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Chapter 39

The Guebres of Yezd--Askizar--The Sassanian
dynasty--Yezdeyard--The name "Parsees"--The Arab invasion of
Persia--A romantic tale--Zoroaster--Parsees of India--Why the
Parsees remained in Yezd and Kerman--Their
number--Oppression--The teaching of the Zoroastrian religion and
of the Mahommedan--A refreshing quality--Family
ties--Injustice--Guebre places of worship--The sacred
fire--Religious ceremonies--Three excellent points in the
Zoroastrian religion--The Parsees not "fire
worshippers"--Purification of fire--No ancient sacred
books--Attire--No civil rights--The "jazia" tax--Occupations--The
Bombay Parsees Amelioration Society and its work--The pioneers of
trade--A national assembly--Ardeshir Meheban Irani--Establishment
of the Association--Naturalized British subjects--Consulates
wanted--The Bombay Parsees--Successful traders--Parsee
generosity--Mr. Jamsetsji Tata.

Yezd is extremely interesting from a historical point of view, and for its close association with that wonderful race the "Guebres," better known in Europe by the name of Parsees. The ancient city of Askizar was buried by shifting sands, in a desert with a few oases, and was followed by the present Yezd, which does not date from earlier than the time of the Sassanian dynasty.

Yezdeyard, the weak and unlucky last King of the Sassan family, which had reigned over Persia for 415 years, was the first to lay the foundations of the city and to colonize its neighbourhood. It is in this city that, notwithstanding the sufferings and persecution of Mussulmans after the Arab invasion of Persia, the successors of a handful of brave people have to this day remained faithful to their native soil.

To be convinced that the Parsees of Yezd are a strikingly fine lot of people it is sufficient to look at them. The men are patriarchal, generous, sober, intelligent, thrifty; the women, contrary to the usage of all Asiatic races, are given great freedom, but are renowned for their chastity and modesty.

The name of Parsees, adopted by the better-known Guebres who migrated to India, has been retained from Fars or Pars, their native country, which contained, before the Arab invasion, Persepolis as the capital, with a magnificent royal palace. From this province the whole kingdom eventually adopted the name.

It is not necessary to go into the history of the nine dynasties which ruled in Persia before it was conquered by the Arabs, but for our purpose it is well to remind the reader that of all these dynasties the Sassanian was the last, and Yezdeyard, as we have seen, the ultimate King of the Sassan family.

One is filled with horror at the romantic tale of how, through weakness on his part and treachery on that of his people, the fanatic Arabs, guided by the light of Allah the Prophet, conquered Persia, slaying the unbelievers and enforcing the Mahommedan religion on the survivors. The runaway Yezdeyard was treacherously slain with his own jewelled sword by a miller, in whose house he had obtained shelter after the disastrous battle of Nahavand and his flight through Sistan, Khorassan and Merv. Persia, with every vestige of its magnificence, was lost for ever to the Persians, and the supremacy of Mahommedanism, with its demoralizing influence, its haughty intolerance and fanatic bigotism, was firmly established from one end of the country to the other. The fine temples, the shrines of the Zoroastrians, were mercilessly destroyed or changed into mosques.

Zoroaster, the prophet of the Parsees, had first promulgated his religion during the reign of Gushtasp (b.c. 1300) of the Kayanian family, but after centuries of vicissitudes and corruption it was not till the time of the Sassanian dynasty (a.d. 226) that Ardeshir Babekhan, the brave and just, restored the Zoroastrian religion to its ancient purity. It is this religion--the true religion of ancient Persia--that was smothered by the conquered Arabs by means of blood and steel, and is only to-day retained in a slightly modified character by the few remaining Guebres of Yezd and Kerman, as well as by those who, sooner than sacrifice their religious convictions and their independence, preferred to abandon their native land, migrating to India with their families, where their successors are to be found to this day still conservative to their faith.

It is not too much to say that, although--in the conglomeration of races that form the Indian Empire--the Parsees are few in number, not more than 100,000 all counted, they nevertheless occupy, through their honesty, intelligence and firmness of character, the foremost place in that country. But with these Parsees who migrated we have no space to deal here. We will merely see why the remainder escaped death at the hands of the Mahommedans, and, while ever remaining true to their religion, continued in Yezd and Kerman when, under the new rulers, almost the whole of the Zoroastrian population of Persia was compelled to embrace the religion of Islam.

The fact that Yezd and Kerman were two distant and difficult places of access for the invading Moslems, may be taken as the likely cause of the Zoroastrians collecting there. Also for the same reason, no doubt, the Arabs, tired of fighting and slaying, and having given way to luxury and vice, had become too lazy to carry on their wholesale slaughter of the Zoroastrian population. This leniency, however, has not done away entirely with constant tyrannical persecution and oppression of the unbelievers, so that now the number of Zoroastrians of Yezd does not exceed 7,000, and that of Kerman is under 3,000. A great many Zoroastrians have, notwithstanding their unwillingness, been since compelled to turn Mahommedans. Even fifty years ago the Zoroastrians of Yezd and Kerman called in Persia contemptuously "Guebres," were subjected to degradations and restrictions of the worst kind. Now their condition, under a stronger government and some foreign influence, has slightly ameliorated, but is not yet entirely secure against the cruelty, fanaticism, and injustice of the Mullahs and officials in the place.

If Yezd is, for its size, now the most enterprising trading centre of Persia, it is mostly due to the Guebres living there. Although held in contempt by the Mullahs and by the Mahommedans in general, these Guebres are manly fellows, sound in body and brain, instead of lascivious, demoralized, effeminate creatures like their tyrants. Hundreds of years of oppression have had little effect on the moral and physical condition of the Guebres. They are still as hardy and proud as when the whole country belonged to them; nor has the demoralizing contact of the present race, to whom they are subject, had any marked effect on their industry, which was the most remarkable characteristic in the ancient Zoroastrians.

The Zoroastrian religion teaches that every man must earn his food by his own exertion and enterprise,--quite unlike the Mahommedan teaching, that the height of bliss is to live on the charity of one's neighbours, which rule, however, carries a counterbalancing conviction that the more money dispensed in alms, the greater the certainty of the givers obtaining after death a seat in heaven.

One of the most refreshing qualities of the Guebres (and of the Parsees in India) is that they are usually extraordinarily truthful for natives of Asia, and their morality, even in men, is indeed quite above the average. There are few races among which marriages are conducted on more sensible lines and are more successful. The man and woman united by marriage live in friendly equality, and are a help to one another. Family ties are very strong, and are carried down even to distant relations, while the paternal and maternal love for their children, and touching filial love for their parents, is most praiseworthy and deserves the greatest admiration.

The Mussulmans themselves, although religiously at variance and not keen to follow the good example of the Guebres, admit the fact that the Zoroastrians are honest and good people. It is principally the Mullahs who are bitter against them and instigate the crowds to excesses. There is not such a thing for the Guebres as justice in Persia, and even up to quite recent times their fire temples and towers of silence were attacked and broken into by Mussulman crowds, the fires, so tenderly cared for, mercilessly put out: the sacred books destroyed, and the temples desecrated in the most insulting manner.

There are a number of Guebre places of worship in Yezd, and in the surrounding villages inhabited by Guebre agriculturists, but the principal one is in the centre of the Guebre quarter of Yezd city. It is a neat, small structure, very simple and whitewashed inside, with a fortified back room wherein the sacred fire is kept alight, well covered with ashes by a specially deputed priest. It is hidden so as to make it difficult for intending invaders to discover it; and the strong door, well protected by iron bars, wants a good deal of forcing before it can be knocked down.

The religious ceremony in the temple of the Guebres is very interesting, the officiating priests being dressed up in a long white garment, the sudra, held together by a sacred girdle, and with the lower portion of the face covered by a square piece of cloth like a handkerchief; on the head they wear a peculiar cap. Various genuflexions, on a specially spread carpet, and bows are made and prayers read.

The priests belong generally to the better classes, and the rank is mostly hereditary. Certain ceremonies are considered necessary before the candidate can attain the actual dignity of a prelate. First of the ceremonies comes the navar, or six days' retreat in his own dwelling, followed by the ceremony of initiation; four more days in the fire temple with two priests who have previously gone through the Yasna prayers for six consecutive mornings. Although after this he can officiate in some ceremonies, such as weddings, he is not fully qualified as a priest until the Bareshnun has been undergone and again the Yasna. The following day other prayers are offered to the guardian spirit, and at midnight the last ceremony takes place, and he is qualified to the degree of Maratab, when he can take part in any of the Zoroastrian rituals.

As a preliminary, great purity of mind and body are required from candidates, and they are made to endure lavish ablutions of water and cow urine, clay and sand--an ancient custom, said to cleanse the body better than modern soaps. After that the candidate is secluded for nine whole days in the fire temple, and is not permitted to touch human beings, vegetation, water nor fire, and must wash himself twice more during that time, on the fourth day and on the seventh. It is only then that he is considered amply purified and able to go through the Navar ceremony.

The Zoroastrian religion is based on three excellent points--"good thoughts, good words, good deeds"--and as long as people adhere to them it is difficult to see how they can go wrong. They worship God and only one God, and do not admit idolatry. They are most open-minded regarding other people's notions, and are ever ready to recognise that other religions have their own good points.

Perhaps no greater libel was ever perpetrated on the Parsees than when they were put down as "fire-worshippers," or "worshippers of the elements." The Parsees are God-worshippers, but revere, not worship, fire and the sun as symbols of glory, heat, splendour, and purity; also because fire is to human beings one of the most necessary things in creation, if not indeed the most necessary thing; otherwise they are no more fire-worshippers than the Roman Catholics, for instance, who might easily come under the same heading, for they have lighted candles and lights constantly burning in front of images inside their churches.

Besides, it is not the fire itself, as fire, that Parsees nurse in their temples, but a fire specially purified for the purpose. The process is this: Several fires, if possible originally lighted by some natural cause, such as lightning, are brought in vases. Over one of these fires is placed a flat perforated tray of metal on which small pieces of very dry sandal-wood are made to ignite by the mere action of the heat, but must not actually come in contact with the flame below. From this fire a third one is lighted in a similar manner, and nine times this operation is repeated, each successive fire being considered purer than its predecessor, and the result of the ninth conflagration being pronounced absolutely pure.

It is really the idea of the purifying process that the Parsees revere more than the fire itself, and as the ninth fire alone is considered worthy to occupy a special place in their temples, so, in similarity to it, they aim in life to purify their own thoughts, words, and actions, and glorify them into "good thoughts, true words, noble actions." This is indeed very different from fire-worshipping of which the Parsees are generally accused.

In Yezd the Guebres told me that they possessed very few sacred books in their temple (or if they had them could not show them). They said that all the ancient books had been destroyed by the Mahommedans or had been taken away to India.

There were also several smaller temples in the neighbourhood of Yezd, which had gone through a good many vicissitudes in their time, but now the Parsees and their places of worship are left in comparative peace. Parsee men and women are still compelled to wear special clothes so as to be detected at once in the streets, but this custom is gradually dying out. The women are garbed in highly-coloured striped garments, a short jacket and a small turban, leaving the face uncovered. The men are only allowed to wear certain specially-coloured cloaks and are not allowed to ride a horse in the streets of Yezd.

Parsees do not enjoy the civil rights of other citizens in Persia, and justice was until quite lately out of the question in the case of differences with Mussulmans. At death a man's property would be lawfully inherited by any distant relation who had adopted the religion of Moslem, instead of by the man's own children and wife who had remained faithful to their creed; and in the matter of recovering debts from Mussulmans the law of Persia is certainly very far indeed from helping a Guebre. This is necessarily a great obstacle in commercial intercourse.

Worst of all the burdens formerly inflicted upon the Guebres--as well as upon Armenians and Jews of Persia--was the "jazia" tax. Some thousand or so male Guebres of Yezd were ordered to pay the tax yearly, which with commissions and "squeezes" of Governors and officials was made to amount to some two thousand tomans, or about £400 at the present rate of exchange. Much severity and even cruelty were enforced to obtain payment of the tax.

The Parsees were, until quite lately, debarred from undertaking any occupation that might place them on a level with Mahommedans. With the exception of a few merchants--who, by migrating to India and obtaining British nationality, returned and enjoyed a certain amount of nominal safety--the majority of the population consists of agriculturists and scavengers.

Mainly by the efforts of the Bombay Amelioration Society of the Parsees, the Guebres of Yezd and Kerman fare to-day comparatively well. The "jazia" has been abolished, and the present Shah and the local Government have to be congratulated on their fairness and consideration towards these fine people. May-be that soon they will be permitted to enjoy all the rights of other citizens, which they indeed fully deserve. Many steps have been made in that direction within the last few years. The Parsees are a most progressive race if properly protected. They are only too anxious to lead the way in all reformation, and, with all this, are remarkable for their courteousness and refined manner.

The most prominent members of the Yezd community, especially the sons of Meheban Rustam, have been the pioneers of trade between Yezd and India. Besides the excellent Parsee school, several other institutions have been established in Yezd and its suburbs by the Bombay Society, supported by a few charitable Parsees of Bombay and some of the leading members of the Parsee community in Yezd. The Bombay Society has done much to raise the Zoroastrians of Persia to their present comparatively advanced state, but trade and commerce also have to a great extent contributed to their present eminence.

The Bombay Society nominates and sends an agent to reside in Teheran, the capital of Persia, to look after the interests of helpless Zoroastrians, and the Parsees of Yezd have moreover a national assembly called the Anguman-i-Nasseri.

I was entertained by this interesting body of men, and received from their president, Ardeshir Meheban Irani, much of the valuable information here given about the Yezd Parsees. The Association has an elected body of twenty-eight members, all honorary, the most venerable and intelligent of the community, and its aims are to advocate the social rights of the Zoroastrians as a race, to settle disputes arising between the individuals of the community, to defend helpless Parsees against Moslem wantonness, and to improve their condition generally.

The Association was established on the 3rd of February, 1902, by the late Mr. Kaikosroo Firendaz Irani, the then agent of the Bombay Society. In this work he had the advice and help of the leading men of the community.

There are several naturalised British subjects in Yezd, including the President of the Association--who speaks and writes English as well as any Englishman--but it is greatly to be regretted that these men cannot obtain proper protection from the British Government. Yet these fellows could be of very great assistance to England in spreading British influence in Yezd, not to speak of increasing British trade--which they are only too anxious to do, if a chance is given them--in conjunction with the representatives of their race in Bombay--the most Anglicised, except in religion, of all our subject races of India. There was formerly a British Vice-Consul in Yezd, but for some reason known to the Government, while Russia finds it expedient to establish Consular agents in all the principal centres of Persia, we have actually withdrawn our representative even from so important a city as Yezd!

The Parsee communities of Yezd and Bombay are in constant communication with each other, and it is well known what marvellous prosperity these fugitives of Fars have now attained in Bombay, through their honesty and hard work, especially since their connection with the British, whose civilisation, with the exception of religion and the hat, they have entirely adopted. Most of them speak perfect English, and many of the sons of the wealthier Parsees have been educated at universities in England. We find them working banking houses on a large scale, and cotton mills, running lines of steamers and shipbuilding yards. They trade considerably with the Far East and Far West, and with every nook in Asia. Even as far as Samarkand, Bokhara, Siberia, Nijni-Novgorod, and St. Petersburg, Parsee traders are to be found, and in Japan, China, the United States, and Canada. With England they carry on a very extensive trade, and through them as intermediaries much of the import trade into India finds its way into neighbouring markets more difficult of access to the direct British exporter.

One of the most noticeable traits of the flourishing Parsees of Bombay is their extreme generosity, often hampered by petty, stupid, Anglo-Indian officialdom, which they seem to stand with amazing patience and good-nature. We find well appointed hospitals erected by them; schools, clubs, and only lately one of the richest of all Parsees, Mr. Jamsetsji Tata, has given the city of Bombay no less a gift than a quarter of a million pounds for the erection of a university on the most modern lines in that city.