In Search of the Zoroastrians


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Zoroastrianism is a reminder of the mysterious ways of religious faith. It was founded in Persia, probably around 7th century B.C. by the prophet Zarathushtra, known to the Greeks as Zoroaster. The force of his teachings, collected in scripture known as the Avesta, made his faith a dominant religion from Turkey to China until the rise of Islam in the 7th century A.D.

Thirteen hundred years later, Zoroastrianism endures. Its adherents now number less than 300,000. When National Public Radio reporter Jacki Lyden and Washington Post photographer Nancy Andrews traveled to Iran in February, they found evidence both of its historic vitality and its inexorable decline.

In the desert plateau of Yazd, 350 miles southeast of Tehran, they found the flame of
FAITH still burning but among ever fewer PEOPLE. When their journey was over Andrews returned to contemporary Iran where her travel journal, AN AMERICAN IN IRAN, captured the human realities that belie the mutual demonization of the Islamic Republic and the United States.

Title: The dying Irani restaurant
By Mid-day
Once they were as ubiquitous as their South Indian counterparts, the Udupis. From Colaba in the south to Jogeshwari in the north, some 500 Irani restaurants, with their straight-backed chairs and brun maskas, were an integral part of the city’s tapestry.

Now, fewer than 100 remain. The latest to join the casualty list is Café Premier, opposite Dadar Railway Station. The restaurant will reopen in a few weeks with a different avatar — more seats, chrome and wood interiors.

It will probably still be called Café Premier. But it will no longer be an ‘Irani restaurant’ in the sense we have come to know such eating places. The owners, the Alvis, have not sold the place. But they plan to introduce more variety to the menu to cater to changing tastes.

More than a hundred years ago the first Iranis — most of them Zoroastrians, a few Muslims and Bahais — reached Mumbai and began setting up restaurants. Today, the trade is in sharp decline
Changing food tastes, the younger generation migrating to the West and rising property prices are pushing Irani restaurants towards extinction.

“The younger generation is not interested in managing restaurants. They either migrate or look for professional jobs,” says Aflatoon Shokri, partner in the landmark Kyani & Co at Dhobi Talao.

Farhad Ostavari of Kyani, one of the few from the younger generation still in the business, agrees. So does Darius Irani, of the Iranian Zoroastrian Anjuman, the community’s main representative organisation. Irani says, “Those who set up the restaurants worked from 8 am to 11 pm. The youngsters are not prepared to do that. They prefer office jobs.”

Others say the Iranis, with their uncomplicated menus, have not been able to withstand competition from restaurants that serve liquor and fast food. Believing in the maxim, ‘If you can’t beat them, join them,’ some Irani restaurants have even bought liquor licences and opened beer bars.

Others have simply folded up. Lucky Restaurant, near Crawford Market, now houses a group of shoe shops. Café Shapur, next door, has given way to a busy shop selling bags.

Some restaurants remain, but their makeover is so complete that there is nothing Irani left about them. Golden Star Restaurant, near Charni Road Railway Station, is now Golden Star Thali.

Still many others have changed owners. Gulshan-E-Iran, near Mumbai Central, has now changed ownership and serves food typical of the Muslim community in Uttar Pradesh.

The fact that most restaurants have several owners has also spelt doom for some of them. “The presence of multiple partners means that when disputes crop up between them, they sell off the place,” says Adil Kayani, manager of Bastani & Co at Dhobi Talao. The temptation to sell is strong, because most restaurants are located in prime locations where property prices are high.

Unlike their co-religionists, the Parsis, who have been in India for at least a millennium, the Iranis arrived only in the late 19th century. The names of some of their first restaurants — Union Jack, George, Edward VII, Brighton and King George — evoked the times.

Now they are migrating again. The new destinations are the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Irani Restaurants that are functioning

1. Cafe Mondegar
2. Cafe Leopold
3. Paradise Restaurant
4. Cafe Oval
5. Britannia Restaurant
6. Cafe Ideal
7. Free India Rest. and Bakery
9. Kyani & Company
10. Bastani & Company
11. Cafe Garden
12. Byculla Pharmacy
13. Everest Rest. & Stores
16. Daryush Restaurant
17. Asian Stores
18. Messrs Cecil Restaurant
19. Mocambo Cafe & Bar
20. Cafe Dilbar Bar & Restaurant
21. Congress Bar & Restaurant

Irani restaurants that have shut down

1. Lucky Restaurant
2. Cafe Metro
3. Cafe Shahapur
4. Cafe BBC
5. Moonlight
6. Cafe Royal
7. Gulshan-E-Iran
8. Ruhani
9. Vazir Restaurant
11. Golden Star
10. Rolex
12. Toofan Mail Restaurant
13. Lucky Restaurant
14. Cafe Premiere

Irani Restaurants functioning

Cafe Victory, Sion
Cafe Mailoo, Vile Parle
Cafe Garden, Jogeshwari
Ghatkopar A-1 Stores, Ghatkopar

Title:  Parsi heritage site to be restored
Courtsey: Mid-day Newspaper

It has two Doric columns and a flight of stairs that go down into the Arabian Sea — this unassuming structure at the Marine Drive is perhaps the most simplistic of heritage sites in Mumbai. However, ever since this structure came into existence, it has neither seen a coat of paint nor the hint of renovation.

The structure is finally going to be restored for the first time in  a process that will include painting, cladding and recasting. 

“Parsis come to offer prayers at the site during Navroze and other festivals. The structure has always been neglected and we’ve also had complaints of accidents due to the broken stairs,” said Shabbir Rangwala, president of Rotary Club of downtown Mumbai, which has taken up the initiative of heritage restoration. 

Situated diagonally opposite the Taraporewala aquarium, the Doric columns were possibly built as an entry point to Mumbai, says a Parsi scholar.

Nobody seems to know the age of the columns. Dr Viraf Kapadia, trustee of the heritage Bhikha Behram Well in Churchgate said that the steps and the columns must be at least as old as Marine Drive that was laid in the 1920s.

Piroj Wadia who is involved in the recent UNESCO project on Parsi-Zoroastrians says that the structure, though now associated with the Parsis, might have been used by people of other religions too.

"Even now I see Hindus offering coconuts to the sea at the point. Parsis go there especially in April during Ava nu Parab to offer prayers to Ava, the water deity. Actually you can go to any water body but over the years, this spot on Marine Drive has become the most accepted place to pray,” she says.

Architect Zoeb Bootwala, who is also chairman of Rotary Club of downtown Mumbai is spearheading the entire restoration project which will cost about Rs five lakh and will take about 45 days to be completed.

A survey of the site and structure has already been conducted to gauge the nature of restoration work required. First, the base of both the pillars will be cladded with sandstone, the original building material that had been used. The stairs on both the sides lead to a landing where several cracks have developed and a chunk of the stone landing has even broken off.

The cracks will be mended and the landing will be replaced with a granite structure and has to be recast. Finally, a coat of anti-algae and anti-fungal paint will be applied.

There are two iron doors on either side, which are in a bad state and whose hinges have broken and the iron has developed rust. The renovation may even entirely do away with the doors.

“The restoration work needs to make changes without tampering with the original structural design,” said a spokesperson of Delta Chemicals which has conducted the survey. 

Rangwala said, “The Rotary Club will bear the entire expenses and Pramod Navalkar has promised to help with the permissions and Parsi Panchayat, the regulatory body of the Parsi community, has also offered financial help.”


Title: Faith vs Blood
Courtsey: Mid-day Newspaper & Arish Dastur


This I ask Thee, tell me truly, O Ahura; the Faith that is best for all that are, that which, based on truth, should prosper all existence, that which establishes Righteous and Just actions Inspired by Piety, and which has for its intelligent aspiration realization of Thee, O Mazda!

— The words of Zarathushtra (Yasna 44, Verse 10) as translated by D J Irani

Zarathushtra, the founder of the Zoroastrian faith, would be in staunch opposition to the new resolution passed by the Parsi priesthood.

To understand why, just read the Gathas — the only record we have today of Zarathushtra’s own words. In the Gathas, Zarathushtra proclaims his faith passionately and with the hope that it is embraced by all people.

The Gathas rigidly and repeatedly declare that it is each individual’s choices in life that position them as adherents to the faith — it is not their blood, their race, the length of their beards or the colour of their skin.

Zarathushtra never emphasises racial purity — but stresses spiritual sincerity and willingness to follow the righteous path.

Zarathushtra describes the metaphysical circumstance of the universe as a struggle between righteousness and falsehood, and urges humanity to embrace righteousness.     

It is imperative to understand that according to Zarathushtra himself, one becomes Zoroastrian not by blood, but by one’s choice to live with good thoughts, good words and good deeds. The Gathas are full of teachings that embody and demonstrate this spirit.

In Yasna 53, Zarathushtra’s own daughter is married to a man chosen on the merit of his moral character.

Zarathushtra solemnises and blesses the marriage himself, emphasising that the sole imperative in marriage is that it be based in righteousness and moral integrity. He does not make any comment about ethnicity or race.

It is painfully ironic that some of the torch bearers of this ancient tradition have decided to abort it — to suffocate Zarathushtra’s message and watch the religion dwindle — acting in direct and blatant opposition to the hopes of their founder.

While the founder and his early followers toiled hard to spread the religion of Ahura Mazda to all people — the generation at present is caught up trying to hold on to an ethnicity in exchange.

Never in his teachings has Zarathushtra endorsed the racial perspective and the paranoid counter-intuitive exclusive attitude reflected in the new resolution passed on March 7, 2003.

Not only is this discrimination unfounded in both scripture and law, it is bereft of any credence whatsoever — it represents the extent to which Zoroastrians have allowed themselves to stray from the vision so clearly and simply laid out by Zarathushtra.

A vision addressed to all humanity… and all generations…  presenting each human being with a choice to make within his or her own heart — a choice to be righteous. This choice alone sets one apart as a soul aligned with the religion of Zarathushtra.

Zoroastrianism has had direct contact with, and influenced the religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism.

Zoroastrian thought, particularly its cosmology and its unique treatment of duality, has influenced Greek thinkers like Plato and has had a strong impact on Neo-Platonism.

Zoroastrianism was a major world religion and though it started as a movement by a single man — Zarathushtra — its open attitude helped it grow in strength and number.

The profundity of their wisdom and the magnanimity of their faith once established Zoroastrians as followers of one of the world’s most admired religions. Parsis today must empower and vindicate themselves by rediscovering and  reinstating the universal message of Zarathushtra.

I leave you with a quote from Tagore —

Zarathushtra was the first prophet who emancipated religion from the exclusive narrowness of the tribal God, the God of a chosen people, and offered it to the universal man. This is a great fact in the history of religion.
— Rabindranath Tagore

Arish Dastur graduated from Oberlin College, USA, with a double major in Religion and Neuroscience.

Title : Seminar on Parsis
By Jasmine Elavia

To explore more about the Parsi community, which has made its mark in the form of public institutions, industrialists and names of roads, a seminar called Treasures from the Zoroastrian World has been organised by the Museum Society of Bombay.

A group of eminent scholars on various aspects of the Zoroastrians, coming from different parts of the world, have been invited for the four-day seminar that started yesterday and culminates on Sunday with a Parsi Heritage Trail, a walk covering Parsi architectural treasures, led by Khojeste Mistree.

A range of topics will be addressed during this seminar that are aimed at everyone, Parsi or non-Parsi, to discover more about this community. The topics are not limited to the Indian Parsi context. For instance, Dr John Curtis will be sharing his knowledge about the Oxus Treasure that dates back to the 5th and 4th century BC, including gold and silver objects that speak of the religious practices of yore.

Dr Albert de Jong will present an intriguing lecture on the possibility of Zoroastrian contribution to Plato’s school of philosophy. Looking at the cultural and religious aspects of the community is Dr Vesta Curtis who has found a wealth of information in Sassanian coins that tell a lot about Sassanian iconography and importance of religious symbolism in the art of this period.

Dr Almut Hintze will discuss the aspects of exchange and reciprocity in the holy book Avesta. And Dr Sarah Stewart will focus on the various aspects of ritual life, focusing on domestic rituals rather than the one taking place in the agiary.

Coming to the Mumbai context where there are approximately 40,000 Parsis, Rusheed Wadia will move away from the ritual and religious aspects of Zoroastrian history and focus on the development of Parsi business enterprise and the emerging community. Mistree will look at the community’s woman of substance — Jerbai Wadia.

The seminar is open to all for a fee depending on the sessions one wants to attend. And the lectures will be held at the Coomarswamy Hall, Prince of Wales Museum.

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