Guarding the Zoroastrian faith

Faravahar, symbol of Zoroastrianism

Guarding the faith

A bold new initiative to safeguard the community’s 150 or so fire temples all over India has been launched by a group of traditionalists, old and new. Called rather unimaginatively the Parsi Zoroastrian Guards of the Holy Fire (PZGHF), the trust lists five objectives including collecting data on all the fire temples, looking to their welfare, ensuring a regular supply of firewood and the services of a part-time mobed on a daily basis.

One would normally dismiss such an effort as a wishful endeavor by well meaning individuals. For, how can a shrinking community sustain the numerous institutions that were created for a population double that of today? The former president of the Delhi Parsi Anjuman (DPA) raised this issue in a letter to the editor (see “Of greater import,” page 6). The Mengusi Dharamshala in the DPA agiary complex resolved the issue of low occupancy by allowing non Parsis to avail of their rooms. The agiary is out of bounds to non-Zoroastrians, though the children of interfaith marriages where one parent is a Parsi are permitted.

These are some ways to preserve Parsi institutions but the PZGHF and like minded bodies are unlikely to follow any of these steps. In fact such thinking would be labeled heresy. The very inclusion of the term “Parsi Zoroastrian” in their nomenclature means these are hard core traditionalists.

Doongerwadi is a prime example of inflexibility. The Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) incurs an annual loss of Rs 4.5 crores (USD 6,56,017) or Rs 66,000 per corpse last year (4,50,00,000/675) yet the trustees refuse funerary prayers in their 11 bunglis (most of which lie idle or are rarely used) to those opting for cremation. The BPP is bound by their trust deed to see to the welfare of the living, yet spends the largest amount of their dwindling, financial resources on the dead. Salaries are delayed, while mobed and third child monthly subsidies remain unpaid for sometimes as much as six months. Some trustees justify their lopsided priorities claiming the trust was created to preserve the dakhmas, everything else being secondary. A cursory reading of Sapur Desai’s book The History of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, 1860 to 1960 would dispel this misconception. The book has a foreword by then chairman of the BPP B. K. Boman-Behram, a traditionalist, who noted, “Events compelled the Parsi Punchayet to shed its quasi-traditional character and assume that of a social welfare organization of the community.”

Another former chairman of the BPP was asked about the justification for spending so much on Doongerwadi where less than two bodies are consigned a day to the two or three Towers of Silence in use. He replied, “What do you want us to do?” He noted the trust had to safeguard the 55 acres of the Malabar Hill estate. Property as always is the BPP’s prime priority, beneficiaries come second.

To the traditionalists, a non Parsi intruding in their religious sphere is anathema. A former BPP trustee with mobility problems who was accompanied by his non-Parsi assistant onto the verandah of an atash behram found other worshipers loudly objecting to the presence of a parjat, even at the edge of the portico. In another, earlier incident, a traditionalist called for action against the priest at the Godavara Agiary run by the BPP because he permitted a non-Parsi assistant to wait on the open porch (otla) while her elderly mistress prayed within.

Thus emotions run high on these perceived transgressions and should the Guards make an attempt at any reasonable, logical compromise, they would face the full wrath of the orthodox. As it is the traditionalist World Alliance of Parsi Irani Zarthoshtis received flak for defining a Parsi as a child born of a Parsi father (the legally correct definition) instead of both Parsi parents.

The Guards hopefully will have their priorities right. They have at their helm the astute and efficient lawyer Berjis Desai, who retired as the managing partner of one of the country’s largest legal firms and now engages in a busy private practice. Though he describes himself as an “unsuccessful community activist” he has most of the time succeeded brilliantly. He engineered the scheme for Universal Adult Franchise (UAF) over 10 years ago with the support of the then BPP chairman Minoo Shroff and some of his co-trustees and saw the reform through the legal labyrinths. He subsequently derided  UAF alleging decision making was handed over to the masoor pav (lentil and bread) eating Parsis instead of the elite, National Centre for the Performing Arts  going types. His legal skills along with that of another traditionalist lawyer, Zerick Dastur persuaded the Bombay High Court to stay for a short time the construction of the Metro underground rail near the two atash behrams and to realign the tunnels by 3.5 meters.

A former liberal turned conservative and a perceptive and highly skilled writer, Desai has straddled both sides of the divide. He will bring his considerable persuasive skills and networking abilities to the task. With him heading the trust, raising a corpus of five crores will be an achievable goal. But whether they will then be able to deliver the goods is a question mark.

Parsiana asked him why the Guards should succeed when other organizations have failed. His reply, “I am determined. (I’ll) dedicate 30-40% of my time… office recruitment (is) in progress.” Other potential trustees named are Jamshed Sukhadwala, Ervads (Drs) Parvez Bajan and Ramiyar Karanjia, Hosi Dastur, Pervin Mistry and Jehangir Bisney.

But even a Berjis Desai with all his skills and with the likes of blogger and Secunderabad-Hyderabad Anjuman trustee Bisney on the trust, the PZGHF will face invincible foes: diminishing numbers, indifference and an obdurate community. Will fire temple trustees share with others their trust deeds, their financial position, number of worshippers, mobeds and also permit an inspection? How many of them even know the answer to some of these questions? Or even care?

Even if the trustees succeed in keeping the flame burning, preserving the physical structure and obtaining the services of a mobed, the dearth of worshipers will remain. The PZGHF has plans to encourage frequent visits to more fire temples but for the elderly, mobility is an issue. Transport and assistance will have to be provided.

We can only wish the Guards well in their endeavor. Any and every attempt to preserve our heritage is to be encouraged. But by being exclusive instead of inclusive, they have limited their slim chances of success.


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