We have often heard stories of the jovial, dhansak eating and the overtly philanthropic Parsis. We have sometimes even swayed our heads to the medley “my name is Jeejeebhoy Jamshedjee” and never realised the person was an actual Parsi gentleman who made it big during the Raj. Parsis are everywhere from enterprise to entertainment. Though a miniscule minority, they have influenced us in a good way. We drive (Trucks and Cars) and drink Tata products(Starbucks) , we safeguard our jewels and food products in Godrej cupboards and fridges. Guess what…. these all are Parsi made products.
The Parsi India tango goes a long way, much ancient to the stories of the Qisse, of which we shall talk later. The ancient Persians – of which the Parsi Zoroastrians are the last surviving vectors of that culture- were a sibling culture of the vedic tradition with which it shares many parallels. For example the sacred text of the Parsis the Avesta shares a great degree of textual similarities with the vedic corpus especially the atharvaveda. The Zoroastrian religion like the Vedic religion is centred around the sacrificial pyres, the fire being the sacred conveyer to both the traditions. Besides rituals, the Vedic and the Avestans share ideas of sacred geographic spaces like the Sapta Sindhu or as the Parsis would have it Hapta Hindhu. This shows that Parsi and Indians were connected through religion by the flourishes of their rituals and sacred spaces. Over time, these shared traditions got alienated and grew distinct cultural traits but the Zoroastrian – Indian connect did not lose its steam even then. The Sassanid Persians made steady maritime and terrestrial contact with India even before the Arab invasion of Persia. According to Wink, the Zoroastrian migration to India was a readjustment of commercial patterns which had arisen long before Islam. It was a response to new opportunities in the transit trade between the Islamic world and al Hind (India).
This brings us to the Qissa E Sanjan; it is the oldest account of the purported enmasse migration of the Parsis to the Indian Subcontinent. The Qissa which, forms the bedrock of Parsi history in India, is essentially a 16th century mythico-historical treatise compiled nearly a thousand years after the alleged exodus. According to this narrative, the Parsis fled Iran from religious persecution to safer shores in India where they were reluctantly received by a native King, Jadi Rana. New scholarship, however, problematizes the storyline as narrated by the author of the Qisse. It proposes an alternate graph of Parsi migration into the Indian subcontinent. This new line of assessment infers that Parsis were already established in the Indian ocean trade and would have had settlements on the Indian coast before the advent of Islam. We know from historical accounts that Persia was sending embassies to Indian courts. The Arab traveller Al Tabari notes that the Persian King Khusro II sent an embassy to the court of the Chalukyan Emperor Pulakesi II in the year 625 CE. This event is corroborated by a mural painting in Ajanta Cave no 1 depicting the ambassador genuflecting before the Chalukya Emperor. The Irani Zoroastrian, who were new immigrants to India, followed a similar trajectory like their Parsi kin before them.
The Parsis have now naturalised in the hot and sweltering heat of the Indian sun. They speak Gujarati, they wear gara sarees, they eat the same foods as Indians. This is as Indian as it gets. Like the story of the sugar in the milk the Parsis have fused in with the Indian mainstream. They have truly added sweetness to the Indian story.
- Williams, Alan. The Zoroastrian Myth of Migration from Iran and Settlement in the Indian Diaspora: Text, Translation and Analysis of the 16th Century Qeṣṣe-ye Sanjān ‘The Story of Sanjan’. Netherlands: Brill, 2009.
- Wink, André. Al-Hind: Early medieval India and the expansion of Islam, 7th-11th centuries. Netherlands: Brill, 2002.
- Parsis in India and the Diaspora. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis, 2007.