As their population declines, Parsi-Zoroastrians struggle to manage religious properties
Early this month, a senior Zoroastrian priest suggested that a dilapidated fire temple in Mumbai’s Fort area, which does not get many devotees, be closed down and its consecrated fire transferred to another shrine.
The priest, Khurshed Dastur, who heads the Atash Behram at Udvada, Gujarat – the community’s holiest shrine, is the Zoroastrian representative in the National Minorities Commission. He is one of the senior priests heading the seven Atash Behrams - the highest-grade fire temples – and his comments created a furore.
Dastur, who spoke to this journalist, said that he stood by his remarks. “Previously, there was a major population of Parsis in Fort and the area had five to six fire temples. There are hardly any Parsis living in the area now, and except for the two to three temples on the main road, the others have no footfall except during the boi ceremonies [prayers],” he said.
According to Dastur, the younger generation does not want to be priests because the salaries are low. “The [Fort agiary] building is dilapidated and instead of spending ₹30 lakh to ₹40 lakh every year to repair it, the trust should sell it off and use the money for mobeds [priests].”
Many Parsis were angry with Dastur’s suggestions. One individual, who vented his anger on a social messaging forum, even said that the priest should be ‘impeached’.
Others supported the priest’s views. A social media user pointed out that two more fire temples in Fort lie deserted during most of the day, barring the time when a priest comes for the daily prayers.
India’s Parsi-Zoroastrian population has been falling every decade since 1941. Between the 2001 and 2011 censuses, their numbers fell from 69,000 to 57,000. A study by demographer Ava Khullar listed several reasons, including low fertility, or the number of children born to every woman; migration; late marriages and exclusion of kids born to women married to non-Parsis, for the decline. Even in 1971, the birth rate among Parsis was 10.6 per 1,000 compared to 41.2 for the general Indian population. The country’s birth rate was 21.8 according to the 2011 census.
As their population declines, Zoroastrians are struggling to maintain their religious properties. A few years ago, this newspaper reported on how community associations in small towns like Khambhat in Gujarat, that once had thriving Parsi localities, were struggling to protect religious shrines and cemeteries from encroachers. According to the Federation of Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans (FPZA) of India, in more than 50 of the 80 towns in the country where Parsis once lived, the anjumans, or associations are defunct.
In Mumbai, where the majority of India’s Parsi-Zoroastrians live, their population has declined, too. Jehangir Patel, editor of Parsiana, a community magazine, said that most of the city’s 50-odd fire temples were built in the 19th Century when Mumbai’s Parsi population was around 70,000. The number is estimated to be between 35,000 and 38,000 now.
“My reports from various people show that footfalls everywhere [fire temples] seem to be less. The population is declining and ageing, and travelling [to the temples] has become difficult because of all the work on the roads,” said Patel. “Footfalls are declining even at popular agiaries. I remember the agiary on Lamington Road where, on some days, there used to be a queue to get in.”
As fire temples face closure, one concern is what to do with the holy fire – which is the focus of worship. The fires are created in special ceremonies and cannot be extinguished. One solution has been to shift the fires to a shrine that still has visitors. When a fire temple in Bharuch in south Gujarat was planned to shut, there were talks of shifting its 700-year-old fire to a new shrine in Navi Mumbai where more than 400 Parsi-Zoroastrians now live.
Dastur said that this is the only solution. “Everywhere, holy fires should be shifted to areas where there is more population. Make use of that property to earn revenue rather than letting it fall apart,” said Dastur. “It makes sense. You cannot play with religious sentiments. Sometimes you have to use the head and not the heart.”
Parsi is an ethnic term for those who fled to India from Persia a millennium ago while Zoroastrian refers to the religion which has other followers like Iranis who migrated to India in the early twentieth century.