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Time is running out for Parsi culture. Race to save it from extinction is on

When Delhi-based professor Shernaz Cama told the Parsis about the disgrace in which historical accounts were lying at the Meherjirana library, it became an emotional discovery for them.

Navsari/New Delhi: There were tears in Shernaz Cama’s eyes when she stumbled upon a Parsi hidden treasure in the depths of a 120-year-old library in South Gujarat’s Navsari. What she discovered that summer of 1999 wasn’t a cache of gold or precious stones, but ancient Parsi religious texts worth more than a king’s ransom. She carefully unearthed crumbling manuscripts from dusty old wooden almirahs of First Dastoor Meherjirana Library.

“It was the history of an entire community simply vanishing,” says Cama, a professor of English at Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College for Women and co-founder of the NGO Parzor Foundation, which works for the preservation and conservation of Parsi Zoroastrian culture and history.

The Parsi Zoroastrian handwritten manuscripts—some as old as 700 years—in Persian, Urdu, Gujarati, Avestan, Pahlavi and even Sanskrit, were rotting away in these cupboards, victims of India’s nasty habit of not preserving and archiving historical accounts.

Cama’s discovery all those years ago injected an urgency in the small close-knit community that is trying to reverse the tragedy of its slow extinction. For the Parsis, it is a crisis of memory as well as memory-keepers. The loss is at once urgent and historical. They fear that the tangible and intangible threads of their history, culture, philanthropy, and memory would vanish as well. And it has united all factions of the community–the wealthy and the not-so-rich, the young and the old, the traditionalists clinging to the ways of purity and the modernists demanding change.

It was the history of an entire community simply vanishing
– Shernaz Cama,
co-founder, Parzor Foundation

From Mumbai to Hyderabad, and Navsari to Kolkata, photographers are scouring family homes across India for old artefacts, memory-objects and stories to preserve, archive and exhibit history. Researchers and conservationists are preserving parchments. Scripts of plays are being digitised, heritage bungalows and baugs are being restored and oral histories are being recorded for posterity.

Many Parsis around the country have banded together to save their collective consciousness, generously giving away family heirlooms, and writing cheques to researchers and organisations active in this field.

Cama informed the Parsi community about the disgrace in which historical accounts were lying at the library. It became an extremely emotional discovery for Parsis who came together and donated money and expertise to preserve and restore the library as well as its rich literature. Parzor carried out the restoration project with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).

Today, the restored farmans of Mughal emperor Akbar, the three volumes of Shahnama, an epic poem by the 10th century Persian poet Ferdowsi, a khayal by Tansen (still under restoration), letters by Abul Fazal who was Akbar’s grand vizier, and other scholarly work in Persian, Urdu, Gujarati, Avestan, Pahlavi and Sanskrit languages are stored in a tiny air-conditioned room in an annexure at Meherjirana Library. There is nowhere else to store them.

Cama’s efforts have also encouraged young researchers from the community to dedicate their careers to their community’s the conservation cause.

The First Dastoor Meherjirana Library. | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

UNESCO memory of the world project 

A chance conversation in 1999 with Spanish scientist Fredrico Mayor who was the then director general of UNESCO put Cama on the path to discovery. The two spoke at length about the culture, traditions, and heritage of the diminishing Parsi community. The same year UNESCO agreed to sanction $4,500 to a young Cama if she could come up with a project proposal.

“I was told that I would get the money if I could prove that the intangible Parsi heritage is of value to the world, and if the community supported my work,” said Cama. “Back then the world had not understood the value of oral traditions, nor had it realised that we were losing small communities at a rapid pace,” Cama said, sipping Irani tea at her South Delhi bungalow.

Parsi priests across the country gave her letters of support, as did all anjumans and punchayets — governing bodies representing the community. And the Parzor project was born.

“UNESCO’s intangible heritage programme started in 2001, I did my work in 1999. I take pride in saying that I heralded this project!” she said with a smile.

For the last 20 years, Cama has been travelling the length and breadth of India during summer breaks gathering stories, trinkets, and even valuable items. She has collected family portraits, jewellery, recipes, a water filtering system dating back a hundred years, lost songs, sandalwood boxes. She has recorded the processes of making kustis (a sacred Parsi thread), the methods used by bonesetters (chiropractors), as well as torans (a wall hanging made of glass beads), and Parsi embroidery work, among other things.

As Cama continued on her mission, she got support from the government of India, and helped conduct demographic studies on the Parsis, which led to the conception and implementation of the central government’s Jiyo Parsi scheme.

And along the way, she roped in young students, aspiring researchers and photographers to look after various aspects of the preservation efforts. 33-year-old Vanshika Singh,now a PhD scholar,helped in the digitisation of Parsi theatre scripts, while students like Pune-based Freny Daruwalla took up the mantle to record oral histories of members of the community. Ruzbeh Umrigar, a Navsari resident,started conducting heritage tours and walks in Navsari.

Parzor has organised more than 50 photographic and other exhibitions in the country and around the world on Zoroastrian and Parsi culture. They have made movies, published books, conducted workshops on Parsi embroidery, stained glass making and have also made more than 100 presentations on academic and professional writing on Zoroastrian culture and art forms.


Digitised Parsi theatre 

Vanshika Singh, then 23, was a sharp, ambitious English literature student at Lady Shri Ram College when she did an internship with Parzor. She was entrusted with one of the most interesting projects: collection and digitisation of Parsi theatre scripts written in Gujarati.

In 2012, when she visited Parsi families in Mumbai she was welcomed. Many people entrusted the young woman with family antiquities, and parted with them towards the larger cause of the community’s history and humanity. These include adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, photographs of old Parsi plays being staged, as well as now long-gone Parsi theatres in Mumbai. Some of the scripts include personal diary of Jehangir Pestonjee Khambata – a thespian of Parsi Theatre, on his voyage to Burma. Other earlier scripts from 1871 to 1875 refer to Harishchandra Natak by KN Kabraji, Jehangir by Adilji Jamshetji.

She interviewed people about the thriving Parsi theatre culture, and returned to Delhi with precious recordings, and two bags full of scripts and photographs on the train back to Delhi.

When I heard the recordings and went through the photographs, I realised the Parsi influence on the development of cities like Mumbai and Kolkata not only shaped them commercially, but culturally as well –
Vanshika Singh, PhD scholar at the National University of Singapore

The digitisation efforts were primarily carried out with the help of the Calcutta Parsi Amateur Dramatics Club and with two separate grants from the Sangeet Natak Ackdemi. Parzor currently has PDFs of digitised scripts in its repository, waiting for a website. Some scripts are with Parzor and some have been returned to the families, according to Singh.

“When I heard the recordings and went through the photographs, I realised the Parsi influence on the development of cities like Mumbai and Kolkata not only shaped them commercially, but culturally as well,” said Singh. “Yes, on the face of it you do have NCPA and other art galleries, but not all developments are grand.”

A lot of the anecdotes and snippets of history she gathered gave her a “micro-view” of the Parsi community and its impact. “You’re left wondering what prompted these communities to create space for cultural expression to thrive,” said Singh who is now doing her PhD in Social and Cultural Geography at the National University of Singapore.

Theatre is an intrinsic part of Parsi cultural identity. It was developed as the earliest form of entertainment, and to date the genre that rules Parsi theatre is comedy. Performed in Parsi Gujarati, they would run ahead of festivals and New Year celebrations, in pavilions set up in colonies or in theatres. But as the Parsi population dwindled, so have these traditions.

“There was a time, till even 5-6 years ago, when I used to perform 5-8 plays before New Year celebrations in Mumbai every year. This year I didn’t even go to perform there,” said theatre actor and Padma Bhushan awardee, Yazdi Karanjia. The living room of his 100-year-old home in Surat is filled with theatre memorabilia and awards earned in his seven decade-long career.

But Karanjia was nevera full-time theatre actor. He taught accountancy, much like many members of the community, who continue family traditions and professions, and provide services to the community while working other jobs.

As a boy, his friends would discourage him from pursuing a career on stage– he was too short for any role. But that didn’t stop him from pursuing his love for the performing arts. He goes on stage for the love of his art, not money. And now, some of the plays that he acted in will be part of the repository.

Parsi theatre doyene Yazdi Karanjia. | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

The scripts were digitised under the advice of scholar Rashna Nicholson, currently professor of theatre studies at University of Hong Kong and Cama. “Conservatism is expensive but digitisation is not so much. By digitising the scripts, we made them accessible to scholars across India and globe,” Singh said.

Singh and the Parzor team digitised 230 scripts over the course of six months in 2015-16 but they haven’t been able to develop a website for them because they lack the funds and resources to organise such lengthy archival work. Even though the scripts have no online home, word has spread across the world. Filmmakers from Australia and California and scholars from SOAS, London and other universities are reaching out to Parzor for PDFs of the scripts.

Recording and archiving are an important part of the process of documenting Parsi history, but for Singh, the fact that others find value in the work is fulfilling. “It leads to a question I think about. For a community like the Parsis, how can we create meaning? What does it want to circulate about itself or beyond it for us to make sense of its history?” Singh said.

Karanjia is not too worried about the future of Parsi theatre.

“As long as a single Parsi remains on the planet, Parsi theatre shall remain alive,” he insists.

A digitised archive of a photograph of Parsi theatre in action | Parzor and Sangeet Natak Academy Grants

Bonesetters, weavers, actors

Like Karanjia, many Parsis perform a ‘service’through which they contribute to the larger community. It’s a family tradition that’s not their main source of income.

Among Navsari’s Parsis there are astrologers, weavers, and even bonesetters (chiropractors) who provide people with alternative ways of healing broken bones. There’s no recorded literature of the techniques they employ, but knowledge passed down from father to son over generations.

“I am the eighth-generation bonesetter in my family, and my son is the ninth. My great great grandfather had gained the knowledge from a seer,” said Bezat Minusuraliwalla from Navsari, adding that he served at Mumbai’s Bhatia Hospital for five years though he doesn’t have a degree in medicine.

At his home in Navsari, he pulls out photographs of his ancestors who helped heal bones of people at a time when plasters, especially, weren’t effective. His knowledge and technique are now part of Parzor project archives.

Photo of a Prasi bonesetter. | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

During one of her many visits to Navsari, Cama recorded how the kusti, the sacred girdle worn by Zoroastrians around the waist, is handwoven by the women of Ava Baug and distributed to other Parsis. Shehnaz Dastoor (50) has been weaving the threads on the mechanised machine at her house for 20 years while humming to old Bollywood music playing in the background.

This is her primary family business–she learnt it from her mother who learnt it from her mother. But her daughters have chosen a different profession, “They don’t enjoy this kind of work. They are well educated and work in MNCs, where they earn significantly more money,” said Dastoor. She weaves the sacred thread for almost 12 hours every day, but is able to earn only Rs 15,000 a month.

As younger generations take up new jobs, recording these traditions becomes even more necessary, said Cama. Only memories will remain, so for archivists like her, there’s an urgency to record.

Oral history recordings

Freny Daruwalla who is in her mid-twenties, grew up in Pune, agnostic of her religion or religious traditions.

“I just didn’t have any interest in it,” she said.

That was until college, when she became more aware about her identity and wanted to get to know more about her community. “I had felt like an outsider till then, not knowing much about my community or participating in cultural events. As I grew older, I wanted to know more about my people.”

In November 2021, Daruwalla started working with Evergreen Story, a platform with a mission to record, preserve and (tell) humanity’s storiesand use the medium of storytelling to support the environment.” For every story published, the platform plants a tree in the name of the person documented.

Daruwalla started recording Parsi stories for the platform and has so far met more than 300 Parsis across the country and published their stories. Among her favourite stories are the recording of Mona Jaats, which are hymns sung before any religious function. Only the older generation of Parsis today have knowledge of Mona jaats, which are endangered.

She also interviewed the grandson of one of the last Parsi healers, who were called Va Ujavanu– those who used prayers to heal.

“The Parsis I had interviewed during my oral history recordings are mostly dead now. So Daruwalla is now traveling 20 years after I did to record the experiences of the younger generations,” Cama said.

The memories and micro-histories of Parsis are rich in vignettes and encounters with India’s elite. India’s first woman photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla who passed away in 2012 spoke to Cama at length about her interactions with the Gandhis. And one project that she could never forget was the wedding of Rajiv Gandhi with Sonia. Vyarawalla was paid for the photographs and the negatives. She never got to see her work again. “But it was all in her memory,” said Cama. And now, in Parzor’s oral history archives.

Photographers from other communities also document the Parsis, their distinct culture and dying heritage that piques the interest of many, like that of Bindi Sheth who put up her photo exhibition at India International Centre in Delhi. Bindi documented the Parsis in her hometown, Ahmedabad.

The themes that stand out in her exhibition are loneliness, love, loss and celebration, as well as a lingering influence of the British. There are photographs of young bachelor Parsis living in baugs, of older Parsis alone in old houses filled with antique furniture, and of families gathering for weddings and Navjotes.

The library makes appeals to the Parsi community on an annual basis and asks for donations for restoration, preservation work. That’s our main source of income
– Chaitali Desai, Librarian at Meherjirana

“As an outsider, I realised I have the advantage of noticing minor details like their love for natural elements that set them apart and make them a unique, intriguing community,” she said.

Ruzbeh Umrigar, who conducts heritage walks in Navsari, remembers spending his summers in the hall of the then crumbling Meherjirana library. He had no clue about the importance of the literature the library has. It was only many years later, after Cama’s discovery, that he learned about the rich texts lying in the cupboards of one of his childhood haunts.

Today, the library has an annexe, and a trust board has been set up to look after its day-to-day functioning. According to the current librarian, Chaitali Desai, it doesn’t get government support, but runs on charitable donations.

“The library makes appeals to the Parsi community on an annual basis and asks for donations for restoration, preservation work. That’s our main source of income,” she said.

The library’s collection and contribution to the community’s heritage is a source of pride for her. There are more than 600 handwritten Parsi scriptures, Desai said.

“The restoration of the Meherjirana library is one of the biggest achievements of Parzor. And not only have all books been preserved, they have also been digitised,” Cama said. “When I first went there, the books couldn’t even be touched.”

Now that it is back in the limelight, the library’s future is caught in the local politics of who gets to run it. Its responsibility currently lies with a trust which is not comprised of academics. Some Navsari residents, like Umrigar, fear that lack of scholars or academics puts these records in jeopardy.

But even as these battles are playing out in the upper echelons of the community, the younger generation is looking at ways to add to the work archived and documented so far. School teacher Pinaz (27) got the opportunity to work with Parsi author and historian Marzban Jamshedji Giara. She assisted him on the research of his last book, Prominent Parsis of Navsari, which was published a year after he passed away in 2022. And since then, Pinaz has been a little directionless.

“I need to be financially independent, I haven’t been able to work out a model where I research and document but also earn money at the same time,” she said adding that “it is very important to record contemporary Parsi stories, otherwise us and our stories will die in the little circle orthodox of our community want to restrict us to.”

Freny Daruwalla has lived through countless personal histories. The Parsis she interviewed shared their experiences of watershed moments—the red dots in history. Ninety-year-old Tina Mehta’s heart is still heavy with the memory of the last time she kissed her Muslim friends goodbye during Partition in 1947. Daruwalla heard the heartbreaking account of Ahmedabad resident, Hafiz Dalal, who frantically searched for his daughter when Gujarat went into curfew during the 2002 riots. She has felt the frustration of Dilshad Mistry, who was called to office within two days after the infamous floods in July 2005 that left Mumbai flooded.

These oral histories have made Daruwalla a time traveller.

“It feels like people are not talking from memory at all. The story just flows out of them naturally, like they’re living through it in real time.”

This ground report is the third in a series called Parsipolis. Read all the articles here.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

Time is running out for Parsi culture. Race to save it from extinction is on


Omim Debara dies due to Cardiac Arrest

Eminent social activist Omim Maneckshaw Debara passed away on Thursday morning due to cardiac arrest. (DC Image)

HYDERABAD: Eminent social activist Omim Maneckshaw Debara passed away on Thursday morning due to cardiac arrest. Debara retired as chief engineer of VST and passionately worked for various causes, including those concerning the environment, communal harmony, interfaith, heritage, and preservation of water bodies.

He was the president of COVA, secretary of Forum for Better Hyderabad, and was actively associated with INTACH, Rotary, Hum Sub Hindustani Trust, and the Interfaith Forum, among others.

He was a key functionary of the Zoroastrian Parsi Anjuman of Secunderabad and Hyderabad for years. His activism ranged from working in slums and communities to policy transformations through government and PILs in courts for the redressal of social problems.

Iraqi First Lady at ASHTI Zoroastrian Temple in Kurdistan

Iraqi First Lady, Shanaz Ibrahim Ahmad, wife of the Iraqi President, held a special ceremony at ASHTI Zoroastrian Temple, in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan to award a number of prominent personalities who have played a role in spreading the culture of peaceful coexistence and mutual acceptance among all religious and ethnic communities in the Kurdistan Region.

This ceremony that was held on Saturday 05.AUG.2023, at the ASHTI Zoroastrian Temple, in Sulaymaniyah city, was organized and prepared by Awat Hesamuddin (Darya), official representative of Kurdish Zoroastrians in K.R.G.

Representatives of eight different religions, including Islam, Sunni and Shiite, Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews, Saba’i Mandai, Baha’i ,and Kakai Yarsani, several national personalities and several organizational managers were honored at the ceremony.

At the ceremony, the First Lady of Iraq, Ms. Shanaz Ibrahim Ahmed, was presented with an honorary award for her important role in supporting freedom of religion and belief, to support the culture of coexistence, between all religions and nationalities and to protect their rights.

The award of Queen Shabad, one of the most famous figures of Sumerian civilization, which means Queen of Beauty, was presented to the Iraq First Lady, Ms. Shanaz Ibrahim Ahmed.  Also she was presented with the Ashavan Zoroastrian Foundation Award for Music and Culture by Awat Darya, the official Zoroastrian representative.

Attached are some photos and a video.

The link is the video of the visit by the first lady of Iraq, the wife of the President of the Republic of Iraq, Dr. Latif Rashid, at ASHTI Zoroastrian Temple in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan, on the occasion of honoring a group of Iraqi Kurdish personalities, which was officially published by Ms. Shahnaz Ibrahim Ahmad, in her social media account.

The Iraq First Lady, Ms. Shanaz Ibrahim Ahmad, the wife of the President of the Republic of Iraq, at the ASHTI  Zoroastrian Temple in the city of Sulaymaniyah, receives the award of thanks and appreciation.

Judge Weria Kanimarani, who holds the position of a judge in the Court of Juveniles and Minors, in the city of Sulaymaniyah, receives an award of thanks and appreciation for his prominent role in serving justice and peaceful coexistence in society.

Judge Qasim Izdi, who is the first judge of the Yazidi religion to hold the position of judge of the criminal court in the city of Sulaymaniyah. He receives the award of thanks and appreciation.

Part of the presence of the dignitaries who were honored and mediated by the first lady of Iraq.


One of the Shiite clerics who was honored for his role in spreading the culture of peace.




More than 5 Million Views!


When we started the blog in 2007, we had no idea that we would reach 5 million hits with a community as small as ours.

Today we are overwhelmed !

We started by creating a resource base for young Zoroastrians who always complained that they do not have enough material on Religion, Culture and Social Practices. We found many resources all over the Internet which were scholarly and useful. Unfortunately, they were spread all over. Thus the idea of was born, to get as many resources as possible for the community, ALL UNDER ONE ROOF !

Over a period of time, the idea grew………… young and old, Zoroastrians and non-Zoroastrians, from all over the world, have been accessing the site for a reliable gateway to valuable Z-resources available online. We have had visitors from all over the world. India and USA top the list but surprisingly we have visitors from over 200 countries, including one from Vatican City!  A PhD student from Belgium used the site for his research on how Zoroastrians apply their religion for business and a Japanese professor of Inter-Cultural Studies, from Tenri University used it as a launching pad for studies of Zoroastrian Corporations, and landed up submitting a paper on the success of Tata Consultancy Services as a Z-Corporation.

Our main focus was to do positive stuff which was non-controversial. We included food, education, matrimony, religion, rituals, navjotes and weddings, interesting galleries, news, and some fun-stuff too ! We probably have the most comprehensive collection of scholarships (both from the community and from others) in one place. Nostalgic Gujarati Songs, Monajats and some fun songs add to the fun. Parsi Recipes and tele-classes on religion are worth dying for!

For all this and more, we have to thank you, the loyal viewer! Your viewership and comments are valued and cherished.

The exciting journey continues with full support from the community and others. Bouquets and brickbats are always encouraged and welcomed – it means that we are read and relevant! Let us hear from you what YOU want next.

Looking forward, we are exploring new areas of delivery, especially through the smartphone mobile route on a multiplicity of channels and platforms. We pledge ourselves to further this labour of love, and persevere to leave behind a legacy for future generations to admire and cherish!

Yazdi Tantra


p.s. A brief look at our sister sites would be useful :

  1. –  The World’s Largest Free Listing of Parsis and Iranis with more than 84,500 listings from all over the world, which can be searched by name / location / profession. An extremely valuable resource.
  2. – Again, the World’s largest listing of Parsi Institutions. Easily searchable, citywise, lists of Agiaries, Atash Behrams, Anjumans, Associations, Clubs / Dharamshalas / Sanatoria, Hospitals / Dispensaries, Hostels, and many more.
  3. FREE Whatsapp/Telegram service for Uthamna all over India – for Whatsapp – just send “Subscribe Uthamna” to +919892219340 and for Telegram click on this link –
  4. FREE Android App for Zoroastrian news across the world – More than 10,000 downloads already! Available on Android – and also on iOS –
  5. – another one-of-a kind resource, open to all who are looking for Parsis / Iranis across the world. More than 50% cases referred are solved. Goes a long way to uniting friends and family across the world.
  6.  Our Facebook Page at has more than 10,500 subscribers

Together, we reach out to more than 15,000 viewers per day through multiple channels !

Parsis are choosing between extinction and purity. It’s not always a pretty choice

The Centre has revamped Jiyo Parsi scheme to arrest the declining population of Indian Parsis. For every 150 Parsis born in a year, there are 600 deaths.
Mumbai, Pune, New Delhi: There was something unsettling about Navsari. Dr Shernaz A Cama couldn’t quite put her finger on during a field trip to one of India’s oldest Parsi settlements in Gujarat—until she went through her photographs. And then it hit her. There were no children. That was 30 years ago.

Cut to Mumbai 2023. In the busy Fort area, the Parsi Lying-In Hospital—the city’s first maternity medical centre built in 1895 and spread over 17,000 sq ft— no longer reverberates with the sound of crying babies. It lies in disuse, its brick edifice birthing moss. A silent sentinel to the crisis of numbers that India’s Parsi-Zoroastrian community is staring at.

There simply aren’t enough births to merit a massive maternity hospital. The fortnightly magazine, Parsiana, which operates out of a former ward on the ground floor of the building, regularly reminds its readers of the impending doom. For every 150 births in a year, there are 600 deaths, warns its editor  Jehangir Patel. Now, these conversations are gathering momentum after the ‘Parsi issue’ and the Jiyo Parsi scheme—an initiative to arrest the declining population—came up in the Lok Sabha. Minority affairs minister Smriti Irani said that the central government’s scheme has been able to ensure 400 additional Parsi births since it was rolled out on 31 December 2022.

As per the official website, the figure stands at 403 births. But it’s not enough for a community that prioritises racial purity over demographic decline, and refuses to accept children of their women who marry non-Parsis into the fold. According to Cama, a professor of English at Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College for Women and co-founder of the NGO Parzor Foundation, the number of Parsi children below five years (per 10,000 people) has fallen to 3.2 per cent.

The Parsi Lying-In Hospital has been dysfunctional for over 30 years | Shubhangi Misra | ThePrint

All the births under Jiyo Parsi took place when the government was working with Cama’s Parzor Foundation, one of the architects of the scheme. But in October 2022, the Centre terminated its contract with the foundation with the aim of implementing the scheme via Direct Benefit Transfers (DBT).

Despite the success of the scheme, the Parsi population in India is still dangerously low, only 57,264 as per the 2011 census. And early Jiyo Parsi campaigns tugged at the cords of these inherent fears.

“After your parents, you’ll inherit the family home. After you, the servants will,” warned flyers and print ads, which drew sharp criticism for what many saw as sexist, classist and regressive.

“I’m guessing this may have to do with the fact that Parsis live in posh South Mumbai homes and not far-flung North Indian villages,” wrote US-based journalist Anahita Mukherkee.

But for Cama, the campaign served its purpose.

“The ads were meant to shock people. They went viral and started a huge debate. It brought attention to our cause. That’s much better than dying a natural death,” she says.


Population vs bloodline

Within the close-knit community, a debate is raging on whether an increase in Parsi numbers should come at the cost of diluted bloodlines. But all is well, insist the orthodox members of the community.

“We are very happy with our numbers. We are a small tribe and don’t mind living this way,” a trustee of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet said. “There are Zoroastrians, and then Parsi Zoroastrians. Everyone may embrace the faith, but everyone cannot become a Parsi.”

At her home in South Delhi, Cama scrolls through the photos on her iPhone. Her albums are filled with smiling Parsi toddlers playing with their toys, posing in their sunglasses, and families preparing for navjots, the rite of passage when their children are inducted into the religion and wear its symbols — the sedreh and the kushti, the sacred vest and thread.

For ten years, Parzor Foundation through the Jiyo Parsi scheme has provided assistance to Parsis to help them conceive children. There are counselling sessions, monetary support and assistance with IVF.

“I have photos and videos of the cutest little first moments of various children. The first time they sit up, their first day at school, navjote… and invitations to celebrations. It is all so cute, I feel like a surrogate grandmother,” says Cama, who founded Parzor Foundation in 1999 with the aim of preserving Parsi culture and heritage.

The cheerful Cama has dedicated her life to the cause of recording Parsi oral history, preserving its architecture, facilitating research into her community’s demographic predicaments, and helping implement the Jiyo Parsi scheme.

There are three components to the government’s scheme: medical, health of community, and advocacy. The medical aspect provides financial assistance towards costly IVF treatments. Under the health of community component, funds are allocated to young couples to help them take care of their children and elderly family members. Every couple is provided Rs 3,000 per month until their child reaches four years, and another Rs 4,000 to take care of their elderly parents.

“One big reason why Parsis remain childless is because a young Parsi couple on an average has eight dependents. We realised this problem, and offered financial assistance for the elderly of the family so a couple can comfortably plan a family,” said Cama, who has published her research on the Parsis in four volumes.

Another key aim of Jiyo Parsi is to battle infertility among Parsi couples, which is addressed through funding the often expensive IVF treatments. “IVF is not just financially draining, it is a painful process both physically and emotionally,” Cama says.

To help ease the process, Parzor set up a cell in Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai with gynaecologists and counsellors on board. Parents who sought help under the Jiyo Parsi scheme could consult with counsellors who would often travel from Mumbai to wherever they were to help them. The cell isn’t functional anymore.

And though her foundation is no longer linked to the scheme, Cama keeps tabs on births. She insists that to date, Jiyo Parsi has facilitated the birth of more than 500 Parsi children.

“The figure with the government is until October 2022. Since then, according to my estimate, 130 more births have taken place.” At the same time, she worries that under the DBT scheme, Parsis will not know who to reach out to.

The lack of information which is now plaguing the scheme has Kainaz Kerawala at sea. She and her husband would like to have a second child, but she is not keen on undergoing IVF again.

“I want to go for counselling, but I don’t know where to go because now it’s DBT,” said Kerawala, who works as a nurse at a dharamshala in Navsari. She had taken help from the scheme for the birth of her first child, now five years old. She had approached Parzor after a workshop it had conducted in the panchayat.

“With the help of Jiyo Parsi, I consulted the doctor who did a laparoscopy and found cyst formation in my uterus. Later on, I went through surgery and the cyst was removed. After that I went through IVF treatment and conceived in the first go,” said Kerawala.

Assistance in IVF treatment has proved to be successful especially because the total fertility rate of Parsi women is 0.9 per woman, below the replacement level of 2.1.

A representative of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet said they have had one meeting with the government in December 2022 about the renewed phase of the scheme’s implementation but didn’t have any further information to share.

Local Parsi panchayats, too, offer Parsis financial assistance as incentives to have multiple children. The Bombay Parsi Punchayet offers around Rs 4,000 a month to help couples raise their second child, and Rs 5,000 for the third. The Surat Parsi Punchayet also awards around Rs 3,500 per month to couples having a second child.

As the city’s largest landlord controlling Parsi enclaves and 4,200 houses—according to a BPP trustee—the panchayat also provides housing to young couples looking to expand their families.

On a rainy July evening, the ageing residents of Colaba’s Cusrow Baug gather in the auditorium to play cards and bond over cups of cutting chai. In the corridors of the flats, children can be heard laughing and playing. But the fear is that one day homes will fall silent across Parsi enclaves be it Cursow Baug or Rustom Baug in Byculla or the unwalled Dadar Parsi Colony.

Cusrow Baug in Colaba is one of the Parsi residential colonies in Mumbai | Shubhangi Misra | ThePrint

Reaching out to the Gen Z 

The burden rests on the younger generations, but Gen Z Parsis, especially women, are pushing back.

“I am not a reproduction machine. I’ll do what I want,” says 22-year-old Avaan Navdar from Tardeo in South Mumbai. Until junior college, Navdar did not have a single non-Parsi friend. She studied in posh Parsi schools and hung out with other Parsi girls.

“It’s not like we didn’t have Hindus or Christians in our [boarding] school, but they were day scholars and we naturally just connected with Parsis well,” she says.

She even attended a talk about the the demographics of the Parsi community globally and in India while attending an annual Holiday Programme of the Parsi community for Youth or HPY—an initiative where adolescent Parsis go for a group holiday immediately after completing Class X.

“They spoke about the importance of marrying within the community,” said Navdar. It was only in college that she started befriending people from other communities and met her boyfriend—a non Parsi. She has her parents’ approval, but it doesn’t stop nosy neighbours from calling to complain about her unacceptable behaviour.

“So many times someone or the other spots me chilling with my boyfriend and complains to my parents. Thankfully, they know,” said Navdar, the frustration and bitterness leaking into her voice.

Men on the other hand can marry a non-Parsi and have children who can enter the fire temple, celebrate their Navjot and enjoy all the benefits—monetary and otherwise—that Parsis enjoy. This goes back to a 1908 case when Dinshaw Davar, the first Parsi judge of the Bombay High Court, and Frank Beaman, a blind British judge, ruled that Indian Parsis are a “pure” caste who don’t have to accept anyone in their fold that might “contaminate” the community. The only ‘aliens’ allowed into the Parsi caste would be children of. It is entrenched in Parsi Personal Law today, but there is pushback.

A priest offers prayer at fire temple in Pune | Shubhangi Misra | ThePrint

Today, in Mumbai, the orthodox and the liberal, the progressive and the purity-obsessed clash within the walled baugs and colonies on purity, population and progressive attitudes.

“The community is changing, the BPP isn’t. That’s the bottomline,” said a young Parsi man who did not want to be named.

Children’s camps and youth organisations are an important part of the fabric of Parsi life. Organisations like the Extremely Young Zorastrians (XYZ) and Zoroastrian Youth for Next Generation (ZYNG) are geared towards helping Parsis form life-long connections with each other from a young age.

“We thought a lot of social organisations help adult or adolescent Parsis socialise, but there was nothing for children. So we started XYZ [in 2014],” says Hoshaang Gotla.

ZYNG, which organises donation drives, dance competitions, movie nights, hikes, and other activities, dates back to 2009. It began as the youth wing of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, but was emancipated from it two years ago.

“Almost half of all Parsi marriages in Mumbai today are interfaith because young Parsis are unable to meet eligible Parsis,” said Viraf Mehta, one of the founding members of ZYNG and a trustee of the BPP. He estimates that only around 60 percent of community members in Mumbai live in Parsi-owned buildings. “The chances of a Parsi meeting a Parsi become quite low,” said Mehta.

In the last 12-13 years, ZYNG has conducted over 1,700 social events. And about 15-20 young Parsi couples have found love there. But Mehta says that’s not something to focus on.

“It’s not that our entire agenda is to ensure Parsi marriages. We just want Parsis to come together and socialise. If they find love along the way, nothing like it,” Mehta says.

Among the 20-odd Parsi youth organisations in Mumbai, Extremely Young Zoroastrians (XYZ) is the only one that welcomes children of Parsi women, claims its founder Hoshaang Gotlaa.

“Ours is not an organisation to focus on just one religious aspect. Just because someone’s father is not a Parsi, [that doesn’t mean] we don’t accept them into our fold. This isn’t something I am a big fan of,” he said.

And yes, there is backlash. “Some people will always have a problem with what you do,” Gotlaa adds.



Falling fertility rate 

Nineteen-year-old film student Zayan Sangha met his former girlfriend in an XYZ camp. She was a Parsi, too, but he’s not opposed to interfaith couples. Love overrules purity just as it did when Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata married his French girlfriend, Suzanne Briere in 1902.

“For me love is love. Even though marrying within the community has its benefits, that doesn’t mean I won’t marry a girl from outside if I fall for her,” he says.

Sangha speaks for an increasing number of Alpha, Gen Z and Millennial Parsis, who don’t necessarily want to carry the burden of ‘saving’ their community along the lines of purity.

Inter-faith marriages, especially among women, are cited by Parsis as one of the major reasons why their community is on a steady decline.

But a 2011 peer reviewed study by Zubin C Shroff and Maria Castro, a copy of which is with ThePrint, concluded that consanguineous marriages cannot be blamed for reduced fertility among Parsis. Education and westernisation are the main driving factors, said the authors.

Around 36 per cent of Parsis also don’t marry at all in their lifetimes, according to Cama.

“The first drop in Parsi fertility appears to have happened around the end of the 19th century, and was related to the rapidly increasing rate of women’s education in the community after 1870,” reads the paper. The authors also noted that accepting children of interfaith couples will not have a significant bearing on the dwindling population.

According to data analysed by Parsiana, close to 50 per cent of all Parsi marriages in Mumbai today are interfaith.  “There’s social acceptance of women marrying outside now. They’re not socially ostracised any longer. But there’s religious othering of women,” Vispy Wadia, president of the Association of Intermarried Parsis, said.

However, a study conducted by Dr Lata Narayan at TISS Mumbai, a hard copy of which was read by ThePrint, with a sample size of 761 respondents spread across India, only 4.4 per cent Parsis said that children of Parsi women who have undergone Navjote should be considered members of the community. The study was published in 2017.

Parsi women have also approached various high courts and the Supreme Court to ask for their right to enter the fire temples and the tower of silence.

Author Prochy N Mehta filed a petition in the Calcutta High Court in 2017 after her grandchildren were not allowed to enter the only fire temple in the city, because their father was a non-Parsi. The Federation of Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India (FPZAI), an umbrella body of 69 Anjumans, later intervened in the petition to ensure that non-Parsis are not allowed inside the fire temple.

This gender prejudice is further bolstered by land and money, and control over the various trusts and assets.

“We allot houses to young Parsis, and are allocating houses in accordance with the legal definition of who is a Parsi now. If we change that and open the religion up, everyone will want to sign up and get cheap housing in Mumbai,” said a trustee of BPP. Rent in some of the BPP owned flats can be as low as Rs 36.

This is a long held argument and came up even in the Davar Beaman judgment, which said Parsis’ fear that ‘juddins’ (a derogatory term for non-parsis) would be attracted to the religion if the community’s doors are opened because of the many assets they possess.

“The funds of 50 odd lacs of rupees, richly-endowed Institutions for poor Parsis, comfortable homes for the blind and infirm, Dispensaries, Sanitariums, Convalescent homes, would attract many thousands of the most objectionable people,” said the judgment.


Caste purity over existence 

The casteism followed by Parsis in India shocked a young Avesta Irani, when he came to India 20 years ago, fleeing persecution in Iran.

“I couldn’t believe it. Nowhere in the world will you find Zoroastrians disallowing people from entering Agyaris, but in India,” says Irani, who is the head priest of Asha Vahishta Agiary in Pune, a fire temple established in 2017. It’s the only temple in India where people of all faiths are allowed to worship.

The Asha Vahishta Agyari (Zoroastrian fire temple) in Pune | Shubhangi Misra | ThePrint

According to Vispy Wadia, the president of the Association of Inter-Married Parsis, the community’s attitudes have become so orthodox because it co-opted Hinduism’s rigorously hierarchical caste system.

“When we (the Parsis) came to India, there was a watertight caste system in place, every caste had its own institutions and temples. We adopted the same culture and decided who can come to the temple and who can’t,” said Wadia, who set up the Asha Vahishta Agiary.

Here, non-Parsis can light a lamp for the god worship in front of the holy fire while the priests perform a small prayer. Nowhere else in India, Wadia claims, is such access allowed in Agyaris.

Inside the temple, there are posters of the many reform-friendly priests like Jamaspji Minocherji Jamaspasa, who performed Navjote ceremonies of children of intermarriage way back in 1882. His son Khaikhuroo Minocherji Jamaspasa ordained the marriage of JRD Tata with his French wife Thelma in accordance with Zoroastrian tradition.

Wadia pointed out Parsis continue to follow the rigidity of the caste system, “By saving the so-called purity, we’re sacrificing our religion,” he added.

The preference to racial purity in the face of extinction was criticised by Parsiana in a 2019 editorial.

“If our numbers were large enough and a substantial number of people were debarred entry and participation, one could carry on. But when our fire temples are devoid of worshippers, our hospital beds and dharamshalas are empty, perhaps we should take a leaf from our once Parsi-only schools that all became cosmopolitan rather than close their portals.”

Irani cites another example of Zoroastrians co-opting caste. “There’’s no restriction in Zoroastrianism on who can study to become a priest,” he says. “Except in India. Only sons of priests can become priests, and I am shocked to see there are no female priests at all.”

Avesta Irani, head priest at Pune’s Asha Vahishta Agiary (Zoroastrian fire temple) | Shubhangi Misra | ThePrint

The attitudes are changing, Parsis argue. In a relatively wealthy, educated community, the orthodoxy of the past has been left behind. “It is an open secret that women and their children enter agyaris,” Wadia says, “but officially it’s not allowed.”

So they turn to the Asha Vahishta Agiary in Pune. Families from across India—Gujarat, Kolkata, Bengaluru—come here for the Navjote ceremony of their children. There are women who married outside the community, and have never been able to introduce their children to the temple of their faith. Tears roll down their cheeks as they pray at the temple for the first time, together.

Nobody is left behind.

This ground report is the first in a series.

(Edited by Prashant)

Manashni – July 23

We are pleased to share the latest edition of Manashni with you.

Please click here to view.

We would like to sincerely thank Nadish Naoroji, who over the past 12 years has generously volunteered his time and efforts towards assembling the Manashni publication every quarter. 
Nadish would now like to pass on the baton and we are looking for a volunteer who has design and publishing skills/experience. Please refer to page 17 for further details.
Happy reading!

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An e-mail scam in the name of prominent Parsis is being perpetrated by fraudsters. Emails are being sent out with the address being similar to the one used by well-known Parsis but with some alphabet changed or dropped. The message says the person is abroad for some celebration and is not receiving OTPs to send money to some relative so to please send money which will be reimbursed. Even the bank account details are asked for. This is a fraud so do not send any monies or provide any details – Parsiana

Dinshaw Tamboly mentioned that his email address has been wrongly used to send mails to several of his prominent contacts. A similar mail emanated from Percy Master’s email id, which is a cause for concern. If you know of any more such instances, please do mention in the comments below.


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