1902 Encyclopedia > Parsees


PARSEES, or PARSIS. The resident in Bombay who wanders to the Back Bay beach at sunset to inhale the fresh sea-breezes from Malabar Hill will there observe a congregation of the most interesting people of Asia. They are the Parsis, the followers of Zarathustra, and the descendants of the ancient Persians who emigrated to India on the conquest of their country by the Arabs, about the year 720 A.D.

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 luxurious profusion of long black hair, which they dress to perfection, and ornament with pearls and gems.

The Parsis are much more noble in their treatment of females than any other Asiatic race; they allow them to appear freely in public, and leave them the entire management of household affairs. They are proverbial for their benevolence, hospitality, and sociability. They are good scholars, and usually learn several languages—Gujarati, Hindustani, and English. The Parsis are notoriously fond of good living, and do not hesitate to spend their money freely for the best the market affords. They indulge in wines, but do not reach the vice of intoxication.

On getting out of bed in the morning, an orthodox Parsi first says his prayers. He then rubs a little nirang {cow-urine) upon his face, hands, and feet, reciting during the ceremony a prayer or incantation against the influence of devas, or evil spirits, for which the " nirang" is considered a specific. He next takes his bath, cleans his teeth, and repeats his prayers. He then takes his morning meal, "a light breakfast,—say, tea or chocolate, bread, and fruits. The dinner is more abundant, and is composed of the dishes of the country—meats, stews,' vegetables, rice, fruits, &c. These dishes are seasoned with pungent sauces, curries, chutneys, pickles, &c, one of which, famous in Bombay, is marked with the mild initials H. F. (hell-fire). The evening meal is taken after sunset, when the labours and ceremonies of the day are over, and is the signal for licence in eating, drinking, and conversation. A tat, or parting drink for the night, is a time-honoured custom among the Parsis.

The costume of the Parsi is loose and flowing, very picturesque in appearance, and admirably adapted to the climate in which he lives. The sadara, or shirt, which is considered the most sacred garment, because it is worn next the skin, is a plain loose vest, usually made of muslin, or with the opulent of fine white linen. A long coat or gown is worn over the sadara, extending to the knees, and fastened round the waist with the kusti, or sacred cord, which is carried round three times, and fastened in front with a double knot. The pyjamis, or loose trousers, are fastened round the waist by a silken cord with tassels at the ends, which are run through a hem. The material of these pyjamis among the common classes is cotton, but the rich indulge in fancy-coloured silks and sarins. The head is covered with a turban, or a cap of a fashion peculiar to the Parsis; it is made of stiff material, some-thing like the European hat, without any rim, and h as 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. The shoes are of red or yellow morocco, turned up at the toes.

The dress of Parsi ladies is something gorgeous. They are enveloped in a maze of mysteriously wound silk. They appear as houris floating about the earth in silk balloons, with a ballasting of anklets, necklaces, earrings, and jewellery. The dressmakers' bills, fortunately for the head of the family, are not exorbitant, as the costumes have not been through the hands of the modiste, but are composed of many yards of fancy-coloured silks wound round the nether limbs and gradually enfolding the body, covering part of the bosom, and then thrown over the shoulders and head, drooping on the left arm, as a shield against the inquisitive gaze of a stranger. The pyjamis, or drawers, are common to both sexes, but the ladies of course excel in the fine texture and fanciful colours of these garments.

A Parsi 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 of the child, an astrologer is invited, who is either a Brahmana or a Parsi priest, to cast the nativity of the child. He has first to enumerate the names which the child may bear, and the parents have the right to make choice of one of them. Then he draws on a wooden board a set of hieroglyphics 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. All the relatives press forward to hear the astrologer predict the future life and prospects of the babe. This document is preserved in the family archives as a guidance and encouragement to the child through fife, and may exert some influence in shaping its destiny. - At the age of seven years or thereabouts, according to the judg-ment of the priest, the first religious ceremony of the Parsis is performed upon the young Zarathustrian. He is first subjected to the process of purification, which consists of an ablution with " nirang." The ceremony consists in investing the young Parsi with the cincture, or girdle of his faith. This cincture is a cord woven by women of the priestly class only. It is composed of seventy-two threads, representing the seventy-two chapters of the Yasna, a portion of the Zand-Avesta, 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 its head at each sentence slices of fruits, seeds, perfumes, and spices. He is thus received into the religion of Zarathustra. After the performance of this ceremony, the child is considered morally accountable for its acts. If a child die before the performance of this ceremony, it is considered to have gone back to Ahura-Mazda, who gave it, as pure as it entered into this world, having not reached the age of accountability. The ceremony of the kusti, or encircling with the girdle, is closed by the distribution of refreshments to the friends and relatives of the family who have attended the investiture of the younger follower of Zarathustra with the sacred girdle of his faith.

The marriages of children engage the earliest attention of the parents. Though the majority of Parsi marriages are still celebrated while the children are very young, instances ' frequently occur of marriages of grown-up boys and girls. The wedding day is fixed by an astrologer, who consults the stars for a happy season. The wedding day being fixed, a Parsi 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 customs 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 with the bridegroom as his escort. 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 magic 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 Zand 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 rose-water 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 pro-cession 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 after the bridal ceremony 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 wine is not forbidden; at each course the wine is served, and toasts are proposed, as "happiness to the young couple," &c.

The funeral ceremonies of the Parsis are solemn and imposing. When the medical attendant declares the case of a Parsi hopeless, a priest advances to the bed of the dying man, repeats sundry texts of the Zand-Avesta,, the substance of which tends to afford consolation to the dying man, 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 or JYasus. This ceremony is called sagd&cl. 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 touching the floor to their heads to indicate their deepest 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 nasasalar, all clad in well-washed, clean, white clothes. All the people present stand up as the body is taken out of the house, and bow to it in respect as it passes by. 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," the last resting-place of the departed Parsi. These towers are erected in a beauti-ful garden on the highest point of Malabar Hill, amid tropical trees swarming with vultures ; they are constructed of stone, and rise some 25 feet 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 sagri, 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 feet deep is surrounded by an annular stone pavement about 7 feet 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-bahrdm, or "temple of fire." 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 Parsi, 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 muktad, or ceremonies of departed souls.

The numerical strength of the followers of Zarathustra at the present day does not exceed 82,000 persons, including the Parsis of Persia at Herman, Yazd, and Teheran. The greater number is found in Bombay, and in some of the cities of Gujarat, as Kow-sari, Surat, Bharoch, Ahmedabad, &c. Parsis have also settled for the purpose of trade in Calcutta, Madras, and in other cities of British India, in Burmah, China, and in other parts of Asia. According to the census of 1881, there are in the Bombay presi-dency 72,065 Parsis, and in Persia 8499, according to Houtum-Schindler (see Journal of the Oriental German Society, vol. xxxvi. p. 54).

The Parsis of India are divided into two sects, the Shenshais and the Kadmis. They do not differ on any point of faith ; the dispute is solely confined to a quarrel as to the correct chronological date for the computation of the era of Yazdagird, the last king of the Sasanian dynasty, who was dethroned by the caliph Omar about 640 A. n. The difference has been productive of no other inconveni-ence than arises from the variation of a month in the celebration of the festivals. The Shenshai sect, represented by Sir Jamsetji Jijibhai, Bart., greatly outnumbers the Kadmis, formerly headed by the late famous high-priest Mulla Firdz.
The Parsis, as stated above, compute time from the fall of Yazdagird. 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 Sahrevar, 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 pre-siding 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 pre-sides 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 sagris prayers for the departed souls. The Parsis are enjoined by their religion to preserve the memory of the dead by annual religious ceremonies performed in the house, as said above ; but such of their friends as die on long voyages, or in un-known places, and the date of whose death cannot be known, are honoured by sacred rites on this day. The Parsi scriptures require the last ten days of the year to be spent in doing deeds of charity, and in prayers of thanksgiving to Ahura-Mazda. On the day of Yazdagird, or New Year's Day, the Parsis emulate the "Westernworld 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 wor-ship the emblem of their divinity, the sacred fire, which is perpetu-ally 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 of 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 the servants and dependants.

There are only two distinct castes among the Parsis,—the priests (dasturs, or high priests ; mobeds, or the middle order of priests; and herbads, or the lowest order of priests) and the people (behadin, behdin, or "followers of the best religion"). The priestly office is hereditary, and no one can become a priest who was not born in the purple ; but the son of a priest may become a layman.

The secular affairs of the Parsis are managed by an elective com-mittee, or Pancli&yat, composed of six dastiirs 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 Zarathustra. One law of the Panehayat is singular in its difference from the law or 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. It is a matter of just pride that we find the Parsis have not imitated the barbarous and tyrannical custom of prohibiting widows from re-marrying which is so prevalent among the Hindus.

Their religion teaches them benevolence as the first principle, and no people practise it with more liberality. A beggar among the Parsis is unknown, and would be a scandal to the society. In the city of Bombay alone they have thirty-two different charitable institutions. The sagacity, activity, and commercial enterprise of the Parsis are proverbial in the East, and their credit as merchants is almost unlimited. They frequently control the opium production of India, which amounts annually to something like £10,000,000 sterling. They have some fifty large commercial houses in Bombay, fourteen in Calcutta, twenty in Hong-Kong, ten in Shanghai, four in London, three in Amoy, two in Yokohama, and many throughout India, Persia, and Egypt. Further, their interest in the extension of agriculture in India is prominent; they are also very much esteemed as railway contractors or rail-way guards. It is often said that the Parsis are superstitious about extinguishing fire, but this is a mistake. They are the only people in the world who do not smoke tobacco, or some other stimulating weed. Their reverence for fire as a symbol of Ahura-Mazda prevents them from dealing with it lightly. They would not play with fire, nor extinguish it unnecessarily; and they generally welcome the evening blaze with a prayer of thanksgiving. Their religion forbids them to defile any of the creations of Ahura-Mazda, such as the earth, water, trees, flowers, &c, and on no account would a Parsi indulge in the disgusting habit of expectoration. They have been accustomed to the refinement of finger-bowls after meals for several thousand years, and resort to ablutions frequently.

Of all the natives of India the Parsis are most desirous of receiving the benefits of ail English education, and their eagerness to embrace the science and literature of the West has been conspicuous in the wide spread of female education among them. The difference between the Parsis of thirty years ago and those of the present dav is simply the result of English education and intercourse with Englishmen. The condition of the Parsi priesthood, however, demands improvement. Very few of them understand their liturgical Zand works, although able to recite parrot-like all the chapters requiring to be repeated on occasions of religious ceremonies, for which services they receive the regulated fees, and from them mainly they derive a subsistence. It is, however, very gratifying to notice an attempt that is now being made to impart a healthy stimulus to the priesthood for the study of their religious books. Two institutions, styled the " Mulla Fir6z Madrasa" and the "Sir Jamsetji Jijibhai Madrasa," have been established under the superintendence of competent teachers. Here the study of Zand, Pazand, Pahlavi, and Persian is cultivated; and many of the sons of the present ignorant priests will occupy a higher position in the society of their countrymen than their parents now enjoy. The present dasturs are intelligent and well-informed men, possessing a sound knowdedge of their religion ; but the mass of the mobeds and herbads are profoundly ignorant of its first principles. As active measures are being devised for improvement, the darkness of the present wdll doubtless be succeeded by a bright dawn in the future. (A. F.)

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