A small community in India, adherents of the Zoroastrian religion and originally emigrants from Persia
Paris (PARSEES) a small community in India, adherents of the Zoroastrian religion and originally emigrants from Persia. According to the census of 1881 their total number in India was 85,397, to which must be added for sake of completeness about 3,000 scattered about various other countries and also about 8,000 in various parts of Persia—thus bringing up the total of Zoroastrians in the world to something under 100,000. Of the 85,397 in India, 82,091 were by the same census found in the Bombay presidency, and 3,306 scattered over the rest of the country. Of those in the Bombay presidency more than half (48,507) resided in Bombay City, 6,227 in Surat, and 3,088 in Broach; about 10,000 being in Native States, and the rest in other parts, chiefly of Guzerat. The census of 1901 reveals a rise to a total of 94,190 in India, of whom 78,800 are in the Bombay presidency, not inclusive of 8,409 found in Baroda State. In Persia the Zoroastrians (called Iranis to distinguish them from those in India) are chiefly found in Yezd and the twenty-four surrounding villages, where according to figures collected in 1854, there were a thousand families, comprising 6,658 souls—a few merchants, the remainder artisans or agriculturalists. At Kerman there were also about 450; and at Teheran, the capital of Persia, about fifty of the merchant class. They were formerly much more numerous; they now show a constant tendency to decline. History.—This small community owes its origin to those few Persians who, when Khalif Omar subjugated Persia in A.D. 641, resisted the efforts of the conquer-ors to impose on them the Moslem faith. Escaping to the coast they found a first refuge in the Island of Ormuz, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf; but having here little permanent chance of safety or sustenance for any large number, they began a series of emigrations across the sea, landing first at Diu on the Kathiawar coast some time about A.D. 700. After remaining here for nineteen years they were led, by an omen in the stars, to cross the Gulf of Cambay. After suffering shipwreck they landed at Sanjan, some twenty-five miles south of Daman on the Guzerat coast, where the local ruler, Jadi Rana, on hearing their pathetic story and an account of their religious beliefs, allowed them to settle on condition that they would learn the language of the country, abstain from the use of arms, dress and conduct their marriages in the Hindu manner etc. A spirit of accommodation to surroundings has characterized the Parsis throughout their history, and accounts at once for many of their usages in dress and manners, and for their subsequent success in industrial arts and trades. They thus became a regular part of the population of Sanjan, adopted the Guzerati language as their vernacular, and erected their first fire temple in A.D. 721. Here they remained for over five centuries of uneventful history, till in 1305 the incursion of the Moslems forced them to take refuge elsewhere. Partly by further emigrations from Persia, and partly by spreading from their center at Sanjan, they gradually settled in various other localities such as Cambray, Ankleshwar, Variav, Vankaner, Broach, Surat, Thana, Chaul etc., and traces of them are found even as far as Delhi. When in the sixteenth century the Portuguese at Thana brought moral pressure to bear in order to make them Christians, they managed by a subterfuge to escape to Kalyan, only returning in 1774 when Thana had fallen under British rule. The advent of the English to Surat in 1612 opened up new connections for industry and trade, so that Surat, as well as Broach, soon became two of their chief settlements. Finally, when the government of the East India Company was (in 1668) transferred to Bombay, the Parsis followed and soon began to occupy posts of trust in connection with Government and public works in Bombay. Gradually certain families acquired wealth and prominence (Sorabji, Modi, Kama, Wadia, Jeejeebhoy, Ready money, Dadyset, Petit, Patel, Mehta, Allbless, Tata etc.), many of whom are noted for their participation in the public life of the city, and for their various educational, industrial, and charitable enterprises. The Parsis had formerly a domestic tribunal called the Panchayat, which possessed judicial control and the power of excommunication; but for nearly a century back its influence has been curtailed, so that at present it is little more than a trust for the administration of public charitable funds. The education movement began among the Parsis in 1849. Parsis schools since then have been multiplied, but other schools and colleges are also freely frequented. In 1854 they started the “Persian Zoroastrian Amelioration Fund,” which, after long efforts lasting till 1882, succeeded in obtaining for their poor Irani brethren in Persia a remission of the Jazia tax, besides inaugurating schools and charitable institutions among them. Many of these Persians come over to India and set up cheap restaurants, which on that account are familiarly known as “Irani shops.” The Parsis are divided into two sects, the Shehanchais or old, and the Kadmis or new party—not on any point of religion, but merely on a question of chronology (like that of the “old” and “new style” in Europe). The old party follow the Indian, and the new party the Persian way of framing the calendar, which makes a difference of about one month in the observance of their “New Year’s day.” Among salient peculiarities should be mentioned: worship in fire temples (which contain nothing remarkable except a vase of sandalwood kept perpetually alight); praying on the sea shore to the rising and setting sun; celebration of marriages in public assembly; exposure of their dead to birds of prey, in what are called “towers of silence”; exclusiveness as regards marriage; refusal to incorporate aliens into religious membership; the rule of never uncovering the head; and of never smoking. But they are free from the Hindu trammels of caste, have no religious restrictions about food, are free to travel and take their meals with other races etc. It should be remarked that their “worship” of fire, as explained by themselves, is not open to the charge of idolatry, but is reducible to a relative veneration of that element as the highest and purest symbol of the Divinity. The Parsis have remained faithful to their Zoroastrian faith and are proud of their racial purity. And although the color among many families, chiefly of the lower classes, reveals the effect of mixed marriages, the community as a whole is unmixed, and marriage with outsiders is rare. In very recent times the influence of Western ideas has led to a relaxing of the old religious and social bonds, so that many are now merely nominal believers, while others dabble in theosophy and religious eclecticism, and adopt such habits as smoking, the uncovering of the head, and even marrying European women etc. For an account of their religion see Avesta.
ERNEST R. HULL