The Parsis, which stands for Parsians, are descended from Parsian Zoroastrians, who emigrated to Gujrat where they were given refuge, between the 8th and 10th centuries AD to avoid persecution following the Muslim conquest of Persia when thousands were slaughtered and hanged by the invading Muslims. Although the exact date of migration is unknown, it is traditionally believed that the Parsians initially settled at Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. But as still felt unsafe, they sailed for India, and in the 8th century, arrived at a little town in Gujarat called Sanjan. There, the local Hindu king Jadi Rana or Jadav (Jadeja) Rana gave them shelter and protection, along with his permission to practice their religion, traditions and culture, provided they surrender their arms, learn the local language, their women adopt the Indian clothing, and promise not to try to convert any local to their religion. It is estimated that the said first migratory wave brought 18,000 migrants to India.
However, the migration also may have taken place as late as the 10th century, or both. Some also believe that probably at first they settled at Diu in Kathiawar, and then moved to South Gujrat, where they remained for around 800 years. Nevertheless, with time, they started to arrive and settle in Calcutta about 200 years ago.
Zoroastrianism, or natively known as Mazdayasna, is one of the oldest religions of the world, and until the mid-7th century, Persia (modern-day Iran) was dominated by a Zoroastrian majority. The Zoroastrians are worshippers of fire, and the holy flame eternally burns in the Parsi Fire Temples. However, any person belonging to a religion other than the Zoroastrians, are not allowed to enter a Parsian Fire Temple. Apart from the celebration of their new year in August, the Zoroastrians traditionally visit the Fire Temple on the birthday of their Prophet Zarathustra, Khorda Saal.
Among the early settlers, Rustomji Cowasjee Banaji came to Calcutta in the early 19th century, and apart from being a prominent citizen, he founded a Fire Temple, the first of its kind in the city, at 26 Ezra Street in 1839, which is now almost dilapidated and is encroached upon by the local business units.
Much later, the Zoroastrian Fire Temple of Anjuman Atash Adaran, the ‘Fire of fires’, located on the Metcalfe Street, popularly known as Bandook Gali in the Bowbazar area in Calcutta, was established in 1912, by Ervad Dhunjeebhoy Byramjee Mehta, a prominent leader of the community whose generous financial contributions enabled the fire temple to be built. The foundation stone of the Atash Adaran was laid on Sunday, 17 September 1911, which heralded a new chapter in the history of the Parsis in Calcutta.
The ground floor of the two-storey building of the Fire Temple contains a large hall, decorated with a brass plate of Faravahar, the Primary Symbol of Zoroastrianism, consisting of a winged disc, with a male upper body. The hall, equipped with a Grandfather Clock, is generally used for social gatherings.
A broad stairway leads to the second floor of the temple that also consists of a similar spacious hall with beautiful marble flooring. Inside the inner sanctum, a circular altar in the centre of the hall holds the Holy Fire. Opening in the roof above the fire permits the smoke to escape, but prevents the rain to come in. All the doors and the windows are crowned with semi-circular stained glasses, depicting different aspects of Zoroastrian iconography, ranging from the Holy Fire to the winged disc of the Faravahar.
The once-thriving number of the Parsians in Calcutta has dropped today, due to various reasons like migration, restrictions on marriage, and rate of decreasing birth rate.
However, the members of the small community consisting of around 350 to 400, visit the fire temple on Metcalfe Street, run by a public trust, for prayers and social celebrations.