Cama Baug Parsi Fire Temple, Mumbai
A few weeks back, we got an invitation to a Parsi Navjote, or coming of age ceremony. DiploDad and I know a number of Parsis and we were very, very honored to be invited.
Generally speaking, Parsis are Zoroastrians in India; they are the descendants of Persians who fled religious persecution at the time of the Muslim invasion of Persia. The word “Parsi” or “Parsee” means “Persian”. You are probably familiar with Parsis even if you don’t know it – many of the prominent names in business and industry are Parsis – think the Tata family and Cyrus Mistry. You’ve probably heard of Zubin Mehta, the famous conductor, or his brother Zarin Mehta, who was the executive director of the New York Philharmonic until 2012. If you are my age, you have even heard of the most awesome Parsi woman ever, Persis Khambatta, who was Miss India 1965 and Lt. Ilya in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).
She was also the first Indian to present an Academy Award. Sorry, Priyanka Chopra.
So Parsis walk among us in the world, but they are a relatively small number – in India, it is estimated they are approximately 60K in number, or 0.0006% of the total population. The number of Parsis is dwindling – largely because the religion is only passed on with the marriage of two Parsis, or in some cases, a Parsi man and a woman of another religion. Marriage is also less and less common, as is childbearing, among Parsi women, who tend to be highly educated.
The Parsis have retained their culture and traditions while making their mark on Indian society, most notably in Mumbai, but with sizeable communities in Pune, Hyderabad, and Bangalore. They are one of the most distinct and influential ethnic groups in Mumbai society. For more information on the Parsis, check out my favorite crutch, Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parsi Keep in mind that that’s just one link – there is a lot of information out there and many good sources. I read and scanned through several in preparation for attending the ceremony and in writing this post and there’s so much research and commentary that it’s hard to wade through all of it. Wikipedia generally distills things down to a digestible amount, so I rely on it for most of my links. I will say that the research on the Parsis in India grabbed me in a way something rarely does, and I got lost in the Internet for hours. I did like this particular site, and thought it did a really good job explaining things in depth and even providing lots of good, if dated, photographs – http://www.heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/navjote/
The experience was one I hit without a lot of background or experience – while Christianity is familiar to me as I grew up with it, and Hinduism is present daily in Mumbai in so many ways, I knew very little about the Parsi traditions and religions. I really hope that I can do the experience justice in a few paragraphs.
The day of the ceremony, I was in a tizzy. I had NO clue what I should wear. This might seem ridiculous to you, but I wanted to be respectful to the gravity of the ceremony I imagined was ahead, and to look nice. I had no sari-tyer in sight, and my other nice Indian clothing was at the cleaners. Eventually, I decided on a nice classic dress in purple. DiploDad and DB1 were also in Western. We thought that it was best to leave DB2 home with L because we figured the child in the ceremony would be about 12 or 13 and that there would probably not be many small children there.
When we got there, I’d judged well on the dress – turns out many of the ladies were in purple or pink, so I fit in well on the color scheme, and several were in Western dress. Some of them wore a special sari that had a Chinese-inspired border on it – interesting in the fact that it included people on it (which is uncommon for saris and well – because it’s CHINESE.) Turns out, there was a time when there were Chinese embroiderers in India who helped create this tradition. This type of traditional sari is known as a “gara sari, and my purple dress fell right in the middle of the color palate, which ranges from purple to dark navy blue. Unlike most saris I’d seen before, the pattern was often limited to the border instead of woven throughout the entire fabric. I love saris, and I could go on and on, but instead, I’ll let you read here if you’re interested — http://www.heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/parsi/gara.htm
I’d missed the boat on no small kids.
The honoree himself was about six. What DiploDad told me was “coming of age” is actually translated a little closer to “initiation”. A Navjote is typically done prior to puberty, and at an age when the child can understand his or her responsibilities in the religion and recite and learn the appropriate prayers. This struck me as a very similar thing in my own experience – the age at which a Catholic child receives first communion and is then a full participant in daily church life.
The honoree’s parents and his sister were with him on a stage that was beautifully decorated with Zarathustra, the Parsi saint, in flowers.
Forgive the horrible photo quality – my phone died literally the next morning.
The little boy, Farzan, was dressed in his traditional religious outfit, as was his father. We were one of the first to arrive, and we walked up onto the stage, said hello to our hostess, D, and her husband and the young and very exuberant and sweet guest, and then went to sit down. DB1 took a few photos with Farzan and his sister – Farzan was clearly very proud and happy and his sister was a lovely doting big sis.
We were in our seats for a while and realized that we’d forgotten to bring Farzan his gift and so DiploDad went through the lengthening receiving line and presented it. Another tick in the “Diplomatic Gaffes” column for The DiploFam.
I had a few moments to look around while I sipped on my mocktail and to take in everything around me. The celebration area was made up of a large area and a stage in the front where the receiving line ended. Plastic chairs were lined up and were quickly being re-arranged into circles and rows that lent themselves more to casual chatter and socializing rather than a big presentation. People were filing in, including a few other consulate folks, who I greeted either with personally or with a wave.
About a half hour into the evening, DiploDad’s assistant, R, came with her husband and immediately took us under her wing. While I am pretty comfortable in new situations, I relaxed to almost jelly mode when R showed up. R declared that we were guests, and she was very serious about her duties. I was so happy when she sat with us as beyond being a very lovely and familiar face, she explained so many things to me and answered all my questions about the religion, culture, and the ceremony. I need to mention that any inaccuracies or failings in this post are due to one of the Swiss cheese holes in my brain through which an alarming amount of information falls into, and not her guidance.
One of the first things R explained is that while there is a Fire Temple and people refer to the Parsi community/worship grounds as temple, Parsi festivals take place outside as it is important to have the elements – air, water, fire, earth – present for festivals and celebrations. What this means in India is that everything takes place between the end of the Monsoon in about October until things heat up in April. Personally, I loved that idea, and looking up at the night sky and the surrounding architecture of Old Mumbai surrounding is was peaceful and beautiful.
The honoree was dressed in his ritual outfit of kurta, pajama pants, and a cap, as was his father and grandfather, but no other men present wore anything remotely similar. R explained that while it is traditional for the inductee to wear the outfit, and that other men initiated into the faith may also wear it, it is not typical unless one is a member of a priestly family or a priest. Farzan’s dad was one of the priests, and in line with Parsi tradition, one day he will be a priest too. The priests in the community are few in number, and the role is passed on from father to son. Oftentimes, the daughter of one priestly family marries into another and becomes the wife of a priest – I suppose that way you know the demands of the role and are able to draw on other relatives for advice and support.
R explained to us that the gathering that evening wasn’t actually to include a ceremony. Apparently, not all communities do public ceremonies and not all people are invited to them. The actual Navjote had taken place earlier in the day in the Fire Temple, R said. At this point, I got curious. Weren’t we at the temple? There was a building behind us – was that it? Turns out, nope, we weren’t.
The large airy area we were seated in wasn’t a temple at all but the celebration grounds. The open plan building with large airy arches and a kitchen and bar area in the back was more of a recreational center. The fire temple was around back.
You can’t actually go into a Parsi fire temple unless you are a Parsi who is inducted into the faith or you are a small child before puberty. The Fire Temples were built to house purity – the white ash or purified water used in Parsi rituals. Of the approximately 177 fire temples in the world, 50 of them are in Mumbai, 100 in the rest of India, and 27 throughout the rest of the world. The Fire Temple, while important in Parsi life, is actually much younger than the Zoroastrian religion itself. For more on the Parsi Fire Temples, read here – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_temple
R, however, was happy to show us where the Fire Temple was in the compound, and even though we could not go inside, R explained the significance and a bit about the ritual and there was a black and white photo of the inside of the temple outside so we could see what it looked like inside.
We could also peek just a little bit inside.
I really liked that middle ground – as someone not inducted into the faith, I might not be able to go inside, but I could see the elements in the photograph and I had my own personal guide who explained every detail to me. In addition to R, the caretaker was also outside sitting on the steps, and he nodded and smiled and added a few points as well. There was also a dog seated on the stairway that came over from his bowl to give us a sniff. Dogs are everywhere in Mumbai, and I really didn’t give it a second thought beyond noticing he wasn’t as skinny and gangly as most, but later on I found out that Parsi funerals involve a dog, as dogs can see death, and I imagine that the spry young dog who guarded the Fire Temple was also there to guide others on to their final rest.
We moved on from the outside of the Fire Temple and on to the stable area. In the stable area was a pure white cow, with not a single hair of another color. Seriously, they exist – even in low light, this cow gave off an ethereal glow. Cow urine of a pure white cow is important in Parsi rituals for purification purposes, and some of my research tells me it is used in sprinkling on funeral shrouds.
Nice cow. It wouldn’t be a DiploMom post without a cow, now would it?
We moved on from the religious area and back towards the celebration. The cooking area was right on the other side of the fire temple and oh, the smells emanating from it were making my mouth water. We were a little curious about some of the cooking, and got in closer to check it out.
Mince meat. Season meat. Wrap around iron rod. Grill. Mmmmm….
Afterwards, we moved over to the dining area. The tables were arranged in rows, with chairs on one side, and the other side clear so that the waiters could go up and down the other side of the table and serve. There were various “seatings” where you took a seat at a table – with a banana leaf in front of you if you were not vegetarian. I took a banana leaf. Eating on a banana leaf is kind of fun. First, you have to make it lie flat, so you take your hand and crush the middle stem so the sides of the leaf splay out. Voila! Instant eco-friendly plate.
Texans, the Parsis have beaten you in the World BBQ Chicken Championships.
The food was AMAZING. Some of the best I’ve eaten in India, really, and with some begging, R gave me the name of a lady who runs cooking classes on Parsi cuisine. I am definitely going to call her up and arrange a class, so look for a class review sometime in the future. R explained that these were traditional celebratory dishes. As we ate, a photographer and videographer moved up and down the aisles. While I am definitely not embarrassed to eat with my hands in the traditional fashion, I rarely make it look as dainty as my Indian friends, and I “cheat” often with one too many napkins. I think I need to apologize in advance to anyone who sees my fumbling on that video for eating with the dexterity of an overtired toddler.
Some people – and I’m not saying WHO -cheated and used silverware.
After dinner, we moved over to say goodbye to our hostess. As we passed a table, we noticed a special thali with several articles on it. R explained that such a decorative thali was often passed down from generation to generation, and used within the family only on special occasions. The articles on it included a coconut, water, almonds and a bouquet of flowers, which were showered on the initiate during the ceremony earlier that day.
It was closing in on 10 p.m., and DB1 was fading fast. I think I’ve mentioned before, that DB1 does not have the Special Nighttime Powers all Indian children seem to have, and while his eyes were rapidly glazing over, ninety percent of the other children present had gained their second wind and were running around on the stage, throwing flowers and shrieking happily.
By the time we were halfway home, DB1 was dead to the world, and I was once again thinking of how lucky I am to have a life where I learn, love, and live with friends of many cultures, who invite me into their homes and lives. Navjote Mubarak, Farzan.