“We worship the good, strong, beneficent Fravashis of the Holy.”
[Inscription carved on the Sanjan Stambh, a memorial column erected in 1920 in Sanjan, Gujarat, to commemorate the arrival of Persian Zoroastrians in India]
Day 17, Month of July, AD 936, Royal Rajput Court, Nandhipuri, Present day Gujarat
High Priest Nersoyang Dhaval, standing at the forefront of his small group of people, glanced around him. The court of this Indian ruler might be small, but it was well-lit. It faced the east. Some people might complain about the sun hitting them right in the eyes each morning, but to him, after the endless misfortunes they had suffered, this seemed a good sign. He turned to the turbaned interpreter beside him. “Pray, what did you say His Highness was called?”
“The most illustrious King Vajjada Deva, of the Silahara dynasty,” the interpreter said. “Now, please stay silent; His Highness is presiding over a land dispute, and will take up your case very soon.”
East meets west
It proved to be a wait of ten minutes, when the king finished his business and the waiting priests moved forward. They must present a strange picture, Nersoyang Dhaval knew: taller than those of the Hind, fair-skinned and although they, the priests, wore long beards and shrouded themselves in white … any king might be forgiven for thinking they looked more like warriors rather than refugees. The priest took a look at the doubtful expression on the king’s usually good-humored countenance, and felt decidedly nervous. A very polite greeting, under the circumstances, wouldn’t be amiss.
“Great Jadi Rana of the benevolent Shahrayas,” he began, and paused as the court dissolved into murmurs, upon hearing the translated Persian. “I beg pardon, good king. We come from the far-flung lands in the north-eastern corner of the Persian Empire. We are unused to your tongue and may mispronounce your royal title, but we mean well.”
The king’s expression had relaxed during this speech and by this time, there was a faint smile on his face. “Welcome to my land, good priest. I have learnt something of your people during my youth. After all, our kingdoms have traded for centuries, yours and mine. That is why I consented to granting you an audience so quickly. Now, what is it that you wish?”
Nersoyang Dhaval drew a deep breath and shared a look with his people. “As knowledgeable as you are about our affairs, great Rana, you must also know that we escaped our lands, fearing war and the complete destruction of those who follow the Good Faith. Our people have left Persia in waves, and we found ourselves seeking refuge here, knowing of your own benevolence.” He paused. “We have wandered like nomads for years, Sire. My people are exhausted. I, Dastur Nersoyang Dhaval, High Priest, seek rest and a place to live, on their behalf.”
King Vajjada Deva treated them to a level stare. “This seems rather a tall order, good Dastur. I know only the barest essentials of your people, after all.”
“It shall be my pleasure to tell you more, great Rana,” the priest began. “Do not be nervous, for never shall any evil proceed from us in this land. We shall be the friends of all Hindustan and everywhere, scatter the heads of your foes. We are the worshippers of Yazdan, the One God. We have abandoned all we possessed and borne many hardships on the road. Houses and mansions and goods and chattels we have all forsaken. We revere the Sun and the Moon, and hold in honour, the Cow, Fire, and Water.” He went on, describing the basic tenets of Zoroastrianism, until the king held up a hand.
Contemplation and reconciliation
“I understand your woes, and respect your faith,” said the king. “But …” He paused, conferred with his ministers, and made a sign to a servant. As the Persian priests waited, nervously, the court aide brought forward an earthen pot, brimming with so much milk that some of it tipped over.
“This is the state of my kingdom now, good priest,” announced Vajjada Deva. “My land is full to overflowing with my own people. As sympathetic as I am to your plight, how can I make space for your numbers?”
Dastur Nersoyang Dhaval bent his head, lost in thought. Then, he dispatched one of his crew outside; when the messenger returned with something, he took it, and walked forward.
“Should your kingdom be full, Sire,” he began. “This is what we shall be.” And he poured the sugar in his palm, into the brimming milk, when it blended without a trace. “As sugar in milk, we shall add sweetness to your land.”
For a moment, there was stunned silence. Then, the king rose, smiling. “I see that we shall deal well together. You will be a worthy addition, and may establish your Fire Temple in my land. I bid you welcome.”
The court rang with applause.
“One more thing,” The king raised a hand. “What are we to call you?”
Dastur Nersoyang Dhaval bowed. “Once we were citizens of the Persian Empire. Once we lived in the beautiful Sanjan, in the Greater Khorasan. For all I know, we may never return. But we shall always be the people of Persia – and henceforth, we shall be the Parsis.”
Historical Note: The Parsi community settled in India and flourished over the centuries, establishing a Fire Temple in their new settlement Sanjan, named after their home in Persia. Today though their numbers are dwindling, they remain an integral part of India, contributing to science, industry, military and other fields. Some noted Parsis are Homi Bhabha, the physicist, Jamshedji Tata, the “Father of Indian Industry,” Field Marshal Maneckshaw, and numerous others. Thousands of years after their arrival in India, the event is still celebrated in Sanjan, Gujarat, in November.
The Hindu, November 27, 2014