This article "Understanding Parsi Customs in the light of Zoroastrian religion" is based on a talk by Ervad Dr. Ramiyar Karanjia. It appeared in the Parsi Tari Arsi column of Bombay Samachar.
[A talk delivered by Ervad Dr.Ramiyar P.Karanjia under the auspices of Zartoshty Brothers Fund (A B.P.P. Trust) and Athornan Mandal, with songs by Mrs. Havovi Karanjia and musical accompaniment by Mrs. Hufrish Bamji.]
The Zartoshty Brothers Fund has previously given you some interesting programmes like the significance of the celebration of 'chula nu varas' and 'Avan mahina nu parabh'. Today we give you an understanding of a few common Parsi customs in light of Zoroastrian religion and practical knowledge.
Many a Parsi customs, because they are not properly understood or traced to Avestan times or scriptures, are believed to be of Hindu origin. This is not entirely correct as we will shortly see. Only perhaps 20% of the customs are of later oroigin. Some have undergone minor changes on the basis of time and place. I feel it is quite possible that many of the customs may be a part of some Nasks which are now lost. We can say so, because some of the above customs can be traced back to ancient Iran.
At the outset we will examine some customs for auspicious occasions, appropriately referred to as 'Sagan'. The word sagan is similar to the Sanskrit word Shagun, shakun and means auspicious. Customs of auspicious occasions can be divided into four categories: FOOD, SES, DECORATION & SONGS.
FOOD: The different foods used for sagan represent the different creations and it is an occasion of thanksgiving to Ahura Mazda for His different creations as also a pledge to look after the creations. Sev (Vermicelly) or Rava is made of Wheat and reminds one of grains and vegetation. Also it is sweet and reminds one to have a sweet nature not only throughout that auspicious day, but throughout life. As it is made finely it also reminds us of industry. Bananas, used along with Sev are to represent the fruits and vegetable on which we depend. Curds made from milk reminds us to take care of animal kingdom. Eggs from chicken remind us to treat our winged friends with care, whereas fish remind us to take care of creatures of water.
I will dwell a bit more on the symbolism of fish. Cooked fish, motifs of fish, replicas of fish, sweet meats made in the shape of fish are widely used for several auspicious occasions, especially those connected with Marriage. The use of fish on auspicious occasions is generally misunderstood to be a Hindu custom. However, the use of fish as a motif can be traced back to more than 2,500 years in ancient Iran. In a bas relief of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae, not only his crown is adorned with fish, but there is also a relief depicting the lower half of a torso of a person, who one leg is fish and another of a goat.
While on food let me also dwell on Dhan-dar, white rice with bland dal (lentils) gneraly cooked with turmeric, one of the favourite food of Parsis on auspicious occasion. It is food which all, poor and rich, can afford. Since Dhan-dar is cooked on auspicious occasions as also on the day of Uthamna, on the third day after death, it tries to tell us to treat happy and sad occasions as same. Not to get too elated when happy nor get too sad by calamities. The great Sasanian Dastur Adarbad Mahraspand compares good times to a bag of air which could easily get deflated by the slightest prick. Dhandar is also one of the simplest as well as most nutritious foods. It conveys the message of being simple in food as well as life. Moreover, one needs to have nutritious food whatever the occasion in life, as without nutritious food one cannot have health, and without health one can't live a proper life either on a physical, mental or spiritual plane.
SES: Ses is a wonderful collection of auspicious symbolism kept in a tray - present at all auspicious occasions. It has the following main items in it:
Paro is a conical metallic container. The present day metallic paro is a remembrance of the sweet ( khadi sakar ) in the shape of Paro used in Iran even today, wrapped in Green papers and used on auspicious occasion. In our Paro khadi sakar and kharak (dried date) is placed inside.
In ancient Iran sweets were given to guests as soon as they entered the house along with sprinkling of rose water from Gulabaz while chanting the words 'khush amadid" welcome. The 'Agarni no larvo' prepared at the sevent or ninth month of pregnancy, is also a cone- shaped sweet meat with sheets of beaten silver on it. In a way it is 'welcoming' the new child into the world with a paro of sweets.
It contains Kanku(Vermilion) for the tili (red mark/tika) to be put on the forehead. The Parsis generally put a vertical mark on the forehead of the man and a round one on the forehead of the woman. The former signifies rays of the sun and hence energy, the later signifies the moon and hence beauty. It also signifies the gravitational force (friendship) between the sun and the moon described in Khorshed Nyaish, an important requirement for keeping life active, alive and in order. Also the sun is seen as a fructifying agent, giving life, whereas the moon is seen as a conceiving agent receiving the rays of the sun. Rice is placed on to the tila to signify sign of plenty.
The practice of putting a tili can be traced back to the ancient Rajput practice of putting a blood mark on the forehead before venturing on important missions. Since Rajputs have a close affinity with Aryans, one can hazard a guess that there is some Aryan link to this practice too. Thus, to me, the practice of putting a red mark on the forehead is a sign of self-sacrifice. An assurance given to the loved ones on the auspicious occasion that when time comes, one will be willing to give sacrifices for the person. The true colours of love can be seen from the extent a person is ready and willing to give sacrifices for a loved one.
Rose water is kept in it. In Iran it was sprinkled on guests while welcoming them and chanting the words 'khush amadid" welcome. Even the shape of the Gulabaz is typically Persian and similar shaped containers are found in Arab countries even today.
Coconut comes from the tree known as 'Kalpavrukhsh' in Sanskrit. None of its parts goes waste. A person is reminded to be resourceful and useful in all walks of life. Betel leaves (paan), betel nut (sopari), rice, dates and other dry fruits, symbols of prosperity and fertility, are also kept in the Ses. Nowadays all such things are kept in the real or their metallic replicas are used.
The custom of putting chalk on the floor of entrance and thresholds is a typical Parsi custom. In the olden times, the entrance was covered by lime powder, which served as a disinfectant when the roads were not tarmacked. The Parsis have their typical and specialized chalk boxes, much unlike any other community, with their own traditional designs like Ses, fish etc. etched in dot forms. The chalk powder is put inside this metallic box and stamped onto the damp floor creating artistic patterns.
Of all the patterns the Swastika pattern is also used. Many consider it to be a Hindu symbol. However the Swastika is an ancient Aryan symbol of the sun, and Zoroastrians we revere the sun as a form of fire energy.
Toran is generally made of mango leaves, marigold or other flowers strung together on strings and put on the entrance and doors jambs in the house. A Parsis house can be easily identified by the typical toran and chalk at the entrance. Though many this too to be a custom of the Hindoos, we have evidence that in ancient Iran Torans were uses, especially in fire temples. According to Firdausi and Tabari, the Sasanian King Khushru Parviz went to the Atash Kadeh of Adar Gushasp before assuming power after being ousted by Behram Chobin, and after being dethroned by his son Hormazd. He had the Atash Behram decorated with pictures of natural objects like star, sun and moon in the form of silver torans and silver plates. Moreover, according to Dr. Sir Jivanji Modi, even the ancient Jews and Romans had the practice of decorating the door of the house with flowers on auspicious occasions.
II Baj - Rojgar
The custom of celebrating the anniversary day of departed ones is an important Parsi custom. It has nothing to do with death or morbidity. It has got to do with life, as blessings and help of departed ones is supposed to be an integral part of Zoroastrian life. Without their blessings neither our auspicious occasions are complete nor our life. The Baj is a general term meant to indicate the annual remembrance day of departed ones.
Departed ones are to be remembered not only on their anniversary days, a religious injunction bounden on all Zoroastrians, but also on happy occasions - like the Varadhni nu Satum aat the time of weddings, to seek their blessings. It is like an invitation to them to be present at the auspicious occasion, and shower their blessings for it.
In their remembrance we repay a great debt of gratitude, not only to our immediate dear departed ones whom we know, but also those innumerable unknown departed decades and centuries ago, the riches of whose benevolence we are reaping today.
This custom also brings to life the Zoroastrian concept of the immortality of the soul and their desired to be remembered and invoked, enshrined not only in the Gathas, but also other texts like the Farvardin Yasht. The Dibacheh in Stum and Afringan prayers tell us to remember the departed ones at least on the fourth, tenth and thirtieth day of their death and on their death anniversary days.
Fire as a symbolic representation of all pervasive energy is a symbol of Ahura Mazda. It is a natural object, which not only reminds us of our maker, but which can put us in direct contact with Him. Thus it is understandable that it plays a very important role in the religious lives of Zoroastrians. Fire also reminds a Zoroastrian, all that is needed to remember for a good life - Self-sacrifice, ratheshtari (being a warrior against evil), immortality of the soul - by its flaming shooting upwards, opposing darkness of all kinds, etc.
The respect and reverence given to fire often refereed to as son of Ahura Mazda is evident in many Gujrati songs and Monajats composed in honour of fire.
Fire was kept burning in a Zoroastrian house 24 hours of the day, a custom which is not much practiced now for practical reasons. However, a custom, 'lobaan feravvu', taking the lobaan around" still continues by making a fire on a small fire vase (afarganyu) and taking it around the house. It is generally done twice a day in the mornings and evenings (after sun set - divabatti). Loban (frankincense) and sandalwood is put on the fire in a small afarganyu and taken around the house. It could be done either by the lady of the house or a man.
This practice not only perfumes the house, but also keeps out mosquitoes and other insects and purifies the air. It dries the air, which in turn kills bacteria in the air, as 80% of bacteria cell contains water. If this water is dried by heat, it is not possible for bacteria to survive.
This custom is reminiscent of the practice of fumigation enjoined in the Vendidad to disinfect rooms polluted by dead, decaying or putrefying matter. Fumigation was performed by using certain special types of woods. It was done either in isolation or along with other means of disinfections. Later on the practice of fumigation can be seen even among Jews, Christians and Muslims.
If it is not possible to have a fire 24 hours of the day, Parsis adopt a substitute custom of having a divo (oil lamp) burning for 24 hours. A divo is generally referred to as a dikro a son. I feel this is because as the son looks after the safety and security of the house and also brings in good things, so also an oil lamp (as a substitute of fire) prevents any evil from entering the house and attracts goodness and bounties to the house.
IV RECITING SHAHNAMEH & MONAJATS
The Zoroastrians had a custom, till the last couple of decades, of having the family together in the evenings and spending time in singing Monajats (devotional songs in Gujarati or Persian) and reciting Shahnameh. Throughout the day, the family is out of the house, working or studying. This get-together also gives an opportunity for the family of spending some time together, which may prove to be the golden moments for the family, a silver lining in an otherwise hectic day. The singing of Monajat and Shahanameh not only give the all important knowledge of religion and Iranian history to children, it also helps in giving moral and ethical teachings to children, and develop faith in the religion and its tenets..
Zoroastrianism has intertwined and interspersed religion in the everyday life of its followers through these customs as also through tarikats (religious disciplines) and rituals. The religion that we live in our everyday life is more through these customs and tarikats than philosophy or metaphysics.
- Ervad Dr. Ramiyar Karanjia.
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