The Parsees by Unknown

THE Parsees are supposed to be descendants of the ancient Persians, who, after the defeat of their King Yezdezerd, the last of the dynasty of Sassan, by the followers of Mohammed, fled to the mountains of Khorasan. On the death of Yezdezerd, they quitted their native land, and putting to sea, were permitted to settle at Sanjan, a place near the sea-coast, between Bombay and Surat, about twenty-four miles south of Damaun.

The Parsees are now chiefly settled in Bombay, numbering about one hundred and fifteen thousand souls, or one fifth of the population.

The most enterprising, in a commercial point of view, of the various races of Bombay, are the Parsees, some of whom are even more wealthy than the most successful of the European merchants. They bear the very highest character for honesty and industry, and are intelligent and benevolent. The late Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy was a faultless model of a merchant prince, in integrity, enterprise, and munificence. He founded a hospital that bears his name, and made himself conspicuous for his active benevolence up to the day of his death.

Great numbers of the poorer Parsees are clerks in the government offices—a species of service for which they are peculiarly fitted, on account of their attention to business, industry, and general intelligence. Their inclinations are essentially pacific; and such a phenomenon as a Parsee soldier is almost unknown.

The Parsees are alive to the advantage of affording a good education to their children; and among the largest seminaries in the city of Bombay are those belonging to this community. A Parsee school is an interesting sight. The children are decidedly pretty; and as they sit in rows, with glittering, many-colored dresses, and caps and jewels, they look like a gay parterre of flowers.

On account of their peculiar religious belief, the Parsees are known also as “Fire Worshippers;” but however great their awe for fire and light, they consider them only as emblems of a higher power. The Parsees pay reverence to two kinds of fire—the Adaran, lawful for the people to behold; and the Behram, which must be seen by none but the chief Dustoor, or priest, and must be screened from the rays of the sun. When required for a new temple, a portion of the sacred fire is procured in a golden censer from Mount Elbourg, near Yezd, where resides the chief pontiff, and where the holy flame is perpetually maintained. The Behram fire is said to have had its origin from the natural bituminous fires on the shores of the Caspian, and to have never been extinguished. It is supposed to be fed with sandal and other precious and aromatic woods, and is kept burning on a silver grating.

The Parsees are the only Eastern nation who abstain from smoking. They do not eat food cooked by a person of another religion, and object to beef and pork.

When a Parsee dies, a dog must be present, as it is supposed to drive away evil spirits, who are on the alert to seize upon the dying man’s soul. This precaution is called the sagdad, or dog-gaze. One of the chief reasons for the great veneration in which dogs are held by Parsees arises from the tradition that in their emigration from Persia to India their ancestors were, during a dark night, nearly driven upon the shores of Guzerat, and  that they were aroused and first warned of their impending danger by the barking of the dogs on board their ships.

A group of six boys and girls


When a Parsee dies, the body is dressed in clean, but old clothes, and conveyed to its last resting-place on an iron bier; meat and drink are placed at hand for three days, as during that time the soul is supposed to hover around in the hope of being reunited to its late earthly tenement.

A Parsee man wearing one of the distinctive tall hats


The Parsee sepulchres are of so peculiar a character as to merit particular notice. Should any of my readers ever go to Bombay, he will find two of these dakhmas, or Temples of Silence, in a secluded part of Malabar Hill, though admittance is denied within the walls enclosing the melancholy structures to aught but Parsees. The interior is fitted up with stages or stories of stone pavement, slanting down to a circular opening, like a well, covered with a grating, into which the bones are swept, after the fowls of the air, the dew, and the sun have deprived them of every particle of flesh.

The Parsees assign as their reason for not burying their dead, that, having received many benefits from the earth during their lifetime, they consider it defiled by placing dead bodies in it. Similarly, they do not adopt the Hindoo custom of burning their dead, as another element, fire, would be rendered impure.

The chief distinctive feature of the Parsee dress is the hat, to which the community cling with a pertinacity that would be extraordinary, were it not common. Even the Parsee representative of “Young Bombay,” dressed from top to toe in European costume, including a pair of shiny boots, cannot be induced to discard the abominable topee, or hat, distinctive of his race; though, perhaps, after all, we who live in glass houses should not throw stones; for what can be more hideous than the chimney-pot hat of our boasted civilization? The Parsee head-dress, which contests the palm of ugliness with its English rival, is constructed on a strong but light framework, covered with highly-glazed, dark-colored chintz. The priests, who dress like the laity, wear a hat of much the same shape as the former, but white, instead of a dark color.

On occasions of ceremony, the ordinary tight-fitting narrow garment is exchanged for one with very full skirts, like a petticoat; and a shawl is usually worn round the waist, which is at other times omitted. The costume of the women is a combination of that of the Hindoos and Mussulmans, consisting of the short body and sarree of the former, with the full trousers of the latter. Both sexes endue themselves, at seven years of age, with the sacred shirt, which is worn over the trousers; the sadra, as it is called, is made of a thin, transparent muslin, and is meant to represent the coat-of-mail the men wore when they arrived in India, and with which they believe they can resist the spiritual assaults of Ahriman, the evil principle. The hair of the women is concealed by linen skull-caps, fitting tight to the head.

 It is a singular and interesting sight to watch the Parsees assembled on the sea-shore, and, as the sun sinks below the horizon, to mark them prostrating themselves, and offering up their orisons to the great giver of light and heat, which they regard as representing the Deity. Their prayers are uttered, it is said, in an unknown tongue; and after the fiery face of the orb of day has disappeared in his ocean bed, and the wondrous pillars of light shooting aslant the sky, proclaim that the “day is done,” and the night is at hand, they raise themselves from their knees, and turn silently away from the beach, which is left once more to twilight and the murmur, or, if in angry mood, the roar, of the sea as it breaks on the shore.