Being Parsi

Parsi kaun? Fire tempil? Aag lagi hain? Aap kuch theek nahi bata rahein hain,” said the guard at Maulana Abdul Medical College on Delhi’s Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg.

Written by Uma Vishnu | Published:January 18, 2009 12:40 am

For Delhi’s Parsi population of about 700,the Parsi Anjuman is their only link to a culture and demographics that is shrinking fast

Parsi kaun? Fire tempil? Aag lagi hain? Aap kuch theek nahi bata rahein hain,” said the guard at Maulana Abdul Medical College on Delhi’s Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg. By now,he was sitting on the edge of his plastic chair,ready to help,if only I made better sense. “Nahin,Parsi logon ka mandir,” I said. Now,that wasn’t quite as exciting as a temple on fire so the guard sank back into his chair,looked away and nodded. As it turned out,the Delhi Parsi Anjuman was next door,a sprawling campus with a rest house,a Fire Temple—the only such temple in Delhi—and a 19th century cemetery.

The Parsi Anjuman (Anjuman is Persian for association) is perfectly at ease with this anonymity as it is about being a social and cultural oasis for Delhi’s tiny Parsi community of about 700 people. At the gate,the Farohar symbol (a feather-robed archer that is one of the best known symbols of Zorastrianism) is a reminder that this is a community that had integrated into Indian society centuries ago but is constantly in conversation with its faith. Somewhere in the 8th century,the first Parsis are said to have left their homes in Persia,now Iran,and landed on the Kathiwar coast in Gujarat.

The first Parsi probably came to Delhi over 500 years ago,though some think it was much earlier. But it is said that when Akbar was in power,he invited learned Parsis to his new capital of Fatehpur Sikri,where they took part in religious discourses with Hindu,Jain,Muslim and Christian scholars.

For Delhi’s Parsi population,the Anjuman is their only link to a culture and demographics that is shrinking fast. This is where the Parsis get together at least four times a year,including for Navroz,the Parsi New Year in August. This is also where young Parsi boys are initiated into the community though Navjote,a thread ceremony. The Anjuman’s dharmashala has about 36 rooms for members,both AC and non-AC. Each of the rooms,all with a view of the white concrete flame atop the Fire Temple,has a little mantelpiece with a picture of the Parsi God,Zarthushtra.

This is also the only place in Delhi where dhansak,a classic Parsi dal that’s eaten with rice,pips rajma-chawal on the delicacy scale. So when Jimmy checked into his room at the Parsi Anjuman,he knew what to look forward to. “Your room is on the second floor and you’ll have dhansak for lunch,” said Dhun Daraius Bagli,a sprightly 75-year-old who is the caretaker-manager of the Delhi Parsi Anjuman. Jimmy broke into a wide grin.

Outside Mrs Bagli’s ground floor office is the Fire Temple or the Kaikhusuru Palonji Katrak Dar-e-Meher,built in 1961. For a dwindling community,the Delhi Parsi Anjuman has very strict social rules for members and trustees. Only Zoroastrians are allowed entry into the temple.

A few feet away from the Fire Temple,history takes another turn and leads to a gate with an inscription that reads: “The Parsee Tower of Silence,Built AD 1869”. The aramgah or cemetery is a reminder of how the Parsis of Delhi were open to change as early as in the 19th century. A couple of years ago,pictures of a rotting corpse at Mumbai’s Tower of Silence sparked off a flaring debate in the community. Parsis prefer to put their dead bodies in the Towers of Silence,so that vultures can devour them. To bury them would be to defile the earth and burning would pollute the fire,the most sacred of all elements. But since Delhi had no Tower of Silence and the vultures were fast disappearing,the dead were put to rest in the aramgah. This old cemetery is now shut and the Parsis have had their burial ground near Khan Market for about 45 years now. If only these graves could speak,they would have told the story of Delhi’s Parsi community,a community in transition.

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