Behind the Belief: The Zoroastrians of Singapore

A member of Singapore’s Parsi community leading children in a Zoroastrian prayer. (PHOTO: Nurul Amirah Haris)
A member of Singapore’s Parsi community leading children in a Zoroastrian prayer. (PHOTO: Nurul Amirah Haris)

by Nicholas Yong and Andre He

How much do you know about the diversity of faiths in Singapore? In this series, Yahoo News Singapore explores the lesser-known rituals and branches of religions in the country.

There are only about 300 Parsis of the Zoroastrian faith, one of the country’s 10 official religions, in Singapore. But they represent a heritage that goes back thousands of years, and a religion that pre-dates Christianity and Islam.

“We are one of the smallest communities, not only in Singapore but in the world,” said student Zeena Avari, 16, at a gathering of the Parsi community in Singapore in late August.

“You kind of are on the verge of extinction, so you really want to uphold this tradition. You want to keep this community moving forward.”

Zoroastrianism began in ancient Persia (modern-day Iran) with the emergence of the prophet Zarathustra Spitama, also called Zoroaster. While there is no academic consensus, many scholars think Zarathustra lived between 1,500 and 1,000 BCE. He founded one of the world’s first monotheistic religions after receiving a revelation of a god named Ahura Mazda, which combines a Sanskrit word for “Lord” and Zarathustra’s own term for “magnificent creator”.

The faith became Persia’s dominant religion under the rule of kings such as Cyrus the Great, who is mentioned in the Bible as the deliverer of Jews in captivity. The three main tenets of the religion: good thoughts, good words and good deeds.

Zoroastrians worship in fire temples, where a sacred flame burns constantly, as fire represents truth and purity. Other practices include sky burial, or leaving dead bodies on mountaintops to be consumed by vultures.

A Tower of Silence, where sky burials were once carried out, in Yazd, Iran. (PHOTO: Gillian Ang)
A Tower of Silence, where sky burials were once carried out, in Yazd, Iran. (PHOTO: Gillian Ang)

“We believe that once you bury a body in the ground, you pollute the ground for 100 years,” explained Inter-Religious Organisation president Rustom Ghadiali, 82, of the practice that still survives among Zoroastrian communities in parts of India. Most Zoroastrians now bury or cremate their dead.

When the Persian empire fell to the Arab caliphs around the 7th century CE, Islam became the dominant religion. A century later, fearing persecution, some Zoroastrians left Persia and eventually landed on Diu Island off the western coast of India. They later sailed to Sanjan on the mainland.

“They migrated to India. And because we came from the province of Pars in Iran, we were called Parsis,” explained orthopaedic surgeon Pesi Chacha, 79.

Today, there are an estimated 190,000 Zoroastrians worldwide, who can be found in places ranging from India to Iran to Russia.

(video by Nurul Amirah Haris)

Commemorating Pateti

On 19 August, about 170 members of Singapore’s Parsi community came together at the Holiday Inn Singapore to mark Pateti. According to the Shenshai calendar, it is the day before Nowruz, or the New Year. It is a day for reflection and repentance, while the eight to 10 days before Pateti are marked by prayers for the dead.

It was a colourful occasion for what is clearly a tight-knit community, with many of the women decked out in saris, reflecting the Indian influence on their culture. Many of the children present were ushered onstage to kick off proceedings with a short prayer, asking for blessings and a good future. There were also many greetings of “Navroz Mubarak”, or “Happy new year”.

One of the attendees was actress Daisy Irani, 58, well-known for her role in the popular 1990s sitcom “Under One Roof”. The founder of Hum Theatre said she is always heartened to see the community coming together, and lauded the fact that its younger members are well-travelled and more accepting of other religions.

“It’s nice and it’s the correct thing to hold on to your values, to hold on to your traditions, at the same time, being open, accepting,” said Irani. “But I think right now… there is a group that yet feels very strongly that ‘No, it’s a patriarchal religion and if a girl gets married outside, her progeny cannot become a part of the community.’

“So that I think is a debate which is not going to go away.”

Orthodox Zoroastrians are opposed to marrying outside the community. Spouses of those who do so are not considered members of these communities and are not allowed to take part in its rituals or activities. There is also no conversion into the religion.

Irani, who is originally from Mumbai, has painful memories of her father’s death some four decades ago. His body was taken to a Tower of Silence, a raised circular structure where air burials are carried out. But Irani’s mother was not allowed inside as she was a Hindu.

“I was like, oh my god. She wants to be there but because she’s not a Zoroastrian, she was not allowed inside,” she said.

Actress Daisy Irani at the recent Zoroastrian gathering. (PHOTO: Nurul Amirah Haris)
Actress Daisy Irani at the recent Zoroastrian gathering. (PHOTO: Nurul Amirah Haris)

Singapore’s Zoroastrian community

But times have changed, and many Zoroastrian communities worldwide have moved with them. According to Ghadiali, about a third of the Parsi community here is married to outsiders, including his two daughters. Non-Zoroastrian spouses are also allowed to be associate members of the Parsi Zoroastrian Association of Singapore (PZAS).

And while sky burials are not allowed in Singapore, there has been a Parsi burial ground in Singapore since 1828. Asked if it is difficult for the Parsi community to preserve its traditions and practices, Ghadali laments the lack of a fire temple in Singapore.

“There is no place here to teach (our children) about the religion. It is a very different story when you have a temple. A permanent place (and) a priest there to give answers.”

Nevertheless, younger adherents like Zeena Avari take pride in their identity. “In Singapore, not many people know what it is. So normally… when you say ‘I’m Parsi’, they’d be like, ‘What’s that? I don’t know what that is’.”

“Then when you explain it to them, you really do take pride in it. It’s like giving them a part of you.”

This story has been amended to reflect the dates of the emergence of Zarathustra and the final conquest of the Persian empire by the Arab caliphs.

Related stories: