Down Memory Lane History & Culture

The Parsi link with Delhi

A view of the Delhi Parsi Anjuman Canteen in New Delhi

A view of the Delhi Parsi Anjuman Canteen in New Delhi   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

The community’s association with the city dates back to Akbar’s time, culminating in the establishment of the Anjuman, a repository of its culture

The Parsis have a certain mystique about them. I realised this when I met Bapsybano Pavry, the only Indian Marchioness who had married the Marquess of Winchester. The interview took place when she was on her way to Tehran to meet the Shah of Iran, Mohd Reza Pahaivi, in 1967 to plead with him for the restoration of the Parsi fire temples. Most of these were demolished with the advent of Islam.

The Parsi origins go back to the Iranians who ruled as early as 3000 B.C. though the religion propagated by the prophet Zarathushtra flourished in Iran until the defeat of the Sassanian king Yazdegard III by the Arabs at the battle of Nihavand in 641 A.D. The community was persecuted and fled to India, settling down in Gujarat, from where they made their way to Bombay and other areas, coming to north India some 500 years ago, though some think it was much earlier.

The Parsi association with Delhi dates back to the time of Akbar, when Dastur Meherjirana of Navsari, the spiritual leader, impressed the emperor with his piety and knowledge. Thereafter, other learned Parsi where invited to Akbar’s capital, Fatehpur Sikri, where they took part in religious discourses with Hindu, Jain, Muslim and Christian scholars.

It can be conjectured that Parsi buildings must have been in existence at Agra and Delhi even in those times, but no trace of them remains now. However, an inscription bears testimony to the fact that the site of the old aramgah (cemetery) in Delhi was acquired by Jamsetjee Cavesjee Jussawala in 1869. This link in the Parsi connection with the Capital grew with the formation of the Parsi Anjuman in 1925. In 1913 there were hardly 30 or 40 Parsis in Delhi; there are now about a 1,000.

Just as one leaves Delhi Gate and enters Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, a signboard with the words ‘Delhi Parsi Anjuman’ greets the eyes. Behind the board in a compound are the Muhgusi Parsi Dharamshala, or rest house; and the Bhiwandiwall (community) Hall, located within the premises of the Anjuman. It also houses books on Zoroastrianism, its history and culture, and the Kaikhusuru Palonji Katrak Dar-e-Meher or Fire Temple.

There are three kinds of temples: Atash Benram, Atash Adarm, Agvary or Dar-e-Meher. There’s also the Atash Dadgah or the household fire in every Parsi home. The first fire temple in India was consecrated in 790 A.D. at Sanjan from the alat (instruments) brought by the Parsis from Khorasan. Hence, the importance of Delhi’s only Fire Temple.

Every day when the liturgy is performed at the Fire Temple, the names and deeds of the great saints and kings of Iran are remembered. As the early morning breeze blows in from the Yamuna, the beautiful dawn prayer Hosh-Baam is recited. The opening lines, ‘Through Asha most high, Asha most pure’, seem to merge with the first rays of the sun, for it is the sanctity of light that the temple personifies.

In a way it reflects the glory of Ahura Mazda, the supreme deity. Ahura means Lord, and Mazda, the wise or one full of light — the first and the last. Along with Ahura Mazda there are six other Ahuras, explains a Parsi worshipper at the temple. These are his six angles, who are also known as the six cardinal virtues, through whom only Ahura Mazda can be worshipped. This is borne out by the Avesta, the sacred scriptures and the Gathas.

The importance of the Fire Temple can be gauged from the fact that Parsis prefer to put their dead bodies in the Towers of Silence so that birds devour them. To bury them would be to defile the earth; burning would pollute the fire, the most sacred of all elements. The fire in the Atash Temple is never extinguished, reveals the worshipper. It is considered regal, with a crown hanging over the cauldron, three feet in diameter and four feet high. The fire in it is fed by a priest five times a day and on special occasions with wood.

In places like Delhi and Agra (where there is no Tower of Silence), Parsis have aramgahs, in which the dead are laid to rest. These places are named after theirs heroes like Rustam, Sohrah and the grey-eyed Zal, whose names are also recited every morning when the Parsi prayers are held with great solemnity and the strict participation of only community members.

Incidentally, Bapsybano’s marriage was a disaster. William Paulat never consummated it. He had an affair with the James Bond creator Ian Flemming’s mother, and the British aristocracy did not take kindly to her either. The Marchioness died in 1995, at the age of 93, in Bombay, where her father, Khurshidji Pavry, had been Head Priest.

The writer is a veteran chronicler of Delhi

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 4:27:46 PM |

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