Racing against time to preserve India’s Parsi past

Aug 11th, 2010 | By admin | Category: Featured

MUMBAI (AFP) — High in the hills of western India, Homi Dhalla looks around the Bharot Caves complex, pointing out the cracked and crumbling stone in the roughly-hewn rocks.

“If we wish to save these caves, the world community has to stand up and do something about it now before it’s too late,” he says, as the web video fades to a still image of two Parsi priests worshipping in one of the stark grey vaults.

Time and neglect have left the ancient caves in a dangerous state of disrepair that now threatens them as a place of pilgrimage for India’s fire-worshipping Parsi community.

In the 14th century, their ancestors fled to the caves with the sacred fire of their Zoroastrian religion to escape a Mughal invasion.

According to legend, the “Iranshah” — the first fire to be consecrated in India — stayed lit throughout the 12 long years they were there.

So far, 3,000 people have signed a petition on the www.zoroastrians.net portal — where Dhalla’s video is shown — which will be sent to the Archaeological Survey of India, urging it to repair the protected caves.

“If we have 7,000 to 8,000 (signatories) I will be happy,” Dhalla, the founder-president of the World Zarathushti Cultural Foundation, told AFP at his home in Mumbai.

“There is an urgent need to conserve the caves for posterity without delay or else this sacred heritage will be lost forever.”

Whether the caves near Sanjan, close to the state border of Maharashtra and Gujarat, survive or collapse further into the hillside is not just dependent on funding.

The project — and others like it — more than anything depends on people.

Zoroastrians, who follow the prophet Zarathustra and worship Ahura Maza as the creator of the universe, fled persecution in ancient Iran and arrived in India in the 10th century.

They have risen to prominence over the centuries as industrialists, philanthropists, teachers, musicians, artists and writers in India and abroad.

Famous Parsis include the Tata family, which owns one of India’s most successful business houses, the conductor Zubin Mehta and the late Queen singer Freddie Mercury.

But the population of India’s most successful and celebrated minority has been in steady decline, with numbers down to just under 70,000 in India, according to the last census in 2001.

As the birth rate falls and Parsis marry outside the community or migrate, experts say they face a race against time to catalogue the distinctive religion and culture for future generations.

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