1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Parsees

PARSEES, or Parsis, the followers in India of Zoroaster (Zarathustra), being the descendants of the ancient Persians who emigrated to India on the conquest of their country by the Arabs in the 8th century. They first landed at Sanjan on the coast of Gujarat, where the Hindu rulers received them hospitably. To this day their vernacular language is Gujarati, which they have cultivated in literature and journalism. Their settlement in Bombay dates only from the British occupation of that island. In 1901 the total number of Parsees in all India was 94,000, of whom all but 7000 were found in the Bombay presidency and the adjoining state of Baroda, the rest being widely scattered as traders in the large towns.

Among Parsees the men are well formed, active, handsome and intelligent. They have light olive complexions, a fine aquiline nose, bright black eyes, a well-turned chin, heavy arched eyebrows, thick sensual lips, and usually wear a light curling moustache. The women are delicate in frame, with small hands and feet, fair complexions, beautiful black eyes, finely arched eyebrows, and a profusion of long black hair, which they dress to perfection, and ornament with pearls and gems. The Parsees are much more liberal in their treatment of women than any other Asiatic race; they allow them to appear freely in public, and leave them the entire management of household affairs.

The characteristic costume of the Parsees (now frequently abandoned) is loose and flowing, very picturesque in appearance, and admirably adapted to the climate in which he lives. The head is covered with a turban, or a cap of a fashion peculiar to the Parsees; it is made of stiff material, something like the European hat, without any rim, and has an angle from the top of the forehead backwards. It would not be respectful to uncover in presence of an equal, much less of a superior. The colour is chocolate or maroon, except with the priests, who wear a white turban.

A Parsee must be born upon the ground floor of the house, as the teachings of their religion require life to be commenced in humility, and by “good thoughts, words and actions” alone can an elevated position be attained either in this world or the next. The mother is not seen by any member of the family for forty days. Upon the seventh day after the birth an astrologer is invited to cast the nativity of the child. He has first to enumerate the names which the child may bear, so that the parents may make choice of one of them. Then he draws on a wooden board a set of hieroglyphs in chalk, and his dexterity in counting or recounting the stars under whose region or influence the child is declared to be born is marvelled at by the superstitious creatures thronging around him. This document is preserved in the family archives as a guidance and encouragement to the child through life. At the age of seven or thereabouts, according to the judgment of the priest, the first religious ceremony is performed upon the young Parsee. He is first subjected to the process of purification, which consists of an ablution with nirang (cow-urine). The ceremony consists in investing him with the kusti, or girdle of his faith. This is a cord, woven by women of the priestly class, composed of seventy-two threads, representing the seventy-two chapters of the Yasna, a portion of the Zend-Avestā, in the sacredness of which the young neophyte is figuratively bound. The priest ties the cord around the waist as he pronounces the benediction upon the child, throwing upon his head at each sentence slices of fruit, seeds, perfumes and spices. He is thus received into the religion of Zoroaster, and is henceforth considered morally accountable for his acts. If a child die before the performance of this ceremony he is considered to have gone back to Ahurā-Mazdā, who gave him, as pure as he entered into this world, having not reached the age of accountability.

The marriages of children engage the earliest attention of the parents. The wedding day having been fixed by an astrologer, who consults the stars for a happy season, a Parsee priest goes from house to house with a list of the guests to be invited, and delivers the invitations with much ceremony. The father of the bride waits upon near relatives and distinguished personages, soliciting the honour of their attendance. A little before sunset a procession is formed at the house of the bridegroom, and proceeds with a band of music, amid great pomp and ceremony, to the house of the bride's father. Here a number of relatives and friends are collected at the door to receive the bridegroom with due honour. Presents are sent before, according to the time-honoured custom of the East. Upon the arrival of the procession at the house of the bride the gentlemen gallantly remain outside, leaving room for the ladies to enter the house as the escort of the bridegroom. As he passes the threshold his future mother-in-law meets him with a tray filled with fruits and rice, which she strews at his feet. The fathers of the young couple are seated side by side, and between them stands the priest ready to perform the ceremony. The young couple are seated in two chairs opposite each other, their right hands tied together by a silken cord, which is gradually wound around them as the ceremony progresses, the bride in the meantime being concealed with a veil of silk or muslin. The priest lights a lamp of incense, and repeats the nuptial benediction first in Zend and then in Sanskrit. At the conclusion of the ceremony they each throw upon the other some grains of rice, and the most expeditious in performing this feat is considered to have got the start of the other in the future control of the household, and receives the applause of the male or female part of the congregation as the case may be. The priest now throws some grains of rice upon the heads of the married pair in token of wishing them abundance; bouquets of flowers are handed to the assembled guests, and rosewater is showered upon them. The bride and bridegroom now break some sweetmeats, and, after they have served each other, the company are invited to partake of refreshments. At the termination of this feast the procession re-forms, and with lanterns and music escorts the bridegroom back to his own house, where they feast until midnight. As midnight approaches they return to the house of the bride, and escort her, with her dowry, to the house of the bridegroom, and, having delivered her safely to her future lord and master, disperse to their respective homes. Eight days afterwards a wedding feast is given by the newly-married couple, to which only near relatives and particular friends are invited. This feast is composed entirely of vegetables, but at each course the wine is served, and toasts are proposed, as “happiness to the young couple,” &c.

The funeral ceremonies of the Parsees are solemn and imposing. When the medical attendant declares the case hopeless a priest advances to the bed of the dying man, repeats sundry texts of the Zend-Avestā, the substance of which tends to afford him consolation, and breathes a prayer for the forgiveness of his sins. After life is extinct a funeral sermon is delivered by the priest, in which the deceased is made the subject of an exhortation to his relatives and friends to live pure, holy and righteous lives, so that they may hope to meet again in paradise. The body is then taken to the ground floor where it was born, and, after being washed and perfumed, is dressed in clean white clothes, and laid upon an iron bier. A dog is brought in to take a last look at his inanimate master in order to drive away the evil spirits. This ceremony is called sagdād. A number of priests attend and repeat prayers for the repose of the soul of the departed. All the male friends of the deceased go to the door, bow down, and raise their two hands from the floor to their heads to indicate their respect for the departed. The body, when put upon the bier, is covered over from head to foot. Two attendants bring it out of the house, holding it low in their hands, and deliver it to four pall-bearers, called nasasalār, clad in well-washed, white clothes. A procession is formed by the male friends of the deceased, headed by a number of priests in full dress, to follow the body to the dakhma, or “tower of silence.” In Bombay these towers are erected in a beautiful garden on the highest point of Malabar Hill, amid trees swarming with vultures; they are constructed of stone, and rise some 25 ft. high, with a small door at the side for the entrance of the body. Upon arriving at the “tower of silence” the bier is laid down, and prayers are said in the sagrī, or house of prayer, containing a fire-sanctuary, which is erected near the entrance to the garden. The attendants then raise the body to its final resting-place, lay it upon its stony bed, and retire. A round pit about 6 ft. deep is surrounded by an annular stone pavement about 7 ft. wide, on which the body is exposed to the vultures, where it is soon denuded of flesh, and the bones fall through an iron grating into a pit beneath, from which they are afterwards removed into a subterranean entrance prepared for their reception. On the third day after death an assemblage of the relatives and friends of the deceased takes place at his late residence, and thence proceed to the Atish-bahrām, or “fire temple.” The priests stand before the urns in which the celestial fire is kept burning, and recite prayers for the soul of the departed. The son or adopted son of the deceased kneels before the high priest, and promises due performance of all the religious duties and obsequies to the dead. The relatives and friends then hand the priest a list of the contributions and charities which have been subscribed in memory of the deceased, which concludes the ceremony of “rising from mourning,” or “the resurrection of the dead.” On each successive anniversary of the death of a Parsee funeral ceremonies are performed in his memory. An iron framework is erected in the house, in which shrubs are planted and flowers cultivated to bloom in memory of the departed. Before the frame, on iron stands, are placed copper or silver vases, filled with water and covered with flowers. Prayers are said before these iron frames two or three times a day. These ceremonies are called mūktad, or “ceremonies of departed souls.”

The Parsees of India are divided into two sects, the Shenshahis and the Kadmīs. They do not differ on any point of faith; the dispute is confined to a quarrel as to the correct chronological date for the computation of the era of Yazdegerd, the last king of the Sassanian dynasty, who was dethroned by the caliph Omar about A.D. 640. The difference has been productive of no other inconvenience than arises from the variation of a month in the celebration of the festivals. The Parsees compute time from the fall of Yazdegerd. Their calendar is divided into twelve months of thirty days each; the other five days, being added for holy days, are not counted. Each day is named after some particular angel of bliss, under whose special protection it is passed. On feast days a division of five watches is made under the protection of five different divinities. In midwinter a feast of six days is held in commemoration of the six periods of creation. About the 21st of March, the vernal equinox, a festival is held in honour of agriculture, when planting begins. In the middle of April a feast is held to celebrate the creation of trees, shrubs and flowers. On the fourth day of the sixth month a feast is held in honour of Sahrēvar, the deity presiding over mountains and mines. On the sixteenth day of the seventh month a feast is held in honour of Mithra, the deity presiding over and directing the course of the sun, and also a festival to celebrate truth and friendship. On the tenth day of the eighth month a festival is held in honour of Farvardin, the deity who presides over the departed souls of men. This day is especially set apart for the performance of ceremonies for the dead. The people attend on the hills where the “towers of silence” are situated, and perform in the sagrīs prayers for the departed souls. The Parsee scriptures require the last ten days of the year to be spent in doing deeds of charity, and in prayers of thanksgiving to Ahurā-Mazdā. On the day of Yazdegerd, or New Year's Day, the Parsees emulate the western world in rejoicing and social intercourse. They rise early, and after having performed their prayers and ablutions dress themselves in a new suit of clothes, and sally forth to the “fire-temples,” to worship the emblem of their divinity, the sacred fire, which is perpetually burning on the altar. Unless they duly perform this ceremony they believe their souls will not be allowed to pass the bridge “Chinvad,” leading to heaven. After they have performed their religious services they visit their relations and friends, when the ceremony of hamijur, or joining hands, is performed. The ceremony is a kind of greeting by which they wish each other “a happy new year.” Their relatives and friends are invited to dinner, and they spend the rest of the day in feasting and rejoicing; alms are given to the poor, and new suits of clothes are presented to servants and dependants.

There are only two distinct classes among the Parsees—the priests (dastūrs, or high priests; mobeds, or the middle order; and herbads, or the lowest order) and the people (behadīn, behdīn, or “followers of the best religion”). The priestly office is hereditary, and no one can become a priest who was not born such; but the son of a priest may become a layman.

The secular affairs of the Parsees are managed by an elective committee, or panchāyat, composed of six dastūrs and twelve mobeds, making a council of eighteen. Its functions resemble the Venetian council of ten, and its objects are to preserve unity, peace and justice amongst the followers of Zoroaster. One law of the panchāyat is singular in its difference from the custom of any other native community in Asia; nobody who has a wife living shall marry another, except under peculiar circumstances, such as the barrenness of the living wife, or her immoral conduct. Recently a serious difference arose among the Parsees of Bombay on the question of proselytism. A Parsee had married a French lady, who took the necessary steps to adopt the religion of her husband. But it was decided by the High Court, after prolonged argument, that, though the creed of Zoroaster theoretically admitted proselytes, their admission was not consistent with the practice of the Parsees in India.

Their religion teaches them benevolence as the first principle, and no people practise it with more liberality. A beggar among the Parsees is unknown, and would be a scandal to the society. The sagacity, activity and commercial enterprise of the Parsees are proverbial in the East, and their credit as merchants is almost unlimited. In this connexion may be mentioned the well-known names of Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy and Sir Dinshaw Petit, both baronets, and also of J. N. Tata, founder of the Institute of Scientific Research at Bangalore.

The Parsees have shown themselves most desirous of receiving the benefits of an English education; and their eagerness to embrace the science and literature of the West has been conspicuous in the wide spread of female education, and in the activity shown in studying their sacred writings in critical texts. In recent years many have taken to the professions of law and medicine, and a Parsee barrister was appointed a judge of the High Court at Bombay in 1906. Two Parsees have also been the only natives of India elected to the House of Commons.

See Menant, Les Parsis (Paris, 1898); Dosabhai Framji Karaka, History of the Parsees (London, 1884); Seervai and Patel, Gujarat Parsees from the Earliest Times (Bombay, 1898).