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Changes and Continuities in Contemporary Zoroastrianism

Panel Chair: Rafael Walthert | Monday, August 24, 3:30-5:30 p.m.

Our panel asks about the changes and continuities in Zoroastrianism, focusing on the situation in India. Nowadays, this religious tradition is mainly based in ethno-religious communities situated in Iran and India but also dispersed further over the globe by migratory movements. Especially for the community in India, the Parsi Zoroastrians, demographic change, migration, urbanization and individual mobility leads to ongoing challenges for the established ritual practice and the ethnic boundary-making of this particular religion. The goal of the panel is to characterize the influence of such wider societal and cultural transformations on the social form and religious tradition in the Zoroastrianism of the Parsis. How can changes as well as continuities be explained in the context of a changing environment? The papers in the panel discuss this question by developing and using the categories of community, ritual, practice and space. While the main focus lies on contemporary issues, the historical dimension is also taken into account, as today's situation has to be understood in the context of developments that date back to colonial times.

Dorothea Lüddeckens

The Stability of Death: Continuity of Tradition in a changing World

This paper focuses on the continuity of death rituals despite two developments: Firstly within the Zoroastrian community in Mumbai the traditional funeral practice of sky burial (dokhmenashini) has been the subject of criticism and conflict in recent decades. For example, doubts are raised concerning the functioning of the system because of a lack of vultures. Besides, the exclusion of non-Zoroastrians from the main parts of the funeral ritual is controversial. Secondly, and more generally, many Parsis have changed the way the practice their religion. For example, many do not obey purity rules, daily prayer rituals, or wear religious clothes any more, i.e. they are very liberal-minded or even indifferent towards the Zoroastrian religion. Despite these developments, an overwhelming percentage (over 90%) still opts for a sky funeral at the traditional funeral ground, accompanied by the four-day-death ceremonies. The paper seeks to explain this seemingly paradox persistence of a ritual practice.

Jenny Rose

Tea and toddy: Early 19th century Parsi-Yankee encounters in Mumbai

As a “middleman minority”, the Parsi community was confronted with modern Western influences from early on. The mid-19th century was a particularly challenging period for the Parsis in Bombay (Mumbai) in terms of social transition and transformation, and many of the changes effected during this period resonate into the modern period, not the least of which is a familiarity with English language and custom. This paper will begin with an exploration of several original documents describing historical encounters between Parsis and American visitors to Bombay, which inform us of both the elevated material and social standing of the Parsis, alongside the aspects of their tradition that they sought to sustain against all change. These two facets of Parsi identity – an ability to assimilate to a majority language and mores, while at the same time asserting difference according to tradition – will be discussed in terms of their impact on contemporary expressions of the Zoroastrian religion.

Håkon Tandberg

“Some Parsi homes ... it's like a whole diversity of culture on their altar.” On the impact of Mumbai's multireligious context on contemporary Zoroastrianism

The title of this paper is a statement belonging to a head priest of a fire temple in Mumbai. On the basis of analysed material from interviews with over 50 respondents, I discuss the impact of Mumbai's multi-religious scene on contemporary Zoroastrianism. This impact is thematised in many different ways in my material, but in this paper I will limit myself by presenting three instances, where the latter will be the main focus of the theoretical discussion. Firstly, when respondents use comparisons to point toward similarities and differences between Zoroastrianism and other religions. Secondly, when certain beliefs or practices are deemed as being the outcome of influence from other religions. The final element relates to when respondents engage in practices, visit places, or celebrate festivals that is typically described or identified as non-Zoroastrian (both by scholars and the respondents themselves). I relate this phenomenon to the larger discussion over changes and continuities in contemporary Zoroastrianism by connecting it to Michael Carrithers (2000) concept of polytropy (the “eclectism and fluidity of South Asian religious life” (834), instead of other candidates such as syncretism. I will end the paper with a critical discussion of the vocabulary scholars employ when discussing the relation between religions in multireligious contexts.

Leilah Vevaina

In Death an Endowment is Born: Parsi Zoroastrian Cremation and the new Prayer Hall Trust

Sacred space for Parsis (Indian Zoroastrians) in Mumbai is managed by their governing body the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, a public charitable trust. Customarily, charitable giving was often performed as part of death and remembrance rituals known as muktads, and donations were channeled through the BPP. While the traditional funerary rite of dokhmenashini, sky burial, has been practiced for centuries and managed by the Punchayet, many Parsis view the process as non-functioning. Today more and more Parsis are opting for cremation, a practice that was historically considered doctrinally abhorrent. In 2014, a former trustee of the BPP formed the Prayer Hall Trust, a small charitable organization that collected funds to operate a prayer hall within an existing public crematorium. This paper will explore how those who opt for cremation are adapting their ancient funerary rituals to this new form, by attending to the shifts in charitable giving now associated with cremation.


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