Most of the ancient Zoroastrian places of pilgrimage are in the province of Yazd in Iran. Yazd is situated about 200 miles south-east of Isfahan and Kerman and about 380 miles from Bunder (port) Abbas. They are both situated on the confines of two extensive deserts, the Dasht-e-Kavir and the Dasht-e-lut, which to the north, cover an area of over 500 miles, and which are separated by a chain of rocky mountains, through which ancient caravans traced their way with great difficulty.
The condition of the Zoroastrians who had remained behind in Iran had always been miserable. In 1511, they wrote to the Parsis in Navsari, that since the reign of Kaiomars, they had not endured such sufferings, even under the execrable government of Zohak, Afrasiab, Tur and Alexander!
One of the harshest concomitant circumstances of the conquest of Iran by the Arabs had been the Jazia tax. Muslims were the only community exempted from this tax - all the other "infidel inhabitants" of the Kingdom, Armenians, Jews and Zoroastrians, being subject to it. However, among minorities, the Zoroastrians were the worst hit.
Writes Prof. Edward G. Browne in his 'A Year Amongst The Persians' (the year being 1887-88). "Upto 1895, no Parsi was allowed to carry an umbrella. Upto 1895, there was a strong prohibition upon eye-glasses and spectacles; upto 1885 they were prevented from wearing rings; their girdles had to be made of rough canvas, but after 1885, any white material was permitted. Upto 1896, the Parsis were obliged to twist their turbans instead of folding them. Upto 1898, only brown, grey and yellow were allowed for body garments but after that, all colours were permitted, except blue, black, bright red or green. There was also a prohibition against white stockings and upto about 1880, the Parsis had to wear a special kind of peculiarly hideous shoe with a broad, turned-up toe. Upto 1885, they had to wear a torn cap, upto about 1880, they had to wear tight knickers, self-coloured, instead of trousers. Upto 1891, all Zoroastrians had to walk in town and even in the desert, they had to dismount if they met a Mussalman of any rank whatever."
Browne writes about an incident in 1860 where a Zoroastrian man of 70 years went to the bazaar in white trousers of rough canvas. According to Browne's account, "they (the Mussalmans) hit him about a good deal, took off his trousers and sent him home with them under his arms."
Fortunately around the end of the fifteenth century, ties, so long broken between the Zoroastrians of Iran and those settled in India were happily renewed. In a letter to the Parsis of India dated September 1, 1486, Nariman Hoshang wrote from Sharifabad declaring that all the Irani Zoroastrians had been desiring for centuries, to know if any of their co-religionists still existed on the other side of the world!
Parsis settled in India were shocked to learn that while they prospered in the land of their adoption, their poor Irani brethren in the Motherland, suffered. A 'Society for the Amelioration of the Conditions of the Zoroastrians in Persia' was founded and the valiant Maneckjee Limji Hataria was dispatched as an agent of the Society. In 1854, Hataria reported the number of Zoroastrians in Yazd to be around 6,658 while 450 lived in and around Kerman. Only 50 Zoroastrians lived in Tehran and few in Shiraz. At about the same time, the Parsis in Bombay numbered 110,544.
Hataria struggled against oppression of every sort and in 1882, he succeeded in getting the Jazia tax abolished.
Today, of course, Zoroastrians are no longer persecuted. One may witness stray incidents of discrimination (an orthodox Muslim may hesitate to serve a Zoroastrian in his shop or restaurant), but no major conflict. In fact, the last World Zoroastrian Congress was held in Tehran under the patronage of the Iranian Government.
Iran always evokes a multitude of passions and emotions within oneself. On one hand, there is the joy of being with one's fellow Zoroastrians, joining them in worship at the holy fires and sacred shrines. On the other hand, there is always a feeling of sadness. In India, it may be still disputable whether the Babri Masjid was build over a Hindu temple in Ayodhaya. In Iran, it is public knowledge that some of the most architecturally beautiful mosques in Isfahan, Yazd and other places have been built over Zoroastrian fire temples. And this is not what the Zoroastrians tell you. It is the Muslims guides who tell you this!
The 'Special Fires'
The desert province of Yezd, in Iran, is an ancient Zoroastrian stronghold. Even today a number of ancient spiritual fires are preserved in its sleepy little villages. The fire that burns in the village of Sharifabad is said to be more than 2,000 years old. Also, the only Atash Behram other than the eight that burn in India is in Yezd.
There are also the legendary "flying fires". This is not to say that one can see them fly. Not much can be written about these special fires except to say that one must experience the spirituality of these fires rather than just read or talk about them.
According to oral tradition, the Zoroastrians of Yezd believe that generations ago these special fires came flying into certain Zoroastrian villages like Cham and Zainabad. These special fires were typically found crackling and glowing on a cypress tree in the village. One could rationalize that lightening may have struck the tree or the intense desert heat may have triggered a spontaneous fire. But there is no denying the fact that these fires have a natural origin. Over the decades devout "Atashbands" (keepers of the Holy Fire) have preserved these Fires with great devotion and piety. Several miracles and legends are associated with these fires. As they say, 'the proof of the pudding is in the eating' and many (including this writer) have experienced a spiritual transformation after praying before these special fires.
The Holy Shrines
There are also a number of Holy Shrines, which the locals revere as "Pir" (ancient/holy). These mountain shrines consist essentially of sacred rocks in high and lonely places. According to folklore, after the defeat of Yazdagird III (the last Zoroastrian monarch of Sasanian Iran) at the hands of the Arab invaders, his family not only had to flee from the palace but were separated and had to roam about in the wilderness. The invaders were in hot pursuit of Yazdagird's wife and daughters. It is believed that when everything seemed lost, the princesses prayed to Dadaar Ahura Mazda for help, whereupon the mountains opened up and took them in.
For some, these stories may seem far-fetched and difficult to believe. But for Zoroastrians in Iran, the ' Pirs' and the stories wound around them are an article of faith. If you ask them if they really believe in these stories, they shoot back: "Do you believe in Ahura Mazda? Do you believe He is Good, All-knowing and Powerful? Do you believe that He created this entire universe, which also include these mountains? If you do, then what makes you think He cannot do something as simple as opening up a mountain to protect a sincere devotee and save her from the clutches of evil-doers?" This simple but logical argument often leaves the sceptic speechless.
Prof Mary Boyce in her book, 'A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism', writes, "These sanctuaries were very dear to the Zoroastrians. So much so that one explanation, which they gave for their seemingly miraculous survival as a community, was that they had been spared 'for the sake of those in the hills'. That is, so that they might continue to worship at these remote places, and to maintain the rites which were proper to them."
"The five sanctuaries," continues Boyce, "and one other in the plain near the city of Yezd, were in communal trust. Each village looked after the shrines in its own fields and lanes, but all joined together to care for these six. To visit any of them on any occasion was an act of much merit, but the merit was greatest when one joined in the yearly pilgrimage at the time appointed. Each pilgrimage lasted officially for five days, like each of the major festivals."
Seti Pir is situated east of Yezd and it is the shrine that marks the place where Yazdagird's queen (Shahbanoo Hastbadan), the mother of the princesses, Banu-Pars and Hayat-Banu, herself fleeing from the Arabs, jumped into a deep well, together with her two attendants, to save her honour. Seti Pir is, therefore, regarded as the mother of the other five great Pirs.
There is also a fascinating account of how the shrine came to be built. A Zoroastrian from Yezd was imprisoned and sentenced to death for entering the holy city of Meshed. In those days, no non-Muslim could enter the city of Meshed, just as even today no non-Muslim can enter the holy city of Mecca. In prison, the Zoroastrian had a dream in which he was told the story of Seti Pir and asked to prepare himself to make the story known to others and build a shrine on the spot he would find himself the next morning. Indeed, the next morning, the Zoroastrian found himself not in his prison cell, but in Yezd. It appears, on verification, it was found that prison records in Meshed did indicate a Zoroastrian having "escaped" from prison.
According to legend, Yazdegird's daughter, Banu-Pars, fleeing from invading Arabs, came alone to the head of the Yezdi plain. Tired and thirsty, she requested a peasant for something to drink. He milked his cow for her but, just as the bowl was full, the animal kicked it from his hands. Since the Arabs were drawing close, she had to go on with a parched throat. Turning towards the mountains, she stumbled up a dry riverbed. She begged the "Stone of the Curse" to open and take her in, but it remained unmoved. She went on further into the mountain and cried out to Dadaar Ahura Mazda for help and He opened the rock before her and she hastened in, never to be seen again. However, a piece of her dress was caught, it is said, by the closing stone. Iranians claim that their grandparents had seen the fragment of cloth, pieces of which were cut and taken away by pilgrims over years, as a sacred relic. Today, there is no trace of the cloth in the natural cleft in the sacred rock.
Childless women are known to have their wishes fulfilled after praying at this Pir.
Situated on the northeastern side of the Yezdi plain one has to drive through miles of dry desert. And, then, suddenly, out of nowhere, a patch of green can be seen on the mountain – a mountain oasis, more popularly known as Chak-Chak or Pir-e-Sabz. Here, the sacred rock (where the princess 'Nek Banu' or 'Hayat Banu' is believed to have been taken in) is high up on the steep face of a great limestone mountain, besides a pool of water. This pool is fed by a spring that flows, seemingly miraculously, out of the bare cliff above. The course of the trickling water is green with maidenhair fern (believed to be the hair of the princess) and the huge old plain tree which shades the sacred rock is believed to have grown from a stick on which the princess leant and which she thrust into the ground before vanishing. This tree is said to catch fire and renew itself phoenix-like, every thousand years. By the pool, there is also a giant willow which age has bent right over so that the trunk and branches spread across the water and down to the rocks beyond.
From the foot of the mountain, one can see a honeycomb of terraces and little buildings clinging like a Tibetan monastery to the rock face. The climb all the way to the uppermost bungli is steep but not impossible to climb. The devote, though ailing from arthritis, rheumatism and heart disease have been known to climb all the way up to offer their respects at this Holiest of Holy shrine in Iran. What refreshes one and all immediately, is a drink of the water that trickles out of the mountain. The locals call it Aab-e-Hayat, or the Water of Life, and it is as sacred to them as the water of the river Ganga is to the Hindus or Zam-Zam to the Muslims. Local Iranians believe that the water stops trickling form the mountain if a woman in a state of menses approaches it. On the other hand, the flow increases if more pilgrims come to pay homage. Whether a dozen pilgrims come or five thousand, there is always sufficient water for everyone's need even in the summer, provided the laws of purity are observed.
The view from the uppermost terrace at Pir-e-Sabz is stupendous and if one is sensitive enough, one can visualize how the tired and thirsty princess must have come running to this mountain, how she must have prayed for protection and aid. Pir-e-Sabz is also symbolic of the victory of good over evil. No wonder when the Iranian Zoroastrians come back from their annual pilgrimage in the mountains, they come back stronger in their beliefs and conviction in their great religion.
Pir-e-Nauraki is situated at the foot of a mountain of the same name, in the valley of Gaigun. According to one source, the shrine is dedicated to an unnamed princess of Yazdagird. According to the other source, it is dedicated to "Naazbanu", the daughter of a Zoroastrian Governor.
The shrine is a mountain oasis in the middle of a vast and barren desert. The mountains (with patches of snow on the top, even in late spring) at some distance, provide a beautiful backdrop. The air is fragrant with the perfumes of the variety of flora and fauna that abound the shrine.
The shrine rests on the crest of a ridge, which rises from the shingle of a plain, set in a ring of mountains. A maid by the name Morvarid serving the royal household, fleeing with a child of the royal family is believed to have been taken in by the mountain here.
The province of Yezd
The province of Yezd is surrounded all over by mountain and desert. Kerman and Fars lie to the south, while Isfahan is to the west of Yezd. The highest mountain in this province is Shirkuh (or Milky Mountain, so named due to the perpetual snow cover, even in summer) which is 4,055 m. high.
Marco Polo was the first western tourist to visit Yezd in 1272 A.D. and found it to be a habitable city with "intelligent, brave and talented people".
The province of Yezd covers an area of 72,342 sq. kms., with less than a million inhabitants. It is well known for its textile industry and its handlooms produce the most beautiful silk and brocades, even today.
The city of Yezd is a typical desert city with extreme temperatures in summer and in winter. To beat the summer heat, the residents of Yezd have badgirs, or wind-towers, which is an ancient and natural method of air-conditioning.
The construction of badgir and qanat (or underground water channels) is a skill known only to a few families of Yezd and is believed to be an ancient Zoroastrian innovation.
The architecture of the villages is fairly standard – mud houses appearing plain and simple from the outside, but generally well furnished from within. Each house generally has a courtyard – some even with fishponds and pomegranate trees. The rooms have natural cooling systems and openings in the roof for natural light to filter in.
The "Dokhma" (towers of silence) are a major tourist attraction in Yezd. Curious westerners, especially Germans, come in large groups to study and admire this ancient system for the disposal of the dead, which sadly has been abandoned in favour of burial for nearly a quarter of a century in Iran. With the hot desert sun and the 'dokhmas' situated on remote hilltops far from civilization, the system was working effectively. However, excessive westernization under the Pahlavi regime made certain Zoroastrians living in Tehran embarrassed of this 'archaic system'. Although the Zoroastrian villagers in Yezd were happy and comfortable with this natural and effective system, the 'urban intellectuals' spurred by the Late Mohammed Rezasha Pahlavi, brought sufficient pressure on the simple villagers to change the centuries old system of 'dohkmenashini'.
The Zoroastrian villagers are truly a simple, warm and friendly people. They love meeting fellow Zoroastrians who come as tourists or pilgrims and their hospitality and graciousness is legendary. Even the poorest Zoroastrian family would not allow a visitor to leave without a cup of tea, 'sherbet', sweets or fruits.
Indeed, a pilgrimage to Iran and particularly to Yezd, can be an exciting rediscovery of one's historical, cultural and spiritual roots.
Noshir H. Dadrawala
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