The Tashkent Zoroastrians

Rustam at Aktepa Yunus-Abad

Rustam at Aktepa Yunus-Abad

I met Rustam Abdukamilov this morning. He claims to be a Zoroastrian, a scholar of the Avesta book and language, and a teacher of Zoroastrian history in public schools around Tashkent. Rustam is 53 years old, frugally dressed and wears a blue baseball cap with an Asho Farohar (the ubiquitous winged angel) printed on it. His English is fairly good, I suspect better written than spoken. But when he talks of Ahura Mazda, he is eloquent. Not in a flashy, oratorical way, but in a simple, deeply felt, intellectual manner. From what I understood, his father was a storyteller, a kind of bard who would recite the poetry of Ferdowsi’s epic Shahnameh in public gatherings. Watching his father, he too memorized the 60,000-odd verses that chronicles the legends and histories of Iranian (Aryan) kings in Persian. It was through these texts that ideas about Zoroastrianism were revealed to Rustam and his family. Subsequently, Rustam undertook the study of Zoroastrianism, now completing an online PhD from Spenta University in California. Right from pre soviet to soviet times, the Abukamilov family remained ‘hidden Zoroastrians’. Even, today the State does not recognize Zoroastrianism as a religion but allows the study of Avesta language as part of the history curriculum.

Aktepa Yunus-Abad

Aktepa Yunus-Abad

Rustam claims there are 33 fire temples in and around Tashkent, most dating back to the 2nd century BC. We visited two: Ming Urik and Aktepa Yunus-Abad. Both mounds and dips of earth which some archeologists believe to be the sites of ancient Zoroastrian temples. During the journey to these sights, Rustam spoke at length about Ahura Mazda. The Avestan meanings, wisdom, creation, the universe, good versus evil, what it means to be a mazdayasni…. I asked him what he thought about Parsis not permitting conversions. He quoted from the Gathas of Zarathustra: Yasnas 30.2 and 45.1. I won’t paraphrase it here but it’s enough to say that in those passages (translated by C. Bartholomae), Zarathustra invites all people, men and women (narém, narem), from near and far, to come to him. Rustam put this question to me: Wasn’t King Vistasp a convert too? Didn’t the Zoroastrians of the ancient world belong to some other religion or cult before they became Zoroastrian?

At the Kolchin Home

At the Kolchin Home

I asked to meet a Zoroastrian family. Rustam obliged by taking me to Stanislav Kolchin and his mother Lena Kolchin. In their humble apartment, they received me with tea, sweets and biscuits. Stanislav is a handsome young man who converted from the Russian Orthodox Church to Zoroastrianism a few years ago. He converted because he felt there were gaps in the theology of the church which Zoroastrianism made whole. He considers himself Zoroastrian because, at a philosophical level, it appeals to him. It makes sense to him.

Never once in my life as a Zoroastrian have I contemplated its philosophy, mainly because I simply don’t know it. I suspect many Parsis feel this way. We know all the practices, the rituals, the prayers, the few basic tenets but what do we really understand theologically? Do we even know what our prayers mean? That’s why I was so stunned by Stanislav and how much he knew. Not just Avestan texts, he has read Mary Boyce, the Rig Veda, the Ramayanana. He quoted from Nietzsche, talked about the God Indra, Varuna, Yama. He told me that Zoroastrianism was in many ways more ‘native’ to Indo-European people. That the Russian word vedat (meaning knowledge) comes from the word veda which has Proto-Indo-European roots. Proto-Indo-European??? I don’t think I even know what that means! Stanislav, like 34 others from Tashkent, has had his navjote done. A mobed (Zoroastrian priest) from Mumbai and another from Sweden performed the ceremonies. It appears, the Tashkent Zoroastrians know the kusti prayers but know nothing of the kusti itself. As a matter of fact, they have no ritual. No temple. No priest. No special place for the dead (although there are several ancient dakhma’s (towers of silence) all over Uzbekistan). They have nothing but faith. Not born into their religion, they have consciously, with deep understanding, chosen it.

Anaheeta

Anaheeta

You know, we can argue their eligibility till the cows come home. Don’t we all know how good Parsis are at that? How can they be Zoroastrians… they are just fire worshippers… where is their temple… does it have a wall facing the south, what do they do with their dead… these are questions we can keep asking. The truth is, they’re not waiting for our approval. Whether we consider them Zoroastrian or not is of no concern to them. What matters is that they feel wholly accepted by Ahura Mazda, the highest wisdom. Who cares what we think?

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20 Comments

  1. cyrus cooper
    Posted 1 August 2012 at 18:25 | Permalink

    Anaheeta,
    Assume you are Parsi Zarthoshti but astonished that coming from India you can have any misguided concept in false conversions and the fact that NO one can translate and know The Khordeh Avesta….but you can learn oh so much more from us The Pundol Group…………….it is very wrong to encourage conversion when people are NOT spiritually Zarthoshti and why we can not recognise such people as a part of our faith,
    cyrus

  2. Anaheeta
    Posted 3 August 2012 at 10:47 | Permalink

    Dear Cyrus

    Thanks for taking time to read my post. My opinions on conversions or for that matter yours, is of no consequence to the Tashkent Zoroastrians. We may endlessly debate, form groups, slot people into false, true and spiritual zoroastrians, but the fact of the matter is, they don’t need your endorsement or my acceptance. They are because they believe.

    Anaheeta

    • Ronny
      Posted 28 October 2012 at 14:34 | Permalink

      Dear Anaheeta,

      I totally agree with you.
      It is because of this past unconfirmed beliefs that Zoroastrians are diminishing.
      No Members of Religion can increase in numbers unless you convert just like in case of Christianity and Islam.
      It is wishes of people.
      Let the true mind prevail

    • Noshir Hansotia
      Posted 24 February 2013 at 09:27 | Permalink

      Dear Anaheeta: “Good Thoughts,Good Words & Good Deeds” are the under pinnings of our Zoroastrian beliefs. A breathtakingly profound yet simple Religion.
      When ‘Fundamentalists’ kidnap a Religion it is no longer pristine & Spiritual!!
      It becomes a messy mutation from the Holy to the corrupt ego-driven peacocks that strut around with their ‘attention-getting’ version of The Holy Book!! Maybe enough TRUE Zoroastrians will band together & drive these disruptive irreverant forces to the side lines where they surely belong.
      Noshir Hansotia.
      Originally from Dadar Parsi Colony,Bombay.Proud of it,too !!

    • Shahrokh
      Posted 27 February 2013 at 08:59 | Permalink

      good for you.
      do not pay attention to those old fashion folks.
      remember the 1st Zorasterians were all converts otherwise there would not be any today.

    • Cyrus R R Cooper
      Posted 4 March 2015 at 02:58 | Permalink

      Hi,
      Apologies for late reply but of course you are right as many people care not a fig what we think and just go ahead with their versions/acceptances of our religion as they see it……………..
      BUT in the not too distant future first will return our Pundol Saheb with his four former disciples known to us in their true physical forms as they live in Damavand Koh now and then comes Shah Behram and then yes you are either in by the grace of GOD or out

  3. Rusi Sorabji
    Posted 23 February 2013 at 14:43 | Permalink

    Dear Anaheeta,
    Congratulations. A very interesting and enlightening article. Must say I like your reply.

  4. Ashk Barjesteh Nia
    Posted 23 February 2013 at 18:12 | Permalink

    Very interesting. Best wishes!

  5. Kersi B. Shroff
    Posted 23 February 2013 at 18:31 | Permalink

    Hi Anaheeta, Thank you for a fascinating account. Being lost in rituals and superstitions so many of us are oblivious of the spiritual attributes of Zoroastrianism. It takes fresh minds, like those of your Tashkent contacts, to better comprehand our simple but profound faith.

  6. Jimmy Kapadia
    Posted 24 February 2013 at 03:06 | Permalink

    Anaheeta,
    This is a wonderful article to provide food for thought to the Parsi zealots who firmly, though wrongly, believe that they were the chosen few by the prophet Zarathustra to follow him and practice his teachings. They have discarded the truth that when Zarathustra came down from the mountains he said ” Ahura Mazda has given me the knowledge and told me to pass it on to ALL OF HUMANITY.” The BPP in Mumbai has been using legal as well as strong arm tactics to stop people from performing navjote ceremonies of inter-caste marriages. I’m just wondering how they are going to object people like Stanislav and Rustam in Tashkent from embracing the Zoroastrian faith. I personally know many Russians who have adopted Zoroastrianism and I hope more of humanity from all parts of the world do so to keep the faith alive. The Parsi zealots are going to be extinct anyways.

  7. anaheeta
    Posted 24 February 2013 at 18:43 | Permalink

    Dear All,

    Interesting that my post should attract renewed interest around its 1st anniversary! I do think we need to speak up more and push harder for change before we’re all consigned to towers of silence. Have just returned from my uncle’s funeral. What’s with those sniffer dogs??? For God’s sake, we’re armed with a death certificate, the man’s been gone for a whole 6 hours and they still drag that hapless creature to him. It yelped and cried all the way to the dakhma. On the other hand, listening to two priest perform the 7 pm prayers was so very beautiful. Their flowing white robes, sonorous voices filtered through crisp white face masks, the gentle fragrance of sukhar…what a dignified and calming way to say goodbye.

  8. xerxis
    Posted 26 February 2013 at 15:51 | Permalink

    Well done, Anaheeta. Loved d artical. Xerxis.

  9. Yezdi Sam Cooper
    Posted 28 February 2013 at 13:35 | Permalink

    Good article. Glad to know that we have brothers there too.

  10. Jasmine
    Posted 3 March 2013 at 12:35 | Permalink

    Anaheeta, Amazing work. I truly believe that nobody is a born Zoroastrian.

  11. Venketasubramanian
    Posted 22 August 2013 at 11:45 | Permalink

    We are some kind of an egyptian-iranian-hindoo mix caste from India originating around 3000BC (at the time of Egyptian pharaoh Ramses = Ramshesh/ Ramashish in vedic). We are known as iyer/ayer/aire/eyre/eire/vadyar caste and presumably from Iran/Azerbhaijaan/Turkey/Eurasia/Kashmir. But because we are staunchly vedic-deva worshippers to this day, our fire-altar being an exact square; and we kept referring to all the 330 main Indo-Irano-egyptian-eurasian gods as devas, we got absorbed into hinduism around 2000BC (at the time of Mahabharata when the zorastrians Dhritarashtra and Yudhishthira were kings of NW and rest of India)

    My inquiry is: Is there a sanskrit-translation of Zorastrian scriptures and printed in devanagari sanskrt script? ALSO, WAS THERE OR IS THERE VEDIC ZORASTRIANS AND A SEPERATE VEDIC-ZORASTRIAN FIRE TEMPLE ANYWHERE IN EURASIA/EGYPT?

    EXAMPLE: One of the earliest and simplest daily vedic fire-worship mantra (agnihotra):

    || Shanno Mitra Sham Varuna daevas| Shanno bhavat Aryama | Sham na Indra-daeva brihaspati |
    Shan no Rashnu trivikramah daevas| Namo Agnaye | namaste Vayu| Tvameva pratyaksham dharma asti | Tvame pratyaksham magadhe iti vadishyami | Rta tvam vadishyami | Satyan tvam vadishyami | Avat maam | Avat vaktaram | AMUN Shanti Shanti Shanti ||

    Religiously, I am a Hindu+Zorastrian+Buddhist+Jesuit multi-religious person. I regularly visit all four places of worship in Bombay, INDIA.

    My avesta name would be: Vangushta-asia-kshatra-manian

    Send a copy of your esteemed reply to my email: vchitoor@gmail.com

    • Anaheeta
      Posted 22 August 2013 at 14:37 | Permalink

      Dear Friend (since u shared so many names, I don’t know which to use)!

      Afraid I am no authority on the subject so cannot answer either of your questions. The khorda avesta (book of common prayers) that i have is written in the gujarati script but its meaning cannot be understood by a gujarati speaker because the text has not been translated. It is still in ancient pahlavi or avestan which is a scriptural language. How interesting to read your post though! You’ve made some incredible connections and i would be curious know where your research leads you. Do keep in touch with Arastan and let us know what you discover.

      I guess way back in time we’re all connected in one way or the other.

      Warmly
      Anaheeta

  12. Pervin Gandhi
    Posted 28 November 2014 at 13:35 | Permalink

    Anaheeta, Very good article, I am impressed. Glad to know Zoroastrianism is surviving on other parts of this world. Zoroastrianism will always survive coming across likewise news & articles. Wake up Parsis of India.

  13. Minoo Ardeshar Dar
    Posted 28 November 2014 at 16:48 | Permalink

    Amazing it is worthy to meet people like you
    Appreciated yr. Efforts and hard work
    Minoo Ardeshar Dinshawjee Shapurjee Daruwala
    Proudly joint forefathers names to receive the blessings from them
    Be happy

  14. Hormazd Irani
    Posted 1 December 2014 at 13:20 | Permalink

    Dear Anahita,

    Our stallwarts themselves dont know the religion. Take instance of a Ervad Hathiram who says Organ donation is not allowed in our religion and should not be done. Which texts ssays the same, and who has written it. the essence of our religion is Good Thoughts, words and Deeds, did the Ervadji forget that. So what if there are no firetemples in the Tashkent, but those with good hearts dont need temples to pray to Ahuramazda.

  15. Shahzad
    Posted 23 April 2015 at 23:36 | Permalink

    I guess the comment wasn’t fully posted.

    Thank you for this. I am a Zoroastrian, half Irani and half Parsi and I have lived in North America since I was a child. There is tremendous interest in the faith growing globally and in Iran. They celebrate true Zoroastrian festivals there, in protest to a muslim theocracy which threatens execution. Tell me who is the ‘true’ Zoroastrian? The Parsis who are arguing in their flats in Bombay, or those who are stepping up to face Islamic governments and reclaim their own ancestral faith?

    The Parsi Punchayat tries to play down this, but we are fast approaching a time when Zoroastrianism adapts and rises or fades away into history forever.

    The Parsis as a culture will probably die out, but Zoroastrianism will not. The Parsis do not have a monopoly on the faith anymore. I do not count myself as a Parsi, because Parsis are from India.

    I am a Zoroastrian.

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