Religion is a central aspect of human culture, and religious worship and religious edifices make up some of the most interesting and important sights for a traveler to a foreign land. In truth, however, the number of distinct, well-developed religious traditions is limited. As one becomes familiar with the basics of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, travel offers the opportunity to discover greater details, distinctions among the various subfaiths of these religions, but not the original sense of wonder that is afforded to a Western traveler first encountering Islam in the domes and minarets of Istanbul or an Eastern traveler’s first sight of the great European churches such as St. Peter’s Basilica or Notre Dame Cathedral.
All of which makes it so exciting, as a relatively seasoned traveler, to see an entirely different faith in the flesh. The world’s Zoroastrian population may be limited (at most, 200,000 people), but Zoroastrian communities are highly visible in parts of both India and Iran.
Estimates of the lifetime of Zoroaster (also called Zartosht and Zarathustra–as in Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame) vary, but many scholars currently believe that he lived in the eleventh or tenth century BC. He is regarded as the prophet of the religion named after him, which caught on especially as the dominant religion of the Persian Empire in the Achaemenid and Sassanid periods. The sacred texts, called the Gathas, which are part of the Avestas, are written in an ancient script and chanted by the priests as part of Zoroastrian worship.
Most importantly, Zoroastrians believe in one god, Ahura Mazda, who created the universe and will prevail despite the presence of certain evil forces. It is often said that Zoroastrianism was the world’s first monotheistic religion.
The faravahar is the most important symbol of Zoroastrianism, seen here as carved at Persepolis. The man with his right hand shows obeisance to Ahura Mazda while he holds in his left hand a ring showing his promise to the god. The three layers of feathers in the wings represent good thought, good words and good deeds, while the three layers of feathers in the “tail” represent bad thoughts, bad words and bad deeds, which we should aim to put under us. The ring in the center represents the connectedness of the world and causality. The “leg” to the left represents evil spirits while the “leg” to the right represents good spirits.
We were told that people pray five times a day, oriented toward a light source if possible. The most important light source is the fire that burns at a Zoroastrian fire temple, but it is not considered essential for Zoroastrians to pray at the fire temple–any light suffices. Zoroastrians revere fire as one of the four sacred elements of creation (in addition to water, earth and air), but do not worship it–a common misconception in historical times.
Fire temple, Yazd, Iran
The fire inside the fire temple in Yazd. It is said that the fire, brought from older fire temples, has been burning without interruption since 470 AD.
A water, or Anahita, temple ruin at the city of Bishapur. When used, the central courtyard would have been flooded along with channels that run around an interior perimeter within the walls, on the other side of the doors that are visible.
Zoroastrianism became a state religion under the Sassanids (224-642 AD), who practiced a form of Zoroastrianism that is said to have been contaminated by Mithraism, another local faith. Since Islamic Arab conquest of now Iran in the seventh century, most of the population of Iran has converted to Islam, but around 40,000 Zoroastrians remain. It has been suggested that the decline of Zoroastrianism was due in part to its close association with the Sassanid state.
The Zoroastrian pilgrimage site of Chak Chak, to where it is believed that the last Sassanid princess fled. Low on water at this desert site, she is said to have thrown her staff at the mountain, at which a stream of water began to drip (“chak, chak, chak…”). The bronze doors depict Zoroaster.
At the time of the Arab conquest, a number of Iranians fled to India, where as a minority of around 70,000 centered around Bombay they retain their Zoroastrian faith. The Parsis, as the Zoroastrians of India are called, 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 (although there is no central combined hierarchy), and there has also been intermarriage between the Zoroastrians of Iran and India. Parsis have been very successful, financially, and have provided material support to Zoroastrians in Iran.
A Parsi temple in Bombay, India
Tiled plaque inside the Chak Chak shrine, in Gujarati, the language of the Indian Parsis.
One of the most famous stories of Zoroastrians is that they do not bury the dead. Traditionally, Zoroastrians leave the bodies, which to them are meaningless vessels once the soul has departed, to decay and be eaten by scavenger birds in “towers of silence.” One Zoroastrian priest explained to us with unusually scientific vocabulary for a religious man that this allows the proteins of our bodies to be reincorporated as quickly as possible in another living animal. Towers of silence are no longer used in Iran, where they have been prohibited on health grounds since the Islamic Revolution, but are still used in India, with the help of chemical accelerants to promote decomposition, as the urbanization of Bombay has resulted in fewer and fewer scavengers.
A tower of silence outside Yazd. In the foreground is a cistern, with wind towers to cool the water.
Inside the tower. After the bones had been picked clean of flesh, they were deposited into the ossuary/well in the middle.
Modern Zoroastrian cemetery, Yazd. The bodies are buried in inert cement containers so as to not pollute the earth, one of the four sacred elements.
It’s often possible to recognize Zoroastrians in Iran because though they are ethnically fairly similar to the Muslim Iranians (unlike the Christians, who are largely Armenian), they tend to dress more casually. While they are required to adhere to the Islamic dress code, it seems they take it less to heart. One Iranian Zoroastrian told us that it is a bad time in Iran, with the current Iranian government, and many Zoroastrians, who on average are relatively well off, are emigrating.
Due to strict rules regarding conversion (the Parsis do not permit non-Parsis to convert to Zoroastrianism and the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran forbid Muslims from converting to other faiths under penalty of death), it seems likely that the world’s Zoroastrian population will further dwindle. [One Parsi told us that complicating the matter is that a majority of Parsi men are gay!] Unless there is a renaissance in conversions to Zoroastrianism by Iranians seeking a return to their ancient religious roots (that is, after a change in Iranian law), it would seem likely that the religion will, eventually, die out.
An Iranian Zoroastrian man. [Note: Not the source of any information for this or any post.]