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Zoroastrianism

8) Some Zoroastrian ceremonies and customs

Since coming out to India the Parsia have adopted three things belonging to the people of this land- the language, the dress and part of the marriage ceremony. There are, of course, a large number of minor ceremonials and superstitions that have crept into Parsi life in the course of the many centuries that they have lived in this country. Some of these have been due to the inevitable deterioration in the older ritual, when the purpose of the ancient ceremony was forgotten and only the outer husk remained. And some have been directly borrowed from the surrounding Hindu population of Gujarat.

Still, on the whole, the Parsi community has kept up its ancient tradition and has maintained an individual existence, even though in actual numbers they seem seldom to have exceeded some hundred thousand in India. Having lived in India now for over eleven centuries, and having adopted the language and the dress of the land, the Parsis have outwardly merged into the Indian people forming but one of the many communities of the country. But on the most important occasions of human life-initiation, marriage and death-the Parsis clearly show their individual existence as a separate people, distinctly different from the other races of India.

The initiation ceremony, or the Navjot, is the occasion when th child is admitted into the Zoroastrian fold, and is then invested with the outward symbols of the Faith-the shirt (sudreh) and the girdle (kusti). This investiture is a very ancient Aryan custom and is pre-Zoroastrian. It has been practised among all the Aryans since immemorial ages. Both the Hindus and the Zoroastrians have kept it up to this day. But there are some ramarkable differences to be observed between the two peoples to-day. In the first place, among the Parsis both boys and girls are invested with the shirt and the girdle, whereas among the Hindus the investiture is for boys alone and not for girls. The Zoroastrian have kept up the ancient form of the dress almost unchanged, viz., both the shirt and the girdle. But among the Hindus the shirt had dwindled down to a mere thread-the sacred thread worn across the chest and over the left shoulder, while the girdle, though worn at the time of the investiture, has dropped out almost completely. There is a third thing also necessary with the shirt and the girdle, a covering for the head. Fifty years ago no Parsi would have remained bare-headed either by day or by night; and even to-day, though the men have adopted the European costume and they go about bare-headed most of the time, still at the times of prayers, inside the temples and during all religious ceremonies the wearing of a small velvet or silken skull-cap is compulsory. Orthodox and old fashioned women tie up their hair with a white cotton kerchief, so as to have the head always covered, and even though today kerchief has been discarded, still at prayer time their head must be covered either with the kerchief or with their silk sari. Among the Hindus the tuft of hair worn on the top of the head by the men -the shikha- corresponds in its original object with the cap of the Parsi.

The marriage service The Naojote
The marriage service The Naojote, or initiation of the child into full membership of the Parsee community

The Navjot (literally, 'the New Birth') ceremony marks the second birth of the child, i.e., into the Zoroastrian fold. The ceremony, it is enjoined, should take place between the ages of seven and fifteen, but it is rarely postponed beyond the age of puberty and usually the age is between seven and nine. After this investiture the Zoroastrian has to wear the shirt and the girdle day and night (except while bathing), and these constitute the dress of the body of a Zoroastrian when it is carried to the last resting place.

The shirt is a loose garment of white cotton, the colour implying Asha, the fundamental doctrine of Zoroaster's Faith. It is called sudreh, which word, according to some scholars, means 'the Good Path'. It is usually short-sleeved and reaches down nearly to the knees. It has no collar and is cut low down over the chest; and in the centre there is a small pouch or bag-shaped attachment sewn on. This is called the gireh-ban. This is the most important part of the garment, for it is the symbolical repository of the good thoughts, the good words and the good deeds of the wearer.

The kusti is woven out of while lamb's wool, and the process of weaving it is a complex one. It is prepared, as a rule, only by women of the priestly class, though nowadays sometimes non-priestly women also may weave it. First of all the wool, is spun into a fine thread, and two threads of the requisite length are twisted together, symbolising the union of the Two Spirits for manifestation. Then seventy-two such double strands are taken and woven together into a long thin hollow tape. The number seventy-two represents the seventy-two chapters of the Yasna, the most important book of the Scriptures. The hollow tape is then turned carefully inside out after which there is a ceremonial washing and finally it is rolled up tightly. Every detail in the preparation of the kusti is symbolical, the seventy-two strands are divided into six groups of twelve each, these numbers also having definite significance.

As worn over the sudreh, the kusti goes round the waist thrice, to signify the three commandments of Zoroaster-humata, hukhta, huvarshta. It is secured by 'a sailor's knot' before and behind. Each twist of these knots is meant to bring one important truth to the mind of the wearer: (1)that God is the One Eternal Being, (2) that the Mazdayasni Faith is the true Faith, (3) that Zoroaster is the true inspired Prophet of God, and (4) that the wearer shall try to obey the three commandments.

The state of matrimony has always been regarded as the most important part of life by all Aryans. In the Vendidad it is clearly stated that Ahura Mazda is better pleased with a married man than with an unmarried one, and that He is better pleased with a man having progeny than with one who has none. It has always been regarded as the bounden duty of the Zoroastrian to marry and to bring up a familly, and thus to ensure the continuance of the race and the religion.

When the Parsis landed at Sanjan in Gujarat, and asked leave from the Yadava Prince of that land to settle down in his territory, one of the conditions exacted from them is said to have been an alteration in the marriage ceremony. The time for the celebration is said to have been changed from that date from daylight to immediately after sunset. The essential part of the ceremony consists of the recital three times of the marriage contract by the officiating priest. The original formula is in the Pahlavi language, which was the language of Iran at the time of the Arab conquest. The same ceremony is often repeated in Sanskrit as well, out of deference to a promise given to the Yadava Prince that the marriage ceremony should also be conducted in a language intelligible to the rulers of the land where they had been permitted to settle down.

The essential part of the marriage ceremony is as follows:
The Priest: 'In the presence of this assembly, that has met together in....city, on the....day of month of....in the year....of the Emperor Yazdegard Shahriar of the Sasanian dynasty of auspicious Iran say whether you have agreed to take this maiden named....in marriage for this bridgeroom in accordance with the rites and customs of the Mazda worshippers, promising to pay her 2,000 dirhems of pure white silver and two dinars of standard gold of Nishahpur coinage?'
The Witness of Bridegroom: 'I have'.
The Priest: 'And have you and your familly with pure mind and truthful thoughts, words and deeds and for the increase of righteousness, agreed to give for ever and aye, this bride in marriage to....?'
The Witness of Bridegroom: 'I have agreed'.
The Priest: 'Have you desired to enter into this contract with pure mind and until Death do ye part?'
The Witness of Bridegroom: 'I have so desired'.

The rest of the ceremony is the invocation of the blessings of God and of the Amesha-Spentas and of the Yazatas upon the newly joined couple and an address from the Priest to them as to their conduct in life.

The solemn hour of death and the ceremonies that follow naturally from the most important and the most impressive part of the ritual in every religion. Among the Zoroastrians it is the foremost bounden duty of the nearest relations at such a moment to repeat into the dying ears the sacred verses Ashem Vohu and Ahuna Vairya. The person dying if conscious is also required to join in these prayers.

As soon as the breath has left it, the body is regarded as impure, for it begins then to decay and to fall to pieces. It has therefore to be destroyed as soon as possible and in a manner as may be the least harmful to the living. Dead matter ver soon becomes a centre of corruption and hence in the disposal of a dead body care has to be taken that none of the pure Elements of Ahura Mazda are contaminated. The Mazda worshipper is enjoined 'to expose the dead body to the Sun'. Hence the body is not to be burnt, neither is it to be buried, nor thrown into water. Therefore the structures known as the 'Towers of Silence' are erected, wherever Parsis are congregated in any numbers, in which the dead are exposed without violating either the sence of decency and propriety, or any of the well thought out rules of the Zoroastrian religion.

These Towers of Silence are usually of a squat cylindrical shape, about 20 to 30 feet high, enclosed all round by a thick wall and open to the sky. The only entrance left is an iron gate situated on the eastern side of the wall, which is kept securely locked. Inside the Tower is a platform of solid masonry divided into three concentric rings, and right in the middle is a deep circular pit going down into the earth right up to the foundations. This pit also is constructed of solid masonry. The inner platform is made to slope uniformly and gently towards the central pit. In each of the three concentric rings shallow depressions of three different sizes are arranged radially. The outermost ring contains the largest of these and they are meant to receive the bodies of men, the middle ring has somewhat smaller depressions, which are meant for women, and the innermost ring contains the smallest sized depressions and these are meant for the bodies of children. Between these three rings there are narrow raised ledges running all round, separating them one from the other; and these serve as paths along which any part of the interior may be approached without stepping over the bodies already exposed there. There are also narrow channels connecting each of the depressions with the central pit, along which all fluids may ultimately drain into it. The bottom of the central pit is covered over with layers of sand and charcoal so as to make it a perfect filter; and from here also radiate four underground channels, which also contain filter beds. These channels ultimately lead deep down into the soil, and thus all fluids that ultimately enter the soil have been thoroughly filtered and rendered harmless.

Soon after the spirit has departed, the body is bathed and dressed in old worn out garments of white cotton. After the sudreh is put on, the nearest male relation (usually the eldest son) puts on the kusti reciting the appropriate prayers. The entire body is then swathed in a long white robe only the face and the ears showing. In the meanwhile a room in the house has been washed and in a corner sand is sprinkled on the floor or slabs of stone are laid thereon, and on this the body is reverently deposited, until the hour of its removal has come. The body cannot be carried to the Tower except in the daylight hours and the usual time for the funeral is either in the morning or in the afternoon. As long as the body remains in the house a priest sits near reciting prayers, and keeping alight a fire in which incense and sandalwood is constantly burnt. None but the two Naseh-salars (corpse-bearers) can henceforth touch the body, and none may approach within three paces of the dead.

At the time appointed the two Naseh-salars come in with an iron bier, on which the corpse has to be carried; and two priests stands at the door of the room and, facing the departed, recite aloud the Ahunavaiti Gatha (Yasna, xxviii-xxxiv), When the recital is over the assembled friends and relations take the last leave of the departed, bowing low before the dead. Then the bier is covered over with a white sheet and carried out. There are other men to help the two 'corpse-bearers', but these may not touch anything except the long handles of the bier. It may also be noted that the carriers of the body, the priests who say the prayers and the friends who follow up to the Tower of Silence, must be dressed in white, and they must always go in pairs, holding a white handkerchief between them. The colour of the dress indicates Purity and the going in pairs implies mutual help in the hour of sorrow. Arriving at the Tower the procession halts a certain distance from it, the bier is laid down, and the face is exposed for the last time. All assembled bow low in the last salutation; and then the two 'corpse-bearers' carry the bier into the Tower. None but these two may go inside. There the body is placed within its proper ring and denuded of all its clothing. For naked were we born into the world and naked must we go out of it.

The Tower of Silence, being open at the top, gives free access to birds of prey-the creatures meant by God to devour dead bodies. Incidentally it also emphasises the Zoroastrian virtue of charity even in death by feeding the birds with our cast-off bodies. In town where there is a considerable Zoroastrian population such birds are encouraged to build their nests in the vicinity of the Towers. In places like Bombay the birds finish off the flesh within half an hour, and the bones are completely bleached by the sun and the air within a few days. These are then collected together and deposited within the central pit, where they crumble to dust. Thus rich and poor, saint and sinner, man, woman and child all find the same level at the long last and mingle their dust together. No monument is erected so that the rich may be marked out from the poor even in death.

The rain washes out the Tower and the water running into the pit is filtered through the bone dust thre and through the filter beds, and through the four channels and ultimately reaches the soil pure and clear.

The hygienic value of this system has been proved amply through centuries of usage. The Towers, as has been enjoined, are built upon an eminence near the town, but far from human habitation. This is to ensure that any possible stench may not offend the living. But even in places like Bombay and Calcutta, where the Towers are now surrounded by dwelling houses, there has been any complaint of any smell or of any other sort of nuisance.

This much for the disposal of the body; but Zoroastrianism regards the Soul as infinitely the more important. On the morning of the fourth day after 'the departure' the Soul crosses over the Chinvat-bridge where the good are separated from the bad, and on the other side it is judged by the Great Judge, Mithra and Rashnu, while Sraosha watches over them all. The Judges give the departed the exact reward for all acts done during the earthly life.

Priest officiating Tower of Silence
Priest officiating in a Parsee temple in Bombay. The fire altar is on the right. In this "Tower of Silence" in Bombay the bodies of the dead are exposed to be eaten by vultures. This mode of the disposal of the dead was probably introduced into Zoroastrianism by the Magi.

Prayers for the departed form an important part of the Zoroastrian ritual. Death anniversaries are carefully observed. One important item in many ceremonies is the invocation of the Fravashis of the departed. The idea of the Fravashis is somewhat akin to that of the Pitris among the Hindus of the Manes among the Romans. But there are very important differences. The full philosophical development of this idea is found only in the later ages. The Fravashi is the highest and the eternal 'principle' in a human being. Not only human beings but all creatures possess Fravashis, even plants. They persist through all eternity, they have existed since the beginning of creation and will go on till the end. They also seem to progress continually from one state to another higher and holier. They persist through all eternity, they have existed since the beginning of creation and will go on till the end. They also seem to progress continually from one state to another higher and holier. The Yazatas and the Amesha-Spentas also have their Fravashis. even Ahura Mazda has His Fravashi. The Zoroastrian, however, only invokes the Fravashis of the good, for they are regarded as the guardians of creation, and they help pious in all their good work and bless every effort at progress and righteousness. The long invocation to them (Yasht xiii) is a veritable 'Calendar of the Great Men and Woman' of old iran.

In every important ceremony-such as the seasonal festivals, thanksgiving cremonies, death anniversaries, ets.-the great departed are invoked and remembered by name. All the heroes of ancient Iran as well as all those who have served the community since the migration into India are remembered with gratitude. To have one's name included in this list is the highest honour a Parsi may attain. There is a general list which is used by Parsis all over India on such occasions, and each town has besides its own local list. Though the Parsi dead have no monuments erected to their memory, they have something far more glorious than any stone structure could be- the loving remembrance of their fellow men whom they had served. Verily to live in hearts we loved and served, to be mentioned constantly as examples of service, is the greatest monument the human heart could desire.

Abstracted from : The religion of Zarathushtra, I.J.S. Taraporewala, Madras, 1926

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"There comes a day, Spitama Zarathushtra, or a night when the cattle leave the master, or the master leaves the cattle, and the soul leaves the body full of desires. Righteousness alone, which is the greatest, best and finest of all that is in existence, never parts from man....For the ox turns to dust, silver and gold turn to dust, the valiant hero turns to dust, all mortals turn to dust: what one thing does not turn to dust is the righteousness which a man practises upon the earth."
(Aogemadaecha.)

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