Introduction to PARSI Culture and Festivals

Atash Bahram Udvada Parsi Fire Temple

Zoroastrians are the smallest community in India constituting only 0.006% of the population. Zoroastrian community is generally divided into two segments of people: South Asian Zoroastrian background known as Parsis (or Parsees) and those of central Asian background. They are known as Parsi since they came from Persia around 7th century A.D.  In India Parsis are mainly concentrated in Gujarat and Mumbai.  


The term "Parsi" in Sanskrit means "one who gives alms".  


Zoroastrian religion stands on three main pillars, “Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds”. The holy language of the Parsis is Avesta, an ancient language spoken in Iran. The Parsis believe that the natural elements fire, water, air are pure elements. They consider fire as the purest element and it holds great significance in Zoroastrianism.


Fire is associated with light, warmth, energy and creator of life, hence each and every ritual and ceremony involves the presence of sacred fire. They believe in existence of one invisible god and worship fire in their temples. There are eight Atash Behrams (holy/ victorious/ sacred fire) in India. While fleeing from Iran they bought the original fire with them and consecrated in India. 


The village of Udwada in Gujarat is hence considered as a centre of pilgrimage by Parsis and is visited by thousands every year.


There are three kinds of calendars in Zoroastrianism. Indian Parsis follow Shehanshahi calendar. Parsis celebrate many festivals throughout the year which is calculated according to their calendar. Unlike festivals of other religions Parsi festivals are not celebrated with much pomp and that’s why many people are not aware about it. Most of their festivals are celebrated within their homes, temples and community centers. Each important event in the life of a Zoroastrian’s life such as birth, education, marriage, death is linked with elaborate rituals.


GAHAMBARS: They are six seasonal irregularly placed festivals or high feast when the Zoroastrians assemble to eat and share food together which represents togetherness and builds the strength of community. The food particularly includes traditional Parsi delicacies such as papeta ma gosht meaning meat in potatoes, dhansak chawal and dried fruits ajil or lork/lorg to take away with many other dishes. According to the Zoroastrian calendar there are six seasons and there is Gahambar for each season. It is believed that Gahambars are the only festivals mentioned in the holy book of Zoroastrians, Avesta.


It is a Parsi thanks giving feast celebrated in a grand way which commences by with prayers or a jashan, led by priests. There are six Ghambars celebrated throughout the year with its own theme and significance. The six Gahambars are -


•  Maidyozarem Gahanbar (Mid-spring)

• Gahanbar (Mid-summer)Maidyoshahem 

• Paitishahem Gahanbar (Harvest time)

• Ayathrem Gahanbar (Herding time)

• Maidyarem Gahanbar (Mid-winter)

• Hamaspathmaidyem Gahanbar (Mid path of all)


KHORDAD SAL: It is one of the most important days for the Zoroastrians, as it marks the birthday of Zoroaster, and is celebrated by the Zoroastrians across the world. It is celebrated on the sixth day of the Parsi month which is around August/ September.


This holy day is celebrated with great enthusiasm among Parsis. Houses are cleaned and decorated,  rangolis are drawn and delicious traditional Parsi food is prepared. Special prayer and Jashan are held through the day in which thanks giving prayers are offered at the temple, people greet each other and exchange gifts as well. They also do charity and donation since great importance is given to good deeds and charity in Zoroastrianism.


PATETI: The word Pateti is a Persian word which means repentance. On this day Parsis are supposed to reflect upon the thoughts, deeds and words of previous year and repent for the wrong ones committed knowingly or unknowingly in front of the Holy fire. After this ritual they wish each other ‘Pateti Mubarak’. 


This is supposed to be the last day of the year according to the Persian calendar. They are supposed to clean and purify their mind and start fresh from the next day which is Navroze (Parsi New Year). Over the years, Pateti has now been largely replaced by Navroz and has become a single day celebration.


JAMSHED-e-NAVROZ: It is one of the most important Parsi festivals named after the Persian ruler Jamshed since they believe that on this day, the king of Persia, Jamshed ascended the throne. This is the first day of the first month of the Shenshahi calendar followed by the Zoroastrians which symbolizes rejuvenation and rebirth.  It is also marks the dawn of vernal equinox and transition from winter to summer.


It is celebrated with much excitement and in grand scale among the Parsis. It begins with the cleaning and decorating of house with rangoli and flowers. They wear new and traditional clothes. Parsis visit the fire temple for ‘Jashn’, a special thanks giving prayer after which people greet each other ‘Sal Mubarak’ and exchange gifts as well. Food plays a very important role in the celebration of Parsi New Year. Traditional breakfast Ravo/Rava is made with suji, milk and sugar. A traditional drink falooda is prepared from milk and flavored rose water. Another popular dish is Pulao.


Parsis do not bury or cremate the body of their dead ones because they believe that air, water, fire are pure elements and need to be preserved. So they leave the body on high towers also known as Tower of Silence specially built for this purpose, to be eaten by crows and hawks.


Tower of Silence, view of the interior.


Prominent Parsis: The community has taken prominent part in politics, social and industrial enterprises for e.g. amongst the founders of the Indian Congress was Dadabhoy Naoraji. Notable Parsis who actively participated in Indian freedom movement include Pherozeshah MehtaDadabhai Naoroji, and Bhikaiji Cama. Famous Indian physicist Homi J. Bhabha was known as ‘father of the Indian nuclear program’.  


Several distinguished military officer such as Field Marshal Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw, Ardeshir Burjorji Tarapore (killed in 1965 Indo- Pak war & awarded as Paramvir Chakra posthumously) were Parsi. Air Marshal Aspy Merwan Engineer and Fali Homi Major served as Chief of Air Staff.


Notable Parsis in other fields include cricketers Farokh Engineer and Polly Umrigar, rock star Freddie Mercury, screenwriter and photographer Sooni Taraporevala; authors Rohinton MistryFirdaus KangaBapsi SidhwaArdashir Vakil actors such as John Abraham, Boman Irani and educator Jamshed Barucha.


Parsi community has given India some of its most prominent industrialist groups like Tatas, Godrej, PetitCowasjee and Wadia.


Parsis have contributed in all spheres of Indian society such as science, politics, arts, business and most of all in philanthropy and social commitment.  In Mumbai a popular landmark Nariman point is named after Khurshed Framji Nariman.


Mahatma Gandhi  once said,  "I am proud of my country, India, for having produced the splendid Zoroastrian stock, in numbers beneath contempt, but in charity and philanthropy perhaps unequalled and certainly unsurpassed". Despite being small in number they have made remarkable contribution in the development of India and never asked for any special privilege from constitution for being minority.


About Author: Ishani Gupta is a second year student of history.


Photo of Udwada is courtesy and copyright

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