How Parsis, with Persian roots, flowered in Indian soil

Historical evidence shows the migration of the original group of Parsis to Gujarat occurred 
around 7th Century AD  Photo Credit Vivek Bendre

Genetic study confirms first migration of the community about 1,200 years ago

Genetics has confirmed what has been believed for long — that the ancestors of Parsis living in India and Pakistan, migrated centuries ago out of erstwhile Persia or modern-day Iran.

The common genetic link between Indian, Pakistani and South Asian Parsis has been established by an international team of scientists from India, Pakistan, the UK and Estonia. The ethno-religious minority group comes from the same original group that landed at Sanjan, Gujarat, about 1,200 years ago.

The conclusion is based on an analysis of genetic data and examination of biological remains of members of the Parsi community excavated from Sanjan, the research study published in the journal Genome Biology says. Further, it says the Parsis are genetically closer to ancient Neolithic Iranians, followed by present-day West Asian populations (Iranians and Caucasian).

Historical evidence shows the migration of the original group of Parsis to Gujarat occurred around 7th Century AD. Followers of Prophet Zoroaster or Zarathusthra, their populations peaked at 69, 000 in 2001 and stood at about 57, 264 in 2011 Census data. Their fertility and mortality rates have steadily declined over the past century. The leader of the international scientific team, Kumarasamy Thangaraj from the CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, said: “We have done extensive analysis using mitochondrial, Y-chromosomal and autosomal DNA markers to trace the origin of the Parsi population in India and found they genetically admixed with the country’s population about 1,200 years ago, suggesting that the first Zoroastrian might have arrived in India about the same period.

“Our results are consistent with the historically recorded migration of the Parsi populations to South Asia and in agreement with their assimilation into the Indian sub-continent’s population and cultural milieu,” the study reports. The migration was the result of Islamic conquest of the Zoroastrian Sasanian dynasty. A small group fled to Gujarat, where they were called ‘Parsi’ (literally meaning ‘people from Paras or Fars’, the local term for Persia). There are interesting accounts of their arrival.

‘Sugar in milk’

The most popular one, called Qissa-e-Sanjaan, narrates that an Indian ruler called Jadi Rana sent a glass full of milk to the Parsi group seeking asylum. His message was that his kingdom was full with local people. The Zoroastrian immigrants put sugar (or a ring, in some versions of the story) into the milk to indicate an assimilation of their people into the local society, like “sugar in milk”.

“This is the first successful ancient DNA study from India which has analysed maternal DNA composition of ancient remains excavated in Sanjan. Interestingly, 48 per cent South Asian indigenous lineages among the ancient Parsi samples was observed, which is likely due to the assimilation of local females during the initial settlement,” pointed out Gyaneshwer Chaubey, author and a senior researcher at the Estonian Biocentre.

Geographical affinity

The scientists analysed 174 DNA samples from contemporary Indian and Pakistani Parsi populations. They also studied skeletal remains of Parsis excavated from the ‘dokhama’ (or ‘tower of silence’ where Parsis leave dead for carrion birds to feed on) in Sanjan.

Besides reconstructing the population history of Parsis, the study also shows a major impact of population rearrangements in West Asia due to Islamic conquest, said Veena Mushrif-Tripathy, one of the authors and a bioanthropologist at Deccan College, Pune.

The study investigated whether the current Parsis living in India and Pakistan are genetically related amongst themselves and with the present-day Iranian population, and if their genetic composition has been affected by populations of the Asian countries. The study suggested that they collectively showed a significantly closer connection with West Eurasians (Iranians) than to their present geographic neighbours (Sindhis and Gujaratis).

(This article was published on June 19, 2017)

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