Dasturji Kotval's Lecture on Advent of Parsis in India

by Maneck Bhujwala

On Saturday, 6/13/98, the High Priest of Wadiaji Ateshbehram of Bombay, India, gave a talk at our monthly religious class, Dasturji Firoze Kotval, at the Daremeher, in San Jose, California. Following is my best recollection of the contents of his lecture and answers to questions from the audience.

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Maneck Bhujwala

Advent of Parsis and Establishment of Iranshah Ateshbehram in India

In Iran there were five dynasties of our ancestors:

Last Zarathushti King - Yazdezird Shahriar was the last king of the Persian empire who ruled from 632 A.C. - 652 A.C. and died at a young age of 34 yrs. We remember him through starting our Zarathushti from the year of his coronation.

The tragic death of Yazdezird came with the treachery of the Governor of Merv, whose name was Mahu-e-Suri, and to whom the king went for help after Arab victories in the battlefield. Suspecting treachery, Yazdezird flees the governor's residence, and rests at a flour mill. The miller named Khusrau, offers him food, but being a staunch Zarathushti, he had to say grace prayer to Ahura Mazda before eating, and he asks Khusrau to bring some Barsom twigs. When the spies of the governor see the miller getting Barsom, they suspect that the king must be hiding here and they tell him to kill the stranger.

Khusru stabs Yazdezird, and his dead body is thrown in the river Zakh. Some Christians from a monastery retrieved the body and recognizing the king, give it a decent burial. Yazdezird's father Noshirwan-e-Adil had given refuge to 6 neo-Platonist philosophers who had been ex-communicated by the Roman church, and this was a return of that favor by the christians who knew about it.

After Yazdezird's death - For several hundred years some of the faithful Zarathushtis lived in the mountains in Kohistan (Khorasan in eastern Iran). Then some of them went south to the town of Hormuz (also called Moghistan based on the word Mogh for priest) located about 30 miles east of the port of Hormuz, and lived there for about 15 years.

As conditions worsened, an elderly priest who could predict the future by drawing lines in the soil, advised the group to sail to the west coast of India and settle there to preserve the faith and race. Several families, men and women, took off in a number of boats, and arrived on the island of Diu in 917 A.C., where they lived for 19 years.

Then, in 936 A.C., they sailed towards the mainland of India. There was a big storm in the sea, and the group prayed to Ahura Mazda for deliverance and promised to build a Ateshbehram if they reached land safely. They arrived at the town of Nav-teri-nagri (name means the town had an area of 9 x 13 kos), which was later renamed as Sanjan after a town in Khorasan.

The Hindu King, named Vajjad Dev (the Parsis dropped the 'Va' and replaced Dev. which has a bad connotation in Zarathushti religion with 'Rana' means ruler), welcomed the group to settle in his kingdom on four conditions:

With the permission of the King, they set about to build the Atashbehram. Ceremonial implements (alat) was brought from priests in Khorasan over the land route with great difficulty (purity of the alat could not be preserved if brought in ships over the sea). Imagine how much hardship our ancestors suffered to preserve their faith and race. Today, with so much facilities and no religious restrictions, we should be able to a much better job to preserve our religion and race.

Learned and pious priests, also called Kimyagars (alchemists) who undertook ritual purification, collected and consecrated fires obtained from several sources - priests, warrior, businessman, farmer, blacksmith, etc., and again consecrated the fire after mixing them together. Finally the sacred fire was enthroned in the temple, and this fire continues to burn in the Iranshah Ateshbehram in Udwada.

Five Priestly Panthaks:

Later, groups of priests moved and settled in other towns north of Sanjan, such as, Navsari, Godavara (Surat), Bharuch, and Khambat, and were known as Sanjanas, Bhagarias, Godavaras, Bharuchas, and Khambatas, respectively. Their areas of jurisdiction were demarcated by rivers - Sanjanas were between the rivers Dantura and Par, Bhagarias between Par and Tapi, Godavaras between Tapi and Narmada, Bharuchas between Narbada and Mahi, and Khambatas between rivers Mahi and Sabarmati.

Moving Iranshah from Sanjan:

When the Muslim ruler of Ahmedabad attacked Sanjan and defeated the Hindu king, the sacred fire was moved to the mountain of Bahrot (south of Sanjan) and kept there for 12 years, and later moved to the town of Vansda where it was kept for another 14 years. Around 1419 A.C., a rich Parsi from Navsari, called Changa Asa, felt pity on the plight of the Sanjana priests and invited them to bring the sacred fire to Navsari and settle there. The local Bhagaria priests also welcomed them, and there was an agreement that the Sanjana priests could perform ceremonies in the Atashbehram and earn their living from the proceeds, while the local priests would do the ceremonies outside the temple and earn those proceeds. (My Note: According to Ervad Godrej Sidhwa's book, for 3 years the holy fire was taken to Surat due to the raids of the Pindaris)

Moving Iranshah from Navsari:

Due to requests from lay people of Navsari, Sanjana priests started doing ceremonies outside the temple, thus breaking their agreement and leading to a legal conflict in the court of the Gaekwad ruler at Songadh. The court decision asked the Sanjana priests to move to another town in their own jurisdiction. Thus the sacred Iranshah fire was moved first to the town of Bulsar in 1740 A.C., and finally to Udwada in 1742 A.C., where it burns today. (My Note: According to Ervad Godrej Sidhwa's book "Discourses on Zoroastrianism, the holy fire was moved to Udvada on Sunday, October 28, 1742).

Answers to audience questions following the talk:

There are 8 Atashbehrams in India - 4 in Bombay, 2 in Surat, 1 in Udvada, and 1 in Navsari.

There are 40 Zarathushti temples in Bombay.

Difference between Atash Behram and Atash Aderan is the number of ritual ceremonies performed for establishing the temple. In order to enter the inner room where the fire is installed, only a Navar and Martab priest can enter after Padyab kusti in the case of Atash Aderan, but in the case of a Atash Behram, a priest must also perform the 'Khoob' ceremony before entering. There are 2 types of Khoob, small Khoob and big Khoob. For a Atash Dadgah (such as the Daremehers in N.America) a non-priest who has taken a bath with clean clothes can also enter for the purpose of offering sandalwood to the fire.

Agiary is a common term used to refer to any temple, and is derived from the Sanskrit word Agni (fire).

Sadra (Sudreh) and Kusti were first introduced by King Jamshid in Iran. The word Sadra is derived from the Avesta word "Vastra" by dropping the 'Va" and replacing 'stra' by 'sadra'.

Dokhmas: In ancient times in Iran bodies were left on mountain tops for scavengers to dispose them. Later, during Sassanian times the Dokhma facility was created. In Bombay, India, the Dokhma was further improved. The main reason for Dokhma is to prevent or minimize pollution of natural elements. If there is no Dokhma facility available then electric cremation or burial are done, although not strictly Zarathushti custom.

Prophet Zarathushtra, when he preached his reform of the Mazdayasni religion, continued 4 practices from the earlier religion - Sacred Fire, Sadra/Kusti, Barsom ceremony, and Hom ceremony.

Pazend sections were added in praise of Ahura Mazda and praying for good wishes for the community, etc., in the spoken language of the Sassanian times, and some of these are recited silently in order to preserve the manthric effect of the sacred Avestan manthras.

During the prayer segment "Dadar-e-Gehan, Dine Mazdayasni, Dade Zarathushti.." we bow towards the South because that is the direction in which we believe the abode of Ahura Mazda is.

It is important to learn the meaning of Avesta prayers, but it is necessary to recite the prayers in Avesta, because these are sacred manthras that have beneficial effect. In Ardibehesht Yasht, several forms of curing illnesses are mentioned, including that of curing with manthra prayers.

A white cap is the correct Zarathushti dress during prayers, but many Parsi non-priests have been wearing black or red caps because for some reason these are the ones readily available in shops.

If a priest is not available when someone dies, a non-priest can start a fire in a vessel, and pray the Geh Sarna prayers or if they don't know that, at least any prayers they know.

Non-Zarathushtis can pay respects to a dead body before the body is cleansed and moved to the prayer area.

Grace before eating is the prayer "Jamvani Baj" in the Khordeh Avesta book. There are 4 types of grace prayers, with priests saying the longer prayers, and a non-priest who may even recite one Ashem Vohu before and after eating.

A rich Parsi, called Maneckji Seth of Vansda, once sent a learned priest called Asdin Kaka to serve the Zarathushti community on the island of Diu.

The community grew from small groups of immigrants not by intermarrying the local Hindus, but by having many children. Dasturji's own grandfather had 18 children.


Dasturji Kotval, urged the community, especially the youth to remember the sacrifices of our ancestors, and take advantage of the freedoms of modern society to preserve our noble religion, race, and traditions.


Maneck Bhujwala.

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