Friday, September 19, 2014

[Indian Culture Workshop 2013-2014] Visit to Zoroastrian Temple

Ervad Homyar introducing Zoroastrian rituals to the participants.
Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in the world, which originated in today’s Iran. The followers are called Parsee or Parsi.  In the 8th to 10th century, many Parsees fled to northwest India in order to escape from the Muslim conquest of Persia.  Many have since settled in Mumbai or further migrated to different parts of the world.

In Hong Kong, the Parsee community is made up of just over 200 people.  The closely bonded community gather regularlyat the temple in Causeway Bay. The temple is overseen by an ervad, a priest who is knowledgeable in religious teaching and takes care of the fire.

The Indian Culture Workshop organized a visit to the temple in March 2014. During our visit, Ervad Homyar shared an interesting story with us: When the Parsee migrants arrived in India and requested to settle, the Indian king refused.  The king then  filled a glass to the brim with milk, to show that there was no space for the Parsees to settle in India.  The wise Zoroastrian priest asked for some sugar and put it into the milk. The sugar instantaneously dissolved without any overflow.  The priest tried to provenot only would the Parsees not overload India but would make it even better.  The king was convinced and allowed the Zoroastrians to settle.  From then on, wherever the Parsees go, they would help to improve the society they settle in.

The three basic principles in Zoroastrianism are “Think with good intentions, “Say good words and “Do good deeds.  Many Chinese misunderstand the religion, as its Chinese translation means  “the religion that worships fire”.  In fact, the Zoroastrians do not worship fire; instead, they use it as a medium to communicate with their deity.  They believe that all elements of nature (including water, earth, air, fire) are sacred, but among these, fire is the most special.

Zoroastrians inherit their religious identity patrilineally, and they do not actively seek to convert.  As in all religions, Zoroastrians mark their life stages with specific rituals, like navjote.  Between age six and puberty, Zoroastrian children go through navjote, a rite of initiation overseen by their father.  They wear a special white garment (sudra) with a white rope (kusti), and recite a prayer.  Thereafter, the child is considered a member of the church.

Due to different kinds of restrictions, not all Zoroastrian traditions can be carried out the way they had been. The community has to find ways to adapt and localizeErvad Homyar led us on a visit to the Parsi Cemetery in Happy Valley, where he explained that a Zoroastrian’s body should return to nature after death.  As only cremation and coffin burial are allowed in Hong Kong, instead of a traditional sky burial, a burial is practiced after the death of a Zoroastrian.

The Zoroastrian community is relatively closed and low-profile, it is however not difficult to find the footprints of famous Zoroastrian philanthropists in Hong Kong.  Sir HN Mody, a Parsee real estate entrepreneur, was one of the major donor of the University of Hong Kong.  Recognising his social contribution, Mody Road in Tsim Sha Tsui is named after him.  Other Parsee merchants like JH Ruttonjee and DN Mithaiwala also made important contributions to  Hong Kong’s public health and transportation development. The former  established Ruttonjee Sanatorium and the latter the Star Ferry.

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