-old former professor from the region, and our host for the Navroz feast.
“The old Parsis of Bombay and other regions had started to blend in with Indians and were forgetting our customs. We restarted the traditions of setting up the Navroz table, visiting each other’s houses and celebrating the festival.”
Mazda’s ancestors started another Navroz ritual that has become a trademark for Dahanu’s Parsi community. “All the chikoo farmers of the region had guns to protect their fields from predatory birds,” says Farzan’s father, Dr Beheramshah Mazda. “So we fire blank shots at equinox on every Navroz day. That has become a tradition for us here.”
Crates of happiness: Farzan and Beheramshah Mazda (left) are fourth and fifth generation Parsi chikoo farmers in Dahanu, near Mumbai.
Unfortunately, the tradition may soon die out, because the chikoo farms, once the main business of 90 per cent of the Parsi population in Dahanu, are no longer viable. “The thermal power plant that started functioning in Dahanu in the late ’90s caused so much air pollution that the trees started yielding less and less,” says Dr Mazda.
His son adds: “We’ve dragged them to court over and over again, and made sure that their machines are updated and there’s no harm to our ecosystem. The harvest has been better in the last couple of years.”
Constantly rising land prices, the growing of chikoos in other regions (in Gujarat) and labour costs are also affecting chikoo farming in Dahanu. “A century ago, the adivasis [tribals] of the area teamed up with Parsi land owners. They made for inexpensive labour and knew the soil and the techniques,” says Mazda. “But nowadays, their services have become very expensive.”
To promised lands
As a result, the community are doctors and bakers and teachers now. Dahanu resident Manijeh Minoo Irani runs the Shapoor Merwan Nursery School. Many have gone into the restaurant business, running famous joints such as Crazy Crab, Pecoline, Goolkhush and Tapovan.
Gholvad resident Farhad Mubaraki, an interior designer by profession, says the chikoo yield gives them “enough to get by”. He believes that the quiet county is ideal for retired people, but no place for the young and ambitious.
“Earlier, children from Dahanu and Gholvad relocated to Bombay and Pune for education,” says his wife Kermez. “But nowadays, no one comes back. Our son is in America, and most people migrate to bigger cities for a better life.”
Mubaraki also believes that the community’s orthodox way of life is to blame for their declining numbers. “If we’re going to be so strict about marrying within the community,” he says, laughing, “You’ll soon come to see Parsi people in a zoo.”
Mazda remembers that Dahanu’s population of Parsis was about 650 when he was young. It’s now less than 200. But those that remain have learnt to cope with challenges, and take every day with a pinch of salt and a glass
Photos by Labony Kaushal
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The Parsi community in Telangana is small but enterprising
With a population of just 1,136 people in the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad, Parsis are barely visible. But then, in 1803, it took the community just 15 people to give it its southern beginning in the first place.
That happened when a group of Parsis, mainly the Chenoys, arrived from Jalna in Maharashtra on bullock-carts to settle in Secunderabad, part of the Nizam of Hyderabad’s territory. At that time Secunderabad was developing as a British cantonment and the Parsis, courtesy the Nizam, set up businesses there.
Today, the Parsis of the twin cities are lawyers, doctors, academicians and business people, owning popular brands like Chermas. They are also entrepreneur-politicians, such as the NRI Lord Karan Bilimoria.
“The initial generation of Parsis who worked in the dominion of the Nizam spoke in Turkish which was the language of the courts,” says Dr Shernaz Cama of the Parzor Foundation, Delhi. Now, the Parsis speak Gujarati with a Persian touch at home, but converse in Hyderabadi lingo (a mix of Hindi, Urdu and Telugu) outside. The younger generation is also becoming conversant in Telugu.
“We are more cosmopolitan than our community elsewhere, thanks to the Nizam and the aristocracy then, and the outward looking, mixed culture city Hyderabad has become in recent times,” says Parvez Baria, a businessman who manufactures non-vegetarian pickles with Parsi flavours. “Even our meals are a blend of Parsi, Hyderabadi and continental dishes whereas on the west coast they are more Gujarati.”
The Navroz feast at home includes haleem and Hyderbadi style kebabs, and the biryani is spicy, just like the dum biryani of Hyderabad.
(Photos: HT Photo)
Every year, 85-year-old Gulbanoo Chenoy (above), president of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjuman of Secunderabad and Hyderabad, hosts a Navroz feast. This time, her guests included Lord Karan Bilimoria, 53, the brain behind the UK’s Cobra beer, celebrating Navroz in his hometown after almost 20 years although the Navjot ceremonies for all his four children were held here.
The Parsis may hang on to their traditions, but their numbers are dwindling fast. Between 2005 and 2014, only 43 births were recorded, though there were 176 deaths. The first 50 days of 2015 recorded two deaths and no birth.
But Chenoy is not worried. “Our numbers were always a concern. But we’ve survived the 1,300 years since we set foot in the country and I am confident we’ll live for another 1,000 years,” she says.
Her optimism may be misleading. At the Bai Ratanbai J Chinoy Parsi School, established in 1919 to provide education to underprivileged Parsi kids, only seven children out of 1,180 are Parsis.
“In 1933, it had to be converted into a secular minority institution taking kids from all religions with preference to Christians, Muslims and Jains,” says Ketayoun Chinoy, administrator of the school.
In any case, most Parsi children these days are sent to private schools, where some make their city and community proud. Tushna Baria (16), for instance, was awarded a silver medal in the Royal Commonwealth Society’s essay competition in 2013 and represented her school in a model UN conference in Beijing in 2014.
A directory of Zoroastrian families mentions every Parsi in detail, right down to blood group. It even cautions against the G6PD deficiency, common among Parsis, that causes jaundice in new-borns.
The community has a number of welfare measures in place: medical equipment for emergency use is provided free of charge and the less well-off are entitled to affordable housing – that’s about 40 per cent of the twin cities’ total Parsi population.
As 34-year-old Anita Ichhaporia, who pays R1,600 as rent for a one bedroom-hall-kitchen flat in the heart of the city, says, “Our business is not always profitable. Besides, we like to be close to our community.”
The Parsi Anjuman helps families earning less than Rs 25,000 per month, and the 50-year-old Zoroastrian Stree Mandal provides groceries and clothing when needed.
“We are a small community and rescue each other in times of need,” says Aspi Debara, secretary the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjuman, Hyderabad. “One thing is assured – there will never be a Parsi beggar.
- Prasad Nichenametla
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From the photographer's diary
We’ve grown up watching eccentric cap-wearing Parsis in Hindi movies, who address everybody as dikra and dikri. So, when my colleague Aasheesh Sharma and I left Delhi for a story on the Parsis in Surat and Navsari, Gujarat, we carried with us our baggage of notions.
We pictured robe-wearing priests at fire temples. In flesh and blood, the urbane and sophisticated Parsis we met were a departure from the over-the-top caricatures painted by Bollywood.
Their warmth is to be experienced to be believed. We met the peppy residents (on the left) of a children’s home in Surat’s old Parsi settlement. The equally enthusiastic businessmen who volunteer for the community challenged our preconceived notions.
But we returned wiser and richer with the experience – and some lovely photographs. In this issue, we present you the Parsi map of India. It’s sparse, but it is fascinating.
- Gurinder Osan
From HT Brunch, June 28
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