December 04, 2000 Issue





COVER
  Test of Faith
As India's most enduring god-man enters his 75th year, his spirituality rests uneasily with controversy.


 
THE NATION
 

Operation Jungle Storm
Karnataka and Tamil Nadu make a renewed bid to catch the outlaw. But unless the Centre helps, it won't be easy.


 
STATES
 

The Big Foul-up
Violent protests against a bid to shift polluting units leaves the Government groping for an alternative.

 
Columns
 

Fifth Column
by Tavleen Singh
Rape of the Law

 
    Kautilya
by Jairam Ramesh
After IT, Time for T


 
    Economic Graffitti
by Kaushik Basu
Soliciting in Public


 
    Right Angle
by Swapan Dasgupta
But We Are So Different

 
    FlipSide
by Dilip Bobb
Word Association
 
Other stories
  Jammu & Kashmir  
  Congress  
  CPR  
  Business  
  Football  
  Cricket  
  Wildlife  
  Healthwatch  
  Temples of Doom  
  Heritage  
  Music  
NewsNotes
 

Power Pull

 
 

Small Mercies
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Hope for Orrisa

 
 



 
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HERITAGE: PARSI TIME CAPSULE

Rite of Passage

A community that is fast heading towards extinction decides to leave behind cultural and religious icons for posterity

By Uday Mahurkar and Farah Baria

Time 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.

History's Urn: The steel cylinder being embedded

The capsule 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.

The rather 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.

Commissioned 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.

Ironically, 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.

"UNESCO's 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.

Now the 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.

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