“Zorro who?” they would ask me in college in America. “Thus Spake Zarathustra” I would say, “Nietzche, Richard Strauss, 2001 Space Odyssey?” One or the other would usually hit the mark.
Zarathustra's date of birth is said to have been between 1700 and 1500 BC and it is believed that he was born in Eastern Iran. The world's first monotheistic prophet gave us a simple creed to follow - Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds. The religion He revealed was based not on rituals and appeasement, but on the moral choices humans make here on earth.
Later religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, all borrowed freely from His teachings. But while they grew to attract millions of believers, the oldest prophet of them all retreated into obscurity, remembered only by scholars of religion and we His followers, the Parsis.
Young boys training to be priests have a secular as well as a religious education at the Dadar Parsi Youth Assembly School in Bombay. These young boys are now young married men working at jobs as well as being part-time priests. They are not required to be celibate.
Though Parsis have sometimes been called fire-worshippers, the definition is incorrect. We do not worship fire, we worship the one God Ahura Mazda through His creation; the natural elements we hold to be sacred. Fire is a focus for worship, its brightness and purity being the physical representation of light and truth. Bombay has forty-one fire-temples (agiaries) and four atash bahrams (the Zarathustrian equivalent of cathedrals).Many of them have architectural motifs from the palaces of Persepolis, square bases, fluted shafts and double-headed capitals of two bull-protons that signify the benevolent animal kingdom.
Ava Yazad parab - the day of prayers to Avan, the divinity presiding over water. Each day and month of the Zarathustrian calendar is dedicated to a divine being who either presides over a natural creation or a human attribute.
On the day and month of Avan, Parsis pray at any natural water body - the sea, rivers, ponds, wells.
Shared religious spaces in cosmopolitan Bombay.
A Parsi with his prayer cap and prayer book prays to the sea while a few feet away Brahmin priests undertake their own Hindu religious ceremony.
Nothing demonstrates our straddling of two worlds - the spiritual and the material - better than our navjotes and marriages. The navjote ceremony, (like the bar and bat-mitzvah) is an initiation into the religion that takes place before puberty for both boys and girls. We go from the solemnity of the ancient rites to high-spirited celebrations with food and alcohol.
Parsis have traditionally only married within themselves but that is changing now. Navaz Kapadia, the daughter of a Parsi father and American mother came to Bombay for her Navjote ceremony. Dinaz Stafford married Matt Black in a Parsi ceremony.
Since ancient times, Zarathustrians have disposed of our dead by leaving the corpses in the open air, to be devoured by carnivorous birds and beasts. To bury would be to pollute the earth, to cremate would defile fire. To give our bodies to be eaten is considered to be our last act of charity on earth.
The Towers of Silence (Doongerwadi) have existed in Bombay since 1673 where Parsis have been laid out for their last journey to be devoured by vultures. It is still wooded and peaceful, but the city has sprung up around it, making it one of the anachronisms of Bombay. And the vultures of India have been felled by drooping neck disease.
There are plans to start a vulture aviary, but in the meantime, the devout are still carried to the Towers of Silence, where solar panels accomplish what once the vultures used to do so efficiently.
All photographs © Sooni Taraporevala from her exhibition THROUGH A LENS, BY A MIRROR : THE PARSIS (1977 - 2013) at the National Gallery of Modern Art, (NGMA) New Delhi in 2013 —