The Exodus from Persia
The Iran (Persia) we know today used to be a part of an empire called the Sassanid Empire. The Sassanid Empire was one of the biggest empires in history but it was weakening by the middle of the 7th century. It was also the time when the Muslim conquests started.
Arab Muslims invaded the Sassanid Empire between 633-654 AD. It fell to the invaders in 651. The Sassanid Empire’s official religion was Zoroastrianism. With the rise of Islam, Zoroastrianism saw its downfall. The Zoroastrians also faced persecution and forced conversions.
Seeing their religion and ethnicity in danger, some Zoroastrian Persians decided to find a new home. A group of Zoroastrians took the sea-route and arrived at Sanjan on India’s west coast, a town in the state Gujarat now. While the exact date is unknown, estimates range between the 8th and 10th century which also coincide with the rise of Islam in the region.
Mixed “Like Sugar in Milk”
When the group from Persia reached Sanjan, they still hadn’t found a home. To seek asylum as people of a religion that many didn’t know, they had to prove they weren’t a threat to the locals. According to the book Qissa-i-Sanjan, written centuries after the arrival of Persians, the king of Sanjan asked the Persians about their religious practices, and they answered with care to get the asylum.
Another interesting part of the story mentioned in Qissa-i-Sanjan is when the king sent a glass full of milk to the Persians telling them that similar to the glass his kingdom was full of locals. The Persians added some sugar to the milk and sent it back to the king. The message was that like the sugar they’ll become one with the locals. With conditions like not proselytizing and accepting the local language, the Persians were granted asylum.
The Persians stayed true to their promises and became a part of the local community. They saved their religion and built worship places for their holy fire. The stories even say that local Hindus helped Parsis build the first worship place. With time they spread around Gujarat and nearby areas.
Those Persians became an Indian community called Parsis, the word used for people from Pars (Persia) in the local language Gujarati. They even embraced the Gujarati language and created a dialect called Parsi-Gujarati. According to the 2011 census, their population is more than 57000.
A Successful Community
Parsis remained mostly unnoticed until the British came to India. Parsis who were farmers and skilled workers in South Gujarat found an opportunity when Britishers arrived there. Working for and with Britishers, they climbed the social ladder quickly and some even made fortunes. Due to trusts founded by rich philanthropists like Maneck Seth, many Parsis found help to create better lives for themselves. This meant they also became represented in pop culture as well.
The Parsi community has produced many big names in multiple fields considering their small population. Jamestji Tata, the founder of the Tata Group was a Parsi and is known as the “father of the Indian industry”. As one of the largest companies in India, the Tata group is known for its philanthropy even today. Some other Parsi names like industrialist Godrej family, actor Boman Irani, nuclear physicist Homi Bhabha, first Asian British MP Dadabhai Naoroji are also known internationally and nationally. Freddie Mercury of the band Queen was an Indian-Parsi as well.
The Current Crisis
The economic improvement that Parsis witnessed also meant more and more Parsis were getting educated. As is seen in the educated rich communities, Parsis also saw a fall in birth rates and even marriages. It isn’t abnormal for a family member to remain unmarried for life in Parsi families, something most Indian communities don’t support.
Further, Parsis don’t proselytize but even children from inter-community marriages are only considered Parsis when the father is Parsi due to a judgment by Bombay High Court from 1908. Many Parsis also fear that their ethnic identity will be lost if everyone is allowed to enter the community. Others consider the existence of the community and religion the sole reason their ancestors migrated to India and support liberalizing the definitions of being a Parsi.
The government of India has also started a campaign to encourage Parsis to marry and increase the Parsi population but it might not be enough now. It was projected that by 2020 Parsis population would have declined enough to make them a tribe rather than a community.
What other communities would you like to read about next? Comments are open below.