By Anindita Mukhopadhyay
The 4th Zoroastrian Return to Roots tour commenced in Mumbai this December. Twenty-five Zoroastrian youngsters from across the world, spanning USA, Canada, New Zealand, Pakistan, and UAE are on a 13-day trip through India to reconnect with their customs and traditions. The trip includes visits to fire temples, Doongerwadis, and Parsi establishments, in and around Delhi, Mumbai, Udvada, Navsari, and Surat; complemented by home-made Parsi cuisine. Their journey is a means to promote the rich Parsi and Irani culture amongst the youth. The ‘fellows’ also attended the Iranshah Udvada Utsav, a biennial festival celebrating Zoroastrian culture.
Origin and history of Zoroastrianism
One of the world’s oldest extant religion, originating from the prehistoric Indo-Iranian period, Zoroastrianism was founded by Zarathustra, the prophet of ancient Iran. He is recognised for rejecting the pantheon of deities and demons of the traditional Indo-Iranian religion with just one transcendent God or Ahura, the ‘Lord of Wisdom’—Ahura Mazda. He is considered the creator of the entire universe, including mankind. The monotheistic religion is far older than most present-day religions. In fact, major religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have been influenced by the tenets of Zoroastrianism. In a time when most worship consisted mainly of elaborate rituals to satisfy angry deities, Zarathustra preached a religion of personal ethics in which people’s actions in life were more important than ritual and sacrifice. He proposed the concept of personal responsibility and advocated the notion of free-will, to fulfil the ideals of Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta—good thoughts, good words, and good deeds.
The teachings of Zarathustra began to spread far and wide, in Persia and its adjoining provinces primarily through nomadic tribes. Cyrus, on becoming the emperor of the vast Persian empire, made Zoroastrianism popular throughout Egypt, Greece, and Persia, largely with the help of the Magi, a priestly community from Medes. The rule of Alexander marked a temporary decline in the prevalence of Zoroastrianism amongst Persians. However, it was revived in 3rd century AD, by the Sassanians, who recognized the religious authority of the priests as an integral aspect of political power. The state and the religion, therefore, became inseparable during their reign. Zoroastrianism suffered a serious blow with the end of the Sassanid dynasty in 7th century AD, with the Muslim conquest. Zoroastrians were subjected to widespread oppression and discrimination.
Waning of the Zoroastrian influence
The religion all but disappeared from the country, first from the cities and then in the rural areas, leaving behind a few followers at most. These followers suffered persecution at the hands of their Muslim rulers for several centuries to come. Reza Sha Pahlavi overthrew the rule of the Qajar dynasty in 1925, releasing the Zoroastrians from years of subjugation. The handful of Zoroastrians in Iran today, estimated at about 30,000, are recognised as a religious minority, along with Christians and Jews. However, the major chunk of Zarathushtis fled to India, over a long period of time, to preserve and practice their faith without fear of persecution or discrimination. Following the silk route in the course of trade and merchandise, the immigrants settled in the port cities of Bombay and Surat, where they continue to live today as ‘Parsis’. Later influxes from Iran have been termed as ‘Iranis’ to distinguish them from their predecessors. This small Zoroastrian community has played a vital role in the Indian struggle for independence, as well as the subsequent economic development of the country.
The Return to Roots in India
With 69,000 adherents in India, the small Parsi community represents a mere 0.006% of the Indian population but constitutes the single largest Zoroastrian community in the world. The ‘Return to Roots’ Programme, organised under the aegis of the Parazor Foundation, was borne out of the increasing disconnect felt between Zoroastrians in the diaspora and their ancestral communities in Iran and India. “The need arose when two cousins, one from Mumbai, and the other from the US, realised they didn’t know much about the culture they shared,” said Arzan Sam Wadia, the programme director for RTR. Started in 2014, the youth-initiated programme is designed to strengthen community identity amongst Zoroastrian youth across the world. Small groups of Zoroastrians between the ages of 20 and 35 years undertake trips to explore their religious, social and cultural heritage rooted in India.
Participants are drawn from the Zoroastrian diaspora who want to explore their culture, community, and potential opportunities in Zoroastrian India. The tour includes visits to the historical sites in Gujarat where the Parsis first arrived from Iran including Udvada, Navsari, Surat and Bharuch. The sites of Parsi pilgrimage encompass visits to the Agiaries, Atash Behrams or Fire Temples—at Udvada, Navsari, Modi, and Vakil—and Doongerwadi Towers of Silence or dakhmas. These are an integral part of their journey to rediscover their culture and customs, as remarked by 22-year-old Cyrus Karanjia from Karachi. “We follow similar customs and traditions. We have the same prayers, but we hardly know what it means. Most of the customs have been handed down through generations and the meanings have been lost. This trip has helped us reconnect with our origin.” The group imbibes lessons in Zoroastrian history from community scholars, and meet local Zoroastrians at the forefront of business, government, philanthropy, and the arts. The youngsters are often invited to Parsi homes for meals, boasting lavish spreads in the true spirit of Indian hospitality.
The future of Return To Roots
The programme aims to foster a sense of community amongst fellows, encouraging individuals to contribute to the institutions they visit as well as the program, even after participation. Fellows return from India with a deep understanding and appreciation for the small but powerful Parsi community in India, and experience first-hand the significance of their long-standing religious customs and traditions. In fact, the increased participation in the year’s RTR programme, reflects the involvement of fellows with their local Zoroastrian associations, giving back to the community, and encouraging other youth to participate in Return to Roots.
The organisers believe that programmes like the RTR will help the community emerge out of near-extinction. “The youth has become more questioning of their customs and traditions. They need reasons. A trip like this helps put matters in perspective,” they said. Hence, the emphasis is on the youth, rather than elderly participants, who may find the intense schedules exhausting, nor teenagers, who on the other hand, may not absorb the religious discourses and debates.
Ultimately, the vision of Return to Roots is to reconnect Zoroastrians in the diaspora with their origins in India and Iran. The programme hopes to contribute to the preservation of the cultural identity of Zoroastrians across the world.