Can Zoroastrian Law Change? Some Believe that the Future Depends on It

 

AHMEDABAD -- Chatter fills the Zoroastrian Hall in Ahmedabad on a balmy Friday night. The mood is merry as the Parsis community convenes to share stories and a meal--spicy chicken wings and khichri--while catching up on the latest news. There’s little ritual here. It’s a relaxed, jovial atmosphere; the community is gathering to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the construction of the local fire temple, the central place of worship for Zoroastrians.

The night also serves as a way for young Zoroastrian men and women to meet each other, socialize, date and eventually, the community hopes, get married. Young men pace through the aisles of the banquet hall with darting eyes, surveying the guests. The women, dressed to the nines, congregate in small, insular groups. There are far more men than women, and this is contributing to a problem the community is facing: the need to marry outsiders, a step that many see as threatening to the religion. In the face of this crisis, many Zoroastrians are asking: Is it time that the community update age-old marriage laws and tradition?

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The Zoroastrian faith is widely known as one of the world’s oldest, if not the oldest, monotheistic religion. Thought to have been founded nearly 4,000 years ago in modern day Iran, the community today is tiny, with a population now believed to total fewer than 200,000, according to a survey published in the Fezana Journal in 2004. The majority lives in India, where they are also known as Parsis.

The religion has strict guidelines against conversion; only those born into the faith may be considered Zoroastrians. In the past, the community held that only those born to two Zoroastrian parents were considered members of the faith. But there is a growing trend to accept children of even one Zoroastrian parent as members of the faith.

Many single Zoroastrians, both in India and around the world, feel the weight of the tradition. They recognize that their decisions about marriage will impact their community. Edwin Pithawala, a Ph.D. candidate at Gujarat University, summarizes the question, this way: “Youthful Zoroastrians are confronting double weights: finding a satisfactory mate keeping in mind the end goal to maintain the religion and save their way of life.”

Within the Zoroastrian community, the opinions on marriages outside the faith largely fall along the age line. Palaash Tarapore, 22, grew up in Ahmedabad and then went to college in America. There were few Zoroastrians in his extended community, and none in his immediate community, in the US. He says the elders of the community are the ones who are most likely to “pass a snide remark,” based on their stronger dogmatic beliefs. The youth of the faith are more open-minded, he says. While the elder gentlemen in the community are wearing suits and kurtas at the Zoroastrian get-together, Tarapore sports a tee and a modern haircut.

“I have no issues with marrying outside the religion, and I know my parents will be very accepting of that decision,” Tarapore says. But other parents aren’t as welcoming of outsiders, he says.

He notes that he has never dated a Zoroastrian girl, and his brother is “happily engaged” to a Christian woman and has never faced any negative response.

Edwin explains that under Zoroastrian law, the non-Zoroastrian who marries a Zoroastrian is still not permitted to enter the fire temple or participate in sacred rituals. The children born to this couple, however, are considered Zoroastrian and are able to enter the temples.

He adds that many in the community think the status of these children is impure.

“A few Zoroastrians don't… feel that the offspring of just a single Zoroastrian parent [is] not genuinely some portion of the religion,” says Pithawala.

He goes on to say that these resultant generations are “deductively not an immaculate strain [of]… the blood of a Zoroastrian.”

The laws that govern marriage and status of children are strict and difficult to change. Pithawala believes that this is because there is no central authority in Zoroastrianism, such as a pope. In this case, such questions are answered by local experts for their immediate community.

 

For those who do enter the community through marriage, Tarapore says that Zoroastrian communities provide a type of safety net, as well as an educational aid. He says that the family will ensure that they educate the new addition and adds that there are occasionally workshops put on to teach outsiders the “stories and doctrines” of the faith at this particular Zoroastrian hall.

“We do not differentiate Zoroastrians and non-Zoroastrians,” Tarapore says. “Basically, as a Zoroastrian, we are made to believe that each moment is meant to be a celebration and enjoyed to the fullest. If my non-Zoroastrian wife attends a dinner with me, she will be treated as one of our own.”

Though there is considerable controversy today within the faith over the status of “true” marriages and children as accepted by the elders, the future of the community may well depend on the ability of young Zoroastrians to start families with individuals outside of their community. The question then raised is, will this necessity finally force the laws of the religion to change?

When discussing the reason for keeping non-Zoroastrians out of the fire temple, Tarapore laments that the old rules based on ancient problems still carry so much weight.

At the communal anniversary dinner, children usually stay with their families. Although it’s encouraged, boys and girls rarely mingle. Perhaps it’s typical teenage shyness, or perhaps it’s the forced nature of the interaction, but at this anniversary dinner, there is little mingling between the sexes.

Tarapore is confident that he will find a wife outside of the community. He believes that, with time, the community will accommodate and accept her.

“Alas, it is not a problem [for non-Zoroastrians to enter] anymore, but the rule still holds,” he says. “The fire temple that I build will not have any such rules.”


Covering Religion: Still Moments and Moving Memories

The following presentation is a combination of photographs taken by Sylvia Kang and Ana Singh. The descriptions are taken from the daily dispatches compiled by the students during the eleven-day trip. 

Many scholars and believers argue that religion as a term and concept in India is a British construct. In some sense that disconnect persists today. Of the thousands of Indian universities, only a handful have religion departments.

This information would seem to suggest that religion is somehow absent from India or perhaps all-pervasive. We found that our western conception of religion could be found everywhere – from the Sikh symbols woven into the fabrics of cloths at the 1469 shop at Connaught Place to the remains of murti idols submerged in the waters of the Ganges. In India, religion could be felt in all domains of life.

Not only was religion embedded in all aspects of public life, but many religious sites had multiple layers of religious identity. While we read about unfolding religious conflict at the Ram temple in Ayodhya, we witnessed signs of peaceful syncretism at the Nizamuddin Dargah in New Delhi where Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and atheists tied threads of wishes on the outer walls of the Sufi tombs.

As photographers, we attempted to capture how religion often served as silent yet visible guide in the daily lives of the people we were fortunate to meet with on this once in a life time trip.

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On route to Nizamuddin Auliya

Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang

DAY 1: NEW DELHI After settling into our rooms and grabbing a quick dinner, we started our religious exploration with a visit to one of India’s holiest Sufi shrines, Nizamuddin Auliya for an evening of sacred song, known as the qawwali. If we expected a narrow look at Islamic practice, we were surprised by how diverse the crowd and the ritual turned out to be. - Roda Griffin, M.S. '17

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We were joined by 29-year old Syed Bilal Nizami (center), a caretaker of the Sufi shrine. When we asked him how the qawwali has changed over the years, he said it has become more and more popular with people of all faiths. “When people pray here, their prayers are answered,” he said with confidence. - Roda Griffin, M.S. '17. PHOTO CAPTION Syed Bilal Nizami (center) at Nizamuddin Auliya.

Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang

DAY 2: Our second day in Delhi was a day for the senses. We met Imams at the Jama Masjid, washed our feet at the entrance of a Sikh temple, rang a hanging bell in Jain mandir, heard a song about a lonesome bride, sampled Indian fragrances in the main bazaar and ate Punjabi food at a market stall that has been in the same family for six generations. -Ellen Ioanes, MS'18.

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Jama Masjid.

Photo by Ana Singh

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LEADERSHIP OVER THE GENERATIONS: The leadership of the Jama Masjid has been in this family for over 300 years. According to Sayid Taariq Bukhari, the brother of the mosque’s Grand Imam, it’s become particularly important since Partition, when many Indian Muslims moved to the newly created state of Pakistan, and his family was left responsible for the political and religious leadership of India’s Sunni Muslims. -Ellen Ioanes, MS'18. Photo Caption -
Sayid Taariq Bukhari, the brother of the mosque’s Grand Imam, photographed with his nephew, the next Grand Iman.

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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Young boys wait on a elevated platform at Jama Masjid for a midday prayer to begin.

Photo by Ana Singh

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SIS GANGJ GURUDWARA: The Gurudwara sits on what Sikhs believe is the execution site of the sixth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, who was beheaded by the emperor Aurangzeb. The Gurudwara contains a shrine to the guru, where adherents stop to pray, as well as a bedchamber of sorts, where the Adi Granth, or Sikh holy book, is put to bed each night. The book is considered the living Guru and is revered as such by practitioners. -Ellen Ioanes, MS'18.

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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CAREER ADVICE: Geshe Dorji Damdul (photographed above), the director of the Tibet House, who works closely with His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke to us about the nature of happiness and suffering, and how one must find peace within oneself to limit the influence of external factors on one’s state of being. And he had the following advice for being better journalists: “First be yourself happy,”

Photo by Sylvia Kang

DAY 3: After two days of being shepherded around Delhi by Professor Trivedi and friends, today we were turned loose to report on our own. Alone or in twos, we left our hotel early this morning to navigate a city most of us had never been to with the challenge of reporting in a language we don’t know, within a culture that we’ve only read about in textbooks. Delhi is an absolutely vibrant city, fast paced and full of unexpected moments on every turn. -Elizabeth VanMetre, MS'17

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PERFORMANCE: The gopis began to toss flower petals over Krishna and Radha, ceremonially binding their love with flowers. The couple sat in a growing pile of gold, yellow and red petals as baskets of petals were poured over their shoulders. Then, in a startling move, Krishna and Radha jumped up from the flower pile-Thea Piltzecker, MS'17

Photo by Sylvia Kang

DAY 4: VRINDAVAN- Soon enough, strains of music issued from the ashram’s main hall. We were right on time for the Holi play. The Rasdeva theatrical performance commemorates the original Holi; it recreates the story of Krishna’s playful interactions with the gopis (milkmaids) and his favorite gopi and consort Radha. An all-male troupe dressed in elaborate gold saris danced onstage; these were the gopis, enjoying their work in the village of Barsana. Krishna and his friends arrived next, decked out in gold pantaloons and bristling mustaches. The two groups engaged in a tit-for-tat exchange, drawing laughter from the large audience. After a tug-of-war and whirling musical numbers, Radha won their game. -Thea Piltzecker, MS'17

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A young child plays in the leftover flower petals of the play

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 5: In atmosphere, Vrindavan feels like a village. It’s mud streets and tiny alleyways cloak a population of approximately 57,000 people, and yet, in the history of Hinduism, its importance is profound. Krishna, the eighth incarnation of the Lord Vishnu, was born here. Radha, his supreme wife was born in a neighboring village. To celebrate their love and, in turn, love in general, Indians of all faiths spend a good part of the day pitching pigment at each other. Those of us who ventured out of the confines of the ashram came back splattered from head to toe in all the colors of the rainbow.-Gudrun Wilcocks, MS'17

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UNDERSTANDING HOLI: In the multi-colors of love, all the shades of skin are gone,” said Shrivasta Goswami Maharaj in his explanation of Holi. Maharaj is the head of the ashram known as Caitanya Prem Sansthan and photographed with Professor Yogi Trivedi (Left) and Ari Goldman (right).

Photo by Ana Singh

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In the aftermath of Holi

Photo by Ana Singh

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Holi celebrated in the Caitanya Prem Sansthan ashram

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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Playing Holi outside the ashram

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 6: RISHIKESH – The River Ganges sets the pace for life in this city at the foothills of the Himalayas, just as it set the pace for our day of markets and aartis, puja and performance.Even though we arrived in Rishikesh after midnight, a few early-risers took to the river with the break of day. Along the banks, local volunteers filled buckets with water to wash out the last brightly colored dregs of Holi from gats along the river. One man sat in the Lotus position and meditated. Two women in pink and turquoise saris cupped their hands around an aarti’s flame and sent it out across the water. As the sun rose higher, we sat on the hotel balcony with chai, watching the light catch on the swells.-Natasha Frost, MS'17

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Two women participate in an intimate aarti ceremony on the banks of the Ganges in Rishikesh

Photo by Ana Singh

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ON THE BANKS OF THE GANGES: Haridwar seemed like part water park and part temple. We watched as hundreds of devotees, many of them with families in tow, bathed playfully in the river, the men in their underwear and the women in their saris. This bathing is one part of the washing away of sins – one step along the path to moksha. -Natasha Frost, MS'17

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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A Believer at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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An aarti ceremony at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram

Photo by Sylvia Kang

DAY 7: Rishikesh is a hard place to leave. The city offers an interesting contradiction in Indian culture. A beautiful town on the foot of the Himalayas, it is surrounded by natural beauty. The turquoise hues of the River Ganges flow below colorful bridges and alongside scattered buildings and shops. This morning, a few of us leisurely explored that world for a couple of hours. We wandered, we shopped and we questioned this enigma of a place — a place of countless yoga practices, ashrams, Ayurvedic cafes selling vegan foods and scones to people who have come here from across the world, clad in baggy pants and with yoga mats under their arms, to embrace their spirituality in India.-Nicole Einbender, MS'17

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Shiva representation in Rishikesh

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 8: Ninety-one small, carved elephants appeared to hold up each side of the Sun Temple, totaling 364 mini-elephants: the same number as the days in the solar calendar. The structure was carved out of sandstone from a nearby quarry, a material that absorbs heat. When our group stepped inside the temple, everyone gasped. The details which were eroded by the wind and rain on the outside were preserved in sharp images inside and told the story of the Ramayan. - Andrea Januta, MS'17

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Group Photo at the Sun Temple

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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PRACTICING COMPASSION: “Any being can reach enlightenment. An insect can reach enlightenment, ” said Maiti Jratha Suriji, a Jain nun (photographed with her sister). The two sisters practice a strict interpretation of the concept of ahimsa or compassion, doing everything they can to minimize their footprint on the world and protect life, from the biggest elephant to the smallest micro-organisms.-David Klein, MS '17

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 9: AHMEDABAD- Our day started at 8:30 when we set out for a walking tour of Ahmedabad’s old city. There, in the twisting alleys and secluded courtyards, we had the opportunity to see a few different threads in India’s religious tapestry. Though we stepped into a mosque and a Hindu mandir, we also had the opportunity to sit down and interview two Jain nuns about their lifestyle and experiences. They practice a strict interpretation of the concept of ahimsa or compassion, doing everything they can to minimize their footprint on the world and protect life, from the biggest elephant to the smallest micro- organisms. -David Klein, MS '17

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Jama Masjid Mosque in Ahmedabad

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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AN UNCERTAIN FATE: The Zoroastrian community arrived in Gujarat nearly 1,000 years ago, fleeing persecution in what had become Muslim Iran. Today they face a harsh demographic reality. There are only about 1,400 Parsis in Ahmedabad and the death rate has far outpaced the birthrate in the community, explained J. P Anklesaria , a retired brigadier and leader among Ahmedabad’s Parsis (Photographed above). Though hopeful that things will change, Anklesaria feared that if the trend continues in 25 or 50 years there will be no more Parsis in Ahmedabad -David Klein, MS '17.

Photo by Ana Singh

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A man practices puja in Ahmedabad

Photo by Ana Singh

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An Intimate Dinner with a Jain Family

Photo by Sylvia Kang

DAY 10: Saturday was our last full day in India. After a morning panel with Indian journalists, newspaper editors and media entrepreneurs at our hotel in Ahmedabad, we went our different ways to finish our reporting projects before meeting in the evening for our formal farewell dinner, held at a restaurant called the House of MG. Then it hit us: None of us will ever be the same after this trip. We’ll look at the world through a lens crafted by our experiences in this incredible nation full of religious diversity. We gained the skills necessary to cover religion with an open mind and an empathetic heart.- Cole Pennington, MS'18

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Indian Journalists discuss how they cover religion in their reporting

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 11: We attended two Christian services: the high Anglican Dalit Church and the Mar Thoma Syrian Orthodox church, both in the Christian district of Ahmedabad called Behrampura. The Anglican church service was packed, housed in a sanctuary with dusty pink walls. A wooden cross hung high on the wall behind the preacher but the decorations were simple. Most of the color in the room came from the saris of the women in the congregation, with white lace scarves over their hair. On their laps, under folded hands, lay personal bibles in Gujarati.- Pia Peterson, M'S 17

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Believers raise their bible at the high Anglican Dalit Church

Photo by Ana Singh


Ahmedabad’s Parsis Fight to Bring Back the Vultures

Ahmedabad’s tiny Zoroastrian community has a plan to restore vultures to the area, to help with their traditional funerary practices

AHMEDABAD –  With its nine species of vultures all under threat of extinction, India is the middle of something of a “vulture crisis.” By the end of 2016, there were only an estimated 999 of the birds left in the western state of Gujarat, according to the Gujarat Ecological Educational Research Foundation.

With vultures down to a countable number, even a few accidental deaths are worrying. One small contributor to vulture mortality is the annual festival of  Uttarayan, a time when tens of thousands of kites are set aloft in a day of fun, devotion and sport. The festival, held in January, is symbolic – the kites represent the gods awakening from their winter slumber – but is also deadly for many birds.  Kite enthusiasts cover their strings in powdered glass, so they’ll be sharp enough to slash through others’ during mid-air “kite fights.”

Like so many of the the kites, many of the vultures that get in the way will never fly again.

India’s vulture population has been decimated by decades of being poisoned by the drug diclofenac, often given to cows as an anti-inflammatory. As beef is banned for human consumption in much of India, the cows’ carcasses are usually left to the vultures. In these high concentrations, the drug is lethal to the birds. Despite a 2006 diclofenac ban, three vulture species are on the brink of extinction.

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Brigadier J.P. Anklesaria

The vulture crisis has had particularly challenging consequences for the country’s tiny Zoroastrian community, also known as Parsis. While Hindus burn their dead and Muslims bury them, Zoroastrians maintain a unique practice, known as Dokhmenashini or “sky burial.”  The dead are placed on so-called Towers of Silence, squat cylindrical buildings that look like grain silos, where their corpses are picked dry by vultures and other birds of prey, until nothing but the bones remain. These are dissolved in quicklime and leech into the soil.

“The basic philosophy is charity,” said Brigadier J.P. Anklesaria. “Once the soul has departed, the mortal remains are of no use to anybody – so let it be of use to another living being.” Now retired, he is a leader in Ahmedabad’s Parsi community.

Just 30 years ago, there were over 80 million vultures in India – more than enough to take care of the funerary needs of the country’s 60,000 Parsis. Today, though, the number of vultures nationwide has fallen into the thousands. Other birds, like ibises, will do the job, Anklesaria says, but they are no match for vultures, who can strip a body down in a matter of hours.

“If a vulture weighs 30 kilos or 20 kilos, at any given time it can eat up to 40 kilos,” Anklesaria said, as he sat with the local priest Vistasp Dastur in the mortuary room next to the Towers. “It can eat so much it can hardly walk. So, if you have five or seven of such birds… one body will be finished in a few hours.”

Without vultures, bodies take far longer to be disposed of, which creates both a religious and public health issue. To try to solve this, many Zoroastrian communities, including Ahmedabad’s, have installed solar collectors, which help the sun dry out the body faster. These will only work, however, in warm, clear weather.

Anklesaria, sporting a large white moustache, describes himself as a hardcore carnivore, starting each day with four or five eggs. He drives a square white car with the word ‘ARMY’ emblazoned on its windshield.

He has a plan, and, when he describes it, speaks and moves with military efficiency. Rather than letting Uttarayan contribute in its own small way to vulture decline, he hopes to take in half a dozen of the inevitably injured birds after next year’s festival and keep them in semi-captivity near the Towers of Silence. There’s fundraising still to do, but he’s optimistic.

As Ahmedabad’s Zoroastrian community barely numbers 1,500, the dead won’t be enough to feed the birds. Usually, he says, only about two Parsis die each month – the rest of the time, the birds will have to be fed with meat, funded by the local community.

He isn’t the first to come up with such an idea. In 2012, the New York Times reported that Parsi leaders in Mumbai, home to India’s largest Parsi community, were planning on building two large aviaries around their Towers of Silence that would house 76 vultures each.

Sheltering the birds is only one part of that plan. Ahmedabad’s three Towers of Silence sit atop a sandy hill in a neighborhood called Jashoda Nagar on the outskirts of town. The most commonly used tower was built in 1929; the second, now defunct tower, dates from 1843. At the edge of the area is a third, reserved for children who die before their Navjote, an induction ceremony into the Parsi community, or for adults who die “unnaturally” – through suicide, in childbirth or while menstruating. On a tour around the towers, Anklesaria strides through the area confidently, but steers clear of that third structure.

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One of Ahmedabad’s three Towers of Silence

Anklesaria hopes to turn the scrubby lot into a public park. Already, trees are being planted and man-made lakes dug into the sand. Peacocks flap about the Towers and the purple bougainvillea flowers are in full bloom. Wealthier Parsis subsidize low-cost housing in the area for poorer Zoroastrians. Anklesaria hopes they will come to see the area not as a barren wasteland, but a tranquil recreation spot.

More importantly, though, he wants it to be fit for avian habitation. “The purpose of having such a big area,” Ankelasaria says, gesturing proudly at the property, “is so that the birds will come back.”

The vultures’ demise has also seen a decline in sky burials. Many more secular Parsis are instead choosing to be cremated, like the majority of Indians. For more traditional Parsis, this is a horrifying development. Fire is a sacred element to Zoroastrians, and the vessel through which worshippers experience the divine presence of Ahura Mazda, the Uncreated Spirit, the god of good and truth in Zoroastrianism. To place a corpse, seen as the height of ritual impurity, onto a pyre would be the ultimate sacrilege.

While Ankelasaria, who is married to a Christian woman, is non-judgmental about those who favor cremation, he expresses a clear preference for sky burial when his time comes. “Of course I will,” he says, squinting at the Tower in the late afternoon sun.

Now in his sixties, that day is hopefully a long way off. Far more worrying is the likelihood Ahmedabad’s Parsis might soon die out altogether. Ankelasaria estimates that they may have less than 50 years left. Birth rates are low, and dropping, and many young Zoroastrians are put off by the religion’s esoteric rules and regulations, which prohibit women from marrying outside of the faith.As the number of vultures dips lower and lower, so too does the number of Zoroastrians – and it’s hard to know which flame will be extinguished first.

Featured Image Photo Credit:© Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons

 

 


The Multi-Colors of Love: Holi is not just for Hindus

By Andrea Januta and Ellen Ioanes

VRINDAVAN -- On most days, the narrow streets of this sacred Indian city are teeming with all kinds of human, animal and mechanical traffic: ambling cows, barefoot pilgrims, darting motorcycles and noisy auto-rickshaws. But during the Hindu festival of Holi, all of that changes. Residents and visitors clog the thoroughfares and toss brilliant colored powders in red, pink, blue, purple, green, orange and yellow, painting everyone -- and everything in sight -- with rainbow colors.

Vrindavan is an important site for Hindus; it’s where Lord Krishna is said to have spent his childhood and the town is located on the banks of the Yamuna River, the second most sacred river in India.

Holi’s origin stories have become tied to Hinduism over time. The first day of the festival commemorates stories of familial betrayal and intrigue: the story of a boy whose father attempts to kill him for worshiping Vishnu instead of himself. The father enlists his sister to burn the boy in a bonfire, but the plan backfires, killing the sister instead of the boy. On Holi, many communities burn a bonfire at dusk to commemorate the triumph of good over evil.

Throughout the festival, people toss colors at one another and spray colored dyes, representing the union between the god Krishna and his consort Radha. Krishna, self-conscious of his dark blue skin, painted Radha’s fair skin to make himself feel less embarrassed. Says Shrivatsa Goswami, the guru of the Caitanya Prem Sansthan Ashram in Vrindavan, “In the colors of Holi, you know, you have fair skin, I have dark skin, [...] this skin or that skin." On Holi, he adds, “the color is one.”

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Holi in Vrindavan

Festivities at the ashram are unique; here, a troupe of young men performs the story of Radha and Krishna in the Phoolonwali Holi, or flower Holi. In elaborate costumes and face paint, the young men reenact the story of Radha and Krishna’s love, including their wedding, after which they are covered in a mountain of marigold, jasmine and rose petals. After the couple emerges, the audience is encouraged to toss handfuls of the petals themselves, culminating in a colorful, fragrant and unifying celebration.

John Cort, a religion scholar from Denison University, says that Holi is essentially “a neighborhood event in which everyone in a community is expected to participate.” Despite the strong presence of Hindu mythology in the festival’s origins, he says, “it is a joyous springtime festival, the celebration of which traditionally has not been tied to any one religious community.”

It is not at all unusual for people of other faiths to participate in Holi celebrations. “It is a part and parcel of our memories,” said Syed Tariq Bukhari, a member of the leading Sunni family in Delhi. There is even ample evidence that Mughal rulers like Akhbar and Jahangir celebrated Holi in their royal courts.

While India’s Muslim population is the third largest in the world, Muslims are still a minority in the country. However, says Bukhari, they don’t feel singled out: “We are proud of the multicultural society of India, we are very proud to be Indians, and as far as Partition is concerned, we are Indians by choice, not by chance.”He continues, “You can see that the majority of the Indians whether they are Hindu or Muslims or Sikhs or Christians, they want to live together in peace. And that will -- that will win.”

That sentiment is echoed by J.P. Anklesaria, a retired Army Brigadier and a member of Ahmedabad’s Parsi community. He belongs to the largest community of Parsis, ethnic Iranians who have lived in India for centuries and practice Zoroastrianism. The once-strong group has seen its numbers dwindle; Indian Parsis number only about 60,000 today, according the BBC.

Despite their challenges, they’ve become one of the most powerful and influential minority groups in the country. Its members include figures such as Ratan Tata, the head of Tata Industries, and Cyrus Poonawalla, who started the world’s largest vaccine producer, Serum Industries of India.

When asked whether his community faces persecution, he said: ”Never. Never. For the simple reason that we respect those other religions, whatever it is, Islam, Christianity, Jews, or Jains, or whatever. [...] It's simple. Why should you disrespect it? Why should you say that my religion is the greatest or your religion is this or that?”

When asked specifically about whether Zoroastrians play Holi, Anklesaria replied, “Of course we do. By all means. There is no restriction on that!”

Even small, distinct communities like the Jews of Ahmedabad, who number only 140, embrace Holi as part their culture. Benson Enoch Argwarker, a member of the Magen Abraham synagogue in Ahmedabad, says he participates by putting colors on others’ faces. This extends to other holidays, too. He continues, “If it is Christmas, I’ll bring cake, and enjoy. If it is Divali, our house will be full of sweet meats.” He stresses, though, that it’s not a religious participation: “That’s part of the enjoyment – culturally.”

Some religious traditions find it more challenging to integrate Holi with their beliefs. For example, many Holi practices, like the burning of bonfires, drinking intoxicating substances like marijuana-laced bhang, and singing obscene songs, directly contradict Jain principles and philosophy. The driving principle of Jainism is ahimsa, or nonviolence; burning a bonfire at dusk could harm insects, and saying scandalous words could offend someone.

However, as the scholar John Cort describes in his essay “‘Today I Play Holi in My City’: Jain Holi Songs from Jaipur,” some adherents have found ways to practice Holi while still maintaining their ethics. For example, the 17th-century Digambar Jain poet Chitar Tholiya wrote his Holi ki Katha as a way to explain how Jains should and should not celebrate Holi, even told a Holi origin story that aligns with and incorporates Jain philosophy and principles.

Of course India has experienced more than its share of sectarian tension throughout its history, particularly since Partition in 1947. Riots and revenge killings have taken the lives of thousands.

But despite historical tensions, which have only been exacerbated by the rise of Hindu nationalism, Indians of all faiths celebrate Holi. From Vrindavan, the birthplace of Krishna, the Goswami reminds his followers that, “What Holi does, it makes you into one color. In those multi-colors of love, all the shades of skin are gone.”


Daily Dispatch 9: Ahmedabad, City of Diversity

AHMEDABAD - There was evening and there was morning, the ninth day.

For some of us it began very early. The Guru of the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism was set to leave for Africa on Friday and thousands of his followers were there to see him off after his daily Puuja. A few of us left the hotel at 6:45 a.m. to witness the spectacle.

Professor Trivedi, a Swaminarayan Hindu himself, presented the Guru with a necklace of red flowers and was invited by the Guru to display his prowess as a musician, leading a song and playing the harmonium before the crowd.

“The incredible part of it is that this happens every day the guru is in town,” said Cole who accompanied Professor Trivedi. Cole was fascinated by the sheer logistics of getting so many thousands in one place.

For the rest of us our day started at 8:30 when we set out for a walking tour of Ahmedabad’s old city. There, in the twisting alleys and secluded courtyards, we had the opportunity to see a few different threads in India’s religious tapestry.

Though we stepped into a mosque and a Hindu mandir, we also had the opportunity to sit down and interview two Jain nuns about their lifestyle and experiences. They practice a strict interpretation of the concept of ahimsa or compassion, doing everything they can to minimize their footprint on the world and protect life, from the biggest elephant to the smallest micro- organisms.

“I just love the imagery of it, these women walking around in all white in this white marble space,” said Thea. “It such a good place for contemplation and really understanding how ahimsa works in practice.”

After the nuns, we stopped by the state of Gujarat’s only synagogue, the art deco Magen Abraham synagogue in Ahmedabad’s old city. We were greeted there by an elder of the synagogue who told that he was one of the only 140 Jews in Gujarat. The man, whose first name was Benson, told us about the community, how it first came to Gujarat and how it has dwindled in size in recent years.

“We are not sure what the future has in store for us, but we are hoping and trying to keep the torch of Judaism burning in this part of the world.” Benson said.

Our final stop in the old city was the Parsi Agiari, or Zoroastrian fire temple. Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions and was the state religion of ancient Persia. The Zoroastrian community arrived in Gujarat nearly 1,000 years ago, fleeing persecution in what had become Muslim Iran. Being associated with Persia they were called Parsis by the local Gujaratis after Iran’s Fars Province.

Daily Dispatch: Day 7
BY ANA SINGH
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Today they face a harsh demographic reality. There are only about 1,400 Parsis in Ahmedabad and the death rate has far outpaced the birthrate in the community, explained J. P Anklesaria, a retired brigadier and leader among Ahmedabad’s Parsis. Though hopeful that things will change, Anklesaria feared that if the trend continues in 25 or 50 years there will be no more Parsis in Ahmedabad.

“I particularly enjoyed seeing the sharp contrast between how the Jewish leader and the Parsi leader spoke about the size of their communities,” Andrea observed. “Though both are small, at the synagogue Benson spoke about how grounded his community is in this location and their attempts to grow and preserve it, while the Parsi leader spoke frankly about the possibility of his community disappearing in the next 25 years.”

After we left our meeting at the Agiari, we had off until the evening to report, shop or relax by the hotel pool. A few of us joined Professors Trivedi and Goldman for a lunch at place called Swati’s Snacks which is known for its modern take on traditional Gujarati cuisine. Speaking at least for myself, I can say that the Gujarati food, pure vegetarian cuisine known for its sweetness, was a welcome change that the spicy cuisine we had had in Delhi, Vrindavan and Rishikesh.

Intrigued by what we learned in the Agiari, Natasha and I were interested in doing a story on the Parsis and inquired about the “Towers of Silence” where Parsi practice the Zoroastrian tradition of sky burial. In a sky burial, corpses are left out on the top of towers to be consumed by vultures and other birds of prey so that nothing is left behind. Anklesaria offered to take us to the towers on Ahmedabad’s outskirts and told us all about the tradition and how the community is working to maintain it in modern India.

In the Evening the group was split up, and given the opportunity to have dinner with families from the different faiths we have been covering here.

Sylvia, Ellen and Andrea ate by a Jain family which was celebrating the breaking of a yearlong fast by one of its members. “We learned a ton about what is required in the Jain diet and why they have to eat before sundown and not until an hour after the sun rises,” Sylvia explained. “It's because there are organisms you cannot see in darkness that could be in your food, which Jains neither want to hurt nor eat.”

Emily, Thea and Gudrun ate by a Swaminarayan Hindu family. There, 10 members from four generations of the family all lived together. Over local Gujarati dishes, the group had the chance to ask them about the intersection of politics, religion and development.

“We all felt, because all three of us had been at the BAPS temple that morning that it was pretty fabulous opportunity to see religiosity in the home and the differences between the religion as explained by our textbooks, what we heard and the temple and what we experienced in the home,” said Thea.

Cole, Ana and Elizabeth had opportunity to join the Parsis in a community dinner celebrating the 50th anniversary of the construction of their Temple. “There were 500 people there sitting facing each other like a beer Hall,” said Cole. “It really struck me how open they were about their dwindling numbers. They said they’ve been [around] for 3,000 [years] and this isn’t going to be the end of them.”

Since it was Friday Night, Natasha, Pia and I went to Shabbat Services at the Synagogue. We didn’t end up having dinner with a Jewish family but instead made our own Shabbos dinner back at the Hotel with professor Goldman. Since alcohol is banned in Gujarat, we had to make Kiddush, the ceremonial blessing of the wine, in Goldman’s room. Though it seemed that the kosher wine Professor Goldman had brought with him from New York had soured, the experience was sweet nonetheless.

 

Photo by Ana Singh