The Tribune - Spectrum

, April 28, 2002

Parsis become ‘Heritage Tribe’!
Sarosh Medhora

Parsis are enlightened enough to practice the small family norm
Parsis are enlightened enough to practice the small family norm

THE UNESCO has initiated a research project for the conservation of the "rich heritage of the Parsis in India" as part of its ongoing programme to document lifestyles of such fast-vanishing cultures worldwide.

According to the UNESCO norm, any ethnic group whose members number less than 30,000, is classified as a tribe. Hence a community, which has produced such industrial giants as the Tatas and Godrejs, not to mention countless luminaries in other walks of life is today technically a "heritage tribe".

Explains Dr Shernaz Cama, lecturer Delhi University, who is heading the project: "UNESCO is looking at Parsi Zoroastrians as an important element of world culture and history. We are aiming to not only record the rituals and traditions of the community, but to even try and find solutions to its problems."

This has indeed been an intriguing aspect for demographers who have not been able to rationalise how this community of fire worshippers, with a literacy rate of over 85 per cent and flush with funds from innumerable trusts and properties, should face extinction today.


On the one hand, this community prides itself on sexual equality and has survived persecution from ancient times with remarkable equanimity and resilience. On the other, its members have led a cloistered existence, discouraging inter-community marriages and fiercely protective about their rituals and customs.

A recent study by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (at the behest of the Parsi Panchayat in Mumbai) provides some valuable clues on the unique dichotomy affecting the community’s survival. Prime among the many causes it has identified, is a steady decline in birth rates and mounting number of deaths.

These, in turn, can be traced to genetic inbreeding, late marriages, refusal to accept marriages with non-Parsis and apathy towards adoption. "As most Parsi women aspire for higher education, they marry late or at times, don’t marry at all," Jehangir Patel, a community leader, points out.

Also, unlike other Indian communities, Parsis are enlightened enough to practice the small family norm. "This is true even among those living in rural areas," Patel informs. "Besides, it is a fact that in the case of inter-religious marriages, the non-Parsi spouse and even the off-spring (especially of a woman who marries outside the community) is not accepted into the Parsi fold."

From time to time, the Panchayat has grappled with these issues as a small but increasingly vocal section has been demanding a liberal approach in the interests of strengthening the community. The UNESCO team has also distributed a circular seeking suggestions of opinion-makers on how best to deal with the matter.

Among other things, the circular seeks information from Parsis about their homes, families (especially back in Gujarat), their genealogical tree, besides details about their religious beliefs and the rituals they follow in their daily life.

"Apart from Maharashtra and Gujarat on the west coast, we have been to Hyderabad where Parsis are culturally different from those in say Surat, Navsari or Bharuch," says Cama. "These Andhra Parsis were employed by the Nizams in olden times and as a result, have picked up their language and cultural traits."

The UNESCO project comprises three "clear cut modules", the first involving the microfilming of ancient manuscripts and making audio-visual recordings of oral traditions, including medical practices and cultural links. Heritage sites like Udwada, the Bahrot Caves near Bordi as well as centres in Iran, Afghanistan, China and Uzbekistan where Zoroastrianism flourished are sought to be preserved.

The second module constitutes research into the now defunct Parsi tanka system of water purification and rainwater harvesting. "The tanka or tank is a bowl-shaped cavity below every traditional Parsi house where water was ritually filled and filtered through a variety of sieves on certain days," explains Cama.

The third module involves the documenting of the lives of Parsis in politics, academics, law, industry, trade, science and the arts, as well as artisans engaged in creating beautiful embroidery, jewellery, watches as well as textile weaving.

"The final aim is to set up a museum in Mumbai that will display and record the lifestyle of a people who may no longer exist as a community by the turn of the century," says Cama. "I can only hope that with this project, we can do something to protect them too." MF