Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Oldest Prophetic Religion Struggles for Survival India's Parsi Community May Have to Change Customs in Order to Grow

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Oldest Prophetic Religion Struggles for Survival India's Parsi Community May Have to Change Customs in Order to Grow

Article excerpt

Deep in the heart of downtown Bombay, a century-old blue-granite building stands like a silent sentinel to an ancient community in rapid decline.

The dilapidated building houses the Parsi Lying-in Hospital, established in 1893 as a maternity unit for the city's once- thriving Parsi community. Built to accommodate 40 beds, its wards are almost empty today. "We get only four or five patients a month," says Zarin Langdana, the doctor-in-charge. "And most of them are not Parsis."

As India's population expands steadily, the country's Parsi community faces extinction. Emigration, falling birthrates, the growing tendency to marry outside the community, and an injunction against accepting converts is threatening to erase Zoroastrianism, the world's oldest prophetic religion, and its followers from the map of India. "We are an endangered species, just like the tiger and the lion," says Jamshed Guzdar, chairman of the Parsi Panchayat, or council. A recent demographic study predicts that by 2021, when the population of India will be 1.2 billion, the number of Parsis will drop from their current level of 60,000 to just 21,000. Bombay legacy Parsis once dominated Bombay's commercial life. Almost every major municipal building built in the 19th century had the bust or statue of a Parsi benefactor perched on a pedestal outside. Parsis started the city's first hospital, university, and municipal corporation. The city's best-known landmark is probably the Taj hotel, built by Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata in 1903 after he was refused entry into the exclusive Green's Hotel because he was a native. Mr. Jamshetji's great-grandson Ratan controls India's largest industrial conglomerate, the Tata group. "Now the Parsi population's outlook has changed," laments Mr. Guzdar. "There is no urge to step forward and create for themselves high positions in business and industry. Now they find they cannot meet the competition." For most communities, the prospect of extinction would unite members, but it has divided the Parsis. In Bombay, the world's Parsi "capital," the gulf between those who refuse to question orthodox Zoroastrianism and those clamoring for reform is breaking apart a once close-knit community. Perhaps the most divisive issue is whether the children of a Parsi woman who marries outside the community can be considered Zoroastrian. "It's a very emotional issue," says Jehangir Patel, editor of the monthly magazine Parsiana. "As the community gets smaller, your chances of finding a Parsi spouse to your liking are dwindling. More and more families are being touched by this problem. …

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