We’re Zoroastrians first

Published: February 16, 2016


Often, during first-time meetings with non-Zoroastrians, when I identify myself as a ‘Zoroastrian’, I get a puzzled look in response. When I say ‘Parsi’, they ease up and smile and promptly quote a list of friends expecting me to know them or be somehow related to them. The impression everyone is under is that ‘everyone knows everyone in the community’ because we are so few in number and live in tightly-knit communities. As a result, for instant acknowledgement from the world, many of us have come to use the words interchangeably, which has not only further encouraged this misunderstanding but will eventually make the world forget who we truly are.

A recent example is the identification of one of our brightest young minds, Nergis Mavalvala, in local publications. The scientist who was part of a team responsible for the recent detection of gravitational waves belongs to the illustrious Zoroastrian community, but she was first identified as a Parsi. Have you ever come across an article on a celebrated Pakistani Muslim or for that matter even a Christian or Hindu whose sect or denomination took centre-stage as their religious identity? Nergis Mavalvala is indeed a Parsi, but we all fall under the larger umbrella of Zoroastrians.

Pakistan-born scientist played part in discovery of gravitational waves

To get to the root of the problem, let me now indulge you in a history lesson. Zoroastrianism is the ancient religion of Persia or modern-day Iran and adherents of the faith are called Zoroastrians. After the Arab invasion of the country in 630 AD, a vast majority were massacred and those who survived were forced into slavery or converted. To escape persecution, many Zoroastrians fled Persia for the safety of the Indian subcontinent and that’s where the chapter on Parsis begins: the Zoroastrians of Persia who settled in India became known as Parsis.

Zoroastrians must keep the fire ablaze

It really irks me when I read entries such as ‘Parsiism’ or ‘Parseeism’ in the online encyclopaedia Britannica, which describes it as how the religion came to be known in India. Indian Zoroastrians (Parsis), and those who later migrated from India to other countries, might identify themselves as Parsis, but if you ask them about their faith, the chance of them saying ‘Parsiism’ is as good as Indian-occupied Kashmir becoming a part of Pakistan. Although it is true that during the process of assimilation, Indian Zoroastrians adopted many of the traits of the dominant culture, such as wearing a sari and making a rangoli to mark a festive occasion, they still recite the same prayers and bow down before the same God. At the World Zoroastrian Congress, which is held almost every year, Zoroastrians from across the globe gather under a single roof and participate in discussions to extend knowledge about one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions. We celebrate the traditions we adopted in India and we also pay tribute to our Persian heritage. Many of us are proud Parsis, but all of us are zealous Zoroastrians.

Decline in population: Of Zoroastrian descent

Today, Zoroastrians are scattered across the globe. We are perhaps the world’s smallest stateless religious minority and face imminent extinction, yet we have left an indelible mark upon this planet. Since our endless contributions to society will be the only legacy we leave behind, all I ask is when the world fondly remembers the likes of Nergis Mavalvala for being part of important breakthroughs and advancements, we would like to be celebrated as Zoroastrians. If every Zoroastrian is first identified as a Parsi, Google will deceive entire generations long after us into believing that ‘Parsiism’ was actually a religion.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 17th,  2016.

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Reader Comments (50)

  • lolz
    Feb 17, 2016 - 12:39AM

    We respect Dilaira jee! Recommend

  • Toti calling
    Feb 17, 2016 - 1:50AM

    I agree parsis have suffered in many countries and their expulsion from Persia was really shameful. But compared to other minorities Parsis have not done too badly in the subcontinent. They are educated and very good in business. I have met parsis from India who introduce themselves as Indian parsis with pride. That is the right spirit. I hear their numbers are dwindling in India as they are migrating to other countries and get good jobs as they are more educated than many other groups.All minorities suffer and parsis are not the only ones and many others like Kurds in Middle East and Palestinians are worse off.
    Religions should not divide people as we all have similar wishes and dreams. Nice to read this piece. Thank you Ms. Dubash.Recommend

  • ajeet
    Feb 17, 2016 - 2:19AM

    They fled to India to escape Muslim persecution, but with rapid increase in Muslim population in India, I’m nit sure if India will remain free from the ill affects of Islamic intolerance.Recommend

  • vinsin
    Feb 17, 2016 - 2:29AM

    Surprised that Tribune published this article. Recommend

  • Srinivasulu Mekala
    Feb 17, 2016 - 3:07AM

    Thank you for the informative article. The Zoroastrian community is rich in culture and heritage. They have immensely contributed to the economy, industry and science of India. We are ever grateful to them. They are of the pure Aryan race, and have never been involved in anything that is against society or humanity. I salute to them for what they are. May the community prosper and live for ever.Recommend

  • S Zafar Iqbal
    Feb 17, 2016 - 5:47AM

    It is called “freedom of press’ and a “tolerant people”.Recommend

  • wb
    Feb 17, 2016 - 6:44AM

    @S Zafar Iqbal:

    My two comments just vanished because I spoke the truth. And the kind of truth that most in the world don’t. That’s neither freedom of press nor tolerance.Recommend

  • wb
    Feb 17, 2016 - 6:45AM


    India is fundamentally an Islamist country. All violence committed by Muslims are not only tolerated but even condoned.Recommend

  • Amjed Jaaved
    Feb 17, 2016 - 8:52AM

    Sketchy. History is an account of rise and fall of many nations. Even Parthians had been great fighters. They could feign retreat riding a horse, swing around on their hip and fire an arrow accurately. Even now pacifist bohra fought well in Gujarat (India) wars. Parthins(Parsi) is not an Indian concoction. Read Braudel’s book on civilisations. Unfortunately Braudel was a jew. He took 35 years to collect material to write his book and another five to write the book. The underhand purpose of portraying Pakistani’s contribution towards gravitational waves appears to soften Paki hearts towards jews. the message is `Jews are great’.Recommend

  • Yasser Masood
    Feb 17, 2016 - 9:00AM

    So ancient Persians were fluent speakers of English? Zoroastrians seems to be an English term, more so it’s very silly to attribute the scientific feats of anyone to their faith, there’s nothing to do between the two really.Recommend

  • FAZ
    Feb 17, 2016 - 9:13AM

    I was looking forward to that spew.
    Good luck, with whatever you got in India.Recommend

  • zain m
    Feb 17, 2016 - 9:15AM

    I am from Karachi, Pakistan. Thank you for the educative article. Recommend

  • S Zafar Iqbal
    Feb 17, 2016 - 9:50AM

    @Yasser Masood:
    To express pride and joy in the achievement of someone originally from our country is perfectly justified.Recommend

  • Rocky
    Feb 17, 2016 - 10:06AM

    Reference to Kashmir “is as good as Indian-occupied Kashmir becoming a part of Pakistan” here was inappropriate and uncalled for. Otherwise a good read. Recommend

  • Anon
    Feb 17, 2016 - 10:39AM

    @vinsin: why surprised?Recommend

  • Brainy Bhaijan
    Feb 17, 2016 - 11:02AM

    Good on tribune to have published this article despite all the pressures from the institutionalized islamist sectors in pakistan.Recommend

  • Imran
    Feb 17, 2016 - 11:18AM

    I never ever made single attempt to reach out to the term ‘Zoroastrians’, while heard and understood more as Parsis. The article does provide insight as we as the pride and identity to un-identified or rather covered under umbrella term Parsis.Recommend

  • Feb 17, 2016 - 11:31AM

    My advice to the author is do not get too attached to your so called roots – every community is dying – my small south indian community is dying – you might not know about it because south of mumbai we are all madrasis. We will continue to call parsis – parsis – so live with it. Recommend

  • Feroz
    Feb 17, 2016 - 12:59PM

    Generally those Zoroastrians who arrived in India before the eleventh century are referred to as Parsis. Those who arrived from Iran as refugees in the last 150 years, dislike being called a Parsi and want to be called Zoroastrians. However within the Zoroastrian faith they are called Irani’s. Generally the Irani’s are known for their strength and capacity for physical work, while the Parsi’s have excelled at mental and intellectual pursuits.

    Zoroastrians for the microscopic minority they are have earned name, fame and recognition for their deeds, way beyond the numbers they represent. Quality, not quantity defines their philosophy and existence. Good thoughts, good words and good deeds as prescribed in the religious texts forms the core philosophy to guide their actions and the primary reason they are preferred as employees, business partners and leaders.

    You may be clever enough to fool the world but you can never be clever enough to ever fool your inner conscience. Once the moral compass has been so calibrated, life becomes a joyous journey to be lived, celebrated and enjoyed.Recommend

  • Apoorv Swarup
    Feb 17, 2016 - 1:05PM

    No one even in India uses the term Parseeism. It isn’t even a legit term. The individuals are referred to as Parsees (most often than not they call themselves Parsees as well) and the religion is always referred to as Zoroastrian.

    I remember celebrating navroze with my friends in Bombay (where its an official holiday). Barely get to meet Parsees or Jews since I moved to Bangalore.

    The Parsees have been one of the most benevolent members if the Indian community, its sad that they aren’t procreating enough, though given how enlightened the entire community is, a heightened sense of individualism is expected (I for one too don’t see the point of something as outdated as marriage or having children burden the earth, so blaming a community would be inane), its sad to see that that happens to be endangering their entire clan. Do wish their value system carries on well into the future.


  • excalibur
    Feb 17, 2016 - 2:40PM

    @ajeet: when they migrated to India, Muslims ruled India for quite a bit of time and no persecution took place of even Hindus Why are you so negative and vicious in your comment against Muslims ?Recommend

  • Rex Minor
    Feb 17, 2016 - 2:53PM

    Zoro- astrian is an ancient faith like many others before the God of Ibrahim spoke to his creation and sent Prophets and scriptures to enlighten them about their creator. Our faith is personal and and should better remain personal since most if not all need a belief to feed our spirit. Our identity is our name and the place of birth and the residence and it is our deeds which should concern others. Miss Mavalvala is no exception. the science community has a new star in their midst, her personal faith is of no consequence.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Umair
    Feb 17, 2016 - 2:57PM

    what was the point oft article, simply that they are not called Paresis. since may be few of them are not.Recommend

  • Certitude
    Feb 17, 2016 - 3:44PM

    My respects, and assurance to further your message as far as my memory serves.

    We respect you first and foremost by virtue of being a human, which is the grandest of umbrellas under which all the religions might come. Zoroastrianism does not face extinction, its marks will live on in the perpetual achievements and developmental ideology which the Zoroastrian intellectuals have spread.

    Respects and best wishes to all my Zoroastrian brothers, and sisters.Recommend

  • Acorn Guts
    Feb 17, 2016 - 3:47PM

    Cool, learnt something new today, thanks.

    Reference to Kashmir was a bit forced & misplaced, there are much potent alternatives.

    As for a scientist who is put under the spotlight for his faith before his achievements, well Abdus Salam comes to mind and his achievements outshine Malavala by light years.Recommend

  • Gurion
    Feb 17, 2016 - 5:33PM


    My advice to the author is do not get
    too attached to your so called roots –
    every community is dying – my small
    south indian community is dying – you
    might not know about it because south
    of mumbai we are all madrasis. We will
    continue to call parsis – parsis – so
    live with it.

    The Dravidian nonsense is endless!!Recommend

  • CardiffKnight
    Feb 17, 2016 - 6:10PM

    I thank the writer for the enlightening article, appreciated.Recommend

  • Baloch
    Feb 17, 2016 - 9:23PM

    Parsis, pardon me, Zoroastrians, have done well in Pakistan. They have prospered and are amongst the richest community in Pakistan. Albeit a dwindling one – less than 20,000 Parsis left in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Ramakrishna
    Feb 17, 2016 - 10:24PM

    Gathas is the ancient liturgical language of the Zoroastrians.The language is archiac,a dialect associated with the North-eastern end of old Persia’s range with the lands of Oxus.It is also very close to the language of Vedas the sacred texts of the Hindus.Nouruz the parsi new year is a ten festival in Iran and is holiday >Iran still celebrates the Zoroastrian festivalRecommend

  • usman778
    Feb 17, 2016 - 11:14PM

    It is sad that an important pakistani to pakistani dialogue cannot occur on web platforms without so much debris from neighboring country cluttering the discourse.

    At any rate, i think we pakistanis of all colors and hues should honor the writer’s wishes. He is Zoroastrian and that is what I shall call this wonderful, enterprising community from now on.Recommend

  • BlackHat
    Feb 17, 2016 - 11:31PM

    One thing that sets Zaroastrians (Parsis in particular) is that they are a progressive people. They have been “sugar in the milk” wherever they have gone. They have not been blood thirsty. It is a pity there are not more of them.Recommend

  • gebde
    Feb 18, 2016 - 1:16AM

    @Acorn Guts:
    Maybe, but Pakistan still has not recognized Dr. Salam as her own.Recommend

  • saleem
    Feb 18, 2016 - 2:52AM

    The place was called persia or Faras in arabic or urdu . As the gujarati and hindi language turned the Faras into Paras therefore the refugees were called Parsis .Recommend

  • Afghan Pashtun
    Feb 18, 2016 - 3:19AM

    I think I should an article too on how Parsis shouldn’t be called the Zartasht people. Zoroastrianism didn’t only originate in Iran of today but Afghanistan of today too. Do you think the rulers would let other religion be practiced if not theirs? No!
    Yeah I get what you mean by the Parsi name but tbh that’s what you guys are known as. You were not the only Zoroastrians but now are and yes you do originate from present day Iran but not all Zoroastrians.
    I support you in your cause but keep caution about what you are saying and it would be an insult to my ancestors. Recommend

  • PrasadDeccani
    Feb 18, 2016 - 9:44AM

    @Afghan Pashtun: Good comment. At some point in time in the past, Zoroastrianism was prevalent in present day Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Peshawar was once capital of Emperor Kanishk whose grandfather was a Zoroastrian king (Kanish converted to Budhism, though). As far as I know, Emperor Kanishk’s empire was mostly current Afghanistan and Northwest Pakistan.Recommend

  • Acorn Guts
    Feb 18, 2016 - 1:47PM

    @gebde: Pakistan definitely recognise Salam as her own (got a postage stamp and gave him petty honours and all) .. but Pakistan has not ’embraced’ Salam per say.Recommend

  • Trollslayer
    Feb 18, 2016 - 3:49PM

    @ Saleem

    The Arabic script does not have the letter P and so they replaced Pars with Fars. The Persians speak Parsi and their capital was once called Persepolis whose ruins stand to this day. Iranians, Afghans and Tajiks are known as Parsigoyan/Persian speakers and many of them have Parsi or Parsa as their surnames.

    Zoroastrians of the subcontinent are mixed with Gujaratis and the only thing that connects them to Persia is their religion. Recommend

  • delhuss
    Feb 18, 2016 - 5:48PM

    There is far too much inbreeding amongst Zoroastrians, which lowers the genetic vitality of the community. Like jews, they are discouraged from marrying outside the faith, and are thus in danger of breeding themselves out of existence.Recommend

  • ali
    Feb 18, 2016 - 6:00PM

    2 million female child are killed by Hindu parents every years.Recommend

  • ask
    Feb 18, 2016 - 6:22PM

    @saleem: Initially “Parsi” denoted geography specific entity, just as “Hindu” did, before both took on religious overtones. Early Zoroastrians coined a name by mispronouncing Sindhu as Hindu. Hindus in turn called Zoroastrian refugees as Parsis, after Persia but specifically Pars (aka Fars, Parasa in old Persian) a district in Southern Iran with famous Shiraz as capital. Parsi refugees began arriving from AD 716. Such refugee followers of Zarathushtra Spitama acknowledge debt to the then Hindus (Jadhav Rana the local king) for providing them safe haven at port-Sanjan in South Gujarat, where they built their first fire-temple in AD 722..Recommend

  • Save the Zoroastrians
    Feb 18, 2016 - 8:13PM

    Save the Zoroastrians from extinction, please. Readers please enlighten as to how this can be made possible.Recommend

  • Save
    Feb 18, 2016 - 8:44PM

    The world would be a less diverse place if communities become extinct. I am worried about the Zoroastrians.Recommend

  • Ahad khan
    Feb 19, 2016 - 2:15AM

    Parsi religion is part of zoroastrianism, not equivalent, I think.

    It is no surprise the parsis identify with their religion first.

    Religious groups subjected to persecution take revenge slowly with the effective interest rate; considering that interest rate is in a country with a high inflation level. One can never tell if revenge will ever be equivalent to the old cost. Recommend

  • Sasha Ali
    Feb 19, 2016 - 2:47AM

    @Yasser Masood:
    Zartusht is the Farsi equivalent. I guess she shouldn’t have written that.Recommend

  • Observer
    Feb 19, 2016 - 4:52AM

    Is that the views of majority Hindu India about their minority Muslims. And still you have audacity to call India, secular, tolerant towards minority. I wonder how do you view your fellow Indian Muslims with such hatred about them! Recommend

  • Observer
    Feb 19, 2016 - 4:56AM

    See… you can’t even say the same about Indian newspapers publishing on the atrocities against minority in India by Hindu-majority. Recommend

  • Observer
    Feb 19, 2016 - 4:58AM

    India has 81% of Indian Hindu population. Muslims make up 13% of total Indian population. Many Hindu nationalist and extremist parties like RSS, Shiv Sena and Ghar Wapsi are forcibly converting Muslims and Christians in India. Intolerance of Hindu India is so massive that Muslims are scared to sacrifice cows on Muslim festivals, else they’d be dragged out of houses in the midnight and lynched by the Hindu-mob. So it is rather Hindu-intolerance that makes everyone worried about minority getting wiped out from India. Recommend

  • Observer
    Feb 19, 2016 - 5:00AM

    Maybe you forgot to follow guidelines and thought hate-speech about religious group was part of freedom. My comments on Economic Times of India were remove because I used the word ‘RAW’. Recommend

  • Atheist Mumbaikar
    Feb 21, 2016 - 1:39PM

    Actually, When Parsis Migrated to India, Mughals did rule Most of the Indian Subcontinent, But all of the southern Peninsula Belonged to Hindu Kings, Like the Maratha Empire (Present Day Maharashtra, Capital Mumbai) , Kalinga Empire, Dravida Empire. So The Parsis sailed to Mumbai and since have settled there. That’s why 98% of Parsis in the world live in Mumbai. And My state, Maharashtra was never conquered by Mughals, The Marathas are responsible for protecting the southern half of India from conversion. There’s a reason why 90% of South India is Hindu, Whole in the north it’s only 65%. And I’m an Atheist, All that happen history, So it doesn’t matter. Hope it helped.Recommend

  • nobody
    Feb 26, 2016 - 6:47PM

    well,this isn’t a bad piece. But I’d say the avesta and ancient vedic sanskrit were cousins and kinsmen,and the celebration of deva in vedic brahmanism and ahura or asura in the avesta is a dichotomy of a kinship and cousinship that stretches back to 6000 years.Recommend

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