On 19 December, roj Ardibehesht mah Amardad (Shenshai), the Delhi Parsi community marked the fiftieth anniversary of the installment of the holy fire in its agiary, the Kaikhushru Pallonji Katrak Dar-e-Meher. Celebrations fell on two particularly cold and foggy days but that did not keep away community members, who came in large numbers to attend lectures, panel discussions, and entertainment. The Delhi Parsi Anjuman also hosted several political figures including Karan Singh, member of Parliament; Sheila Dikshit, chief minister of Delhi; and Salman Khurshid, law minister (who graciously stayed and watched performances put on by the Farohars, Delhi’s youth group, before rushing off to a 10pm cabinet meeting). On the evening of 18 December, Yezdi Karanjia’s theatrical troupe from Surat staged the Parsi natak ‘Ghar Ghungro ane Ghotalo’ before a packed audience.
Two of the high priests, Dasturji Framroze Kotwal and Dasturji Khurshed Dastoor, were in attendance. Dasturji Kotwal’s attendance was particularly significant since, in 1961, he had helped consecrate the fire. Dasturji Kotwal recalled that the alat, or ritual implements, and consecrated hom twigs were brought to Delhi via automobile from the Anjuman Atash Behram in Bombay. Priests conducted the yasna ceremony over four days as well as the seven-hour Vendidad ceremony. On the fourth day, the holy fire was carried in procession to the sanctum santorum of the new agiary. Dasturji Kotwal also mentioned that Delhi specifically chose to have a lower-grade dadgah fire inaugurated: in case the anjuman could not find a priest, a layperson could step forward and tend the fire.
One issue, in particular, seemed to dominate panel discussions and lectures: the state of the Parsi priesthood. Dasturji Kotwal observed that ‘the priesthood has dwindled drastically.’ Unless something is done quickly, the priesthood will be in real danger of extinction. ‘Without priests, there can be no Zoroastrian religion,’ he stated, emphasizing the priesthood’s role in preserving Zoroastrian traditions, rituals, and a corpus of religious knowledge. Dasturji Dastoor argued that ‘the laity have forgotten the priests completely’ and recalled how his own father had to seek out the support of various charities in order to get a surgery done, as he was unable to pay for it himself. Similarly, Dr. Shernaz Cama, director of Parzor, recalled how the late Dasturji Meherjirana had to hitch rides on the back of a bicycle in order to get around Navsari, something that greatly shocked the two Kashmiri photographers that had accompanied her to visit the Meherjirana Library. ‘You call yourselves an enlightened community? We’d be ashamed to have this happen in ours,’ they told Dr. Cama.
There were also calls for reform and liberalization amongst the priesthood. Ervad Yezad Kapadia, vice president of the Delhi Parsi Anjuman, noted that ‘no religion can survive without adapting itself. Certain things practiced in the past need to change.’ In particular, Kapadia argued that the priesthood needs to concern itself with making the religion relevant for its present-day adherents; it also needs to accept all children born from interfaith marriages. Kapadia’s views found a large degree of support within the audience.
Bombay Parsi Punchayet chairman Dinshaw Mehta briefly described a new trust being established for financially supporting the Parsi priesthood. Mehta anticipates that the trust will need an annual operating budget of Rs. 60 million (approximately US$1.14 million) and therefore appealed for financial contributions from the Parsi community. Dasturji Kotwal, who will serve as the chairman of the trust, mentioned that its first priority will be to strengthen the Dadar Athornan Institute, which is now practically the only functioning institution for training new Zoroastrian priests.
Thanks to Jehangir Cama of Delhi for contributions to this article. And thanks to the Delhi Parsi Anjuman and members of the Delhi Parsi community for their kind hospitality and continued support for the present writer.
See news coverage and photographs on the Delhi Parsi Anjuman’s website.