UDVADA, India – From the porch of his century-old home, Khurshed Dastoor has a front row seat to a tragedy he fears it is too late to reverse: the slow extinction of a people who helped build modern India.
On the wall in his living room hang portraits of the ancestors who led prayers for generations of Parsis, Zoroastrian followers who escaped Muslim persecution in Persia 1,300 years ago and made their home in India. Outside, through a narrow alley, workers are once again renovating the majestic Fire Temple, where the marble has been polished and cleaned and the stone on the exterior walls treated with chemicals to resist rot.
Around him, the void encroaches. Only one or two families remain in the tastefully built houses in the surrounding streets. Moss grows on the brick and pillar walls. Weeds grow on the arched windows.
Worshipers remain in some of these homes, Mr Dastoor said, but many are too old and too frail to attend services.
“I’m 21st in tradition,” said Mr Dastoor, 57, pointing to the portraits of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, all priests. “As I live my life and pass my inheritance on to my son, I doubt the last of the houses will also be open.”
The heritage of the Parsi community is deeply linked to the rise of modern India. Their decreasing number is part of the story of how Orthodox religious rules collided with early and rapid adoption of modern values.
Always a small drop in India’s vast population, the Parsi community quickly adapted to British colonial rule. Its merchant class established links with various Indian communities. After independence, they held key roles in science, industry and commerce. The Parsi Trusts have funded affordable housing projects and scholarships and supported important institutions such as the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the National Center for the Performing Arts.
Prominent Parsis include the founders of the vast Tata conglomerate, as well as the early members of the Indian independence movement and the Indian National Congress, once the dominant political party. The most famous Parsi outside of India could be Freddie Mercury, the singer of Queen, born Farrokh Bulsara.
But the community’s population, which stood at 114,000 in 1941, today numbers around 50,000 by some estimates. The drop has been so drastic that – even as India contemplates measures to discourage more children in some states – the government has urged Parsi couples to have more children, with seemingly little effect.
Walk into a Parsi business in Mumbai, home to the largest concentration of Parsis in India, and you will hardly see anyone under the age of 50. Parsi restaurants feel like a club for the elderly.
This Mumbai community sees around 750 deaths per year and only around 150 births, according to local leaders. In Surat, another town where Parsis has made a name for himself, deaths have almost tripled in the past three years, while births remain few.
“When your numbers drop, where are you going to find the same number of people who are good at what they do? Said Jehangir Patel, who publishes Parsiana, one of the oldest magazines dedicated to the community.
The question of continuity hangs over even the most famous name in the Parsi community: the Tata family, who run one of the world’s greatest business empires.
Ratan Tata, the man at the top of the empire, is 83 years old. He has never married and has no children.
“What has been observed, in silence, is the shrinking of a community known for its excellence,” Tata said in an interview at his seaside home in Mumbai, where he lives with his children. Tito and Tango dogs. “There weren’t so many leaders. And when there were leaders, there was no next generation.
Mr Tata blames the influence of orthodoxy on institutions such as the Bombay Parsi Punchayat, the body that manages the affairs of the community as well as thousands of apartments and other properties owned by Parsi trusts.
They strictly define who counts as Parsi: those who have a Parsi father. Community leaders estimate that up to 40 percent of Parsi marriages are with strangers, but women who choose this are often ostracized. In some parts of the community, they lose such basic privileges as attending the final rites of loved ones.
They are also losing the right to live in affordable Parsi housing, a big plus in Mumbai, where house prices keep rising. Parsi leaders fear that outsiders will enter the community to take advantage of these benefits, thus diluting Parsi culture.
The history of the Tata family plays a role. In 1908, community elders sued Mr. Tata’s grandfather to prevent his French wife from being recognized as Parsi, triggering a series of precedent-setting events.
“We are shrinking as a race,” Mr. Tata said. “And we have no one to blame except ourselves.”
Armaity R. Tirandaz, president of Bombay Parsi Punchayat, said the high priests wanted to ensure that the changes did not erase religious practices from our faith.
Cries of ‘rules should be relaxed’, she said, have only been ‘provoked by those who are not faithful or proud of the religion in which they were born, or who feel a deficit in its precepts. “.
“I think if you can’t ‘conform’ then at least don’t try to ‘twist it’ to suit your sensitivity,” Ms. Tirandaz said.
As factors of decline, some Punchayat leaders cite migration to the West and an increasing number of young people remaining single.
Kainaz Jussawalla, a Mumbai-based Parsi author, said that for professional and independent Parsi women, remaining single is born out of a dilemma: a limited choice of partners within the community and the discouragement that accompanies marriage to l. ‘outside.
“Personally, I made the choice to be single because the pelvis is smaller and it is more difficult to find a partner,” she said.
For those who marry, the national government has offered assistance and allowances to older parents to offset the cost of parent care. Parsis can receive around $ 50 per month per child under 8 and $ 50 per parent over 60.
The program barely made a dent, supporting the birth of 330 children in eight years, according to official numbers.
For Karmin and Yazad Gandhi, the program only changed their timing. The funds proved to be a blessing during the Covid-19 outbreak, when Mr Gandhi – who organizes vacation trips to Europe – almost entirely lost his income.
Ms Gandhi, who works in a consultancy firm, said if it hadn’t been for the program she “probably wouldn’t have had the second child so quickly – maybe about five years apart. “.
Sarosh Bana, 65, a Parsi journalist who edits Business India, cited the rising cost of living in places like Mumbai. Many Parsis would rather raise a child with a high quality education inside a city than have larger families in the suburbs.
“The Parsis would not want any compromise on their standard of living and their quality of life,” said Mr. Bana. “You won’t see a lot of Parsis hanging out on the outside of the 6am trains from the suburbs – they’re not made for that.”
Some Parsis believe that the decrease in population will stimulate the appearance of a savior. Mr. Dastoor, the priest of Udvada, one of the oldest and most sacred temples of the faith, has said that such a messiah is to appear in 2000, 2007, 2011 and 2020.
“Every time he comes it’s a jackpot for us,” Mr Dastoor said, but added, “We can’t just sit there.”
Mr. Dastoor, like many community leaders, believes that the population has passed a point of no return. He gave up changing the opinion of his fellow high priests. Instead, he focuses on running the temple. As a child, 35 full-time priests served the Udvada Temple. Now there are seven.
Mr. Dastoor has two daughters and a son who, in 10th grade in Mumbai, is already an ordained priest. He wonders what tradition he can pass on.
“What is he going to do here?” Mr Dastoor said. “Because there will be no one here. “