Successful, yet losing count?

JRD TATA, A.B. Godrej, Neville Wadia — the Parsis are easily one of the most materially successful communities in our country. With their unique ability to adapt and a pragmatic approach, the Parsis have prospered wherever they have settled, be it Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad or Chennai.

Their association with the city dates back to 1795, when the first Parsi settlers came to Madras on a mission from the Rajah of Coorg. They bought a piece of land in Royapuram and resided there. Later, they built a small Dokhma (Tower of Silence) to dispose the dead. (As the Parsis hold both fire and earth sacred, they neither cremate nor bury their dead; instead they place the corpse on a grill inside the tower and leave it to be consumed by vultures.) For years, this Dokhma remained unused, as according to religious belief, the first body to be placed in it should be that of a child or a very elderly person. As this did not happen they decided to bury the dead and the Tower was dismantled. Meanwhile, the number of Parsi settlers increased and they started flourishing in trade, manufacture and service oriented professions, enriching the city's culture and economy.

The occupational diversity within the community is reflected in the names they have adopted, as many took the names of their profession calling themselves Doctor, Engineer, Contractor, Boatwala, Batliwala (sale of bottles), Ginwala and so. There is even a Parsi joke that there once lived a gentleman in a small manufacturing unit called Sodabottleopenerwala. Yet, for all their wealth and achievement, the Parsis are gradually fading from the scene.

According to the National Census of 1961, there were around 100,072 Parsis in the country. Their numbers dropped to 91,226 in 1971 and further to 71,630 in 1981. Now, it is estimated that there are less than 60,000 Parsis in the country. Though their population in the city has remained more or less constant, around 270 to 300, over the decades, issues such as rapid increase in mixed marriages, high marital age, lack of religious inculcation and the absence of conversion to Zoroastrian faith are leading to their dwindling numbers.

Their religion, which played a crucial role in preserving the community's identity for the past 14 centuries is today being pushed more and more into the background with an increasing number of youngsters moving out of the community to find their life partners. This trend, in the opinion of many, is threatening the very existence of the group.

"Mixed marriages have always been there but never has it reached such alarming proportions as in the last 10 years," says Zarin Mistry, honarary secretary, Madras Parsi Association. Out of around 20 marriages, which took place in the last 10 years, 17 have taken place outside the community.

"It's not that we regard any particular religion or community as inferior, but if the trend continues, we will become extinct in the next 100 years. The reason why we had been able to preserve our identity so far was due to the fact that most of the marriages were taking place within the community," says Mistry.

As per the community laws, the children of Parsi-born wives who marry outside the community are not accepted into the faith, while the mixed marriage children of Parsi husbands are. This blatant discrimination has also contributed to the decline, as a majority of youngsters who get married outside the community are women.

But then, marrying within the community isn't easy either. In a city with very few Parsi youngsters, as a good number of them have already migrated to countries such as Canada, America and Australia in search of better prospects, finding a suitable bridegroom is often a wild goose chase.

Successful, yet losing count?

Moreover with their newfound freedom and economic independence, the Parsi women have become career-oriented and choosy. "They give more importance to their career rather than the comforts of a family life. As a result, most of the women either marry very late or prefer to stay single," says Perviz Bhote, Dean of English Studies, MOP Vaishnav College. A fact also underscored by the community magazine Parsiana, which shows the age group of a Parsi bride as between 29 and 40 years. And when they do get married `they prefer having smaller families, as the Parsis are extremely conscious of their standard of living.'

Realising the predicament, there is a section among the community that has been advocating the need for a more realistic approach to arrest the dwindling numbers. "One possible means to do this is to admit the children of Parsi women into the fold," says S.D. Batliwala, General Manager, co-ordination, Mercury Travels Limited. "After all, it's the mother who plays a crucial role in moulding a child's religious outlook," she says.

There is also a growing urgency to inculcate religious values in the younger generation. "We don't have any religious programmes on an instructive basis like the Veda classes conducted by the Hindus or Sunday School by the Christians. Consequently, the children are less aware of their religion and it does not play any role while taking important decisions in their lives," says Mistry.

Another reason is the prevailing tradition against conversion to Zoroastrian faith. Contrary to popular notion, the tradition was not started by the first Parsis who fled Persia fearing persecution by the invading Arabs. But by the Zoroastrian kings, who during their conquests never forced the subjugated people to become Zoroastrians. It is this custom that the community has assiduously followed even to this day.

But then as D.M. Belgamvala of Bel Refrigeration Company reminds you, "By conversion you may become a Zoroastrian, but to become a Parsi, you have to be born one."

Here are some of the Parsis who made their contribution to Chennai.

Mary Clubwala Jadhav

"An outstanding social worker of this century," said late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi commending her. A committed social activist, Jadhav founded the Madras School of Social Work (MSSW) in 1952, an unthinkable idea then. She was conferred the Padma Vibhushan in 1974.

J.H Tarapore

From a small time construction engineer, Tarapore rose to secure a contract of Rs. 25 crores in 1975, believed to be the largest single civil contract in the country. Some of his construction works include the Reserve Bank of India, five star hotels of the Taj Group in Chennai and Delhi, the runways at Chennai and Banglore airports, a national highway road from Cape Comorin to Thiruvananthapuram and so on. He was also the founder Chairman of Child Trust Hospital in Nungambakkam.

A.F. Taraporewala

A well-known figure in business circles, A.F Byramshaw (his business name) founded a litho press to print cinema posters under the name Aspy Litho works. He was the founder member of Madras Printers and Lithographers Association and was its president for some years.

D.B. Madan

Founder of D.B Madan and Company, one of the leading shipping agencies in Chennai harbour. He was the chairman of Madras Steamer Agents Association.

M.K. Belgamvala

Founded MK Belgamvala and company — distributors and consultants to builders and interior decorators. He was the president of Madras Motor Sports Club for 18 years. He also served as the chairman of Automobile Association of Southern India for 25 years, a position he held until his demise.

N.F. Mogrelia

The founder of Zoro Garments Pvt. Ltd. He became the first elected chairman of the Apparel Export Promotion Council of India. He is also the current president of Madras Parsi Zarthosti Anjuman.

Dr. Meherji Cooper

One of the most outstanding anatomists of Chennai during the last century, Cooper was the Director, Institute of Anatomy and vice-principal of Madras Medical College. He was also one of the founding members of the Anatomical Association of Tamil Nadu.

ZOROASTRIANS HAVE often been called fire-worshippers but this term is a misnomer. The Zoroastrian scriptures make it clear that Ahura Mazda, the supreme lord of creation has created fire, just as He has created the entire universe, so they venerate fire.

And since the Holy Fire is venerated as a living manifestation of the Almighty father, tremendous care is taken by the Parsis for the establishment of Fire Temples.

The consecration ceremony is elaborate and expensive, and the process of securing the required standard and quality of the fire is scientific. It is a kind of dry distillation and purification of different kinds of fire procured from different places, the highest and the lowest. For example, fire from the kings or governors palace, goldsmith's shop, blacksmith's furnace, fakir's hearth, flash of lightning etc. Sixteen such fires are needed for an Atash Behram (Zoroastrian Cathedral) and four for an Atash Aadaran (Zoroastrian Chapel). The Atash Aadaran at Royapuram was consecrated in 1910.

The priests, who perform the operation, do not come into direct contact with these ignitions. The method adopted is that of using powdered sandal wood by holding it near the original fire that it burns without touching its flame and also by repeating the hymns of the Yasna and the Vendidad (spiritual texts), several hundred times in the name of Ahura Mazda.

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