The Parsi Community of Sri Lanka

The Parsi Community of Sri Lanka

A Parsi, sometimes spelled Parsee, is a member of the close-knit Zoroastrian community based in the Indian subcontinent. Parsis are descended from Persian Zoroastrians who emigrated to the Indian subcontinent over 1,000 years ago to escape religious persecution after the Islamic conquest (Jhabvalla, 1973).


Although the Parsis of India originally emigrated from Persia, they no longer have social or familial ties to Persians, and do not share language or recent history with them. Over the centuries since the first Zoroastrians arrived in India, the Parsis have integrated themselves into Indian society while simultaneously maintaining their own distinct customs and traditions (and thus ethnic identity). This in turn has given the Parsi community a rather peculiar standing - they are Indians in terms of national affiliation, language and history, but not typically Indian (constituting only 0.006% of the total population) in terms of consanguinity or cultural, behavioural and religious practices.

Genealogical DNA tests to determine purity of lineage has brought mixed results. One study supports the Parsi contention (Nanavutty, 1970:13) that they have maintained their Persian roots by avoiding intermarriage with local populations. In that 2002 study of the Y-chromosome (patrilineal) DNA of the Parsis of Pakistan, it was determined that Parsis are genetically closer to Iranians than to their neighbours (Qamar et al., 2002:1119). However, a 2004 study in which Parsi mitochondrial DNA (matrilineal) was compared with that of the Iranians and Gujaratis determined that Parsis are genetically closer to Gujaratis than to Iranians. Taking the 2002 study into account, the authors of the 2004 study suggested "a male-mediated migration of the ancestors of the present-day Parsi population, where they admixed with local females [...] leading ultimately to the loss of mtDNA of Iranian origin" (Quintana-Murci et al., 2004:840).

The definition of who is (and who is not) a Parsi is a matter of great contention within the Zoroastrian community in India. Generally accepted to be a Parsi is a person who a) is directly descended from the original Persian refugees; and b) has been formally admitted into the Zoroastrian religion. In this sense, Parsi is an ethno-religious designator.

Some members of the community additionally contend that a child must have a Parsi father to be eligible for introduction into the faith, but this assertion is considered by most to be a violation of the Zoroastrian tenets of gender equality, and may be a remnant of an old legal (see below) definition of Parsi. Nonetheless, many Parsi Zoroastrian priests will not perform the Navjote ceremony - i.e. the rites of admission into the religion - for children from mixed-marriages.

An often quoted legal definition of Parsi is based on a 1909 ruling (since then nullified) that not only stipulated that a person could not become a Parsi by converting to the Zoroastrian faith (which was the case in question), but also noted that "the Parsi community consists of: a) Parsis who are descended from the original Persian emigrants and who are born of both Zoroastrian parents and who profess the Zoroastrian religion; b) Iranis from Persia professing the Zoroastrian religion; c) the children of Parsi fathers by alien mothers who have been duly and properly admitted into the religion."

This definition has since been overturned several times. The equality principles of the Indian Constitution void the patrilineal restrictions expressed in the third clause. The second clause was contested and overturned in 1948. On appeal in 1950, the 1948 ruling was upheld and the entire 1909 definition was deemed an obiter dictum, that is, a collateral opinion and not legally binding (re-affirmed in 1966).

Nonetheless, the opinion that the 1909 ruling is legally binding continues to persist, even among the better-read and moderate Parsis. In the February 21, 2006 editorial of the Parsiana, the fortnightly of the Parsi Zoroastrian community, the editor noted that several adult children born of a Parsi mother and non-Parsi father had been inducted into the faith and that their choice "to embrace their mother's faith speaks volumes for their commitment to the religion." In recalling the ruling, the editor noted that although "they are legally and religiously full-fledged Zoroastrians, they are not considered Parsi Zoroastrians in the eyes of the law" and hence "legally they may not avail of [fire temples] specified for Parsi Zoroastrians" (Parsiana, 2006-02-21).

Indian census data (2001) records 69,601 Parsis in India, with a concentration in and around the city of Mumbai (previously known as Bombay). There are approximately 5,000 Parsis elsewhere on the subcontinent, with an estimated 2500 Parsis in the city of Karachi and approximately 50 Parsi families in Sri Lanka. The number of Parsis worldwide is estimated to be fewer than 100,000 (Eliade, 1991:254).

Among the Parsi's in Sri Lanka some of the well known names are Captain, Rustomjee, Bharucha, Patel, Mehta, & Modi. A famous ENT surgeon amongst the family in Sri Lanka in the seventies was Dr. Rustomjee. Jimmy Bharucha was also a much loved broadcaster with the English Service of Radio Ceylon which was later renamed to the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation. An industrial family business was that of D K Modi. Clock Tower built in Colombo, Sri Lanka by the Khan Family of Bombay around the turn of the century. The Clock Tower is a popular landmark and marks the entrance to Pettah Market. The Clock Tower was built in the early 20th century by the family of Framjee Bhickajee Khan. This Parsi family hailed from Bombay, India and also owned the famous Colombo Oil Mills as well as other business interests in Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then called.

It is recorded that the Parsi community marry only among themselves, keeping the race unmixed, and, irresepective of their peculiar customs, they are recognizable at a glance among all the other races. The men are usually tall and lanky figures with yellow-olive faces, generally somewhat heavily built, and far finer and stronger men than most other communities in the Asian subcontinent. They dress in long full white cotton shirts and trousers, and wear on their heads a high black cap or tiara, something like a bishop's cap. Their expressive faces and, not unusually, fine aquiline noses reveal energy and prudence; and at the same time the Parsi's are saving and frugal, and, like the Jews, have managed to absorb large amounts of wealth into their own hands. Many of the richest merchants of Bombay are Parsis, and they are also capital hotel-keepers, ship-builders, engineers, and artisans. Their domestic life and virtues are highly spoken of. The Parsi women are generally tall and dignified, their expression discreet and resolute; their color yellowish, with the blackest hair and eyes. Their dress consists of a long gown of some simple but bright color - green, red, or yellow. The children of wealthy Parsi's are often to be seen out walking in dresses embroidered with gold or silver. Many of them live in handsome villas, like to have beautiful gardens, and by their easy circumstances excite the envy of the Europeans. At the same time, the rich Parsi's are often distinguished by their noble public spirit, and many have founded useful and benevolent institutions. Some have been raised by the English Government to the dignity of baronets, in recognition of their distinguished merits.

Another circumstance which has undoubtedly contributed in no small degree to the remarkable energy and success of the Parsis is that they have remained, to a great extent, free from the dominion of the priesthood. Their religion - the doctrine of Zoroaster - is in its purest form one of the loftiest of natural religions, and founded on the worship of the creative and preserving elements. Among these the first place must be given to the light and heat of the procreative Sun and its emblem on earth, Fire. Hence, as the sun rises and sets, we see numbers of pious Parsis on the strand at Bombay, standing, or kneeling on spread-out rugs, and attesting their adoration of the coming or departing day-star by prayer. I have never looked on at the religious exercises of any nation with deeper sympathy than at those of these sun and fire worshippers. For we, the students of nature, who duly recognize the light and warmth of the sun as the source and origin of all the glorious organic life on our globe, are also, in point of fact, nothing else than sun-worshippers!

The funeral ceremonies of the Parsis are a most remarkable usage. High upon the ridge of the Malabar Hill-indeed. on one of the highest and lineat peaks, where a splendid panorama of Bombay lies at the feet of the admiring spectator, like the Bay of Naples from the summit of Posilippo - the Parsi community possess a beautiful garden full of palms and flowers. In this cemetery stand the six Dokhmas, or Towers of Silence. They are cylindrical white towers, from thirty to forty feet in diameter and about the same height. The inside is divided like an amphitheatre, into three concentric circles, sub-divided by radiating walls into a number of open chambers. Each of these divisions holds a body, those of children in the centre, those of women in the second circle. and men in the outer one. As soon as the white-robed servants of the dead have received the corpse which the relatives have escorted to the cemetery, they carry it, accompanied by chanting priests, and place it in one of the open graves, where they leave it. Flocks of the sacred bird of Ormuz - the line brown vulture - at once come down from where they have been sitting on the neighboring Palmyra palms. They fling themselves on the body inside the roofless tower, and in a few minutes the whole of the flesh is devoured. Numbers of black ravens finish off the slender remains of their meal. The bones are afterwards collected in the centre of the tower .

To most Europeans this mode of disposing of a corpse is simply horrible, just as in the classical times it was regarded as a peculiar mark of scorn to throw out a body to be food for the vultures. But to the student of comparative zoology it seems that it may, perhaps, be more aesthetic and poetical to see the remains of one we have loved destroyed in a few minutes by the powerful beaks of birds of prey, or, like the Hindoos, to know that it is burnt to ashes, than to think of it as undergoing that slow and loathsome process of decomposition into "food for the worms" which is inevitable under the present conditions of European culture, and which is as revolting to feeling as it is injurious to health - being, in fact, the source of much disease. However, what is there that dear habit will not do, and that mighty lever Propriety?

Among the important Parsee traders in Ceylon was P N Kapadia who, at the turn of the century, imported 50,000 bags of flour a year from Australia, USA, and India, and Keresone Oil from the Standard Oil Trust (120,000 gallons a year). The firm had a wholesale trade in imported bran, sugar, and hardware, which were supplied to local merchants, plantations, and the armed forces. Kapadia also had a large export trade in tea and cardamoms. Other Parsee traders at the turn of the century were R Pestonjee, a large importer of flour, rice, textiles, and liquor, and an exporter of tea, cocoa, coconut produce, and cardamoms, and J Rustomee, who imported grains, sugar, sugarcane and candy, and exported tea (Wright 1907: pp 492-502).

Soli Captain is a well known businessman and the wealthiest Parsi in Sri Lanka. His sisters are Diana, who worked at the American Embassy for 45 years, and Perin, who was Lalith Athulathmudali's first wife and the Immediate Past President of the Sri Lanka Cancer Society. Their father was a very important personage of the Wellawatte Spinning & Weaving Mills (Welka), located at Havelock Road in Colombo 5, and lived in the biggest bungalow on the premises.