Iran and India

This post can be read as a follow-up to my post of 3.28.


When I first heard about the Zoroastrian Parsis of Bombay five years ago, I was surprised to learn that there was any connection at all between Iran and India. Of course, a quick look at a map shows that Iran borders the subcontinent (a fairly long frontier with Pakistan on both sides of which live the ethnic group of the Baluchis), but Iran in my mind was in the Middle East (together with the Arab world), while Pakistan, India and the rest of the subcontinent fell under the designation South Asia.

Being in Iran has helped me recognize that the historical and cultural connections between Iran and India are far more significant than I realized, even after my visit to Hyderabad. [Visiting Pakistan, no doubt, would further make clear the many links.] For ease of discussion, I will discuss the ties between Iran and India in categories.

Ethnic. Two peoples on the Earth (not counting Nazi Germany) are noted for having foundational myths that relate back to an “Aryan” people–Iran and India. In the case of Iran, ancient texts refer to the original Iranians as Aryans, coming from the Caucasus, and the name of the country itself means “land of the Aryans.” And as you may have learned in school, the basic ethnic history of India is that Aryan people entered the subcontinent from now Afghanistan, to displace and to some extent subjugate the preexisting Dravidian people, who now populate the darker-skin realms of South India.

According to these foundational legends, the Iranian and Indian peoples can be seen as brothers or cousins. And whether or not you believe these legends to be true, the physical similarity between some Iranians and Indians cannot be denied. Of course, many Indians and Iranians don’t look anything like each other–if you had to choose two nations that had similar looking people, these two would not be them–but there is definitely an overlap in the physical type that wasn’t apparent to me before visiting India and Iran in relatively close succession. Surprisingly many Iranians could easily pass for Indian (and vice versa, I suppose, although most people in the world are more familiar with what Indians look like than Iranians).

Historical/Linguistic. Farsi, the language spoken most widely in Iran, and northern Indian languages, such as Hindi, are the easternmost languages of the Indo-European language group and are said to comprise its “Indo-Iranian branch.” This hit me off-guard when, while looking at some tiles, I was told that “green” and “vegetable” in Farsi were “sabz” and “sabzi,” respectively, the latter of which I knew to the same word in Hindi from our Indian travels. No doubt there are many, many other common words given the linguistic closeness of the languages.

As I mentioned in my post of 3.28, many Muslim rulers of India, including the Mughals, were Farsi-speaking, and so Farsi was a court language in India for a fair amount of its history. These rulers came not only directly from now Iran, as the rulers of Golconda I described in my post of 3.28, but also from what may be called Greater Persia, which includes the parts of Afghanistan and Central Asia that were for much of history under the same control as now Iran and populated by people who speak Farsi or closely related languages. Until the nineteenth century, Farsi was in relatively common use in India, at least in certain circles, and many Iranians traveled to and lived in India to seek their fortunes.

Given this history, Farsi influence has great in Urdu, the language of Pakistan, which even uses, like Farsi, a modified Arabic script. I am told by an Iranian-American friend and reader of the blog that an Urdu speaker once told my friend that he could understand my friend’s Farsi. If so, it must be relatively easy for a Farsi speaker to learn Urdu and vice versa.

I had learned from prior research that “biryani” (as in the Indian rice dish) was derived from the Farsi word for frying or roasting, and so got my hopes up that there would be a Persian equivalent of the dish–a sort of ur-biryani that was transported to India. Ordering a beriani in Esfahan, I received something like a fried hamburger patty, and so learned that given the extensive use of Farsi in India, there must be many things that have Farsi names but are purely from the subcontinent. [Post on Iranian food to come.]

Modern Cultural. Iranian people may to a certain extent look down on India today, and to a certain extent Iran and Iranian culture have held the position of a superior to India over history, but there are still many contemporary connections between Iran and India. Indian movies are popular in Iran, although perhaps not as popular as American movies. We’ve spoken to and heard of Iranians who have either studied in India or plan to study in India for its relatively low cost and high quality of education. In addition to its well-established universities, India is of course a free society and affords many opportunities to learn about the world not available in Iran.

Zoroastrians. Deserving its own category is the Zoroastrian connection. At the time of the Arab conquest of the Sassanid Empire in the seventh century, a significant population of Iranians fled Iran for India. Known as Parsis, they retain their Zoroastrian faith and form a discrete minority population in India, centered around Bombay. The Parsis of India today see themselves as Indians and not Iranians (they speak Gujarati, the language of Gujarat, India, where they first settled after leaving Iran), but maintain their historical and religious links to Iran. Parsis travel to Iran for pilgrimage and communicate with Iranian Zoroastrians on theological matters, and there has also been intermarriage between the Zoroastrians of Iran and India (perhaps helpful, given their limited populations in both places–perhaps 70,000 in India and 40,000 in Iran). We have been told that there has been some financial support from India to Iran (the Indian Parsis have been very successful, financially), and a Indian Parsi community exists in Yazd, Iran, a center of Iranian Zoroastrians. [Post on Zoroastrianism to come.]

7 thoughts on “Iran and India

  1. Speaking of foods that cross over between Persian and Indian: Whatever you do, do not try to order “kheer” at an Iranian restaurant. Ask for “sheer berenj” (literally, rice milk) instead.

    My maternal grandfather and his family are from Yazd. (But they’re not Parsis.)

    I’ve never heard of a food called “beriani.” Maybe it’s an Esfanani thing? I’ll have to ask my family about it.

    Many words cross over between Hindi and Persian. For example, the name of the Indian instrument “sitar” actually means “30 strings” in Farsi. (The Persian instrument “setar,” in contrast, means “three strings.”)

    As for Iranians looking down on Indians . . . yes, that’s probably true, but keep in mind that, to some extent, many Iranians look down on pretty much *everyone*.

  2. It seems that you lost one of the most common and delicious foods in iran … that's called "ashe reshte"
    that's kind of soup with veggis. some kind of pasta tasted with fried onion , garlic , mint … and some kind of souse … maybe like salty yughort !
    that's a great soup !!!

  3. hi there are many words in hindi language from persian …i used to chat with irani girl so i find many words such as nakal means cheating.,pajama..mazdoor…mez means table…inteqam..siyahi means ink….talim…sardard means headach..,shekayat means complaint….aks…shahr …davakhana…nam ,,.and many other words.

  4. Yes i belive you are right iranian and indian are historically brothers .I was a seaman i have had many voyages to india whenever i was there i had very good feeling and enjoyed your delicious hot food i am very found of indian movies and music since when i was the way i am iranian but look like indian.

  5. Great blog post Paul!

    Much to their dismay, most Balochis and many Persians look and in some cases dress and act exactly like the majority of North Indians. You can call Persians the wheatish version of Indians. The cuisine, music, and architecture are also quite similar. The languages (Hindi/Urdu and Farsi) are fairly similar. I personally can’t tell apart an Indian or Iranian accent. They both sound kinda ‘Apu-ish’. Iran is way more similar to North India than to anywhere in Europe. Anyone who thinks otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

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