Fire and Vultures: the Cosmic Battle of Zoroastrianism

I find a Parsee Temple with a winged Shah and immortal flame.  I learn of forbidden shrines and dying faith; sweetened milk, a razor-sharp bridge, and scavenging Towers of Silence.

As I surveyed my map of the city, I spied an icon – two blocks from my guesthouse – like a squashed tower or lighthouse which completed my catalogue of Indian religions: Bangalore’s only Parsi or Zoroastrian temple.

The fence pillars were topped with stone flame.  Fire is worshipped by Zoroastrians as a symbol of divine purity and a flame burns continually inside their temples.  They say it is a mixture of fire once taken from potters, blacksmiths, brick makers and a lightning bolt.  Carved in stone above the entrance was a man with a winged ring around his waist who looked like an ancient Middle Eastern monarch.  This is the Farohar, an emblem of Emperor Cyrus the great, viewed by some as a guardian angel and often worn by Iranians.

Zoroastrians bar non-believers from entering their temples, so I browsed books and photo albums in the office.  Parsis are the richest community in India, with near 100% literacy, but marriage outside the faith is forbidden and numbers are shrinking.  There are only 100,000 worldwide, 75% of them in Mumbai.  A hot debate is whether to allow entry by conversion; they joke that the last two Parsis on earth will still be split over the issue.

Zoroastrians are proud of their Persian heritage.  Some claim their founder, Zoroaster or Zarathustra, was born several millennia before Christ, making this the earliest revealed monotheistic religion. The powers of evil tried to kill the baby Zoroaster with stampeding cattle, ravenous wolves and raging fire, but God saved him each time.  At the age of 30, he received a revelation and began to proclaim the one God, rejecting polytheism, animal sacrifice and idolatry.  In later Zoroastrianism, the evil spirit became an independent god.  In the cosmic struggle between light and dark we have free will to choose which side to take.

Zoroastrians await a saviour born of a virgin.  At the end of time, after a mighty battle between good and evil, all people will be resurrected to a final judgement: crossing a bridge to heaven.  For the righteous, the bridge will be broad and easy to traverse.  The wicked will find it narrow as a razor and fall off into hell.  Many think that these teachings influenced Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In the seventh century A.D. invading Arabs gave the Zoroastrians a choice: convert to Islam or die.  Many fled to India where they were called Parsees, coming from Persia.  When they arrived on the west coast, the local ruler sent a bowl of milk, full to the brim, to show the land was too full for more people.  The Parsee priest dropped in sugar, which dissolved without causing the milk to overflow.  This showed they would sweeten society without driving anyone out.  They were permitted to stay, for which they are still deeply grateful.

Parsees hold that fire, earth, and water are all sacred, so corpses cannot be burned, buried, or thrown into the sea, as this would pollute them.  Bodies are traditionally left on the open tops of “towers of silence” to be picked clean by vultures, as a Bombay character in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1980) learned with surprise:

…he heard a dirty screech in the sky, and, looking up, had time to register that a vulture – at night! – a vulture from the Towers of Silence was flying overhead, and that it had dropped a barely-chewed Parsee hand, a right hand, the same hand which – now! – slapped him full in the face as it fell…

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