Who Is A Parsi?

One is often confronted with the question – Who is a Parsi, and how and where was this term coined? What is one of the oldest references to this term? What is the legal definition of Parsi in India? Does Parsi include an Irani Zoroastrian? In this article, we answer some of these questions, mainly in the light of historical facts…


Province of Pars: The term Parsi (also spelled Parsee) means one from the province of Pars, also known as ‘Fars’ in Southwest Iran. The official language of Iran even today is Farsi (Persian).


When Cyrus the Great founded the Achaemenian Empire, there were two warring tribes – one from the Southwestern province of Fars and the other from the Northwestern province of Mada (Media). Cyrus successfully united the two tribes to create a unified Persian nation and then a world empire. Later, in the same province of Fars, Darius the Great started to build Persepolis as his Spring Capital and the Necropolis, now known as Naqsh-e-Rustom, where he and some of his successors were laid to rest.


Oldest Reference: One of the oldest references to the term Parsa, which later became Parsi (i.e. one from Pars or Persia), can be found inscribed in rock, both, at Persepolis and at Naqsh-e-Rustom. It says, Parsa Parsa-ha Puthra Arya, Arya Chithra. In this inscription Darius the Great, more than two and a half millennia ago, identifies himself as, “(I am) a Parsa (Persian), the son of a Parsa (Persian), an Aryan, of Aryan lineage.” 


The entire paragraph reads as, “I am Darius, the Great King, King of Kings, King of the countries of all races, King of this far-reaching earth, son of Hystaspes, the Achaemenian, a Parsa (Persian), the son of a Parsa (Persian), an Aryan, of Aryan lineage.” (Parsa Parsa-ha Puthra Arya, Arya Chithra).


Legal Definition: In the famous Parsi Punchayet case (also known as Petit Vs Jejeebhoy case), Justices Dinshaw Davar and Frank Beamon, (as reported in (1909) 33 ILR 509 and 11Bom.L.R. 85) have observed that the Parsi community consists of:

  1. Parsis who are descended from the original Persian emigrants and who are born of both Zoroastrian parents and who profess the Zoroastrian religion;
  2. Iranis from Persia (Iran) professing the Zoroastrian religion;
  3. Children of Parsi fathers by alien (non-Parsi) mothers who have been duly and properly admitted into the religion.


The matter before the court was not regarding who is a Parsi but whether a French lady married to a Parsi gentleman in India, after her Navjote ceremony, could be considered as Parsi. The verdict of the court was in the negative. However, in order to arrive at this verdict, evidence had to be led before the court by scholars and high priests of that era. This judgment is now more than a century old.


Does Parsi Include Irani?

In 1948, an Irani Zoroastrian, in order to escape from the purview of the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, declared that Iranis professing the Zoroastrian religion are not Parsi, and therefore, not governed by the aforesaid Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act. Justice Coyaji, who was presiding over the Parsi Matrimonial Court, upheld the Irani Zoroastrians’ contention. The contention was again upheld in Appeal by Justices Chagla and Gajendragadkar (1950 – 52 BLR 876).


A similar issue in the case of Jamshed Irani Vs. Banu Irani [(1966) 68 B.L.R. 794] came up before Justice Mody. Justice Mody also concurred with the views held by Justice Chagla and stated, “Now so far as that part of the Judgement is concerned, Chagla CJ has pointed out that it was obiter…..” (‘Obiter’ is Latin for “something said in passing.” It is usually a comment, suggestion, or observation made by a judge as an opinion that is not necessary to resolve the case, and as such, not legally binding on other courts but can be cited as persuasive authority in future litigation.) It was only after recording fresh evidence of four eminent scholars (one of whom was the scholarly High Priest of Iranshah in Udwada – Dastur Dr. Hormazdiyar Kayoji Mirza), that Justice Mody held that Irani Zoroastrians are Parsis.


Excerpts From Justice Jain’s Treatise:

It may not be out of place here to quote excerpts from a treatise by Justice M.L. Jain, originally published in A.I.R. Vol. 72 (1985 October) p.p. 81-83. According to Justice Jain, this treatise was written because his judgement delivered as a Judge of the High Court of Delhi, in Smt. Maneka Gandhi Vs. Smt. Indira Gandhi, A.I.R. 1984 Delhi 428, “invited criticism from some quarters that the judgement ignored the distinction between a Parsi and a Zoroastrian.”


Here’s what Justice Jain elucidates:

  • “When we speak of a Parsi in India particularly in the matter of law relating to family and succession, a Parsi means a Parsi Zoroastrian.”
  • “In Jamshed Irani Vs Banu Irani (1966) 68 Bom. L.R. 794, evidence was led before Mody J. that Herodotus and Xenophon, the two great historians who lived in the third and fourth centuries B.C. referred to Iranians as Parsis.”
  • “Till the Arab conquest in 631 A.D., almost all, if not all, the inhabitants of Iran were Zoroastrians, and were called Parsis. After the Arab conquest, there were extensive conversions to Islam and those who were so converted began to be called Musalmans. The label Parsi came to be confined only to the Zoroastrians who escaped The Arab conquerors persecuted them and some of them migrated to India. Firdausi in his writings has referred at several places to the Zoroastrians of Iran as Parsis…”
  • Spiegel,in his introduction to a book on Avesta written by Henry Bleeck, in 1864, used the word Parsis for Zoroastrians of Iran.”
  • “In Volume XVIII of ‘The Sacred Books of the East’,  West refers to the Parsi religion and Parsi scriptures in connection with the Zoroastrians of Iran.”
  • “Max Muller has used the word ‘Parsi’ for Zoroastrians of
  • F. Karaka’sHistory of the Parsis (1884) shows that the word Parsi was used by him for a Zoroastrian.”
  • “Napier Malcolm has, in 1894, used the word ‘Parsi’ for the Iranis who professed the Zoroastrian religion.”
  • “In 1906, the Shah of Iran in a Fermanused the word ‘Parsi’ in connection with the abolition of taxes levied on Zoroastrians.”
  • “Percy Sykes used the word ‘Parsi’ for the Zoroastrian of Iran.”
  • “In Murray’s Dictionary, 1909, Volume VII, the meaning of ‘Parsi’ is given as follows: “One of the descendants of those Persians who migrated to India in the 7thor 8th century to escape Mahomedan persecution and who still retain their religion Zoroastrianism.”


The Difference: We have seen that legally, an Irani who professes the Zoroastrian religion is a Parsi. However, what is the difference between the two?

Both – Parsi and Irani Zoroastrians are ethnically of Persian (Iranian) origin. Parsis who came to India about three hundred years after the fall of the Sasanian Empire (i.e., around the tenth century A.D.) trace their ancestry back to the province of Khorasan, known in ancient times as Parthia. The city of Mashad is situated in this province, northeast of Iran, near the borders with Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. It was a major oasis along the ancient Silk Road connecting with Merv to the East. While it was once a major Zoroastrian bastion, Mashad today is named after the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth Shia Imam. With the Mausoleum of Ferdowsi Toosi also situated in Mashad, the city is often colloquially called the city of Ferdowsi.

The Migratory Divide: While Parsis appear to have moved to India from Khorasan (North Eastern Iran) during the tenth century AD., our Irani Zoroastrians (mostly settled in the desert provinces of Yazd and Kerman in South Central Iran) continued to stay on in Iran despite severe persecution by Arabs, Turks, Mongols and various other marauding invaders, over several centuries after the Parsis had settled in India.

Yazd is situated about two hundred miles south-east of Isfahan and Kerman and about three hundred and eighty miles from Bunder (port) Abbas. They are both situated on the confines of two extensive deserts, the Dasht-e-Kavir and the Dasht-e-lut, which to the north, cover an area of over five hundred miles, and which are separated by a chain of Rocky Mountains, through which ancient caravans traced their way with great difficulty.

There are no major differences between the religious doctrines, beliefs and practices of Parsis and Irani Zoroastrians. In fact, in India, it is a settled law that the term ‘Parsi’ includes Irani Zoroastrians (68 Bombay Law Reporter, Pg. 794: Jamshed A. Irani V/s Banu J Irani).

Noshir H. Dadrawala
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