In Search of Zoroastrianism

Ossuary, Afrosiyob Museum

Ossuary, Afrosiyob Museum

The pre-Islamic history of this region is rich with the stories of fire worshippers. Now, Zoroastrians are loosely regarded as fire worshippers but clearly, not all fire worshippers are Zoroastrians. That being said, some interesting artifacts and historical accounts associated with Zoroastrianism have survived and symbolism associated with fire worship has been carried forward into Islamic architecture and design.

At the Afrosiyob Museum, built around the excavations of Marakanda (ancient Samarkand), I was shown terracotta ossuaries (containers for the bones of dead people) from the 6-7th century. Etched onto some were Zoroastrian fire altars tended to by two mobeds (Zoroastrian priests) with nose and mouth covered, similar to the way they dress today. Incidentally, ‘mobed’ is an old Persian word meaning wise counselor. I also saw some coinage from that period bearing this very symbol. But this is no surprise. Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion throughout Central Asia for many centuries. In his memoirs, the Chinese traveller Xuanzang describes the strange way in which Zoroastrians dispose of their dead (I haven’t read it but this is what I was told). There is also an amazing excavation of a fresco from the home of a Soghdian nobleman at the museum. It’s of a wedding procession. There, among the numerous members of the party, is a mobed herding 4 geese… whatever the symbolism of that maybe!

Now, here’s another interesting bit. While I was busy photographing anything my guide showed me with the letter Z in it, he drew my attention to a tiny terracotta figurine of a woman. Not any woman but the goddess of fertility and water: Ardvisura Anahita! I have always been told that my name means goddess of water.  Hah! what fun, I come all the way to Uzbekistan to confirm it. I have to mention here, that a Parsi scholar on Zoroastrianism and my guide (who is a pre-Islamic historian) both told me that the word ‘Anahita’ by itself means spotless in Avestan. I am pleased to be either or both.

Coming back to Zoroastrianism, the 8th century Hazrat-Hizr Mosque in Samarkand, considered the oldest in Central Asia, is built over a Zoroastrian temple. Same story with Magoki-Attori Mosque in Bukhara. It took the invading Arabs roughly 200 years to systematically replace one religion with another, ideologically and physically. While they were successful in Islamising their conquered lands, the influence of Zoroastrianism was not entirely erased.

Take for example the twin inverted triangle, symbol of Zarathustra, set into large monuments all over Uzbekistan. Now here’s the issue: How do we know this is a Zoroastrian symbol at all? I tried contacting a couple of authorities but have not received any conclusive answers. But for what it’s worth, here’s what I saw and heard. Samarkand’s Gur e Amir (Timur’s mausoleum), Shah-i Zinda (avenue of mausoleums), Bukhara’s Minar e Kholon (big minaret), and several buildings in Khiva, all have this symbol embedded into a few prominent walls. How come? It is thought the presence of this tile pattern is an indication that Persian slave labour (therefore, Zoroastrian) was used for the construction. Here’s what my guide said it symbolized: the balance of a good, honest and charitable life – the major tenets of Zoroastrian belief, expressed through Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds. The triangles represent good thoughts and good words whilst the narrow bar in the centre represents good deeds.

I have no way of verifying the authenticity of this reading, just like I have no way of knowing if the Zoroastrians I will be meeting in Tashkent over the weekend are old time Zoroastrians or as my guide said, ‘new Zoroastrians’. If you go by the strict definition of Zoroastrianism as Parsis practice it in India, there is no such thing as a new Zoroastrian. The only way you can be a Zoroastrian is if both your parents are. The Uzbeks I have spoken to (and I consulted many) seriously doubt that Zoroastrianism has survived in Uzbekistan. My scholar friend in Mumbai is of the same opinion. He believes Zoroastrianism is today a designer religion… it is fashionable to be Zoroastrian and a convenient ticket to the US visa office. But I am not going to be so cynical or judgmental. I don’t have the knowledge or the will to find out who these Zoroastrians really are. I confess wanting to sort of discover my past when I first heard there were Zoroastrians here. But over the last few days and after a lot of conversations with scholars (at museums and with guides who are qualified historians), I realize my naivety. These are not my roots. Nor are they my far away cousins. At best, we share Nowruz, a handful of symbols, a belief in the world’s first monotheist religion shared by the people of Greater Persia for over four centuries. And hey! I think that’s good enough, wouldn’t you say!

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