The Parsi Journey : Custom's, Culture & Culinary

The basic tenets of Zarathushtra’s teachings have survived in the religious ceremonies and customs of the modern Parsis. The most important of these ceremonies will be examined.

The Navjote

The first important event in Zoroastrian’s life is the initiation or Navjote ceremony, which takes place between the ages of seven and fifteen years, in the presence of parents, relatives and friends. As Zarathushtra laid such emphasis on freedom of choice, a child born of Zoroastrian parents is not held to be a Zoroastrian till he ‘chooses’ the faith a this ceremony when he is invested with the Sudra and the Kusti, the two great symbols of the religion.

Before the Navjote, every child is taught the Kusti prayers and their meaning, as also how to tie the Kusti on the Sudra.

According to Iranian tradition, the Kusti was first introduced by Yima (Jamshed). Zarathushtra is belived to have accepted the custom, but felt that is should be tied over a sacred shirt, the Sudra, known to Pahlavi writers as ‘Vohu Manik vastra’, the garment of Vohu Mana the Good Mind. It is again Zarathushtra who is said to have ordered certain prayers (dinik nirangha) to be recited when the Kusti ritual was performed. He held the Kusti to be symbol of man’s implicit obedience to the will of Ahura, a closing of the door against sin and evil, and lastly, an effective weapon against the powers of destruction.

The Kusti which symbolizes the tenets of the faith is woven of seventy-two threads of the fine lamb’s wool as there are seventy-two chapters of the Yasna, the Book of Worship. Only members of the priestly families may weave a Kusti, for it is sanctified by special prayers at every stage of its weaving.

The Sudra may be made of any piece of white cloth, usually muslin or cotton. It has a V-shaped neck at the bottom of which is a square inch-pocket with a slit. This pocket is known as the Kisseh-i-Kerfeh, or pocket of good deeds. White symbolizes innocence and purity, while the little pocket is there to remind us that in comparison with God’s goodness, whatever any good man may do is just one square inch. If a poor man does not have a large piece of cloth with which to make a Sudra, he can join several strips of cloth and still make one. Every Sudra, therefore, has three little tucks at the sides near the bottom, to show that in God’s eyes, rich and poor are equal. The Sudra is always worn next to the skin.

In ancient Iran, the Navjote was always performed early in the morning. Today, it is performed either in the morning, or before sunset.

On the day fixed for the Navjote, the child is first given a ceremonial bath (nahn), and made to chew the leaf of a pomegranate and drink a little Haoma juice. The pomegranate symbolises wisdom, the Haoma juice immoratlity. During these ritual acts the child and the priest recite certain prayers.

The child is now led by the priest to a stage where are seated one or more priests, and where the sacred fire is lit with sandalwood and incense and placed in an Afarghan (fire censer).

The child wears a white Pyjama called the ijar, but the upper part of the body is bare, though wrapped in a shawl or white cloth. He now faces the east, if the Navjote is in the morning, while the priest stands in front of him. Certain prayers are recited in unison and the priest invests the child with the Sudra. Then, holding the Kusti and the child’s fingers in his own, the priest and the child chant the Kusti prayers together, ending with the Fravarane, the Confession of Faith.

The Kusti is wound thrice round the waist to signify that the person initiated must dedicate every thought, word and deed to the service of Ahura Mazda. To emphasize this further, the first knot of the Kusti is tied on the word, shyaothenenam, meaning action, and the Ahuna Vairya prayer recited twice’. This dedication consists in loving and serving the Drighu, the homeless the dispossessed, the afflicted of the earth. Only then can the Kshathrem-cha Ahurai, the Sovereignty of Ahura, be established in the world.

In the past, the Kusti ritual was performed after every call of nature, after every bath and before meals. Today, due to the pressures of modern life, the Kusti ritual is usually performed on rising from bed in the morning, and again before retiring at night, and, after bathing.


After the Navjote, the next important ceremony in the life of a Zoroastrian is usually that of marriage. In the early days of their settlement in India, and even up to World War I marriage ceremonies among the Parsis were much more elaborate than they are today.

The ceremony began with the young couple sitting facing each other. The officiating priest would then place a cloth between them and tie the ends round their chairs. He would then take the bride’s right hand and place it in the groom’s right hand and tie their hands seven times with a piece of twine. An assistant priest, holding the Afarghan, would stand beside the senior priest. Prayers would then be recited. At a signal from the officiating priest, the assistant fed the fire with sandalwood and incense. At this point, the cloth curtain between the young couple was removed, and everyone clapped their hands. The bride and groom threw a fistful of uncooked rice which they had been holding in their left hands on each other. This action symbolized prosperity. After this, the marriage ceremony continued as prescribed.

Today, the bride and groom sit side by side during the marriage ceremony. The parents and relatives of the couple sit behind their respective children. Beside them stand the witnesses to the marriage. Two priests stand in front of the couple, and the ceremony begins. During the recital of the legal formula, the priest asks the witness on behalf of the groom’s family, the following:

“In the presence of this company that has met together in the city of……on…….day of… the year…… of Emperor Yazdegard of the Sassanian Dynasty of auspicious Iran, say whether you have agreed to take this maiden……….by name, in marriage for this bridegroom, in accordance with the rites and rules of the Mazdayasnans, promising to pay her 2,000 dirams of pure white silver, and two dinars of real gold of the Nishapur coinage?”

Then the witness from the bride’s side is asked : “Have you and your family, with righteous mind, and truthful thoughts, words and actions, and for the increase of righteousness, agreed to give for ever this bride in marriage to……..?” The witness replies: “I have agreed.”

Next follows the most crucial part of the ceremony. The priest turns first to the groom, then to the bride, and asks:

“Have you chosen to enter into this contract of marriage up to the end of your life with righteous mind?”

The entire formula is repeated thrice, and thrice both bride and groom must reply: “Pasande Kardam” (I approve). If either party refuses to answer, the marriage ceremony is interrupted there and then, and no priest dare marry the couple against their wish.

Next follow some beautiful admonitions and benedictions in Pazand and Avesta. The entire ceremony is recited even in Sanskrit, recalling the early days of the Parsi settlers in India when Sanskrit was the language of educated Hindus. While reciting these benedictions, the priests throw grains of uncooked rice on the couple to symbolize prosperity and plenty. The ceremony concludes with a final blessing.

The priests are then presented with beautiful Kashmir shawls and some cash. After embracing their parents, the couple leave and go to the Fire Temple to pay their homage to the sacred fire. Again, prayers are said and sandalwood and incense offered to the fire, and the Atash Nyaesh recited.

The couple now return to the assembly where they meet their guests.

When the guests have departed, and the family have had their dinner, the bride goes to the groom’s house, accompanied by members of her family. She holds a small wick lamp in a protective silver vase. The light should not go out on the way to her new home. At the threshold, her husband awaits her. He lifts her over the lintel, or else she crosses it, right foot first. The little wick lamp is kept burning in the bridal chamber all night.


Some of the most beautiful Zoroastrian prayers and ceremonies are centered round death.

When a person is known to be dying, and is in the home, a corner of the sick room is washed, a clean sheet spread on the floor, and a priest sent for. The latter lights the sacred fire in an Afarghan, and feeds it with sandalwood and incense while chanting certain prayers in a low tone. The chanting is said to have a soothing effect on the soul about to leave the body.

When actual death occurs, a close relative or dear friend sits beside the corpse and whispers the four-lined Ashem Vohu or the Ahuna Vairya prayer in the ear of the corpse. The prayer must be recited continuously till the people who will bathe the body and wrap it is torn, white strips of old Sudras arrive.

Once the body is bathed and wrapped, no one is allowed to touch it. A wick lamp is lit and placed at the head of the corpse, and two persons sit beside the body repeating the Ashem Vohu or the Ahuna Vairya prayer.

Next, two men trained for the work, come to the house. They take a purificatory bath, recite the Kusti prayers, put on clean white garments, and enter the room where the dead body is kept. They enter, holding the paiwand between them. This is a piece of white cloth or tape which, when held thus is believed to unite the persons holding it giving them spiritual power to withstand any infection or pollution emanating from the corpse.

The corpse is now lifted and taken into the livingroom where a corner has been washed and a clean, white cloth spread out. The corpse is placed on a marble slab or stone. The arms are folded across the chest, the legs flexed at the knees, in the lotus posture of a yogic asana, or else stretched full length and tied together at the ankles. A white shroud is passed all round the body, only the face remaining exposed.

Three kashas, or circles, are now drawn round the corpse with a metal bar or nail to seal off the area of infection round the corpse.

The sagdid ritual now takes place. The word, sagdid, means the sight of a dog, (from sag meaning dog, and did meaning sight). A dog on a leash is brought into the room and made to look at the dead body. In ancient Iran, it was believed that a dog knew instinctively if there was still life in the body. Others hold that the magnetic influence of the dog’s sight destroys the spirit of decomposition or destruction which enters the body at death.

After the first sagdid, the sacred fire in an Afarghan is brought into the room and fed with sandalwood and incense. Priests sit beside the fire and recite from the Avesta till the corpse-bearers sit beside the fire and recite from the Avesta till the corpse-bearers arrive. The body must never be left in the company of only one person.

There must be at least two corpse-bearers even if the dead person is an infant. If the dead body is heavy any even number of corpse-bearers may be hired to carry it to the Towers of Silence.

Before entering the room, the corpse-bearers wash their hands and faces recite the Kusti prayers. An iron bier is placed beside the corpse.

After the recitation of certain prayers, the Geh-sarna ceremony follows. Two priests stand in the doorway of the room where the corpse lies. They place the padan, a strip of white cloth, over their mouth. The whole of the first Gatha, the Ahunavaiti, is now recited. When the recital is over, friends and relatives file past the corpse and pay their last respects.

The face of the corpse is now covered, and the body strapped down on to the bier with pieces of white cloth and bier handed over to the pall-bearers, who arrange themselves in pairs holding the paiwand between them. Again, the sagdid ritual is performed. Then the funeral procession starts, headed by the priests, holding the paiwand between them. The lay mourners, always men, follow in pairs, holding the paiwand between them, usually a handkerchief.

At the gate of the Towers of Silence, they are met by the pall-bearers who take charge of the corpse. A final sagdid is performed. The procession now turns back, while the corpse-bearers remove the body from the bier, strip it of all clothing, which is cast into a pit to rot, and then place the naked corpse on one of the pavis or section, marked out on the platform of the Tower. There the corpse is left to be devoured by vultures or any birds of prey.

A week or so later, the dried bones are gathered and lowered into a deep well the bottom of which is covered with layers of sand and charcoal. There the process of decomposition continues.

On returning home from the Towers of Silence, all members of the bereaved family take a purificatory bath.

According to Iranian tradition, the soul of the dead person hovers for three days near her home, reluctant to leave her familiar surroundings and unhappy at watching the grief of her dear ones. During these three days, the Fravashis of the righteous dead, as will as the Fravashi of that particular person, guard it from harm. An angelic power, Sraosha, symbolizing Divine Intuition leading to implicit obedience to the will of God, is also present near the soul.

On the fourth day, the soul is led by her Fravashi and Sraosha to Chinvat, the Bridge of Judgment. Here she meets another angelic power, Rashnu who holds the scales of justice and weighs her good and evil deeds. Mithra, the Judge, is there to pronounce judgment.

When judgment has been pronounced, the soul is led by her Fravashi and by Sraosha along Chinvat Bridge. Halfway, she meets a dazzlingly beautiful maiden.

“Who are you?” asks the wondering soul.

“Do you not recognise me?” answers the maid.

The soul shakes her head.

“I am the good deeds you performed on earth,” continues the maiden. She then takes the righteous soul by the hand, and together with the Fravashi and Sraosha, leads the soul to Garo Demana, the House of Ecstatic Song, where the righteous dead dwell.

All through these days and nights, prayers are being recited in the home of the bereaved as well as in the Fire Temple chosen by the family. These prayers are considered essential to help the soul reach maturity, for at death, the soul is likened to an infant.

On the fourth day, when the soul is freed from all worldly ties, the most beautiful prayers, invoking the blessing of Sraosha, are recited. The ceremony is performed around four o’ clock in the morning. In the still hours of early dawn, these prayers bring great peace to the grieving hearts of the bereaved.

Muktad Ceremonies

Once a year, the Fravashis of all righteous souls are commemorated in the Muktad ceremonies which take place for ten days before the Zoroastrian New Year, March 21, the ancient Iranian New Year. During the last five days of the Muktad, the five Gathas of Zarathushtra are recited, one on each day.

The word, muktad is derived from the Sanskrit, muktatman meaning the liberated soul. In all the Fire Temples, and in every Zoroastrian home, the Muktad ceremonies are performed.

In the home, a small room is washed and a clean sheet spread on the floor. An Afarghan, with the sacred fire, is placed in the centre of the sheet. On a small table nearby, are seen gleaming silver vases filled with fresh flowers. Each vase bears the name of the parent, child, wife or husband, who has died. A curtain of white tube roses, red roses and jasmines is hung across the wall of the little room. All the flowers are changed every morning. The family priest chants prayers morning and evening, while members of the family, both young and old, attend.

If a family is too poor to afford silver vases, or fresh flowers every day, its members can go to any Fire Temple where the same prayers are being recited, similar silver vases displayed, and the same fresh flowers placed in them. This is the custom in Karachi and in certain Fire Temples in India, such as the N. M Petit Fasali Atash Kadeh in Bombay.

On the tenth day of the Muktad, the Fravashis are believed to bless the living and return to the Realms of Boundless Light where Ahura Mazda dwells.

On New Year’s Day, both young and old, dress in their best clothes and go to the Fire Temple to pray. Special food is cooked, and homes are decorated with garlands of fresh flowers.

On this day, Parsis when greeting each other, perform the Hamazor, the special handclasp when one’s right hand is placed in the left hand of the person greeted. At the same time, the words, “Hamazor hama asho bed,” are said, meaning, may you be one with us in the ceremony, and may you be righteous. This kinship is stressed not only between man and man, but also between man and nature, and man and God. In the Afrin Ardafarosh, which invokes the blessings of the Fravashis of the Righteous Dead, the living perform the Hamazor with Ahura Mazda and His Powers, mentally invoking them.

The Ijashne

Among the liturgical ceremonies of the Parsis, the Yasna or Ijashne ceremony is one of the most important and most elaborate.

The Ijashne centres round the preparation of the juice of the Haoma plant, its consecration, and that of the Draona, the sacred bread, and, finally, the eating of the sacred bread and the drinking of the Haoma juice by the priest.

The ritual items used in the ceremony, are made of metal and are collectively known as the alat. They consist of the mortar, the pestle, five chalices including one with nine holes through which the Haoma juice is strained, and the two mahrui, small, metal stands with crescent shaped tops placed in front of each other. Other important items used in the ceremony are the jivam or fresh goat’s milk; the barsam or twigs of the pomegranate or chini tree, replaced today by thin, metallic wires, strips of the leaf of the date palm, twisted into a single strand and knotted at both end, used for tying the barsam wires, the ring with three, five or seven hairs of a sacred white bull tied round it, through which the Haoma juice is strained; and the zor, or consecrated water, with which all the metallic items are washed.

The jivam, symbolizes the animal kingdom; the barsam twigs the begetable kingdom; the draona, the bread of life; the Haoma juice, the wine of immortality; the zor, poured over the barsam twigs, symbolizes rain which fertilizes all plants; the mahrui, symbolise the influence of the moon on the growth of plants. The ring is a relic of ancient times when a sacred white bull was actually sacrificed and the Haoma juice sprinkled on it, a well known fertility rite.

The Gahambars

There are six Gahambars, or seasonal festival ceremonies, in the year. They are thanksgiving ceremonies, originally agricultural, and in Sassanian times, linked with cosmogony. The word, Gahambar, means the full time, signifying the proper season.

The first is the Midspring Gahambar, associated with the heavens. The Midsummer Gahambar is linked with water; the Autumn Gahambar with earth; the Gahambar of the cattle breeding season with the vegetable creation; the Midwinter Gahambar with the animal creation; and Spring Gahambar with man.

Each Gahambar lasts for five days, the most important being the fifth, when a great communal feast is held and rich and poor, learned and unlearned, participate in a spirit of brotherhood. Special prayers are recited on all the five days.

A Gahambar may be organized by a rich man, or a group of families, or by public subscription. Those who are participating must recall not only the blessings bestowed by the seasons, but also the seven principal acts of righteousness a good Zoroastrian must perform. The first of these is Radih or charity, the second is Rastih, truth or righteousness, the third is the celebration of the Gahambars. The other four acts of righteousness are: the performance of the three-day ceremonies after death; worship of God and building lodgings for the poor and tradesmen; wishing good to everyone, and lastly, to show friendliness to all good people.

The Jashans

Closely connected with the Gahambars, are the Jashans. A Jashan is a celebration of an event, be it happy or tragic, with prayer, followed by a sacramental meal. Jashans are performed at Jamshedi Navroze, March 21, the Zoroastrian New Year; at Khordal Sal, the Prophet’s birthday; at the Farvardegan, the celebration in honour of the Fravashis of the righteous; at the Meherangan, in honour of Meher, the Angel of Mercy; and on many other occasions.

Consecration of Fire Temples and the Sacred Fire

The most spectacular and elaborate of the Zoroastrian ceremonies is the consecration of the Fire Temple and the sacred fire, Atar, or Atash.

As there are three grades of Fire Temples, the collection, purification and consecration of the fires, and their number, also differ. The three grades are : the Atash Behram, the Fire of Victory, which is installed in the Fire Temple named after it; the Atash Adaram or Agiary or Dar-e-Meher, the Gate of Mercy; and the Atash Dadgah, the household fire in a Zoroastrian home. Wherever there are more than ten Zoroastrian families, an Atash Adaram should be established. The household fire requires no special consecration. It is usually taken from the kitchen fire, and after prayers returned to the kitchen fire.

An Atash Behram, however, requires sixteen different fires to be collected, consecrated and installed. The first fire to be collected is from burning corpse. It has to be purified ninety-one times. Other fires which have to be collected include those from a potter, brickmaker, goldsmith, tinker, baker, brewer, soldier, traveler or shepherd, as well as from the chief citizen of the town and fire from lightning, and lastly, from the home of a Zoroastrian, priest and layman. The most difficult to obtain is the fire from lightning which has struck a tree or house. It may, therefore, take years before a Fire Temple is consecrated.

Formerly, ninety-one pits were dug in an open ground, each pit a foot apart, and the fire from a burning corpse placed in the first pit. Prayers were recited, and powdered sandalwood and incense placed in the second pit. The breeze would ignite these from the heat of the fire in the first pit, which was then allowed to extinguish itself. In this manner, and after reciting the prescribed prayers, the fire in the ninety-first pit would be considered pure.

The remaining fifteen fires had to go through the same process, except that the number of times a fire was purified differed, depending on the home from which it was collected.

Today, the purification of the different fires takes place in a room attached to a Fire Temple. The fires to be purified are placed in a limited number of Afarghans, but the number of times the different fires have to be purified is strictly adhered to.

When each of the sixteen fires has been purified and consecrated, the final union of all the fires takes place on the day when the first Gatha, the Ahunavaiti, is recited during the Muktad ceremonies in honour of the Fravashis of the righteous dead. A large Afarghan is made ready. The fire which was ignited from a burning corpse is lifted with a dadle and placed in the Afarghan. The remaining fifteen fires are then lifted in turn and joined to the first fire. Two priests perform this act while reciting the prescribed prayers. The united fire is then carried to the consecrated ground near the Fire Temple.

Visit to a Fire Temple

When a Zoroastrian visits a Fire Temple, he first washes his hands and face with the consecrated well water kept in a special vessel. He then faces east and performs the Kusti ritual. Both men and women cover their heads when praying. All remove their shoes before entering the outer hall of the Fire Temple. On the walls usually hand large pictures of the Prophet and of the donors to that particular Fire Temple.

The worshipper now enters the inner room build round the consecrated chamber where the sacred fire is housed. Only the priest may enter the consecrated chamber. The worshipper’s first action is to bow down before the fire and place his head on the marble lintel which separates the consecrated chamber from the rest of the room. Having recited a brief Ashem Vohu or Ahuna Vairya, or both, the rises from his knees. At this point, a priest offers him some cold ash from the sacred fire. The worshipper takes a pinch and places it between his eyebrows and at the base of his throat. This is symbolic in two ways; firstly, it is a reminder that the individual will one day be reduced to dust; secondly, it is a gesture of humility before God, for both king and beggar are equal in His eyes.

The worshipper now seeks a quite corner of the room in which to pray. Before he starts praying, he usually gives the priest a piece of sandalwood that he has bought outside the gates of the temple. This may be left on the marble lintel, and the priest will place it on the fire as a thanks offering from the worshipper. Having completed his prayers silently, the worshipper again goes to the marble lintel and puts his forehead to it while reciting a short prayer. He then leaves.

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