Rayomand Coins

The last hurrah?

When the crowds at free gahanbars dwindle one has to believe there is a Parsi population crisis. Elderly people, when asked why they were not availing of the treat, cited their age and infirmities. At several other events held recently in Bombay, the organizers and those attending have commented on lower attendance. Have the number of Zoroastrians in Bombay fallen below the critical mass required to sustain community activities? Unlikely. But there is a downsizing. People initially believed the decline in numbers at public functions was on account of Covid. But once that threat receded (it may be making a comeback), in most cases the numbers did not add up to the pre-Covid days. At one event, however, they exceeded.

At the annual Avan roz parav (mah Avan, roz Avan) religious function to venerate water, held at the seaside Radio Club jetty on March 23 this year, one anonymous commentator remarked on WhatsApp: "Five years prior to Covid, I could not find a seat" but now seats were available galore. The gathering comprised "sexagenarians or septuagenarians in the evening of their lives. The writing on the wall was very clear… From next year (the organizers) may think of a smaller banquet room."

While admitting "the numbers were less than usual," Kersi Commissariat, trustee of the Bombay Zoroastrian Jashan Committee that sponsored the event approximated the crowd to be between 400 and 500. He debunked the need to shift the venue. The main coordinator of the function Kersi Limathwalla explained, "We are having this function after a hiatus of three years. We need to also accept that our community is aging and it is difficult for young members to be present on a working day with the Bombay traffic situation being what it is and the mess that the whole Apollo Bunder area is in. It is only getting worse… We have kept this community tradition going for nearly 50 years… A person attends out of one’s own religious fervor… It should not bother anyone else."

The Iran League (IL) annual jashan and prize distribution function saw an increase in numbers compared to the pre-Covid era at its centenary celebrations on April 15, noted IL trustee Saroosh Dinshaw. However awardees for the years 2020, 2021 and 2022 were all present, swelling the numbers.

At Parsiana, when we receive photos of functions to accompany write-ups, the audience seen in the pictures predominantly comprises the elderly. The presence of children and youngsters is a rarity. At events geared for the youth such as sports tournaments or those organized by XYZ (Xtremely Young Zoroastrians), their presence is notable. But unlike in earlier years where youngsters would attend functions along with their elders, that does not seem to be in vogue.

When one asks devotees who visit fire temples how many other worshippers were present, the answer is usually "none," "one" or "two." If some ceremonies are being performed, the numbers increase by a handful. Some agiaries, especially those situated in baugs, of course draw more worshippers but even then the numbers are minuscule and comprise mainly the elderly. At one fire temple, a devotee who had booked the Aiwisruthrem gah evening maachi (offerings of sandalwood to the consecrated fire to mark the change of gah) found no priest present until 9 p.m. An elderly mobed was attached to the agiary but when his payments were reportedly not made regularly by the trustees, he ceased to attend, the devotee was informed. How many agiaries actually see the boi ceremony performed five times in 24 hours? Today, many houses of worship that are classified as adarians, the second grade of fire temples, may actually be dadgahs, the third grade. Of the first grade are the eight atash behrams in India where one believes the boi rituals are observed as prescribed.

Trustees and traditionalists argue about issues such as who is a Parsi and whether one should use the term Zoroastrian or Parsi when referring to community members. The subject is academic. The number of non-Parsi Zoroastrians is so minuscule that their inclusion would make no difference either way. Aside from the children of Parsi mothers married to non Parsis who may be navjoted, it is unlikely anyone else would convert to the faith. At Parsiana, we have not come across any converts to Zoroastrianism in India, both of whose parents are/were non Parsis. What benefit would such an individual derive by converting? She or he would not be entitled to legally enter a fire temple, avail of trust benefits, obtain membership in a Parsi club or be admitted to a Parsis-only hospital. One Parsi lady recalls when she entered an atash behram in Bombay with her sari draped in the Hindu style, a bindi prominently affixed on her forehead and donning silver jewelry, she was confronted with cold stares and indifference. On the next visit, conventionally attired, she received a more congenial welcome.

But why bother about non-Parsi Zoroastrians covertly sneaking into our places of worship when full blooded Parsi and Irani Zoroastrians refrain from entering? In Christianity and Islam, both proselytizing religions, every effort is made to entice, coax and even occasionally coerce believers to attend church services and mosques. Amongst Parsis we see no such similar efforts. Those who want to and are fit enough, venture forth. If the agiary is located in an area where few if no Parsis reside, no devotee may visit for two to three days.

Another meaningless distinction raised by ill-informed Parsis pertains to the distribution of financial assistance by the Iranian Zoroastrian Anjuman (IZA). Critics allege the aid is distributed only to Irani Zoroastrians. In our March 7, 2015 issue of Parsiana ("Coping with change") we quoted IZA trustee (now vice president) Gaiv Irani stating, "The majority of our trust’s welfare recipients are Parsis. Iranis don’t apply; they feel bad, they are still proud."

Instead of dividing the community into further factions, a more constructive approach would be to look for commonalities. As it is we are minuscule; why shrink our number further by creating divisions?

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The presence of children and youngsters is a rarity says the author but what else can be expected when the number of births in the community is decreasing fast due to fall in the number of marriages, married couples not having children due to work conditions or having got married later in life. When one visits a Muslim or Hindu colony one can see large number of children playing. In a Parsi colony one can see larger numbers of good old folks loitering around or sitting in balconies reading newspaper with the occasional laughter of a child.
- Shapour B Badri
- 26-Apr-2023


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