PARSI TIME CAPSULE
that is fast heading towards extinction decides to leave behind cultural
and religious icons for posterity
Mahurkar and Farah Baria
capsules are normally found in Hollywood. So when Mumbai's tiny Parsi
community embedded one at Sanjan in the southern tip of Gujarat last week,
it had the poignant sweep of a Spielberg saga.
In a solemn,
nostalgic ceremony presided over by the clergy and 1,000 distinguished
community members, all dressed in their traditional white duglis (coats)
and phetas (hats), a 3 ft-long stainless steel cylinder was slowly lowered
into the ground right next to the Sanjan Stambh, an imposing tower carrying
aloft the Sacred Fire. It commemorates the arrival of Zoroastrian Parsis
here six centuries ago-a group of shipwrecked migrants who had fled Muslim
persecution after the downfall of the Persian Empire and were welcomed
to India by Hindu king Jadi Rana.
Urn: The steel cylinder being embedded
contains the community's most precious memorabilia: bits and pieces of
the original Zoroastrian gathas or scriptures, sepia photographs of Parsi
saints, antique costumes, including richly embroidered saris, ritual utensils,
beaded garlands, diyas and religious coins, along with a copper scroll
inscribed with the contents. "All the items were separately sealed
in polythene bags before the capsule was filled with nitrogen to prevent
decay," explains Godrej Dotivala, public relations officer of the
Bombay Parsi Panchayat (BPP), one of the richest and oldest apex community
bodies in the world. Its idea: to consign Parsi culture to posterity after
it inevitably dies out.
morbid preoccupation with death is not unjustified: a rapidly dwindling
population coupled with the community's stubborn refusal to "adulterate"
its "racial purity" through mixed marriages seems to be just
short of suicidal. According to a recent study undertaken by the Tata
Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai, India has 70,000 Parsis,
less than 0.01 per cent of the country's population. Significantly, 36
per cent of the community is unmarried; of these 70 per cent males and
40 per cent females are in the "reproductive group", aged 25
to 29. "If any race has to survive there has to be a demographic
rule of more births than deaths," shrugs Dr D.P. Singh of TISS who
conducted the survey. But while about 35 per cent of the Indian population
is under 15 years and only 5 per cent over 65, among Parsis the reverse
is true: scarcely 10.4 per cent are children whereas the 28.3 per cent
constitute the geriatric group. Moreover, there are less than 500 births
for over a thousand deaths each year.
by the BPP to probe the reasons for the community's sharp decline, the
TISS study found two major "culprits": westernisation and gender
equality. The average Parsi woman is highly career oriented, marries at
an average age of 25 and gives birth to only 1.54 children. Three years
ago, in an unprecedented move, the BPP announced that it would pay Rs
1,000 per month to any Parsi having a third baby; yet, so far, only 80
couples have availed of the scheme.
although 25 per cent of Parsi women marry non-Parsis, their children are
now allowed to follow the faith, thanks to the prevailing medieval patriarchal
system. While this is the subject of furious debate between so-called
Parsi "liberals" and the religious orthodoxy, more practical
community members are quietly doing what they can to increase their tribe.
Next month, the Seventh World Zoroastrian Congress (WZC) to be held in
Houston will draw over 2,000 Parsis from India and abroad for what has
privately been described by some as the Official Mating Congress. With
a budget of $300,000, the meeting is expected to focus on the crucial
issue of survival and encourage "healthy relations" between
young Zoroastrians, says WZC Chairman Homi Davier. Held every couple of
years, the WZC usually leaves a nuptial trail, providing the eligible
Zoroastrian diaspora with true-blue sons and daughters of the soil.
But in Mumbai
many others seem resigned to the inevitable possibility of extinction.
Recently, a popular play in Mumbai centred on the last two Parsis in the
world preparing for their ultimate journey. A unesco-funded project will
soon dig deep into community soil to trace the roots of Parsi culture.
concerns were twofold," explains Project Co-ordinator Dr Shernaz
Cama. "They were impressed by the great contributions of the community
but worried about its demographic decline. The project therefore aims
to put on record traditions before they die out." Accordingly, a
"reet-rivaaj questionnaire" circulated among Zoroastrians in
the city will probe vanishing rituals: ceremonial birthday baths with
milk and rose petals, traditional recipes for the famous Parsi dhansak-lentils
cooked with meat and vegetables-and washing hands with taro or sacred
cow's urine, among others. The project will also focus on community achievements:
several of Mumbai's splendid old public buildings, educational institutions
and charitable hospitals were sponsored by Parsis, who also contributed
considerably to post-Independence India's industrial revolution.
Pandora's box in Sanjan is expected to do the rest. "While historians
are still trying to uncover the Indus Valley Civilisation, future generations
will learn about the Parsis in just one stroke due to this time capsule,"
observed BPP Chairman Jamshed Guzder at Sanjan. Significantly, not a single
member from Mumbai's famous Parsi business houses-the Tatas, the Wadias,
the Godrejs-was present there, although the capsule was designed and sponsored
by the Godrej family. BPP member Rustom Tirandaz was scathing in his criticism
of liberal Parsis, accusing them of keeping away from cultural and religious
activities of the community. And Sanjan Parsi Panchayat member Rohinton
Davierwala, in a rousing speech, thundered, "Some of us who are wealthy
and cosmopolitan have lost faith in our religion."
But as the
gleaming cylinder was lowered into its pit with funereal gravity, a cheer
went up from the assembled company. It echoed much of the good-natured
grit that once transformed a a few shipwrecked Persian migrants into one
of Mumbai's most powerful and affluent communities.