Long ago, Zoroastrians from Persia fled their native land for the more tolerant shores of India. When their boat docked in western India, the local maharajah refused them entry. A messenger was sent to the refugees’ boat in the Arabian Sea. “Our country is this full,” the messenger said and pointed to a full glass of water from the king. “How will you fit in?” “Like this,” said their leader as he mixed a spoon of sugar into the glass. The maharajah received the sweetened glass of water and was pleased. The Parsees (as they came to be known) have stayed in India ever since.
Despite their small numbers, they have an outsized influence on India. Dadabhai Naoroji founded the Indian National Congress that fought for independence and which is still the largest political party. The Tata family of industrialists began the Indian steel industry in the 1800s, started Air India, and donated most of their stock to charity. Oh, and they also bought Jaguar and made the world’s cheapest car.
Parsees these days are slowly going extinct; not from any intolerance but perhaps from a little too much mixing in. Intermarriage with non-Zoroastrians is common (our neighbor in Bombay being one), but their children will not be considered Parsee if both their parents are not Parsee. Consequently their numbers have fallen from over 100,000 at Independence to around 60,000. When they do marry, they have too few children. In 2007, there were only 99 Parsee births. In fact, the Tata family currently has no heir.
Parsees neither cremate nor bury their dead. They leave their bodies to be eaten by vultures and then dump the bones into a dry well. This usually happens at the Tower of Silence in Malabar Hills in Mumbai. Lately though, the vulture population has been declining, and it has become difficult to dispose of bodies traditionally. Rumor has it that because this temple is on prime real estate, unscrupulous businessmen are poisoning the vultures to force them to move out.
Which will perish first? The Parsees or the vultures? Will it be the end to a fascinating Indian subculture? Our Parsee friend seems to think so, and he sighs wistfully for a community whose days are numbered.