A Week with the Zoroastrian Parsis in Mumbai

I was invited to deliver the Government Research Fellowship Lectures at the K.R. Cama Oriental Institute in Mumbai, established in 1916. This was a great honor to be given the chance to give these lectures which are then to be published by the institute with the title: Iranian Kingship, Arab Conquest and Zoroastrian Apocalypse: The History of Fārs and Beyond in Late Antiquity (600-900 CE). I did not know what to anticipate from the audience and the people whom I was to meet. I should say that it was an utter joy to get to know the Zoroastrian Parsi community. I found them the most hospitable, generous and friendly group of people that I know.

Although not a Zoroastrian, I was greeted with open arms. Through the graciousness of Mr. Muncherji Cama, Ms. Homai Modi and Dr. Nawaz Mody I was able to study the manuscripts, and discuss the history and culture of the Parsi community. Mr. Cama was a most wonderful host, most witty and one of the most intelligent people that I have met. Mr. Kersi Treasurywalla was the person who made the connection between UC Irvine Center for Persian Studies and the K.R. Cama Oriental Institute, and was present in Mumbai. Of course Mr. Cama’s dinner invitations were out of this world.

My friend Dr. Yuhan Sohrab-Dinshaw Vevaina spent the entire week showing me Colaba, the Parsi center of Mumbai. We visited the Parsi monuments, Dar-e Mehrs (of course outside of it as non-Parsis are not allowed in), and talked about all the plans for the future. One day we took a trip to Dadar, where the Dadar Athornan Institute is located and run by a priest and scholar, Ervad Dr. Ramiyar Karanjiya. Truly one of the most gentle and kind souls one would meet. His knowledge of Zoroastrianism, theologically as well as ritual matters makes him among the few living savants.

At the school from the age of 6 the students learn to read the Avesta and memorize it. They learn to memorize the Yasna and the Vispered. Once they reach the age of 10 they learn to read the Vendidad. I saw a boy was sitting on the floor with a big Vendidad and with a back and forth motion reading the text. Ervad Karanjiya told me that while the Yasna and the Vispered has to be memorized, a must for the performance of ritual ceremonies, the Vendidad are laws that only their reading and understanding is necessary.

Much of the rituals and ceremonies that take place at among the Parsi Zoroastrians are found in the Pahlavi texts as well. This means that they have kept the tradition alive for at least the past 1200 years, but unfortunately these traditions are forgotten in Iran among the Zoroastrians. The last priest in Iran to know the proper ritual had come to the same Athornan Institute as a young boy, and returned to Iran. But now he has passed away and there is no one in Iran who can continue the tradition as outlined in the Pahlavi texts or the tradition. Even the Yasna ceremony which take about 2 and a half hours every morning and done at many Dar-e Mehrs in Mumbai is not performed as such in a single place in Iran.

I then met Dastruji F. Kotwal, one of the greatest living Zoroastrian theologians, if not the greatest. I had met him before in Italy and knew his work on ritual and the knowledge of the Zoroastrian religion. He not only was a Dastur, having utmost knowledge of the religion and ritual, but also had a Ph.D. in Zoroastrian Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London with Mary Boyce. His books and articles demonstrate his unsurpassed knowledge of the Zoroastrian tradition. After our meeting he blessed me by touching my arm and saying “tan drost,” meaning something to the effect of “well-being.” I shall never forget this moment.

I also met Khojeste Mistree and his wonderful wife, Firoza Punthakey Mistree who were very hospitable, inviting me to a Parsi dinner. The best food ever! We discussed the issues facing modern Zoroastrians from their point of view. They are trying to reverse the decline in the body of priesthood and keep the community together. Of course they are not keen on conversion and believe that Zoroastrianism was never a religion bent on conversion. Historically that is completely true as there is very little evidence of conversion.

I also got to meet Ervad Dr. Rooyintan Peer, a great learned priest who gave me books, most importantly one written by the late Dastur Mirza. I should say that Ervad Dr. Karanjiya also blessed me with “tan drost” formula by touching my arm. So every Zoroastrian priest I met was most kind and affectionate. Finally, I should mention Dr. Nawaz Modi and Dr. Sherene Ratnagar who chaired my talks and whom I had dinner with a number of times and talked about politics, India and the vision of the world from Asia.

That was my experience in brief in a week with the Zoroastrian Parsis in Mumbai