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Parsi New Year & the festival of the souls

Friday, August 11, 2017
By. Dr. Shernaz B. Avari

Zoroastrianism is a religion that beautifully and sensibly worships the elements of Nature alongwith celestial beings like the Ameshaspentas known as the Arch Angels and the Yazads or Angels as also the Fravashis, the holy guardian spirit of the souls alongwith spiritual goodness & growth, truth, love, justice and divine justice, faith, belief and commitment to the glorious Mazdayasni Religion in true harmony and obedience to the cosmic laws of Nature says Dr. SHERNAZ BAJI AVARI

Before the joyous celebrations welcoming the Parsi New Year, we remember rever, invocate and venerate with certain prayers and rituals, the Fravashis of our dear departed family members and other divine beings whose love and sacrifices in our lives have paved the way for us to lead a better and fulfilling life – it’s a debt of gratitude! Yes, some of us realize this fact more intensely when they are no more!

The 10 days in the run-up to the New Year include the Muktad and the Gatha days.  The first 5 days starting from Roj Astad i.e. 7th August to Roj Anneran 11th August are the Muktad days, the next 5 days are the Gatha days, the last being ‘Pateti’ followed by Parsi New Year which falls this year on 17th August.

What’s so special about these holy days? Well, there are unique customs and rituals to be followed. Every Parsi Irani Zoroastrian visits as many Agiaries and Atash Behrams and some even pay a visit to the Iran Shah Atash Behram at Udwads, the highest spiritual abode of the Parsi Irani Zoroastrians all over the globe.  It is believed that the ‘fravashis’ or the guardian spirits of the souls of our dear departed family members come visiting us from their spiritual world and enter our material world on Planet Earth, perhaps on a 10 day vacation!  It then becomes our duty to honour and welcome their spiritual presence, as best as we can, as much as we can.  Every family is attached to a certain Agiary or Atash Behram where prayers are held by the priests with offerings of sandlewood, ‘divo’ and ‘chasni’ which are consecrated offerings of daran, malido, puri, pomegranate and sweet preparations.  In every Agiary or Atash Behram there are rows and rows of marble tables which are laid out with consecrated Silver Vases provided by the family members with the name of the deceased carved on it.  These vases are filled with fresh well water (every Agiary & Atash Behram has a well) and a bunch of fresh flowers are placed in these vases alongwith an oil ‘divo’ on the table tops.  The priests chant the Avesta prayers loudly resounding heavenwards while we pray in low decibels. We believe that the souls reside in these vases.  Pleased at our heart-warming gesture in remembering them with love and longing, they rejoice and bestow upon us a thousand fold blessings or ‘ashish’ in the form of happiness, ‘tandarosti’ (good health), abundance and prosperity at all levels, guidance and protection from the forces of evil and destruction.

The last 5 days are the ‘Gatha’ days, termed as the holiest of the holy days.  The ‘Gathas’ are celestial hymns or songs sung by Lord Zarathustra to our Creator Pak Dadar Ahura Mazda which reveals the whole gamut of truth, beauty and harmony pertaining to Heaven and Earth as well as the spiritual and material world.  The first ‘Gatha’ is AHUNAVAD (which is the longest and takes about 45 minutes to pray) sings praises of Lord Ahura Mazda, the supreme creator and HIS all abundant grace, beauty and bounty in creating this Universe so that we on Planet Earth can lead a comfortable life.  The second is USHTAVAD signifying divine happiness all around, the third SPENTOMARD is all about devotion to the Almighty followed by the fourth VOHUKSHASTAR possessing spiritual powers and the fifth and last ‘Gatha’ VAHISHTOISH laying emphasis on spiritual riches, wealth and wisdom which are far more significant than material wealth (which some of us love to accumulate).  This day is also called ‘PATETI’ which is not the New Year as some outside our community say and erroneously wish us ‘happy pateti’.  It’s a day of repentence for all the wrongs and misdeeds committed by us knowingly and unknowingly in the year by chanting the Patet Pashemani prayers. A time to reflect, ponder and clean the cobwebs within us to pave the way for a glorious New Year the Next day!

Is it compulsory to pray the ‘Gathas’? Not really but most devout Parsis deem it their duty to pray the same for our spiritual upliftment and solace to our souls as well. Do these prayers have to be done only in the Fire Temples? Not necessarily, they can be performed in homes too at your convenience and time while observing the rules of purity.  On a marble or metallic table we can keep a metallic vase with fresh flowers, ‘divo’ fruits, some sweet goodies or cooked food (optional) a photo of our Prophet Zarathustra, Avesta Prayer book, a glass of water, or milk and a small ‘Afarganyu’ lighted with sandlewood sticks and ‘loban’, a photo of our dear departed family members while chanting the relevant prayers.  A few customs have to be observed before the Muktad-Gatha days.  It’s a strict no-no to cut hair or nails as these create ‘naso’ or impurity. Well then, if you wish to cut, trim and colour your hair or trim, file and paint your nails just do it 10 days ago or on New Year’s day itself!

How do we give the souls a send-off to their spiritual world? On the 10th night, the relatives gather at the respective Fire Temple to bid adieu to these souls with relevant prayers, offerings of sandlewood, silently remembering them with a special ‘hamper’ of food prepared by the priests.  Well ofcourse they can’t take it ‘home’ with them! Its just a way of showering love on them, a send-off present to make them feel happy and contented that their loved ones are so thoughtful!  These hampers are given back to the priests who have so deligently prayed for the last 10 days.

Now for some fun and frolic, food and entertainment to usher in the New Year.  The entrance to our homes is decorated with floral ‘torans’ and colourful rangoli designs of ‘Happy New Year’ or ‘Sal Mubarak’. ‘Sev-dahi or ‘ravo’ is relished as a breakfast with boiled eggs, and foodina-lemon grass tea with adrak and elaichi is drowned with bun-maska, batasas or bhakhras.  After bath and a ritual of going to the Fire Temple in thanksgiving and gratitude and also wishing each other ‘Sal Mubarak’ on telephone or greeting personally and sending cakes and mithais, either we’re home or to a restaurant with family & friends for lunch.  At home it’s the Parsi ‘Palao Dal’ or Dhan Dal with Fish or prawn patio, jardaloo Sali boti or murghi and a sweet dish, alongwith mugs of frothy golden beer if you please. Many restaurants have elaborate New Year menus and you have to just pick them up by placing an order beforehand.  Afterall, who wants to don that apron and literally keep the home fires burning, atleast not on this day!  After a brief siesta, evenings, are spent watching a hilarious Parsi ‘natak’ with tongue-in-cheek humour mingled with dollops of laughter, music and short skits which are thoroughly enjoyable and no more termed as ‘koila’ by the community itself! Some prefer a Bollywood or Hollywood flick to be followed by dinner at a friend’s place or in a swanky hotel – GST included!

The hand of Ahura Mazda will always guide and protect our miniscule community in the right direction.  No, we will not fade away with time as is predicted by some prophets of doom and gloom.  We will be like a sturdy tree which sheds its leaves replacing it with new leaves, buds and flowers! We are worshippers of Mother Nature and can Nature ever die or fail us? We may be having dwindling numbers in Mumbai, but Zoroastrianism has spread to many parts of the globe where people live in harmony accepting each others views and beliefs.  Everything in this Universe is designed and destined according to the Divine Plan and Divine Laws of Mother Nature.  If we just smoothen up our differences, cement the pitfalls and respect and love each other, we shall shine and even dazzle in the years to come!  We have had legendary Parsis who were far-sighted visionaries and who with the expanse of the heart and generosity of the spirit with deep faith in the Mazdayasni Religion, made astounding contributions in almost every field enriching the community and the Nation. We still have many Parsi Institutions, Associations, Corporates, philanthropists and individuals who carry on the good work and the glorious traditions of our ancestors with equal zeal and dedication.
Let us pledge to live in harmony and co-exist peacefully with integrity and usher in unity and stability so that we progress and prosper keeping our unique ‘Parsipanu’ intact with good humour. With the blessings of Ahura Mazda I wish you all abundance of good health, loads of happiness, tons of community bonding and very importantly family bonding accompanied by peace, joy and prosperity at all levels.  

HAPPY NEW YEAR.

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