Today is Navroze, the Parsi (and indeed Persian) New Year. And I had the privilege of celebrating the occasion at a community dinner which also marked the inauguration of the new Parsi pavilion in Chennai.
Most of Chennai's Parsis were there - along with friends and well-wishers - for a sit down meal on banana leaf featuring an array of meat, fish and vegetarian dishes. The pavilion used to be a down-at-heel badminton court. Now, along with the adjoining community hall, it can be used for social occasions as well as bringing in revenue from its use for Muslim weddings.
This was not my first Parsi meal of the week - on Monday I had an excellent breakfast in the grounds of the Parsi dharamsala, just up the street from the community hall and pavilion. In the photo, there's (on the left) Darius and Tehnaz Bahadurji, the leading figures in the community, along with Mahiar Shroff, who manages the dharamsala, and his wife Zavera, who cooked the breakfast.
The centrepiece of the assembly of Parsi buildings in the Royapuram area of north Chennai is the fire temple. It was built by the Clubwala family and dates from 1910. There's a full-time priest and an assistant. The temple is wonderfully well kept and, as is customary, non-Parsis are not allowed to enter.
Royapuram is near Chennai's docks, which came under Japanese attack during the Second World War. The area was evacuated, but the Zoroastrian priest at the time refused to leave - insisting that he would ensure that the fire in the temple didn't die out.
There's never been a tower of silence in Chennai, and the burial ground is a small but, again, well kept plot in the grounds of the dharamsala. As you can see, there have been a number of interments in recent months; the last Parsi wedding in Chennai was almost six years ago.
The Parsi community in Chennai numbers a little over two-hundred - two-thirds aged seventy and over. But the community here has not suffered the sharp diminution of numbers witnessed in some other Indian cities.
There are about 55,000 Parsis across India, mainly in Mumbai and Pune. That number is shrinking - the community has a low birth rate and, by and large, is reluctant to accept those with only one Parsi parent as a full member.
Apart from their cuisine (and their relative wealth), Parsis are noted for their philanthropy, towards their own and more widely. The dharamsala in Chennai (below) is, like the temple, more than a century old - a place to stay for Parsi travellers and those without a home. And on the adjoining land the community has a number of apartments available for young Parsi incomers, to give them a helping hand in a new city and to seek to fortify the community's future in Chennai.
The community has well-attended monthly get-togethers and prides itself on its common purpose when (so I hear) many other Parsi communities, some much smaller, are prone to factions and feuding.
A Parsee in Regent's Park
In the northern half of Regent's Park, not far from that venerated open-air cafe 'The Honest Sausage', stands this wonderful Gothic style monument. A watering hole, in its most literal meaning. And as you can see, enormously in demand on a wonderfully sunny bank holiday weekend.
What I hadn't appreciated until now is the India - indeed the Parsee - connection.
The fountain was built in 1869 by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association (not many charitable endeavours encompass both human and animal welfare quite so magnificently), inuagurated by a member of the royal family, and paid for by a wealthy Bombay (now Mumbai) based Parsee industrialist.
Parsees - Zoroastrians by religion, a community numbering only in the tens of thousands - have had, and continue to have, an influence out of all proportion to their numbers. They have played a role in Indian industry and commerce akin to that of the Quakers in Britain a couple of centuries ago. Their role in politics, in India at least, has been less evident - though both M.A. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and Indira Gandhi married Parsees. But quite remarkably in Britain, the first three Asian MPs were all Parsees - Dadabhai Naoroji ('Mr Narrow Majority'), elected Liberal MP for Central Finsbury in 1892, Sir M.M. Bhownagree a Conservative representing (unlikely as it seems) a seat in the East End of London, and Sharpurji Saklatvala, a communist who represented Battersea in Parliament in the 1920s.
The plaque on the drinking fountain in Regent's Park omits to mention the full name of its Parsee benefactor, and what a marvellous name it is - Sir Cowasjee Jehangir Readymoney. Here's his Wikipedia entry. As you can see, the plaque records that Sir Cowasjee provided the funds for the fountain 'as a token of gratitude to the people of England for the protection enjoyed by him and his Parsee fellow countrymen under the British rule in India.' This was barely a decade after the 1857 Rebellion/Mutiny - decsribed by some as India's First War of Independence - so quite a bold statement.
Above the plaque is what appears to be a likeness of the benefactor - judge for yourself how well it captured his features:
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