May 18, 2009 2:25 AM   Subscribe

The Parsis of India: Their Photo Collection, a brief History and more.

And their mention in the Time Magazine, and the BBC.

posted by hadjiboy (13 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
They are a fascinating people. I met one once in Utah, he had emigrated from Iran.
posted by RussHy at 3:26 AM on May 18, 2009

Among Parsis well-known in Britain today are Freddie Mercury of Queen...

Wow, I didn't know that.
posted by RussHy at 3:54 AM on May 18, 2009

They are non-proselytizing, and discourage outmarriage, so they are dying out. My question is, why did these factors take 1200 years before they created a critical problem? Did they accept converts in the past? How many of them initially showed up from Persia?
posted by Meatbomb at 5:52 AM on May 18, 2009

Well, as far as I know--they didn't except converts in the past, no, but they were more prone to getting married, amongst themselves, so I'd say that marriage is a dying institution amongst the Parsis, just like it is amongst everyone else, but there are just too few of them left to counter that, although I have heard of some Parsis saying that they should allow people from other religions to enter their own, so it's kind of a big debate right now, with the old-timers on one side, who want to preserve their religious roots, and the new-timers on the other who think it's about time that they got some new blood, which will be good for them, as it will help save them as well.
posted by hadjiboy at 6:14 AM on May 18, 2009

Apparently part of the deal between the Parsis and the Gujarati rulers that allowed them to settle in India was that they would refrain from trying to convert any of the local people to their religion. Zoroastrianism was a missionary faith before it was persecuted by Islam, and spread all over the Near East and wherever Iranian traders went (e.g., basically everywhere).
posted by 1adam12 at 6:32 AM on May 18, 2009

I think that they did intermarry in the past, mitochondrial DNA studies suggest that they, at least, intermarried with local Gujrati women. Maybe their numbers were sufficient at some point that they banned intermarrying.

I have a friend who is Parsi from Mumbai. His father is Hindu and there are still some people in the local community who don't fully accept him, but he considers himself Parsi.
posted by nikitabot at 6:32 AM on May 18, 2009

I think that they did intermarry in the past, mitochondrial DNA studies suggest that they, at least, intermarried with local Gujrati women.

Or the "ethnic" divisions are more fictional than real, made up to justify division or unequal power structures.

As an interesting modern example, I have a buddy who is an ethnically Tibetan Pakistani who married a city girl from a big-wig Islamabad family. He and his mother-in-law do not get along, and one point of contention is her perpetuation of this ethnic mythos. His family is quite "high-born" in his village, but dirt to the high-society of the capital. I witnessed an interesting confrontation where she made a statement about some "filthy Hindus" in which he remined her that her very own family had been known as the XXXX (don't remember the name), a Hindu name, until partition and that her very own pre-Indian-independence birth certificate bore that Hindu name. The very people she was condemning were her own flesh and blood. Flash forward 1000 years and the old surname is completely lost to time, only belonging to the "other", only the mitochonrial DNA remains.

My friend on the other hand, because of his family's hereditary position, has to be very concious of blood lines and just exactly how and how many generations he is related to some great warlord and how that warlord was married to the daughter of some moghul who ruled the neighboring valley who was the grandson of some raj, who was the third cousin of the cheiftan of the nomads up on the mountain, and therefore you can't steal goats from the next valley without raising the ire of the nomads but two valleys over is Ok because that guy is only the fifth cousin of the raj who is grandfater of...

Anyway to maintain stability and peace, his family must keep up with that stuff and file it away in their oral tradition. In a place with constant regime change, forgetting who you are related to or making it up may be just as valuable a tool for maintaining your power base or justifying oppression against rivals.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:08 AM on May 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I had a (fallen away) Parsi roommate in college. Smartest guy I've ever known. His thesis unveiled a new level of meaning in Finnegan's Wake (and was published as a book). On the side, he programmed computers and played guitar in the most popular rock band on campus. Bastard.
posted by msalt at 9:37 AM on May 18, 2009

They do not cremate or bury the dead and instead leave their dead in Dakhma or the 'Towers of Silence' where they are devoured by vultures. This is done to ensure purity of the elements.

How do they handle funerals in the US? I hope they can do something similar here. Personally I think they have one of the coolest death rites ever.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:45 PM on May 18, 2009

Personally I think they have one of the coolest death rites ever.

Yeah, pretty cool until your cat brings a half eaten, disembodied hand into your living room as his new chew toy.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:14 PM on May 18, 2009

Yeah, pretty cool until your cat brings a half eaten, disembodied hand into your living room as his new chew toy.

You win, your cat has the coolest death rite ever.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:19 PM on May 18, 2009

The only Parsi I ever knew personally was Sam Manekshaw, the wonderful, witty, ladies' man, charming rascal of a Field Marshal of India. He was the kind of guy who, on being asked by Indira Gandhi about the Indian Army's readiness for the 1971 war, would say, "I'm always ready, sweetie."

His post death was not in the Parsi style though but he was buried next to his patient and forbearing wife in a charming part of India, the South Indian hill station where he had his home, in Ootacamund.

He told me his dad wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a doctor. What he really wanted to do was travel but his dad wouldn't let him, so he joined the army on a retaliatory impulse.

Apparently, there are only about 100,000 Parsis worldwide.

A couple of odd, darkly humorous details about the vultures who usually feasted on the corpses of dead Parsis in the Tower of Silence in Bombay and the tech solution:

"The problem today though is that in Mumbai and Karachi the population of vultures has been drastically reduced, due to extensive urbanization, as well as due to poisoning by the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac which is often given to humans and cattle. As a result without vultures the bodies of the deceased are taking too long to decompose and this has upset certain sectors of the community. Solar panels have been installed in the Towers of Silence to speed up the decomposition process but this has only been partially successful."
posted by nickyskye at 5:23 PM on May 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

My best friend through primary and middle school was a Parsi girl (they moved away.) The overwhelming impression that remains with me of their household was its hospitality. They were constantly hosting houseguests from all over the world; their house was very matter-of-factly cosmopolitan. Since my sample size is one family, I don't know if hospitality is a Parsi cultural value or if this family made it that way. It was a wonderful, welcoming home and there was always something tasty for dinner.

Nostalgia aside, I don't remember a single mention of religion; as far as I could tell they were irreligious but culturally identified as Parsis. My friend's father was Pakistani, her mother Indian. When they went visiting family, they went to Karachi. The whole family spoke better English than most Americans, and their 'home' language was Gujarati.

I remember when she turned 12 or 13 and was allowed to wear her first sari. It was so beautiful and complicated...
posted by workerant at 9:43 AM on May 19, 2009

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