Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Parsis and our continuing fascination with them

You don't think of Jules Verne as a writer of love stories. But he put one in what may be his most popular work--Around the World in 80 Days. The love story isn't very lifelike, at least not in the English translation I read. But he did one thing I thought brilliant: he made Aouda, the female love interest, a Parsi. There's something romantic and fascinating about a people who still practice the Good Religion of the prophet Zarathushtra, (Zoroaster in Greek) who probably lived in the tenth or 11th century B.C. Their priests still worship in fire temples (though they do not worship fire--it is a symbol and focal point for their worship of Ahura Mazda) and they bring their dead to the Towers of Silence, for the vultures to claim.

Zoroastrianism may be the first monotheistic religion. Zoroastianism introduced the concept of heaven and hell (though even those in hell will be united with Ahura Mazda in the end), the Evil One (Angra Mainyu), prayer five times a day, and the concept of free will to choose good or evil.

The Parsis came to India sometime between 716 and 965 A.D., possibly because of persecution after the Arab invasion of Persia. They sailed to Gujarat on the west coast of India. The local ruler Jadi Rana gave them permission to stay if they adopted the local language of Gujarati, that the women wear the sari, and that they should cease to bear arms. One story goes that the ruler persented them with a full pitcher of milk, symbolizing that Gujurat was full. The Parsi leader added a pinch of sugar to the milk to represent the contribution his people would bring.

And this small community had contributed greatly to India. Parsis were especially prominent in trade and banking. During the British Raj, Parsi influence increased. They were eager to learn English and to send their children, including girls, to British schools. (Zoroastrians believe in equality of the sexes, though their priesthood is exclusively male.) Nonetheless, a number of Parsis were prominent in the Indian independence movement.

Well-known Parsis include orchestra conductor Zubin Mehta and rock icon Freddie Mercury. Wikipedia. has an impressive list of notable Parsis.

Because conservative Parsis do not accept converts, and initiate only the children of two Parsi parents in to the religion (though some Paris communities are changing), the future of the Parsi community is in question. It would be a shame if this beautiful religion of Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds vanished from the earth.

In my Dickens Challenge novel, I've made my heroine the child of a Scottish-American father and a Parsi mother. That allows her to have a connection to Zoroastrianism (the story begins on Epiphany, when Christians celebrate the arrival of Zoroastrian astrologers, or Magi, to Bethlehem) and still be an Episcopal priest, as she is when the story begins.

Like Jules Verne, and countless other Westerners, I have a fascination for this small but incredibly influential community.


Lisa said...

They certainly are fascinating. Before reading your Dickens Challenge story and this post, I really didn't know anything about the Parsis. Thanks for changing that for me.

Charles Gramlich said...

It was a remarkably enlightened religion for the times and I'm glad later religions borrowed some of it's practices.

Sustenance Scout said...

Steve, what a fascinating element to work into your novel! I confess I haven't been reading your chapters (or Lisa's!) because I want to wait and print a bunch to read all at once. Best of luck!! K.

Julie at Virtual Voyage said...

Steve, - learn something new every day. Seeing the behind the scenes connection to Freddy Mercury is an eye opener.

steve said...

Lisa-I knew a lot less about them before I started writing the novel. I've started to read some of the Avesta online.

Charles--I agree. Because Zarathushtra was an early moralist, Nietzche used his fictionalized prophet as a sort of anti-moralist in "Thus Spake Zarathushtra" (of which I've only read a synopsis).

Karen--We DC'ers all hope our works will hold together as a single unit. Tim Hallinan, the professional writer who got us into this, has had his doubts about his DC entry, though in my judgment, it's excellent.

Julie--I read the Wikipedia article about Freddie Mercury before writing this. I was amazed to find that he'd come from a Parsi community in Zanzibar. His family fled to England after the Zanzibar revolution.

Usman said...

We have a small Parsi community in Pakistan. They are more concentrated in Karachi, perhaps because they are into commerce and business.
Tidbit: Bapsi Sidhwa is a Pakistani Parsi and the author of many books in English. Probably the best known is Ice Candy Man, which was also made into a movie.

steve said...


Thanks for the info. I checked Bapsi Sidhwa on Wikipedia. She's living in Houston now. In the States, her book is called "Cracking India." I suspect "Ice Candy Man," to Americans, sounds like a novel about a Harlem drug dealer. When I looked up Lahore in Wikipedia, there was mention of a very small Parsi community there.