Keepers of Tradition 

Parzor Foundation

A Tribute to the spirit of women in keeping alive the bronze age ethos of Zoroastrian culture and civilization. 

Universally venerated, the Indo-Aryan tradition, in particular, celebrates and reinforces the figure of the Earth Mother reflecting the importance of maternal and conjugal relationships.

Image Courtesy : National Museum, Tehran

In Zoroastrian tradition, as seen in the binding of hands in the wedding ceremony, men and women are totally equal. In the Creation myth of 'Bundahishn', the human couple emerge together from a 'Rivas' plant and, because she bears children, a woman becomes an important ‘co-worker’ or 'Hamkar' in Ahura Mazda’s cosmic battle between good and evil.

The Parsi woman enters the faith with the same initiation ceremony, wears the same badges of the religion, the kusti and sudreh, attends the fire temple as an equal sex, and has the right of choice in marriage and life.

Every woman carries a silver 'ses', gifted by her father to her married home. This round silver plate, filled with ritual objects, all from nature symbolizes family strength and unity.

The 'ses' therefore invokes upon the household the blessings of all aspects of creation as can be seen in the silver fish, betel leaf, coconut and other little objects in it. In it fire, water, plant and animal life are represented in silver, the sacred metal.

Image Courtesy : Homai Vyarawala in Camera Chronicles (2006) by Sabeena Gadihoke

Gifts of jewelry form an important part in life rituals for women. The use of the kerba or amber goes back traditionally to Central Asia. Till this day, a baby is given small kerba bangles for protection. Prayer beads as well as jewelry were often made of amber. Zoroastrians believe that the kerba protects and has healing properties.

The crafts of Parsi women are an intercultural unity of Persian, Chinese, Indian and European heritage creating a unique amalgam of four distinct civilizational traditions. This can be seen clearly here in the picture.

Parveez Chinoy of Secundarabad displays a Victorian Diamond Necklace which bears the Avestan motto, 'Humata, Hukhta, Huvarashta' and an Indian hand embroidered Gara Sari with Chinese motifs which accompany the sacred Zoroastrian Rooster.

Intercultural assimilation continued throughout Zoroastrian history. Here, in the Deccan, Soona Mirza shows her mother's Pandaan presented by royalty.

"In my mother's days a woman's Pandaan was like her purse". As in the case of other settlements, Parsis adapted readily to the local lifestyle, Hyderabad being the only region where Parsi women used the Pandaan.

A Parsi woman is recognised through her associations with the heritage of embroidery. In this embroidered portrait, we see Jerbanoo Kanga of Nagpur, who died in childbirth in 1925. This embroidered portrait of hers was preserved by her grieving husband.

Parsi Zoroastrian embroidery traces its origins to Bronze Age Iran. While embroidery was a craft which every girl had to learn, it was also an economic occupation for middle class women at a time when other jobs were unavailable.

Traditional Zoroastrian Costumes of Iranian Women are in green and red, which are 'Khush Bakht' or lucky colours. The fine embroidery on the Shaval or baggy trousers contains motifs still found regularly in Indian Parsi Embroidery.

The red silk 'Maknu' can be seen with Ikat borders, while the 'Shaval' or baggy trousers gathering at the ankle, are loose fitting to allow ease of movement.

The crafts of the Parsis were inherited through the oral tradition. The ancient weaving tradition of the Kusti on the loom, is believed to have come down from the time of the Prophet himself. Women are thus creators of the core religious symbols - the sudreh and kusti. Here we see Katy Sorabji of Navsari weaving the Kusti. In a combination of tangible and intangible heritage, the poetic fabric of Zarathustra's Gathas, state that he will, ‘weave my hymns for Thee alone’ (Yasna 43.8). Thus faith both in word and garment weave together several aspects of the Zoroastrian faith.

When Parsi women, who today constitute all the weavers of the kusti, could not weave a sacred material during their periods of ritual “uncleanliness”, they used this loom to fashion a beautiful decoration for the entrance to their homes.

This Toran is created by weaving tiny glass beads, painstakingly designed in traditional patterns – the rooster for protection, the fish for plenty, flowers of blessing, the Swastik from the Indian tradition, and symbols such as fire and the Tree of Life.

Parsi women using their craft skills were leaders in the economic emancipation of Indian women; Amy Dhunjishah Mistry was requested by the Nizam of Hyderabad to teach embroidery for economically uplifting women of his State in the 1930's - 40's

Award winning single thread embroidered portrait of H. R. H. Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan Bahadur Asaf Jah VII of Hyderabad and Prophet Zarathustra by Amy Dhunjishah Mistry.

For Zoroastrian women the joy of creation also encompasses music and dance. Here, the Basha Ensemble - a traditional Iranian choir sings songs of Navroze in Farsi. They wear traditional costumes and accompany their songs with ancient instruments such as the Ney and Qanun.

Monajats are traditional prayer songs sung by women. Roshan Dandivala singing the woman's song asking for blessings on her family. Titled -'Karu chu O Dadgar', it manifests the blending of the Persian and the Gujarati.

Certain religious traditions in the home were always performed by Zoroastrian women of the household. One such ritual is the Muskil - i - Asan, where women ask for difficulties to be removed for themselves and their families. The Late Gool Baria of Hyderabad performed the Muskil - i - Asan ritual every Friday for those who sought divine intervention.

In a positive movement, today Zoroastrian women have also begun to engage in regular religious activities outside the home. Postmenopausal women could always take care of shrines. At present, in Iran and the Diaspora, women are training as Mobedyars or assistant priests. In 2011, Mobed-e-Mobedeyan Firouzgary of Iran, played an important role in training and receiving eight Iranian Zoroastrian women as Mobedeyars, to serve the faith in Tehran.

Sadeh – a Zoroastrian winter festival, is celebrated to welcome a change from the dark of winter to light and warmth. The myth of Sadeh derives from the story that King Hoshang of the Peshdadian dynasty, celebrated this festival to commemorate his discovery of fire. In Iran, a woman carries this important sacred fire to the Sadeh ceremony.

The seasonal festivals for which women prepare, Adar and Ava Parabs, Navroze and the Gahanbars, reinforce gratitude to nature, while teaching generosity to those less fortunate. The Gahanbars are still popular today in Iran and are celebrated by the whole community coming together in Thanksgiving. Here we see a family prepare Ash-e Reshteh, a traditional lentil soup for the community Gahanbar.

Care for creation manifests in many forms. The Zoroastrian link with healing is a very ancient one, with Zarathustra being considered the first healer of the Magi tradition. The Hadvaid tradition is a practice similar to that of a Chiropractor. Parsi women practice every profession; here, Dr. Nergish Behramshah of Surat, one of the few women Hadvaids, is seen applying a laep or poultice at her clinic in Surat, her clientele running into thousands of people from all communities.

Over the centuries, Zoroastrian women have protected tradition while adapting and assimilating into different lifestyles. In this creation of Parsi food, so popular today, we see acculturation. The classic Parsi cookery book Vividhvani, written in two volumes by Meherbai Jamshedji Nusserwanji Wadia during the late 19th century, amalgamates many English dishes, which, with a bit of tweaking, became part of Parsi cuisine. It has a total of 2050 recipes and is a Parsi woman's heirloom.

The Ratan Tata Institute (RTI) and Parsi Amelioration Cooperative (PAC) were established to help less fortunate and disadvantaged women within the Parsi community by training them to earn a living by making special Parsi food. The goal has been to offer a life of dignity, and a skill, which is not dependent on charity.

Parsi women were pioneers in the emancipation and education of their Indian sisters.
Here, we see a portrait of Lady Bachubai of Ahmedabad painted by Raja Ravi Varma. Lady Bachubai was the founder of the Gujarat Ladies Club in 1888, the first such Institution instrumental in creating women’s empowerment. Her work and life is celebrated in the poem Bachusadguna by Kavi Dalpatram.

Madame Cama is honoured today as the woman who created the first Indian flag of freedom. She unfurled it at the Stuttgart Socialist Congress in August 1907, and sought global support; "I appeal to lovers of freedom all over the world to cooperate with this flag in freeing one-fifth of the human race". On it she had embroidered Vande Mataram in Sanskrit, to usher in the dawn of freedom. The first woman revolutionary of India, Bhikaiji Cama worked in exile side by side with Har Dayal and Virendranath Chattopadhya.

Courtesy - Parliament House Museum, New Delhi

Lady Meherbai Tata born, like Bhikaiji Cama into wealth, worked for those less fortunate. Instead of the life of a society lady, she chose to campaign for the higher education of women, labour reforms, fought against the Purdah system and the practice of untouchability. At her untimely death, she left her invaluable Jubilee Diamond, the second largest diamond in the world, to form the corpus of the Tata Memorial Cancer Hospital in Bombay.

Keepers of a tradition of independence, both in thought and action, Homai Vyarawalla is another pioneering Parsi woman. India's first woman Press Photographer, she is best known for her compelling photographs of political events leading up-to Partition, as well as the exhilaration of Independence. Her survival in a male dominated field is all the more significant because the codes of this profession continue to exclude most women even today.

Across millennia, it is interesting to note how the core culture of the Parsis has remained unchanged from the Bronze Age till modern times. Zoroastrian women have handed down to their children and upheld in their families, values of generosity, and kindled the desire for excellence while trying to lead a life of honest activity. They lead by example, often shouldering heavy burdens to balance family and careers to create a holistic life.

Four generations of women from a single family are photographed here showing change and continuity in their dress.

It is no wonder then that Zarathustra promises them a happy reward. Across the bridge, lies Garo Demana, the House of Light and Song, a fit reward for a woman's life of joy-filled service.

Parzor Foundation
Credits: Story

The image of the female figurine and Madam Cama are courtesy National Museum, Tehran and Parliament Museum, New Delhi respectively.

All other images in the exhibition are a copyright of Parzor Foundation, UNESCO Parzor Project.

The exhibition has been curated by Dr. Shernaz Cama, Mahtab Irani and Vanshika Singh.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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