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Bombay's Parsis Differ on Future of Their Community

The Indian city of Bombay is home to the Parsi community - descendants of Persians who fled to India centuries ago. Now, their numbers are dwindling, giving rise to fears that the group, with its distinctive religion, is dying out. VOA's Patricia Nunan was recently in Bombay, where she spoke to two well-known Parsi personalities to hear their ideas of what the future may hold for the community.

One is an 88-year-old retired business magnate, a leader of India's Parsi community for the past 60 years, the other is a 34-year-old television host and "video jockey" on the Indian outlet of the popular international music channel, MTV.

Both have become informal spokesmen for the country's dwindling Parsi community, followers of Zoroastrianism, a 3,500-year-old religion that pre-dates Islam in what was then Persia. Bombay's Parsis are descendants of Persians who fled Islamic persecution in their country a thousand years ago.

Jimmy Guzder was given the unique honorary title of chairman emeritus of the Bombay Parsi Panchayat, which looks after the Parsi community in India. Given their unique religion and ethnic background, Mr. Guzder says, Parsis tend to be extraordinarily proud of their identity. "According to the Parsis themselves, they do consider themselves, shall we say, a little superior," he said. "Which is the wrong word to use, but it is so."

A self-described progressive thinker on most issues, MTV host Cyrus Broacha is somewhat more reticent about the responsibility his role as a celebrity has thrust upon him. "Every time they have a controversy they call," he said. "They ask me to talk, like I am the spokesperson for the liberal, left wing of the Parsis."

Both men are respectful of other points of view within the community. And both have different feelings about its future.

The Parsi community was put at 80,000 in a recent government census. But some estimate that over the years, the numbers have dwindled to as few as 40,000 or 50,000 people. Some say the community must fight to save itself and its religion from extinction. But that may be harder than it sounds.

For one thing, the religion does not allow for converts, meaning the remaining Parsis are wholly responsible for propagating their unique identity. In addition, modern young Parsis are like young people everywhere, Mr. Guzder says, juggling careers with the demands of family.

"They do not get married," added Mr. Guzder. "And some of the others, they do not want to have any children, and the desire for children is also comparatively less, so as a result the population has dwindled very considerably."

Recently, some within the Parsi community have decided to relax the rules enough to allow the children of a Parsi man and a non-Parsi woman to be recognized as Parsi, although others dispute that idea. Mr. Broacha says the compromise should go further, and that children of Parsi women should also be recognized, if the religion is to survive.

The Parsi Panchayat has declined to intervene.

"Zoroastrianiam is perhaps the only religion that does not want people to enter its fold. Everyone else is trying to convert people left, right and center. It is like, 'We do not want to do this to you. You have a nice life. Stay away,'" said Mr. Broacha. "However, I obviously think that to preserve the religion is far more important than to preserve the race. The race will die out. There is nothing you can do about that."

Mr. Guzder, however, believes it is important to preserve both race and religion. "What will our children and grandchildren think? What were our grandparents like, they did not have the shame, they did not look ahead and say that this is going to happen," he said. "What happens if the community dwindles down to 20,00? We will be finished."

In 1997, Mr. Guzder pioneered an incentive program that pays a "pure" Parsi couple a thousand Indian rupees each month for the first 18 years of their third child's life. That comes to nearly $5,000 over the years. About 200 children were born within the program's first three years - numbers that encouraged the Parsi community to take the program further.

"Then what happened was the smart women that we have came to me and said, 'Mr. Guzder, why are you satisfied with three children? Why not go whole hog? Make it four.'"

The Zoroastrian religion, made up of those who follow the prophet Zarathustra, holds the concepts of nature and purity sacred - practices that are clearly demonstrated in its funeral rituals.

Zoroastrians believe that to cremate a body desecrates the element of fire, drowning it desecrates water, and burying it desecrates the earth. Instead, bodies are traditionally left out in the open in "Towers of Silence," to be consumed by the elements, and by vultures.

Vultures aplenty used to be seen circling over Malabar Hill in southern Bombay, where the Towers of Silence are located. The towers have always been strictly off-limits to non-believers.

But India's vultures are dying out, a trend blamed on the intrusion of humans into their habitats, pesticide poisoning and avian virus. As a result, bodies are being left out in the open longer than the Indian health authorities will allow.

Recently a new solution was found that allows Parsis to continue placing bodies at the Towers of Silence.

"A pretty bright, young Parsi said, 'I have a solution for that,' recalled Mr. Guzder. 'I have manufactured a unit which reflects the light of the sun to such a magnification that the body is reduced to an ash within a matter of 24 hours.'"

Mr. Broacha says he feels no nostalgia for traditional funerals he witnessed as a child. He says he will not try to pressure his own son, now two-years old, into following the old Parsi traditions.

"You know, suddenly you are 18 and you search for meaning in your life," he said. 'OK. I want to be a Parsi - who is my father, who is my grandfather, where did they come from?' If that is his thing, fine. But no way I am going to force him to do anything."