Shrinking Number of Parsis in India

Another whirlwind of a day at the Asian Art Museum.  Today's speaker was discussing some of the "minority" religions of India, and Zoroastrianism piqued my interest.

Our speaker, Gurinder Singh Mann from UC Santa Barbara, placed the current population of Zoroastrians in India at 69,000 and shrinking.  Once the state religion of various empires in the Iranian region (empires which covered most of Central Asia and parts of the Middle East), Zoroastrians migrated from Iran to India about 1000 CE to escape Muslim persecution.  They acquired the name Parsi ("Persian") in India and were resettled by local rulers with the expectation that they would adopt local customs and dress, which they did.

Historical Photo Parsi Family in India
Parsis came to prominence in India under the British.  Initially focused in Bombay, they spread to other urban centers, including Calcutta, Delhi, Karachi, Madras, then China, Hong Kong, and East Africa.  By 1900, 6% of the population of Bombay was Parsi, but Parsis held 40% of the institutional positions in the city.  Three Parsis in the British Parliament, Indira Gandhi's husband, Feroze Gandhi (a corruption of Ghandi), and the Tata family, one of the richest in the world, are Parsi.  Despite the illustrious careers of several Parsis, however, the current Parsi fear is of being swallowed by an overwhelming Hindu majority in India.

Tower of Silence in Iran
Photo by Bill Zorn
And what does this have to do with Ahura Mazda, the Towers of Silence (where bodies after death are left for birds), and the conception of the world as a battleground between good and evil?  A question about the longevity and ability of a religion to outlast the height of its political power by centuries.  Parsi prominence under the British (and its success in the contemporary world) is closely tied to an acceptance of modernity and a flexibility in positioning oneself within a rapidly changing social and political world.  The Parsis have historically been able to do this within India, but at what point do numbers simply become too small to continue to support a religious tradition?