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1600 BC - 1600

Parsi Zoroastrians : From Persia to Akbar's Court

                                                                                                                                      Weaving a Story of Culture, Continuity and Change        
A Portrait of Prophet Zarathushtra, Hyderabad, India

Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Parsis originated about 3500 years ago in Persia (Iran). 

Followers of the Bronze Age Prophet Zarathushtra of Iran, the Parsi - Zoroastrians have come to be one of the distinct threads in the tapestry of multicultural India.

Zarathushtra is believed to have lived in the Bronze Age in Central Asia, the ancient land known as Airyana Vaeja. 

Zarathushtra or Zoroaster lived between 1700 BC and 1500 BC when the Stone Age of Iran gave way to the Bronze Age. There is much controversy regarding these dates, for Zoroaster has been dated by the School of Plato around 6000 B.C, while in later Hellenistic times the date was presumed to be 600 B.C.

Linguistic evidence however from The Gathas - 17 Hymns, the only text attributed directly to the Prophet, confirms close parallels with the early Rig Veda, now believed to be composed from about 1800 B.C.

Aa Airyemaa Ishyo, Yasna 54.1 from the Gathas

Above : Ervad Soli Dastur recites from the Gathas : Aa Airyemaa Ishyo – The Brotherhood of Mankind Above

“Zarathushtra concludes his Songs of Wisdom with a solemn prayer. Here, he prays for the promotion of a Universal Fellowship of all men and women who live a life of the Good mind and look for only the reward of righteousness.’’

Aa airyemaa ishyo, Yasna 54.1

''Aa airyémaa ishyo rafedhraai jantû,

Nerebyaschaa naairibyaschaa Zarathushtrahé,

Vanghéush rafedhraai manangho,

Yaa daénaa vairîm hanaat mîzhdem,

Ashahyaa yaasaa ashim,

Yaam ishyaam ahuro masataa mazdaao''

Legend tells us that in a town called Chorasmia, there was a beautiful maiden called Dughdhova. At the age of 15, her body began to shine with a glowing light. Her concerned parents sent her away to Rae or Ragha, near the river Vehdaiti, to the house of their friend Paeteraspa Spitama. The Spitama family belonged to a priestly clan. Pourushaspa, the son of the family soon fell in love with Dughdhova and they were married.

They had five sons. Zarathushtra, is traditionally believed to have been born on the day Khordad of the month Fravardin, now celebrated as Khordad Saal.

While western academicians interpret the name philologically as deriving from the words 'Zarath' and 'Ustra' to mean 'One whose camels are old', to Zoroastrian scholars of the East, it is a compound of 'Zaratha' - golden, and 'Ushtra' - light, and the name of the prophet among his believers means 'He of the Golden Light'.  The Gathas were handed down orally until they were finally put in writing in Sassanian times. They form the oldest part of the Zoroastrian scriptures collectively known as the 'Avesta'.

Known to the Greeks as Zoroaster, there are various legends connected to the Prophet's birth. It is stated that all nature celebrated this event and the Greeks tell us that he is the only child who is said to have laughed instead of crying at birth.

A Glass Painting by Artist Katayun Saklat depicting the legend of Zarathushtra's Birth. 

Zoroastrianism aims to approach life holistically. 

The world of matter is an emanation of the spirit, the material world is part of the divine plan and Zoroastrianism in no way reviles or ignores the material body to elevate the soul, nor does it feel that this world prevents the advancement of the spirit.

A man is as responsible to his body and to this earth as to his soul, and therefore concern for the well - being both of self and nature are as important as concern for the spirit. Only by a unity of body and soul can the highest ideals be reached; within man's material frame lie spiritual principles. This is explained in the Avesta through the concept of  the 'Amesha Spenta'.

Amesha Spenta is an Avestan term for divine entities in Zoroastrianism, and literally means “Bounteous Immortals”. 

Zoroastrianism affirms that Ahura Mazda - the Avestan name for the highest spirit literally meaning 'Lord of Wisdom' worshiped by the Zoroastrians, is believed to have created seven immortal helpers, the Amesha Spenta. Each of these protect one aspect of creation. 

These are 'Kshathra Vairya' which protects the sky and metal, 'Vohu Manah' or the Good Mind which enables a man to choose between good and evil and protects animals, 'Spenta Mainyu' or the Holy Spirit which represents wisdom, 'Asha Vahishta' which protects fire and represents truth, 'Spenta Armaity' which represents devotion and takes care of the earth, 'Hurvatat' which guards the waters and stands for perfection and it's twin 'Ameretat' which guards plants and represents immortality.

Artist Katayun Saklat depicts the radiant Amesha Spenta

Traced through oral transmission of myths and legends, much of the information about Zorosatrianism in a historical context during the ancient period of Iran comes from two sources - the 'Bundahishn' or the 'Zoroastrian Book of Creation' compiled in the 6th Century CE, and the 'Shah Namah' or the 'Book of Kings' - partly factual and partly fictional, written by Firdausi in the 10th Century CE.

According to the 'Shah Namah' or the 'Book of Kings', the earliest dynasties were the Peshdadian and the Kayanian dynasties. The most famous of the Peshdadian kings is said to be legendary King Jamshed who is believed to have been the first to create a solar calendar and calculate the equinox. 

The Kayanian kings were Kai Kobad, Kai Kaus, Kai Khusrow, Kai Lohrasp and Kai Vistaspa ( Kai meaning Ruler in Persian). Zarathustra is believed to have travelled to the court of King Vistaspa and explained the teachings of Ahura Mazda.

Zoroastrianism, thus, became the religion of the kingdom and began to spread from 1500 B.C. with the Motto, “Humata, Hukata and Huvarastha”, which means,  “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds”.

One of the most famous stories from the Shah Namah, the legend of 'Rustom (above) and his son Sohrab' has also been turned into a moving poem by the 19th Century English Poet Mathew Arnold 

Historical records about Zoroastrianism are available from the 6th Century BCE, which suggest that the Achaemenians, the rulers of the Persian Empire from 550 to 331 BCE, were followers of Zarathushtra. 

The Achaemenians established what can be called the first empire based on Zarathusthra's teachings.

Cyrus the Great, who founded the Achaemenian Empire, is referred to as anointed of God (Isaiah 45:1) for unlike the earlier Assyrians who had taken the Jews to Babylon as slaves, Cyrus liberated the Jews when he conquered Babylon in 539 BCE and permitted them freedom of worship.

After this conquest he made a unique proclamation that spoke not of his military victory but what he had done to protect those he had conquered. 

This declaration is acknowledged to be the world's first Bill of Rights and a copy of the ancient clay cylinder is placed in the United Nations Building in New York.

Cyrus Cylinder : The World's First Bill of Rights

The Proclamation on the Cyrus Cylinder reads: ''The Cities of Ashur and Susa... And All the Holy Cities beyond the Tigris, whose sanctuaries lay in ruins for a long time, I restored their Gods, I returned to their places and all the people of these lands I gathered in their own places and restored them to their own dwellings''. 

(Translated)

Cyrus Cylinder depicted on a postage stamp issued on 12 October 1971 to celebrate the 2,500-year anniversary of the Imperial Regime in Iran

Darius I ruled from 522 - 486 BCE. Some of the symbols associated with Zoroastrianism have been discovered in the architecture of this period. 

The Winged Farohar symbol has been found in several places among the ruins in Persepolis - once the Capital of Darius I.

It has become one of the most important Zoroastrian Symbols depicting the Fravashi - the guardian spirit.

The Winged Symbol is the Fravashi - the Guardian Spirit of an individual at Takht-e-Jamshed, Persepolis. 

Unity and interdependence is seen visually in the emblem of the Fravashi or Farohar. The winged figure (right), common in many middle-Eastern civilizations has become the protective emblem of the Zoroastrians today. 

Each aspect of creation is believed to have its own Fravashi   existing even before the material creation.These heavenly  archetypes of all being choose to pass from the 'Menok' - the spiritual  to the 'Getik' - the material state in order to assist Ahura Mazda protect his good creation against the assaults of Ahriman - the spirit of negativity and evil. 

Pictorially the exact circle, the sweeping outspread wings, suggest the perception and soaring heavenwards of the un-manifested godhead while the portrayal of the divine figure in the physical form of a noble human being is indicative of the importance of human life.

Another image of the Symbolic Fravashi found in the archaeological remains of Persepolis.

The Fravashi unites universal spirit with universal matter, for matter is meaningless without spirit and the spirit cannot act without matter. The function of both i.e matter and spirit united and one is to bring forth the perfected world of  'Frashokereti' at the end of time.

Thus, matter and spirit are not merely interrelated but inter assimilated and the Fravashi becomes symbolic of the unity that is the constant stress of Zoroastrianism.

Therefore, at the heart of Zoroastrianism lies the doctrine of the interdependence and unity of man and the creation. Zoroastrianism places great responsibility on man for his salvation is intricately linked with his actions.The defeat of evil and the renewal of the good world can only come about through the conscious choice and effort of each individual to preserve and protect 'Spenta Armaity' or 'Bounteous Creation'.

The Persepolis Apadana belongs to the oldest building phase of the city of Persepolis, the first half of the 5th century BC, as part of the original design by Darius the Great. 

The great plinth at Persepolis may have been used historically to celebrate the Spring Equinox or Navroze, celebrated on 21st March.  

Navroze as a festival today brings together all creations to celebrate the New Year. Across Central Asia, even where Zoroastrianism no longer exists, it is still the major festival of thanksgiving and celebration of nature. In a spirit of continuity of tradition , it is the time of not just cleansing the house, but more importantly seen as spiritually rejuvenating the self.

Navroze has links with the dawn of Zoroastrian history and the legend of King Jamshed of Iran. This is why among the Zoroastrians it is also called Jamshedi Navroze. Navroze is a joyful cultural festival and even where the Zoroastrian religion has died out, the cultural traditions of celebrating this feast have remained.

Persepolis Relief showing yarn and textiles as Navroze gifts being offered to the king, 5th Century BCE
The Navroze Table with all elements of life, even Goldfish in a bowl, welcomes Spring.

In India, even today, Navroze is characterized by a sense of new life, the ploughing of the fields for spring planting, the wearing of new clothes and the sprouting of fresh greenery, which is placed on the specially decorated Navroze table. In honour of this feast, there are a series of customs marked by the number seven. This number represents the seven Amesha Spenta, the special Angels of Zoroastrianism and particular food items are prepared in homes to be set on this table. 

Fire, represented by a lamp, a mirror, a prayer book, the pomegranate and seven items starting with the letter 'S' or 'SH' are to be found on this table in the Zoroastrian celebration in India. The most visual symbol of new life are the seeds, traditionally seeds of seven kinds each, or seeds of grain which are sown in little containers in order to sprout in time for the Navroze table. These fresh, green seedlings symbolize the feast as a celebration of new life and remind humankind of the eternal life to come.

The Zoroastrian community celebrates by attending religious services early in the day and then gathering in joyous community celebrations with a feast at which food is eaten communally and which has been blessed by the religious service.

Rich and poor meet together and this is a time of goodwill when bonds of friendships are made or renewed. In India, this community celebration of the agricultural season has changed in a primarily urban environment to become mainly a social gathering. The Navroze table is still setup in Irani Zoroastrian homes and some Parsi homes but with westernization and globalization the tradition of the Navroze table, communal prayer and feasting is being lost.

A video of a family Navroze celebration in Delhi, India
Fire and the Holy Texts on the Navroze Table in India (2014)

While Persepolis is associated with the Navroze festival, the other major archaeological site Naqsh-e-Rustam in contrast commemorates death.   

Naqsh-e Rustam is an ancient necropolis, located about 12 km northwest of Persepolis, in Fars Province, Iran.

Inscription A 1–3, 51–53 reads : “Ahura Mazda is a great god, who created this earth, who created that sky, who created humans….  May Ahura Mazda protect this land… from harm.”

Darius I

Tomb of Darius I at Naqsh-e-Rostam

The Achaemenian Empire ended in 331 BCE following which the city of Persepolis was destroyed as the Persians were defeated by Alexander of Greece. Known to the rest of the world as 'The Great', Alexander is known as ''the accursed'' in Zoroastrian history for his destruction of both the library at Persepolis and the killing of the priests. Zoroastrianism lost more than half its heritage in these destructive flames. 

The Greek Seleucids remained in control of Iran till about 250 BCE when they were driven out by Arsaces I, the founder of the Parthian Dynasty.

The revival of Zoroastrianism came with the Sasanian kings who ruled from the 3rd Century CE till the 7th Century CE. The founder of this dynasty Ardheshir Papakan declared Zoroastrianism as the State religion and the High Priest was given a very important position in the kingdom. 

It was during this dynasty, particularly during the rule of Shahpur II that the work of recording Avestan texts in Pahlavi, the language spoken by the people of the time, was carried out.

The last years of Sasanian rule were a period of political and religious unrest where eleven rulers sat on the throne over four years. The last Zoroastrian King Yazdegird III was defeated in the Battle of Nihavand (641 CE) by the Arabs. The Sasanian Empire ended with his death in 651 CE. A Court in exile is believed to have existed in China, but disappeared into history.

Pahlavi Recording of Khursheed Niyayesh

Above: Pahlavi recording of Khursheed Niyayesh.

Recited in the morning, this Niyayesh is the Pahlavi prayer to Khursheed – the Sun. 

Here, it is recited by the Former Head Priest of Iran Dastur Meherban Firouzgary

The defeat of the Persian King - King Yazdegird III had far reaching consequences for the Zoroastrian community as the conquerors spread their religion. Several chose the new religion - Islam and the past, through choice, coercion, and conversion was rapidly lost.  

A few who resisted conversion to Islam were required to pay a Jizya tax and later suffered persecution.

Consequently, a group of Zoroastrians fled to the interiors of Khorasan, while others gradually moved to more remote desert areas like Yazd and Kerman, where they tried to continue following their faith.

A Sketch - Image of the Sanjan Stambh

After nearly a century of persecution, the group of Zoroastrians who had fled to the Khorasan mountains moved to the city of Hormuz on the Persian Gulf.  India and Iran had always maintained trade and cultural links. 

Therefore, this group, some years later decided to sail to India, a country where Zoroastrians believed they would find refuge. 

They landed on the west coast, at a place called Diu. Staying there for about twenty years, at the advice of their priestly leader, they then set sail for Sanjan, Gujarat.

The Sanjan Stambh is a memorial column at Sanjan in Gujarat. It commemorates the arrival of the Zoroastrians. It states the date of arrival at 936 CE. It was constructed in the year 1920 to perpetuate the meomory of this arrival and acceptance of the Zoroastrians in India.

A Photo Image of the Sanjan Stambh, Gujarat
A Picture depicting the famous 'Sugar in the MIlk' Narrative related to the entry of the Parsis in Sanjan, Gujarat

The famous 'Sugar in the Milk' story has acquired legendary overtones and has been passed on as part of oral tradition from one generation to another. Gujarati songs recounting this episode are still sung by Parsi women in Gujarat during Navjotes and weddings. A poetic reconstruction of the event is found in 'Kisseh-i-Sanjan', written in the 16th Century by Bahman Kaikobad. 

According to the legend, the Zoroastrians entered Sanjan exhausted and hungry and were taken to the King, Jadi Rana. Their spokesperson was a priest holding an Afargan with the sacred fire. He requested the king for shelter and permission to follow their own religious practices. 

In answer, the king stated that his kingdom was full. The priest then asked for a bowl of milk to which he mixed a little sugar suggesting that, just as the sugar merged with the milk and enhanced its flavour, the Zoroastrians would sweeten the life of the new kingdom and blend into it without disturbing it in any way. 

Impressed by the priest's wisdom, the king allowed the refugees to stay in his kingdom on certain conditions such as requiring them to learn the local language, requiring the women to wear the local dress - the saree, laying down their arms and holding weddings only after dark.

A Folk Song ' Sanjan Garba'

A recitation of a Folk Song ' Sanjan Garba' by children in Parsi Gujarati elucidating the entry of the Parsis in Sanjan,Gujarat

Over the centuries in India, the languages of Avesta and Pahlavi were forgotten except by the priests. The community still recited the prayers but without access to meaning, while a new spoken language emerged: the Parsi Gujarati Dialect. 

This is a unique blend of imperial Pahlavi and Dubra or out-caste Gujarati. It was acquired thorough contact with agricultural workers who actually tilled the soil along with the refugees. Yet this dialect succeeded in maintaining traditions, a unique lifestyle and core beliefs for over 1000 years.

The Parsi Gujarati dialect was not taught, it had no texts or dictionaries. It was absorbed by generations of Parsis and carried with the meaning of prayers, ethical beliefs and cultural practices.

Karu Chu O Dadgar - A Woman's Folk Song 

Karu Chu O Dadgar  (Above)  sung by Roshan Dandivala exemplifies the amalgamation of the Persian (Dadgar) with the Gujarati (Karu Chu), thus, showcasing the unique dialect of Parsi-Gujarati. In this song the woman asks for blessings for her family particularly evident as she says 'Mushkil-e-Aasaan' meaning the plea to ease the troubles of life.

As is the case with the epic or bardic traditions, very little is known about the origin or creation of the Monajats. 

Persian Monajats, Old Gujarati Monajats and Parsi Gujarati Monajats are found in manuscripts at the Meherjirana Library in Navsari but their dates and authors are often omitted. 

Some older family prayer books, the Khordeh Avesta contain Monajats, but not their music and ultimately the Monajats that have survived as living heritage are the ones that have been regularly sung. Unlike the bardic tradition, the Monajat does not involve a performer, it is meant to be an essential part of the life of every Zoroastrian particularly in childhood when values are formed.

Khordeh Avesta - The Daily Book of Prayers in local Gujarati is one of the finest examples of the past continuing in the present. 

Going back to history, the local people began to refer to this band of refugees as Parsis since they had come from the region of 'Pars' in Iran. This was the beginning of a new identity based on race for the group of Zoroastrians who landed in India.

The Parsis settled along the coast of Gujarat. Over the centuries, contact was made between the Parsis in India and the Zoroastrians in Iran and religious correspondence on practices and precepts was exchanged between the priests in two countries.

Customs and practices could be freely followed in India. The initiation or Navjote ceremony of both boys and girls before puberty has become a major celebration. 

Zoroastrianism is a religion of choice and a child chooses to wear the sacred shirt - the Sudreh and the sacred girdle - the Kusti with a public proclamation of the faith. The white muslin undershirt has a tiny one inch square pocket called the Kisseh-e-Kerfeh or Gireban, it is the pocket of good deeds, placed over the heart. 

Each Zoroastrian must fill this one inch pocket with at least one good deed daily towards man or fellow creation. The Kusti, a lamb's wool girdle woven from 72 threads symbolizing the 72 chapters of the Yasna text is tied in a reef knot at the word - Shyothenanam which means to work. 

Thus, the initiate girds himself/herself up in this sacred armour to act always for truth and righteousness. From the day of the Navjote, a Zoroastrian becomes Ahura Mazda's soldier on the path of truth.

Monajat of the Yatha Ahu Vairyo Prayer (left) where children understand the need to work with righteousness in order to bring about joy to all.

Vada Dastur Dr. Firoze Kotwal leads a Jashan Ceremony in Bombay

Across the centuries, Indian plurality permitted the Zoroastrian religion, not only to survive but flourish. Institutions like Atash Behrams - Fire Temples of the highest rank, were created and liturgical ceremonies of all degrees were maintained. 

The Yasna, similar but not identical to the Sanskrit Yagna is a core ceremony which brings together all creation to strengthen each day. It is a complex weaving of rituals with the recitation of all 72 Chapters of the Yasna text. 

Difficult to perform, it is still a part of Indian Zoroastrian tradition. Thus, it is in India that Zoroastrianism has found a home. While myth tells us of Jadi Rana, Zoroastrianism and the Parsis as an ethnic group enter Indian history in the Mughal Period. During Akbar's conquest of Gujarat, he followed his practice of inviting religious leaders from all faiths to create a faith which would bring together the best of all Indian cultural and religious traditions.

Emperor Akbar, known in history for encouraging and accommodating diversity, met the Parsi Priest of Navsari  - the First Dastur Meherjirana and impressed by his knowledge and piety wished to involve him in the syncretic Din-i-Ilahi, which was Akbar's plan for a holistic faith uniting all his people.

The front view of the Atash Behram - Fire of Victory in Navsari, Gujarat
The Inside View of the Atash Behram - Fire of Victory in Navsari,Gujarat 
Implements in the Yasna Ceremony

The first Dastur Meherjirana was invited to Fatehpur Sikri in 1578  by the Emperor Akbar to explain Zoroastrianism at the Din-i-Ilahi.   Tradition states that he greatly impressed the Mughal Court by his wisdom.  As a reward, Akbar bestowed great honours on him and gifted him a Jagir at Navsari.

An invaluable collection of manuscripts have been discovered at the Meherjirana Library in Navsari, Gujarat.  Known to Zoroastrian scholars for its Avesta, Pahlavi and Pazend material, this library also contains Mughal documents and correspondence from the court of Akbar and Jehangir as well as  Persian, Arabic and Old Gujarati manuscripts of great historical value.

A programme to digitize, conserve and preserve this library has been initiated and continues. Today, this library in a small town has become known to scholars all over the world who visit it for its rare material.

Visit here - http://www.meherjiranalibrary.com/

The original 'Sanad' of Emperor Akbar, issued to the first Dastur Meherjirana is housed in the Meherjirana Library, Navsari
Manuscript's from the Mughal Era at the Meherjirana Library needing restoration and conservation (Navsari)
The Reading Room at the Meherjirana Library post conservation efforts (Navsari)
Khudavind-e-Khavind - An Evening Song  

Khudavind-e-Khavind - an evening song or a lullaby, explaining the tenets of Zoroastrianism even as the day comes to an end.

Zoroastrianism, the world's oldest revealed religion, has survived from pre-history with its core beliefs still intact, a driving force that impels its followers to excel in all fields of human endeavour and contribute vastly for the benefit of humankind. From the Mughal to the Modern Age, often behind the perception of  industrial or political prowess, the treasures of a culture originating from the Bronze Age have been unheard or forgotten. 

In a scenario where the community is losing 10% of its population every decennial census, It is hoped that this exhibition will provide glimpses of the Parsi-Zoroastrian heritage and initiate the step of bridging this lacuna by generating interest in the community within the country, community and the world.

Visit here for more on demographics: http://goo.gl/bGl3TM (leads to www.unescoparzor.com)

Bronze Zarathushtra from Bharuch 
Credits: Exhibit

Curator — Dr. Shernaz Cama, Director - UNESCO Parzor Project
Curator — Vanshika Singh, Researcher - ICH Projects, Parzor Foundation 
Background and Stained Glass Images  — Katayun Saklat, Stained Glass Artist
Content Experts — Rukshana Shroff & Kerman Mehta, 'Joyous Flame : The Parsi Zoroastrians', Illustrated by Naasha Mehta, Parzor 2001 
Folk Songs & Monajats  — Roshan Dandivala and Farohar Children of the Delhi Parsi Anjuman
Folk Songs and Monajats — Naman Religous Songs by ME Joshi Memorial Trust
Photography and Film — Dushyant Mehta, Hemant Mehta and Ashdeen Llilaowala 

Credits: All media
The exhibit featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.