Numbers dwindle but spirit soars high

parsi
The Parsi temple in Bangalore, photo by Neha Jain

Ayan Acharya and Neha Jain
NSoJ Bureau

It is an overcast Saturday morning at the perennially crowded Queens Road-Shivajinagar-Cunningham Road traffic junction. Vehicles hurtle forward incessantly,  waves of pedestrians ebb and flow–there is unceasing noise and confusion. But the Parsi Fire Temple, situated just a little away, is an island of calm within this maddening urban chaos.

Inside the structure, with its eye-catching elegant architectural style, there is an abiding, all-pervasive silence. It stands steadfast, solidly anchored in tradition, or so it seems.

Bengaluru’s only Fire Temple was built in 1926 and it has served as the place of worship for the Parsi community in the city ever since. Allowed inside the temple are the 280 Parsi families in Bengaluru that preserve the religion of fire, Zoroastrianism, in the city.

“According to the Parsi calendar, we have been living in India for the past 1,386 years”, says Ervad Fardoon D. Karkaria, Head Priest, at the Parsi Fire Temple.

Apart from its financial prowess, the community is well-known for its philantharopic activities. Mr. Karkaria says: “The Tatas are everywhere. Their revenue is probably much higher compared to other companies but the profits are lower, because the money that comes from the people, goes back to the people. That is the philosophy of the Tatas.”

While the Parsis have been instrumental in the economic as well as cultural upliftment of this nation, this small, close-knit community is witnessing a decline in its population. As per the 2001 Census, there were only about 69,000 Parsis in the country, with the strength of the community dropping by about 10 percent over most decades since 1950.

Karnataka, with approximately 4,000 Parsis, is fourth on the list of states with considerable Parsi population in the country, according to the 2011 Census data. However, the shrinking community does not trouble Mr. Karkaria who thinks:“The numbers are not that bad. We do not allow inter-caste marriage, which is one of the reasons why the population has shrunk lately. Marrying inside our own community is a rule of the religion which we do not want to break. Religion cannot be modernized. You cannot change it.”

He dismisses the entire debate about the declining numbers: “When we came 1300 years ago, we were only 300 to 800 in number, but today we are in thousands. In our holy book, Zend Avesta, it is written that there will be a decline in our religious population but it also says that the population will grow.” Last year, the “birth-rate in Bengaluru was higher (12 births, six deaths) but this year, we have had 13 deaths and four births.”

Sacred Fire

The Parsi religion holds the sacred fire in high regard. Asked about its significance, Mr. Karkaria says: “We say Fire is our God but it is not. Our God is the Sun. And the sun’s son is fire which is why we worship the eternal flame.”

He adds, “there are three grades of fire. The first grade of fire is called Atash Bahram. There are only eight Atash Bahram temples in India, of which four are in Mumbai and rest in Gujarat.  The second grade is called Atash  Adaran, and the third grade is called Atash Dadgah.”

The Fire Temple in Bengaluru worships the third grade of holy fire, Atash Dadgah. It is made up of four elements- “one element is from the Priest’s family, second is from the blacksmith, third from the cobbler and the fourth is consecrated using the first three.”

On the meticulous process of combining the four elements, he illustrates: “We make 99 holes which are all interconnected. We put the fire on the hole, and because of natural air, the fire will spread and light up a piece of cotton. When it reaches the 99th hole, we take the fire and perform nine prayers.”

And it is only after the prayers have been performed, that a fire is consecrated.

To ensure the fire keeps burning, the Head Priest uses babul tree logs which take a lot of time to burn.

On a lighter note, we got talking about Parsi cuisine and the eclectic mix of tastes that Parsi food offers. ‘Dhansak’, exclaims a grinning Mr. Karkaria. “Every Sunday we need to have Dhansak, otherwise we will die,” he adds jokingly.

Tower of Silence

Over the years, there has been a fair bit of curiosity among the people regarding the last rites of the Parsi deceased. Unlike other religions where the deceased person’s body is either cremated or buried, the Parsis leave the body in the ‘Tower of Silence ‘.

The last rites for the Parsi deceased are both sacred and secretive but the sprawling buildings and gigantic fly-overs seem to have robbed the rituals of the privacy it should be accorded.

The city’s only Tower of Silence is situated over a massive 14-acre campus just off Hebbal flyover, (on Bellary Road). Different people have different perceptions about how the Parsis carry out these rituals. Mr Karkaria clarifies: “We are not offering the bodies to vultures or animals. We offer our bodies to the sun.”  Elaborating further, he says, “in the early days, we used to place the bodies on top of mountains. They used to get disposed of very quickly because of the sunlight. That exposed the bodies to animals. In order to stop that, we built a wall around the place. However, the wall cannot stop the birds.”

While some towers of silence have four wells, the tower in Bengaluru has only one, because the death rate is low in the city. “The well has a system. There are three concentric circles, with rows demarcated for men, women and children. Inside the well, there is a big pit connected to the filters. The well is cleaned every 10 to 15 years’, says Mr. Karkaria.

Told about the problems that residents in the apartments adjacent to the Tower are facing, he says: “We gave the Godrej Woodman Estate authorities an NOC. They have built an apartment next to the Tower of Silence and put up a golf net to restrict vision.”

The Parsis are well-known for their jovial nature and a helping attitude. Their population in the country might be declining but the gung-ho spirit and alluring charisma continue to remain intact.

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