India strives to save its dwindling Parsee population

 

INDIA:India wants its dwindling 3,500-year-old Zoroastrian community, better known as Parsees, to have more babies, even as it tries desperately to contain a national population explosion, writes Rahul Bedi, in New Delhi.

The number of Parsees worldwide is estimated to be fewer than 100,000, with their largest concentration of some 69,601 being in the western Indian port city of Mumbai, also known as Bombay.

But by 2020, community members estimate that this number will drop to some 23,000, or a mere 0.0002 per cent of India's galloping population of over 1.2 billion and which is expected to overtake China's over the next three decades.

"We are dwindling very fast. The trend has to be reversed," said Mehroo Dhunjisha Bengalee, a Parsee member of the National Commission for Minorities, responsible for safeguarding and propagating India's ethnic communities in a predominantly Hindu state.

In 2002, 206 Parsee births were reported across India, dwindling to 174 in 2006. And until August last, a mere 99 Parsees were born, Bengalee said.

"At this rate, Parsees would face extinction," she warned.

Traditional Parsees are quietly uncompromising in maintaining their ethnic heritage.

Most Zoroastrian priests refuse to perform the rites of admission into their faith for children from mixed marriages.

However, children of Parsee males who marry outside their faith can be deemed members of the community, provided they undergo certain rituals.

Consequently, the minorities commission recently recommended several measures such as encouraging early marriages, working to prevent divorces and establishing fertility clinics to boost the Parsee population, particularly in Mumbai.

Moreover, to discourage the concept of small families, Mumbai's Parsee Panchayat (assembly of elders) is also offering full financial support for every child after the third. Parsees have also launched a novel experiment in the port city of Surat, 150km from Mumbai, to increase their numbers by donating flats to young community members on condition they marry one of their own and procreate.

And with seven babies born to Parsee parents over the past two years, the plan seems to be working.

"With a roof over our heads we have been able to raise our family," Adil Kasad (31) and his wife Dilshad (26) said.

The sun-worshipping Parsees fled to India over 1,000 years ago from Persia to escape religious persecution from Islam.

After reaching India's west coast, they promised the local rulers that they would not seek converts.

Many Parsees, through hard work and business acumen, prospered under the British colonial administration, establishing large industrial and trading houses across India that remain prosperous even today.

Meanwhile, a Parsee woman activist has triggered a row over the centuries-old tradition of her community using vultures to dispose of their dead.

About three Parsee bodies a day are left to be stripped clean at a private, wooded 45-acre complex in Mumbai's centre but the practice is threatened by a dramatic decline in vulture numbers.

The controversy erupted after scenes from inside the 350-year-old Towers of Silence were revealed by Dhun Baria (65), who printed leaflets with grainy pictures of bodies and distributed them to 2,000 Parsee homes in Mumbai.

She said she only learned what happened behind the walls of the squat circular towers after her mother's body was taken there when she died eight months ago.

Baria's actions have horrified orthodox Parsees, who have condemned her for making public their closely guarded ritual.

The Parsees cannot cremate, bury or submerge their dead in water because they consider a corpse impure and their Zoroastrian faith does not permit them to defile any of the elements (earth, wind or fire) with them.

The dead are carried to a ceremonial gate near the Towers of Silence, where their relatives hand them over to the socially outcast kandhiyas, or traditional pall-bearers, the only ones allowed inside. The declining vulture population in the early 1990s led to the Parsees installing eight solar reflectors to help decompose the bodies faster.

But these have not proven efficient. The process which once took a few hours or days now takes months, according to reformers, with crows and snakes taking over from vultures.