The sun is at its peak, and so is the city’s maddening rush on the roads. The traffic policeman, who takes refuge under the shades of myriad trees that adorn the premises of the Fire Temple, is unaware that this is where many Zoroastrians throng, seeking spiritual solace.
Though surrounded inopportunely by overflowing vehicles and crowds at the Indian Express junction, tranquility is at its best inside the compound where a unique structure stands, testimony to an era gone by. The Parsee Fire Temple on Queen’s Road, consecrated in February 1926, is a rare Iranian-style architecture in the city. The connection of Parsees, who worship nature, with India dates back to the 9th century and Bangalore accepted a section of them, allowing them to keep their traditions and customs alive.
Parsees have seen Karnataka from the days of Mysore Wadiyars. They migrated to the city between 1888 and 1890 and kept alive their race and religious roots. While business prospects attracted a few to Bangalore, those who were working for the British Army landed in the cantonment area and later settled here.
“For a small and fast depleting community like the Parsees, there are hardly 700 community members in Bangalore,” says Bangalore Parsee Zoroastrian Anjuman Trustee member and chartered accountant Yezdi N Unvalla.
Indian entry: Zoroastrian refugees from Fars and Khorasan provinces of Iran came to India seeking asylum. They landed in Gujarat and their elders met with the local ruler, King Jadi Rana. They approached the king with a bowl of milk and added sugar to it, demonstrating to him that just as the sugar sweetened the milk without the bowl overflowing, they would assimilate within the state. They were granted permission to live there on the condition that they adopt local language, give up arms and do not convert people from other religious beliefs. They accepted the conditions and founded their settlement in Sanjan.
“We kept the promise, our holy book Zend Avestha, originally in Pahlvi (old Persian) language was transliterated into Gujarati and we synchronised well with the local culture. The Holy Fire was enthroned in various places in Gujarat, including Navsari and Surat and ultimately in Udvada where it has been blazing in glory for the past 250 years. The place is the main pilgrimage centre for Parsees like Rome is for the Catholic Christians,” he adds.
Prophet Zarathushtra realised the importance of protecting nature centuries ago. “For a Parsee, everything is connected to nature. Fire, earth, air and water - the four elements are considered as sacred and should not be defiled even by the dead. Burial and cremation have been prohibited in the Parsee culture,” he says.
Historians say the contact between Indians and Iranians was well-established even prior to the Common Era and both the Puranas and Mahabharatha use the term Parasikhas to refer to the people who reside in the west of Indus River.
Known for their simplicity, high literacy rate and gender equality,Parsees embraced the Bangalorean way of life with much ease.
Celebrating nature: The inseparable connection of Parsees with nature reveals with their unique festivals. Dawn of their New Year and arrival of spring are celebrated with much fanfare. Jamshedi Navroz is an age-old tradition followed by Iranians and Parsees. A feast of authentic Parsee cuisine is a must on this day. It is Jamshed, the great Iranian king, began this tradition. Parsees celebrate it at home by setting up a table, Navroz, covered with a white cloth as a sign of purity. The other important festivals are Gahambars, Khorad Sal and Zarthost No Disso.
Gahambars refers to six seasonal Zorashtrian festivals. Like Hindus, Parsees observe six seasons, basically agriculture festivals. Each festival is five days in length and corresponds to one of the six days of creation of Zoroastrian cosmology; Maidhyozaem (heaven), Maidhyoshem (water), Paitishhayem (earth), Ayathrem (plants), Maidhyarem (animals) and Hanaspathmaedem (man).
During rituals, tribute is paid to the phases or elements responsible for the creation of the world. Parsees recall the blessings bestowed by the seasons on them and seven good acts a Parsee must perform. The festival is aimed at reminding Parsees of their roots.
Zoroaster’s birth anniversary: The birth anniversary of Zoroaster is celebrated as Kordad Sal in August-September. It is believed that he was born in the first millennium of BC. New clothes, cleaning of the house and decorations with ‘chok’ (rangoli) are a must. The ritual Jashan or thanksgiving prayers are offered at the Fire Temple. Zarthost No Disso is the death anniversary of Prophet Zoroaster. It is believed he was killed in a temple while praying. There are three types of calendars Zoroastrians use; Shahenshahi, Kadmi, and Fasli and these were divulged in a matter of 30 days. Majority of Parsees are adherents to Shahenshahi.
Sunset wedding: The wedding ceremony is simple one, conducted after sunset. This is to keep the promise given to the Gujarat king who gave them shelter. The king had asked them to conduct the rituals in the night to avoid the unwanted attention of the locals. Parsees, till date, do not encourage alliance with other communities, despite a section opposing such strict rules.