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Origins

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Parsis/Jamshed Mavalwala

The Parsis, or Zoroastrians, are members of an ethnoreligious group that follow the teachings of Zarathustra, a prophet of ancient Persia (Iran) known to the Greeks as Zoroaster (hence the name Zoroastrians). The name Parsi (also spelled Parsee) denotes those followers of the ancient Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism who left Persia following the rise of Islam in the seventh century and came to settle predominantly on the west coast of India, where they were known as the Fars or Pars – the people from Persia – hence the name Parsi. Those who remained in Iran continued to be called Zoroastrians, or Guebre, by the Muslims.

During the period of Achaemenian rule over the Persian Empire (c. 550–330 B.C.E.), Zoroastrianism was among the country’s favoured religions. When the Achaemenian Empire fell, however, and eventually a new Parthian Empire was established in Persia during the last half of the third century B.C.E., Zoroastrianism rapidly declined and almost ceased to exist. But under Persia’s Sassanian dynasty (241–651 C.E.), Zoroastrianism experienced a revival and was made the state religion, with the addition of many rituals. Finally, the rise of Islamic power in Persia during the second half of the seventh century put a definitive end to Zoroastrian influence in ancient Persia.

The persecution of the Zoroastrian minority under Persia’s new Islamic rulers convinced a small group, who already had some trade connections with the east, to seek refuge on the west coast of India. Their flight to the Gujarat region was traditionally put at 716 C.E., but recent research suggests that it may have been as late as 936. According to Parsi traditions, the local Gujarat ruler permitted the Zoroastrians to settle in his territory under certain conditions, including the promise not to undertake conversion of the local Hindu population.

The Zoroastrians in Gujarat – locally referred to as Parsis – gradually grew in numbers and over the centuries absorbed much from the Hindu milieu in which they lived. They adopted the Gujarati language, wore local dress, and increasingly became a closed, or endogamous community, both in terms of marriage and also in their adaptation to the rigorous rules of the caste system. Moreover, they prospered economically, and their wealth and their willingness to adopt a Western way of life were of great advantage to them when Gujarat, together with the rest of the Indian subcontinent, came under British colonial rule in the eighteenth century.

By 1947, when British colonial rule ended and India and Pakistan became independent states, the Parsis had become a highly respected community whose socio-political and economic influence was totally out of proportion to its relatively small size. They were particularly active as leaders in business and industry throughout the Indian subcontinent and successful in the engineering and medical professions. Further, not only did individual Parsis play an important political role during the period of British colonial rule, subsequently they were married to the leading political leaders of independent India and Pakistan. The most recent estimates (1976) place the number of Parsis at 82,000 in India and 5,000 in Pakistan.

Much different was the status of those Zoroastrians who remained in Islamic Persia, where they suffered various forms of discrimination (forbidden, for example, to publish their own prayer books) and where much of their community was reduced to poverty. A small group of Zoroastrians survived mainly in the towns of Kerman and Yasd in central Iran. While they maintained some connections with their Parsi co-religionists on the Indian subcontinent, they shared no common identity. In later years, however, some Iranian Zoroastrians settled among the Indian Parsis, mainly in and around Bombay.

When the Pahlavi dynasty was established in 1921, the shah of Persia/Iran brought the Zoroastrians to the capital, Tehran, and granted them freedoms that they had not enjoyed for a long time. They soon prospered, making large fortunes in the booming post–World War II economy of Iran and quickly rising to positions of high rank in the shah’s government. But the revolution that brought about the fall of the last shah in 1979 also ended the short-lived prosperous existence for the Zoroastrians. With the establishment of fundamentalist Islamic rule in Iran, the Zoroastrians began to leave Iran in large numbers, some as immigrants, bringing their fortunes with them, others as refugees, escaping with their lives.