I attended an excellent, informative, sweeping, humorous lecture on the Parsis of Chennai, by Tehnaz Bahadurji, on March 4, 2015, under the auspices of INTACH, at Alliance Francaise in Chennai. I posted this on Facebook, but not yet in my blog. Here are my notes.
For context, Iran is modern Persian word for Arriana (Land of Aryans). Pars is a town in Iran, which gave them the name Persians - like the word Madrasis used by North Indians collectively for South Indians. The Iranians consider themselves Aryans - as a race. Parsis are Iranians of Zorastrian religion who refused to convert to Islam when Iran was conquered by Arabs in the 7th century. Some Zorastrians stayed in Iran, the group that sought refuge in and settled in Gujarat were called Parsis. A later group of Zoroastrian Iranians immigrated to India in the last few centuries, and they are called Iranis.
Sheer pride in the accomplishments of the Parsis through history, especially in the last two hundred years shone through. So did the wistful longing for good times gone past and a community fading as rapidly as the credibility of opinion polls. Only about 60000 (Sixty thousand) remain in India today - the Government of India has a special program attempting to increase their population. (Let's just say that Parsis still are doing better than original natives of the Andaman Islands.)
Dadabhai Naoroji and Feroz Gandhi were the only politicians she named. Apparently Parsis do better in business. And law. And the military. And sports. And social service. And hoteliering. And...
Names of industrialists like Tata, Wadia, Godrej, lawyers of distinction Nani Palkivala, Fali Nariman, the much beloved Field Marshal Manekshaw, cricketers Farokh Engineer, Polly Umrigar, Nari Contractor, the Iranis and the Screwvalas of the cinema world were all mentioned. Haridas, the superhit Tamil movie of the 1940s, starring the first superstar of Tamil cinema, MK Thyagaraja Bagavathar which ran for three Deepavalis, was produced by a Parsi!
She covered everything from the origins in Persia with the prophet Zarathushtra, their holy text, the Zend Avesta, the first monotheistic religion with their God Ahura Mazda, the three basic principles :
Humata - good thoughts,
Hukta - good words,
Huvarashta - good deeds,
the Navjoth ceremony and its attendant costumes, rituals, feasting and drinking, the emigration of a large group of Parsis to Gujarat, the legend of sugar in milk, the Parsi love for food - with strong and repetitive emphasis on their irrepressible carnivorous tastes. The thread ceremony - Navjoth - is for both boys and girls. Also, with beer mutton and chicken served afterwards, the feast is quite different from Hindu functions. Their "gathas" and "Avesta" their holy books in the Avestan language are only understood by a small minority.
Then she moved on to their arrival in Chennai, the contributions of Mary Clubwala Jadhav, a very active socialite and philanthropist of the early 20th century, and the centenary celebration of the Chennai fire temple with President Abdul Kalam as chief guest.
Most remarkable to me was her mention that Cyrus Poonawala heads Serum Institute of India, whose products vaccinate two-thirds of all children in the world! That is indeed astounding.
Thank you, marvelous Parsis. May your tribe increase.
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