Udvada is an obscure hamlet in India’s western Gujarat state which houses the holiest fire of India’s Parsi community.
Legend has it that it was consecrated some 12 centuries ago on the nearby Sanjan beach, landing point of a boatload of refugees who had fled the Arab conquest of Persia to save their 3,000-year-old Zoroastrian faith, and that it has remained unquenched ever since.
The first-ever Udvada Utsav (festival) held over the Christmas weekend drew 4,000 believers.
Yet, what became the “burning issue” was not the ancient fire but the solution proffered to tackle the existential crisis once again faced by this distinctive – and distinguished – community.
Their numbers are down to a critical 61,000, and diminishing by the day; another 40,000 are scattered across the world with an even greater struggle to hang on to their distinctive identity.
In his speech, eminent lawyer Darius Khambata said Zoroastrianism, being a universal religion, should be opened to anyone seeking to join.
This is a red rag, and not only to the bullish. Most Parsis fiercely believe that it is their exclusive right.
Fresh blood needed
Parsi numbers have declined by 12% every census decade – India’s population increases by 21%. They are projected to plummet to 23,000 in the near future, reducing this sophisticated, urbane community to a “tribe”.
An infusion of fresh blood is desperately needed.
Even literally because cousin marriages are common, and so are the diseases of inbreeding. Yet, with a combination of racial pride and fear, community leaders have obdurately resisted any intrusion.
“No conversions” was among the conditions laid down by the ruler of Gujarat who had given asylum to a group of Zoroastrians who fled religious persecution in Iran, and arrived on India’s west coast.
‘Refresh the gene pool’
A 1908 judgement in the Bombay High Court reiterated that “Parsi” is an ethnic entity restricted to the descendants of those Persian refugees, though logic may look askance at such racial purity maintained over a millennium.
The judges had added that the child of a mixed marriage could be included in this definition only when the father is Parsi. (One is born Parsi, but becomes Zoroastrian after the initiating “navjot” ceremony).
Scholars, liberals – and intermarried women – have protested such discrimination, and nullifying it would improve the numbers and refresh the gene pool.
But the argument has always been battened down, not just by the orthodoxy but the larger paranoia.
“Reform” is a dirty, even treacherous, word for reasons more self-serving than sacred.
Parsis fear that their envied communal legacy will be appropriated by “half castes”. Intermarriage accounts for 38%, and is growing.
After centuries of rural facelessness, the Parsis flowered under British rule.
Their philanthropy came to be as fabled as their fortunes, many made from the opium “trade” with China.
Apart from spacious community housing, wealthy families endowed scholarships, hospitals and fire temples.
All these benefactions have become factors in the insistence on exclusivity since their trust deeds allow only Parsi-Zoroastrians to access them.
In 2012, the nodal Bombay Parsi Panchayat, which controls the vast trust funds, stated that a “poor Parsi eligible for subsidised housing is someone earning less than 90,000 rupees ($1,351; £916) a month”; the urban Indian poverty line is 870 rupees ($13; £9).
But the community has also been a victim of its wealth. Lavish charities doused the belly fire of the young, especially boys. Girls are uniformly well educated and scorn “unsuitable” grooms. Migration further queered the pitch.
One in every 10 women and one in every five men remains unmarried by age 50. Fertility rates have fallen below viable levels; only one in nine wholly Parsi families has a child under age 10.
In 2013, there were 735 deaths and only 174 births, a 13.43% drop from 2012. Even couples who can, don’t have children.
In his speech at Udvada Utsav, popular actor Boman Irani joked about leaders urging him to help change this situation. “What am I to do? Barge into honeymooning couples’ bedrooms and order productive action?”
Even India, loathe to lose such an exemplary minority, has pitched in.
“Jiyo ( keep living) Parsi” is a nationally-funded project begun in 2013 to encourage more births, including subsidised IVF treatments and grants. But it could be too little, too late.
Vada Dasturji Khurshed Dastoor, one of the two hereditary high priests of Udvada, has a refreshingly pragmatic approach.
“How can you say ‘xyz is not allowed by our scriptures’ when such situations didn’t exist in those times. When parents ask my opinion on their daughter’s decision to marry a non-Parsi, I only say, ‘Is he a good man? Will she be happy?'”
It’s Catch 22 for a proud community which has always punched above its weight.
Admitting the children of all mixed marriages would substantially improve the statistics, but will dilute, even destroy, a very distinctive ethnic identity.
In his provocative speech, Mr Khambata said, “You can’t endeavour to save our ethnicity at the cost of our religion.” Drastic choice, it seems.
But it had already been made by the Parsis’ forefathers who had abandoned their age-old Persian identity and charted a bold, new course to preserve their ancient, enlightened Zoroastrian faith.
Bachi Karkaria is a Mumbai-based senior journalist