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.
The separation of a religious minority that had begun in Persia as long ago as the seventh century C.E. seems to be coming to an end in modern Canada. Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran and Parsi immigrants from India are forging a new community in Canada. The first immigrants from British India included Sikhs, Hindus, and some Parsis. Because of Canadian immigration laws at the time, only a very small number of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent entered Canada during the first half of the twentieth century. The few Parsis among them settled in British Columbia. In 1945, when changes in Canadian immigration policy made it easier for people of Asian origins to enter Canada, the migration of Parsis to Canada began, but there was no significant influx until the 1960s, when sponsored Parsi immigrants began to arrive.
The first pre-1947 and post-1960 groups of Zoroastrian immigrants to Canada were primarily Parsis with roots in India and Pakistan, although they may have come via Shanghai, Hong Kong, East and South Africa, or Britain. These Parsis tended to settle overwhelmingly in Ontario, and in Toronto in particular. The third wave of Zoroastrian immigrants came to Canada from Iran following the end of the shah’s regime in 1979. There are an estimated 3,000 Zoroastrians now living in Ontario, with about half of them from Iran. They form the largest group of Zoroastrians outside India and Iran. The Zoroastrian community in Quebec estimates its numbers at about 200–250, and the Vancouver community claims about 150. A few families are clustered in urban centres across the rest of Canada.
Parsis from the Indian subcontinent and Zoroastrians from Iran differ both in language and in culture. The Parsis speak Gujarati or other Indian languages, but they also speak English as a result of their exposure to the British educational system. The Zoroastrians from Iran, however, speak Farsi, and have had to learn English as a foreign language. Yet these Zoroastrians from various homelands, who emigrated at different times, are all members of a unified community in Canada. The core element that binds them together is not a common country of origin, or a common language, or even a common ethnic identity, but their unique religious tradition.
Zoroastrian believers trace their religious beliefs to the prophet Zarathustra, traditionally considered to have been born in northern Iran at least 700 years B.C.E. He introduced the concept of a good God, known as Ahura Mazda (the Avestan term for Wise Lord) and symbolized by light. To prevent idol worship, Ahura Mazda is represented by the symbol of fire: fire has no form or shape; fire provides light and heat. Even today, Zoroastrians pray either in temples where a sacred fire, tended by priests, is kept burning, or in their homes before a light source. Because of this use of fire Zoroastrians have sometimes inaccurately been referred to as fire-worshippers.
The Zoroastrian religion involves three core elements: good thoughts, good words, and good deeds – Humata, Hukata, and Hvarshta. It teaches that one’s life in this world is a struggle between the forces of good and evil, and that each human being must choose between a life of good deeds or a life of evil ones. A series of songs, called the Gathas, are now accepted as the only writings that can be attributed directly to Zarathustra. Written in the ancient Avestan language of his time, these texts have been translated by many scholars at different periods, and no one definitive translation is accepted by all members of the community.
The role of religion in the daily life of the Zoroastrians has changed little in Canada. The rituals of a devout Zoroastrian may include a short prayer that is said upon rising, before meals, and upon retiring. The major religious festivals, which reflect the agricultural economy of much earlier times, are linked to the seasons. At such events a thanksgiving prayer, Jashran, is performed by the priests, who pray over offerings of fruit and flowers and distribute the blessed offerings to the congregation. The lay people do not make responses. While one can pray by oneself at home, priests are necessary to perform birth, initiation, marriage, and death rites.
Birth ceremonies involve purification rites for the mother and blessings upon the newborn. Children do not become Zoroastrians at birth. Rather they are taught the prayers and rituals as they grow, and before puberty an initiation ceremony is performed for both girls and boys. This ceremony, Navjoter, is a major event in a child’s life. Upon being initiated the child dons two items of clothing that all Zoroastrians traditionally wear: the Sudresh, which is a loose-fitting short-sleeved muslin shirt; and the Kusti, a special cord woven from seventy-two strands of wool, which is tied around the waist with a specific number of knots. The Sudreh and Kusti, along with a prayer cap, are identifying marks for a Zoroastrian, especially in the Indian subcontinent, but in Canada they are generally worn only on ceremonial occasions.
Zoroastrian priests are entitled to perform marriages in Canada, and members of the community still prefer a religious ceremony rather than a civil one. Zoroastrian death ceremonies also involve the presence of a priest. It is the Zoroastrian mode for disposing of the dead body however, that has often piqued the curiosity of the world. Tradition has it that, because fire must not be polluted, cremation is not practised, and because the ground cannot be polluted, bodies are not buried. Thus, in ancient Iran, the body was left in an exposed place high in the mountains, where the vultures dealt with the remains. Over time, this custom translated into the building of the Towers of Silence, where the body was placed on steps within the tower for vultures to consume. Later the bones were moved into a central pit and chemically dissolved. In India, there was considerable controversy between those who wished to retain the Towers of Silence and those who wished to practise burial or electric cremation. The solution to the problem came unexpectedly when dense urban development decimated the vulture population. The Zoroastrians in Canada use either burial or cremation.
In the Zoroastrian calendar there are twelve months of thirty days each and thus there are five days between each year that are devoted to Muktad, prayers for the dead. These prayers are conducted by the members of the community, who come together to pray at the Darbe Mehr or in another communal setting.
With very few individuals resident in Canada before the 1960s, the Zoroastrian community, concentrated in Vancouver and Toronto, met in each other’s homes. As the community gradually grew, particularly in Toronto, its members met in borrowed premises, such as school auditoriums, university halls, and churches. In 1968 the group in British Columbia incorporated as the Zoroastrian Association of British Columbia. This was followed by the formation of the Zoroastrian Society of Quebec, and the Zoroastrian Society of Ontario came into being in 1971. Since then the Zoroastrian Association of Atlantic Canada, the Zoroastrian Association of Manitoba, and the Zoroastrian Association of Alberta have been formed.
One Iranian family in particular has played a critical role in the history of the Zoroastrian community in Canada. Arbab Guiv endowed the Zoroastrian Society of Ontario with a gift that enabled the society to purchase a property in North York and establish its first Darbe Mehr, or meeting place, in Canada. The Guiv family also made funds available to the Zoroastrians of British Columbia to enable them to establish a meeting place of their own.
According to Zoroastrian tradition, a fully sanctified temple is one where a sacred fire is continuously maintained by a team of priests. Since the priests in the Zoroastrian community in Canada work at other jobs, they are available to perform ceremonies only as needed, and thus a formal temple cannot be maintained. The meeting places in the Toronto area and in Vancouver, therefore, have a prayer room where a fire is lit only during prayers. This type of temple is called a Darbe Mehr, which plays an important role in bringing the members of the community together to pray and to celebrate festivals.
In consolidating its identity in Canada, the Zoroastrian community has had to deal with the fact that its widely separated groups have over the centuries followed a number of different calendars. One calendar has been used by Iranian Zoroastrians, while other calendars were adopted in India. These calendars are not religious in their origins, or even in their alterations, but people determine festival days, days of remembrances, and even New Year’s day according to their chosen calendars. A great deal of discussion within the community in Canada has still not led to the adoption of a common calendar. Thus, while some celebrate the New Year in late August, others celebrate it in March.
Given the small size of the Zoroastrian community in Canada, simple numerical survival is a matter of constant concern. Zoroastrians are acutely aware that the current trend is to marry later in life than in earlier times and to have small families of one or two children only. Although the actual number of Zoroastrians in Canada has grown, this is because of immigration, not because of natural increase. A related concern is that the community may lose members through marriage with non-Zoroastrians. In India and Pakistan, and also in Iran, the Zoroastrian minorities were large enough and cohesive enough to provide ample opportunity for young people to find marriage partners within the community, but the situation in Canada is very different. In Canada the young people in the community go to school and enjoy a social life with youngsters from many other traditions and faiths. They meet very few Zoroastrians, however. As a result, intermarriages are common in Canada. These marriages are accepted as inevitable by many, but for some there is a question about the status of the children of such unions.
The Parsis do not practise conversion, for which no mechanism or system exists. One is born into this religious community. While in the past in the Indian subcontinent, intercommunity or mixed marriages occurred, and the children of Parsis fathers but non-Parsi mothers entered the community, the practice of defining a Parsi as the child of two Parsi parents remained the norm. Increasingly, a growing segment of the Parsi community in Canada accepts the children of intermarriages as Parsis regardless of whether it is their father or their mother who is a Parsi, on condition that both parents agree. The question of membership in the community – “Who can become a Zoroastrian?” – is also increasingly being asked. While some members of the community would welcome all who wish to convert, others are very reluctant to accept conversion, or even to accept the children of intermarriages as Parsis.
Another concern of Zoroastrians in Canada is the loss of the languages of both segments of the community. Zoroastrian children born and raised in Canada learn English and French, and they see little advantage in studying Gujarati or Farsi. The community urges young people to attend language classes, but currently the native languages are increasingly being abandoned. For Zoroastrians in Canada, as for all immigrant communities, the tensions between parents who were brought up in the culture of the homeland and children who are being raised in a Canadian context create a generation gap, particularly in the areas of cultural behaviour and religious practices. While the Zoroastrian community deals with this stress quite well, it continues to try to improve the dialogue between younger members of the community and its elders.
Since Zoroastrian women always have been as well-educated as their brothers, and since they inherit property equally, the role of Zoroastrian women in Canada has not changed dramatically after immigration. The possibility of women participating in the religious functions of the community in Canada has even been broached, but without success. The Parsi priesthood remains open only to males on a hereditary basis.
Zoroastrians have been well received in Canada. The community has moved quickly to adapt to Canadian ways, and many of its members have gained national and international prominence in their fields of endeavour. They have done particularly well in business, education, and medicine. Members of the community participate enthusiastically in Canadian society. Many have served or are currently serving on various bodies of the provincial governments and in volunteer organizations. Jamshid Pavri, a Parsi who settled in Vancouver in the early part of this century, was twice honoured as Citizen of the Year by the city of Vancouver for his dedicated service to his fellow citizens. Rohinton Mistry, also a Parsi, is one of Canada’s leading writers (his most recent book being the internationally acclaimed A Fine Balance, published in 1995). The provincial Zoroastrian societies in Canada continue to conduct active outreach programs. In addition, these associations have initiated the North American Zoroastrian congresses. The first North American Zoroastrian Congress, organized by the Zoroastrian Society of Ontario, was held in Toronto in 1974. About 200 people attended from all over North America to discuss issues of survival in North America. These congresses have now become an established part of the life of North American Zoroastrians and serve to bring the small and scattered local communities together.
During the fifth North American Zoroastrian Congress, held in Los Angeles in 1985, a proposal to organize a North American Zoroastrian organization was broached. After considerable dialogue the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America (FEZANA) was registered in the State of Illinois in 1987. The current president is Dolly Dastoor of Montreal. The North American Mobeds Council (an association of priests from the Zoroastrian community in Canada and the United States) informs both members of the community and other North Americans about Zoroastrian traditions. Canadian Zoroastrian priests also take part in the Council of Iranian Mobeds of North America (a council of priests of Iranian origin). The general feeling in the Zoroastrian community in Canada is that its members made a good decision in immigrating to Canada. Zoroastrians look forward with optimism to forging their modern identity in this land.
A good overview of the history of Parsis and their religion is John R. Hinells, Zoroastrianism and the Parsis (London, 1981), while Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism, 2 vols. (Leiden, Netherlands, 1975–82), includes the Parsis in a general history of their religion. C.S. Chandra, “Some Aspects of Parsi Demography,” Human Biology, vol.20 (1948), 47–89, is an earlier study of the demography of the group, as is E.B. Gustafson, “A Demographic Dilemma: The Parsis of Karachi,” Social Biology, vol.16 (1969), 115–27. Suggestions for further readings can be found in Eckehard Kulke, The Parsees: A Bibliography on an Indian Minority (Freibourg, Germany, 1968).
There is little published material available for this group in Canada. Jesse Palsetia, “The Development of the Parsi Community in Ontario,” Polyphony: The Bulletin of the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, vol.12, nos.1-2 (1990), 125–29, is a personal recollection about the group’s settlement in Ontario by a Parsi who immigrated to Canada with his parents as a young boy. Milton Israel, In the Further Soil: A Social History of Indo-Canadians in Ontario (Toronto, 1994), includes a brief passage on the Parsis in Ontario. Further information is available in the Zoroastrian Society of Ontario Newsletter (from c. 1976).