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under the British, around the 18th century, Parsees began to come to prominence, were given the opportunity to flourish and became involved in several different trades. They took on Indian customs and traditions – Parsee women wear saris, the food is Indian (but with a Persian flavour) and they speak Gujarati, but their prayers are written in the old Persian script. In a speech in the House of Lords to mark the 150th anniversary of the formation of the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe, Bilimoria, who is a cross-bencher, quoted a Zoroastrian priest who arrived with a group of refugees in what is now the state of Gujarat. The Zoroastrians asked the local king for refuge but were told there was no space for them in his land. The Zoroastrian priest asked the king for a cup of milk filled to the brim. The priest gently took a teaspoon of sugar and stirred it into the milk without spilling a drop. He then said to the king: “If you take us into your kingdom, we will be like the sugar in the milk: we will blend in with you but we will also make your kingdom sweeter.” The king allowed them to stay and that group of refugees, and others who followed, flourished to become India’s first Zoroastrian Parsee community. Bilimoria believes the outlook espoused by the priest explains why to this day Parsees have the ability to integrate wherever they choose to settle. When he travelled abroad for the first time to study, his father gave him some advice. “Wherever you live in the world, integrate to the best of your ability with the community you are living in but never forget your roots,” he said. Lord Bilimoria believes these same principles should apply to immigration in Britain. “We say we are a multicultural society here, we say we are a secular society, we say we are a pluralist society but the ideal situation is immigrant communities integrating fully and yet being proud of their roots.” When asked about the reaction to his speech by fellow peers, he says: “Because we are such a small community, many people had not even heard of Zoroastrians, they don’t know about the religion, they don’t know about the community and then when you tell them about it they are fascinated, they want to know more.” One of the traditions associated with Zoroastrians that intrigues outsiders the most is the disposal of the bodies of Parsees after death. In accordance with ancient rituals practised in the Towers of Silence in Bombay, the body is exposed to the sky and decays with the elements as well as being eaten by vultures. The idea is that the dead body, which the soul has left, becomes part of a whole cycle of environmentalism. The logic behind it is that a bird of prey consuming the body forms part of a cycle of life. Dr Sarah Stewart, a lecturer in Zoroastrianism, explains that doctrinally, dead matter is considered to be the most potent source of ritual impurity. “In keeping with the environmentalist aspect of Zoroastrianism, you keep the earth pure, you keep fire pure, you keep water pure, you nurture plants, so you have to dispose of the dead in an efficient and environmentally friendly way without polluting the earth.” The practice originated in Iran, but – with the exception of India – Parsees have not been able to continue the tradition in many other countries. Although there are still those who use the Towers of Silence, even in India more and more Parsees are buried or cremated. Today the worldwide Zoroastrian community is estimated to be around 200,000, with numbers in decline due to intermarriage. Malcolm Deboo, president of the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe, is relatively optimistic about the future of the Parsees. “When the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe, which is the oldest Asian religious voluntary organisation in the UK, was established in 1861, there were only 50 Zoroastrians in this country, mainly Parsees, because Iranians could not leave at that time. Today, the last UK census showed that we are about 4,000 but the community census puts the figure at more than 6,000.” Deboo says the internet, tablets and Skype have made communication global f i rst quar ter 2014 www.global -br ief ing.org l 37 © Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe Zoroastrianism in brief Founded by the Prophet Zoroaster in Persia, around 3,500 years ago, Zoroastrianism was the official religion of Persia from 600 BCE to AD 650. Its adherents believe in one god, called Ahura Mazda, with the holy book being called the Avesta. Communal worship takes place in a fire temple. Traditionally the dead are disposed of by leaving them exposed to the elements where they are eaten by vultures, a rite still sometimes used in India. However, Indian vultures are dying out as a result of being poisoned by an anti-inflammatory drug in cattle carcasses, making it hard to continue the practice. Fire temple in Navsari, India. Picture courtesy of the Everlasting Flame Exhibition Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea curriculum vitae 1961 Born in Hyderabad, India 1981 Bachelor of commerce honours degree from Osmania University, Hyderabad 1985 Becomes a chartered accountant after studying at London Metropolitan University and working for what is today Ernst and Young 1988 Law degree from Sidney Sussex College at the University of Cambridge 1989 Co-founds the Cobra beer company in London 2006 Awarded the title Baron Bilimoria of Chelsea, in recognition of his contribution to business and entrepreneurialism 1980 2010 much easier for young people in the community across the world to maintain a sense of identity. “If you look at the first all-India census in the 1870s, Parsees at that time only numbered 70,000. We’re starting from a very small base because of our historical persecution in Iran.” Arena Religion


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