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Rooting through the history

As a comprehensive answer to the book’s title — Who is a Parsi? — Prochy N Mehta discusses in fine detail the origins of the community, their assimilation among Hindus in India and then their religious rediscovery through a reformist movement which was essentially orthodoxy in practice. Excerpts:

Rooting through the history
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Which is the one virtue that is best for mankind? Truthful speech is best, because in truthful speech there is good repute in the world and good life and salvation in Paradise.

—Pahlavi Rivāyat Accompanying the Dādestan-ī-Dēnīg

Kisseh-a-Sanjan, a poem written in 1599, is the only record of the history of the Parsis from the time they reportedly migrated to India to escape persecution. Written by Baman Kaekobad in 1599, the poem in its title refers to Sanjan in Gujarat, a place of immense historical and religious importance for the Parsis. It was here that the first Atash Behram was consecrated.

However, the fact remains that Kisseh-a-Sanjan is a literary work, and it makes no claims of historicity. At best, it is historical fiction. It is a pity that there is no historical record of the Parsis' arrival in India, no list of names, no count of how many men, women, or children or how many ship or ships came, and exactly when or where they landed. Travelling by sea would have been sacrilegious for the Parsis, so it is possible that they came by land.

Historian Shapurji Hodiwala in his 1920 book Parsis of Ancient India mentions the writer, Baman Kaekobad Hamjiar Sanjana. He writes that very little is known of him except that Baman put the finishing touch on his verses on the day of 'Khordad' in the month of 'Farwandin' in the year 969 AY (about AD 1600), and that he was 'considerably advanced in age' at that time.

An English translation of Kisseh-a-Sanjan was made in 1844 at the suggestion of Dr John Wilson by E.B. Eastwick and published in the first volume of the journal of the Bombay branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Kisseh-a-Sanjan talks about five conditions set by the King before allowing the Parsis to enter his land. The conditions have often been misquoted. Hodiwala enumerates them as follows:

1) That they should give him some information about their religion

2) That they must give up the language of Iran and speak the local language of India

3) That their women should put on clothes like Hindu women

4) That they must lay aside their weapons and swords

5) That good works such as marriages should be performed in the evening.

On 25 October 1913, Hodiwala read a paper before the Society for the promotion of Zoroastrian Research, titled The Traditional Dates of Parsi History. This was later printed in the Journal of the Iranian Association in January 1914. In this paper, he writes, 'I have said that very few of the statements are properly authenticated and some of them are absolutely nameless. They exhibit the most bewildering diversity amongst themselves, and, if we are to believe them, the same event (the arrival of the Parsis at Sanjan) occurred in 772, 895, and 961 Vikram Samvat ie. 716, 839 and 905 AD.'

Dosabhai Framji Karaka in his book The Parsees – Their History, Manners, Customs and Religion (1858) makes the same point about Kisseh-a-Sanjan.

'Whatever information (about our history) is now in our possession, and is to any extant reliable, is gleaned from a work entitled Kisseh-a-Sanjan, which was compiled in the year 1599, by one Bahman a Zoroastrian resident of Nowsaree, from the traditions extant in his time.' He adds, 'various meagre and unsatisfactory traditions exist concerning the tide of emigration, the manner in which it was effected, and the total number of those who left the shores of Gulf.'

In the foreword of Parsis of Ancient India, Hodiwala explains: the history of the Parsis of ancient India from the hoary past down to the 16th Century after Christ is almost a blank. Open the first volume of the Parsi Prakash, that monumental work of the Late Khan Bahadur Bomanji B. Patel, and you will find that only 3 or 4 pages have been devoted to events connected with the Parsis during the above-mentioned period.

He continues:

According to the account of the Kisseh-a-Sanjan about 115 years after the overthrow of the Sassanian dynasty, a number of Zoroastrians came to India and landed at Div off the coast of Kathiawar. Having stayed there for 16 years, they went to Sanjan. If we take the battle of Naharend (AD 641) to have decided the fate of the Persian Empire, it would appear that the Zoroastrians landed at Sanjan in AD 775. Some scholars, taking AD 651 (when the King Yezdagard was killed) as the starting, arrive at the starting date AD 785.

Ervad Maneckji R Unwala has got a manuscript about 150 years old, which gives a slightly different account from that of the Kisseh-a-Sanjan. The date is 716 AD and not 775 or 785 AD, beside this there is no landing at Div. The reason for this difference is the accounts maybe, as suggested by Wilford, that the history of at least 2 bands of refugees has been mixed up. Such discrepancies, coupled with other circumstances, have led some scholars to challenge every detail of the Kisseh-a-Sanjan.

Hodiwala also says:

Nothing indeed, can be a greater error than to suppose that Bahman was a great poet, a serious historian or a man of multifarious and accurate scholarship. At the same time, he was not an ordinary man. He belonged to a family possessing remarkable literary aptitudes and it would be folly to suppose that all his statements are unworthy of credit. But it must be also recognized that he is occasionally out of his depth.

Did they come by sea? Hodiwala believes: 'It is very likely that in accordance with their tradition, they came (by land) hugging the coast – thus avoiding the dangers of the sea and the risk of breaking the rule about not defiling the sea with human impurities.

The purification ritual to be observed after travelling by boat (over water) as recorded in the Rivayats were filed in court in the Saklat vs Bella lawsuit.

(Excerpted with permission from Prochy N Mehta's Who is a Parsi?; published by Niyogi Books)

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