by Ervad Jal N. Birdy.

This article provides a brief account of the Parsis after the downfall of the Sasanian Empire at the hands of the Arabs and gives possible reasons as to why only those migrants to the West Coast of India have managed to survive while others have disappeared without trace. In doing so, it is hoped that Parsi communities who have migrated to the West in recent times may learn the secrets of survival from their ancestors.

Meaning of the Term Parsi:

The word "Parsi" literally means "a resident of Parsa", which was a province in the South West region of ancient Iran. It is originally an ethnic term, which later acquired a religious connotation and was used for the Zarathushti residents of Parsa. Emperor Darius the Great (521-486 B.C.) in the famous inscription at Naksh-e-Rustom proclaimed himself a Parsi, a son of a Parsi.

Later, "Parsi" was used particularly for those residents of Iran who remained faithful to their ancestral faith, propagated by Zarathushtra, to distinguish them from those Iranians who discarded their faith and embraced Islam after the Arab conquest of Iran in 641 A.C.E. Since then, the term "Parsi" has been applied to the original residents of Iran and their descendents who did not forsake the faith of Zarathushtra and are now living in Iran, India and elsewhere.

In more recent times, a stronger connection between the terms Parsi and Zarathushti has been established. Western scholars (Spiegel, West, Max Muller), writers and historians (Firdausi, Karaka, Napier, Sykes) have referred to the Zarathushtis of Iran as Parsis. In 1906, the Shah of Iran, while repealing the hated Jizya tax on Iranian Zarathushtis, referred to them as Parsis. More recently, Indian Chief Justice Chagla and Justice M. L. Jain have both ruled that the two terms are synonymous. Justice Jain, while stating that Parsi is a religion, has gone even further and held that "any person who is a Parsi but does not follow the Zarathushti religion is not considered a Parsi". The term Parsi, therefore, automatically means Zarathushti, while the reverse is not true. In the following account, therefore, the term Parsi is used for all original residents of Iran and their descendents who refused to forsake the religion of Zarathushtra.

Parsi Kingdoms and Settlements within Iran in Post-Sasanian Times:

Parsi Kingdoms in Eastern Iran:

Even after the downfall of the Sasanian Empire, there were small independent kingdoms in the mountainous districts of Kuhistan in eastern Iran viz., Mazandaran, Gilan, Tabaristan and Khurasan. The Parsi rulers of these kingdoms were the descendents of the Sasasnian royal family and aristocracy and were called Sipahbads. There existed an effective alliance between these independent rulers. All the highlands were under their control and no one dared enter the highlands from the plains without their permission. Notable among these rulers were Sipahbads Sharwin and his son Shahriyar. They ruled in these districts for about 150 years as gleaned from their coinage bearing Pahalvi legends, which are in existence today.

Parsi Kingdoms in Mount Demavand:

A dynasty of Zarathushti priests, known as Masmoghan - Chief of the Mobeds or Magis, ruled in the mountainous district of Tabaristan during Sasanian times and thereafter as independent rulers under Bav, who later retired himself into a fire temple. These mountainous kingdoms, also called Koh s, were highly fortified and almost impenetrable. An account from an anonymous book written in 982 mentions the Kuh-I-Qarin containing over ten thousand very prosperous Parsi villages.

Although there are reports that the kingdoms in Mount Demavand were completely routed in the mid-fourteenth century, there is a strong belief held by many Parsis of India today that these Magis, now called Saheb-e-Delans, still exist in these mountains. These highly evolved personages periodically give audience, passing on their ancient religious teachings to selected Parsis. One such person was Mr. Behramshah Navroji Shroff of Surat, who had an audience with these Magis during the latter part of the nineteenth century.

In the Mountains of Kerman:

A chain of seven mountains, stretching from the sea to the city of Jiruft, was known as the mountains of Kerman. The Muslim rulers did not have a representative in these Parsi communities; instead the chief collected the dreaded "jizya" tax for their rulers. The inhabitants developed a special language (spoken only), known as Dari, which could not be understood by anyone outside their community.

Parsi Kingdoms and Settlements Outside Iran in Post-Sasanian Times:

Parsi Kings in China:

After the murder of Yazdgard III, the last Sasanian Emperor in 652 A.C.E., his son Piroj, proclaimed himself king of Iran and took refuge in exile in the mountains of Tokharistan in Central Asia then under Chinese rule. The Chinese Emperor recognized Piroj as the king of Iran. Later, Piroj went to China and served as a captain in the Chinese army and built a fire-temple in China in 677 A.C.E. His son, Narsi, also lived in Tokharistan and later went to China in 707 A.C.E. The historian and writer, Masudi, recorded in 916 A.C.E., that there were Parsis living in China who worshipped in fire-temples. These early Parsi migrants to China have been totally assimilated into the local population.

Parsi Migration to India:

In ancient times, Iran had come into political, cultural and trade-relations with practically all nations of the ancient world including India and China. During Sasanian times, Parsis were living in China, Central Asia, Pakistan (Sind and Punjab), northern India (Punjab) and western India (Saurashtra, Rajasthan and Gujarat). Apart from occasional archaeological relics discovered from time to time signifying they once lived there, there is no trace of these early settlers.

The ancestors of the present Indian-Pakistani Parsi community migrated to India after the downfall of the Sasanian Empire. A single date of this Parsi migration is not known, since it must have occurred over many years. Dates anywhere from 716 to 936 A.C.E. have been mentioned in various historical accounts.

The Settlement in Sanjan:

According to the traditional account recorded in the Kisseh Sanjan, after the Arab conquest of Iran, the ancestors of the present Indian Parsis took refuge in the mountainous districts of Kohistan in Khorasan for about 100 years. They spent about 15 years in the port city of Hormuzd on the southern coast of Iran, possibly contemplating migration. They finally left Hormuzd by the sea route and landed in India on the island of Div in southern Saurashtra. They stayed in Div for about 19 years, and thereafter, most probably due to the growing threat of an Arab invasion, left Div and settled on the west coast of India, near the place later to be known as Sanjan about 145 kilometers north of Mumbai.

There is again no evidence whatsoever as to how many immigrants actually came via the sea route. There is some evidence that the immigrants came with their families. Some accounts state that about 18,000 Parsis came in seven junks, five of them landing in Div, one at Variav near Surat and one at Cambay in Gujarat. Subsequently, more Parsis migrated from Iran and landed at various places on the West Coast of India. These various and gradual migrations might be the cause of inconsistency and confusion regarding the date of arrival and the landing place.

The local Hindu Rajah, known as Jadi Rana, permitted the Parsis to settle in his kingdom and gave them a vacant area in which they could establish their colony. Tradition states that the Parsis named their new settlement "Sanjan", after the cities bearing the same name in Iran. They installed their Holy Fire, whom they named Iranshah or the King of Iran.

Invasion of Sanjan and Subsequent Migrations within Gujarat:

After 700 years of peaceful and prosperous stay in Sanjan, the Hindu kingdom was invaded by a fanatical Muslim named Sultan Mahmud Begada of Ahmedabad. About 1400 Parsis joined the army of the Hindu Rajah and fought valiantly to rid their land of the Muslim invader. Unfortunately, the Rajah s army was defeated and Sanjan was destroyed, the Parsis suffering much loss of life.

Those Parsis who survived the attack on Sanjan gradually migrated to other places within Gujarat and the West Coast. Their important settlements besides Sanjan were Navsari, Surat, Vankaner, Variav, Ansleshvar, Bharuch and Cambay to the north of Sanjan and Thana to the south.

The Establishment of Panthaks or Diocesan Jurisdictions:

Around 1290 A.C.E., the Parsi priests assembled in council and established boundaries for the following five Panthaks serving the migrants on the West coast.

  • Sanjana priests of Sanjan serving from the River Dantora (near Dahnu) to the River Par (near Pardi)
  • Bhagharia priests of Navsari serving from the River Par to the River Variav
  • Godavra priests of Surat serving from the River Variav to the River Ankseshvar
  • Bharucha priests of Bharuch serving from the River Ankseshvar to the River Cambay and
  • Khambatta priests of Cambay (Khambhat) serving in and around Cambay.

    The Journey of the Sacred Fire, "Iranshah":

    The Parsis who survived the attack on Sanjan decided to move with their Holy Fire to Bahrot, a safer region located in the mountains close to Sanjan. They installed their Iranshah in a secluded cave in the mountains and stayed there for twelve years. Thereafter, the Parsis moved Iranshah to the more prosperous town of Bansda, where they remained for a further fourteen years.

    The existing Parsi settlement in nearby Navsari, under the leadership of Changa Asha, allowed the Sanjana priests to move Iranshah to their town in 1419 A.C.E. The Sanjana priests guarding Iranshah were now under the jurisdiction of the Bhagharia priests of Navsari and it was agreed that they would only perform the ceremonies connected with Iranshah, while the Bhagharias would continue to perform other religious ceremonies for the community.

    This arrangement lasted for about 320 years, after which there were quarrels between the two priestly factions. Ultimately, the Sanjanas decided to remove Iranshah to some place within the jurisdiction of the Sanjana priests. In 1740 A.C.E., they chose to move to Bulsar where they remained for two years after which they moved Iranshah to Udvada, where the sacred fire flourishes to this day.

    The Tragedy at Variav:

    On one occasion, the Rajput ruler demanded a higher tribute from the Parsis of Variav, near Surat. When the Rajah sent his troops to collect the dues, they were repelled by the Parsis. A bigger force was sent on another occasion when the Parsi men were away to an out-of-town feast. This compelled the parsi women to take up arms against the Rajah s men. They fought bravely and were on the point of winning, when a woman s helmet dropped exposing her hair. Seeing this the Rajput soldiers made a frenzied charge and the women preferring death to dishonor heroically leapt into the nearby Tapti River and drowned. Roj Ashishwangh, Mah Fravardin is commemorated even today in honor of the Parsi women who sacrificed themselves at Variav.

    Lessons From Our Parsi Ancestors:

    From the foregoing account, it will become clear how much hardship and suffering was borne by our ancestors in their fight for survival, both in Iran and also on the Indian sub-continent, and for the preservation of the Holy Fire - Iranshah. The decision by some of these ancestors to give up their beloved land of Iran and all their possessions and move to another country in order to save their religion and identity is equally commendable. How the Parsi migrants to the Indian sub-continent managed to achieve their objective in the face of tremendous odds is even more noteworthy. Our forebears were truly men and women with backbone of whom we should be justly proud and grateful.

    Just as Parsis migrated to the West Coast of India after the downfall of the Sasanian Empire, there have been accounts of similar migrations to other regions, principally Europe. It is remarkable that no trace exists of any such early migrants, except the Parsis who came to India.

    The Parsis on the Indian sub-continent number less than a hundred thousand today and they have achieved their goal of preserving their faith and identity almost intact in a sea of some one billion non-Parsis for around thirteen centuries. Some may call it a miracle; others call it a result of their dogged adherence to certain tough rules of survival based primarily on their religion.

    The first rule they adopted was to call themselves Parsis, or Parsi-Zarathushtis and not Zarathushtis alone. This can be seen from the names of almost every Anjuman and Institution on the Indian sub-continent. This immediately insulated them from others who could claim to belong to their community by following the Zarathushti religion. Other important rules came directly from their scriptures. These rules included wearing of the sudhreh-kushti, reverence to fire as The Son of Ahura Mazda, following their purity laws (Ashoi) including the use of Nirang, the practice of Dokhme Nashini, rules against conversion of non-Parsis into their community and most importantly, the law prohibiting mixed-marriage with non-Parsis. Besides making the Parsi community a distinct entity, these rules also formed a deterrent by being so unique and different, that outsiders could not readily abide by them. Had they not followed these laws, the Parsis of the Indian sub-continent would have also become assimilated a long time ago.

    During their thirteen-century history on the Indian sub-continent, significant changes have taken place in their makeup. Their outer clothing, diet, customs, etc., have all undergone significant transformation. Despite these changes, they have managed to survive as a distinct identity. Not only have they always moved with the times, in most fields they have also been pioneers and have stayed ahead of the times. But throughout their checkered history, they have always steadfastly adhered to their unique rules which remained unchanged and which has been their salvation.

    Not only have they preserved both their faith and their identity, they have also played a full role in the development of their country. No one labeled them non-humanist, non-compassionate, pompous, bigoted, racist, or any other derogatory term, just because they wanted to preserve their identity. On the contrary, they have helped the indigenous population almost as much as they have helped their own community members and this has won them great acclaim from the leaders of their adopted homelands.

    There has been a great pressure for us to change ever since we arrived on this continent. Words like "be more open minded", "compromise", "move with the times", "shed outdated ideas", "be realistic", etc., are constantly banded around to shame the Parsis into giving up their time tested rules. Change if you must, but bear in mind that unless we have in place rules as effective (if different) as our forefathers did on the Indian sub-continent, our chances of survival as a Parsi community beyond a couple of generations are negligible. It is not easy for a microscopic community like ours to survive without disciplining ourselves into following some tough rules. Once our identity is lost, our Faith will go the same way. Of course, if the will to survive as Parsis is absent, nothing more needs to be said.

    Historical portions of this article have been taken almost entirely from Dastur Dr. Hormazdyar Dastur Kayoji Mirza s "Outlines of Parsi History", published in 1987. The Tragedy at Variav is from P. P. Balsara s "Highlights of Parsi History", published in 1963. The author makes grateful acknowledgment to both of these sources.

    March, 26th, 2000.

    With kind regards,

    Ervad Jal N. Birdy.

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