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The Parsees by Fannie Roper Feudge

Hanging in my study is a noteworthy portrait, generally the first object observed by those who enter. It is an exquisite painting on glass, the work of Làng Quà, the best artist China has produced in our day, and it delineates the form and features of a singularly handsome young man. But it is the quaint Parsee garb that first attracts attention; and the weird romance that attaches to the history of the Fire-worshipers gives this work of art its real value, rather than its lines of beauty or the celebrity of the painter's name. This delicately-featured portrait may depict the countenance of Musaljee Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, the first-born son and heir of the late Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, baronet, of Bombay, India. That he really sat for this portrait I cannot, however, positively assert, since I obtained the painting from an English officer, who bought it of the artist, but had "forgotten the strange, outlandish name of the Indian nabob," as he said. It is certainly the portrait of a Parsee—true to the life in features and garb, and it bears a striking resemblance to the young Musaljee when about eighteen years of age. He was not then a personage of any great celebrity, though the worthy son of a most remarkable sire, the latter long known and honored in Europe for his liberal and enlightened charities, and especially for his munificent donations, that saved the lives of thousands of British subjects, during the terrible famines that occurred in India between the years 1840 and 1846. It was in grateful recognition of this noble philanthropy that Queen Victoria conferred upon him the honor of a baronetcy, sending out a nobleman to act as her proxy in the presentation of a sword which had been handled by more than one British monarch. Sir Jamsetjee was the first East Indian who ever received a title from a European sovereign. During the terrible famines alluded to he not only distributed daily from his own palace a plentiful supply of food to all who came, but he made also large donations of provisions to the English governor of Bombay for the supply of his starving troops. When, subsequently, pestilence followed in the footsteps of famine, this true-hearted philanthropist, overstepping all prejudices of creed and clan, built and endowed at his own expense a free hospital for the sick of all nations and religions. Temporary bamboo cottages at first received the sick till there was time for the erection of the present elegant structure, which is built in the Gothic style, and is capable of accommodating some six or eight hundred patients, besides nurses and attendants. The physicians have been from the beginning of the enterprise all English, as are many of the nurses, and the supplies in every department are the very best the country can furnish. Since the death of the noble founder, the son, who inherits his name and title, has continued to foster with loving devotion the institution which stands as a lasting monument of the fame and virtues of his illustrious sire. The conception of such a charity tells not only of a generous heart, but of far-reaching intelligence, while the energy and perseverance of both father and son in carrying on, year after year, so vast a system of benefactions, challenge our warmest admiration.

The name of the late Sir Jamsetjee stood for more than a score of years at the very head of the list of merchant-princes and ship-owners in Bombay, where he was born, and where his ancestors for many generations resided. He came of an old and wealthy family, who trace their genealogy back to the Parsee exodus of the eighth century; and it is said that the "sacred fire" has never once during all that time burned out upon their altar. Sir Jamsetjee himself, though probably faithful in the observance of the actual requirements of his creed, was assuredly less strict than the majority, and being a man of large intellect, cultivated mind and great independence of character, he did not hesitate to borrow from other nations any customs, institutions or inventions that might tend to the improvement of his own people. His stately mansion was built and furnished in European style; his children, even his daughters, were carefully educated in foreign as well as native lore; and his own associations were with refined and cultivated people, without any regard to their nation or creed. It was while visiting at his house, in familiar intercourse with his family, and with other Parsees of similar position, that I gleaned many items of interest concerning the history and practices of the Fire-worshipers. Other facts were added from time to time during several years of frequent association with these singular people, in whose glorious though unsuccessful struggles for home and liberty it is impossible not to feel an interest.

As a race, the Parsees are intelligent, active and energetic. With business capacities far above the average, they are usually successful in amassing wealth, while they are extremely benevolent in dispensing their gains for both public and private charities. For private benefactions they have, however, little call among themselves, since a Parsee pauper would be an unheard-of anomaly. Their style of living is princely but peculiar. In the reception-rooms of the wealthy—and most of the Parsees in the city of Bombay are wealthy—one finds a rather quaint mingling of Oriental luxury and European elegance—brightly-tinted Persian carpets placed in Eastern fashion over divans strewn with embroidered cushions and jewel-studded pillows, among which recline, with genuine Oriental indolence, some of the members of the family; while in another part of the same room half a dozen more may be grouped about a table of marble and rosewood, occupying velvet chairs that have traveled unmistakably from London or Paris. French mirrors and Italian statuettes may have for their vis-à-vis the exquisite mosaics, the massive gold vases and the costly bijouterie of the Orient, strewn so profusely around as to startle unaccustomed eyes; and a genuine Meissonier will be just as likely to be placed side by side with a Persian houri as anywhere else. The Parsees drive the finest Arab steeds, but on their equipages there is a more lavish display of ornament than we should deem quite in accordance with good taste. The same is true in regard to personal decoration. They wear immense quantities of costly jewelry, and nearly all their garments are of silk, generally richly embroidered in gold, and often with the addition of precious stones. Even little children wear only silk, infants from the very first being wrapped in long, loose robes of plain white silk that are gradually displaced by others more elaborate and costly; while the toilette of a Parsee lady in full evening-dress is often of the value of a hundred thousand rupees (or forty-five thousand dollars). The female costume consists of silk or cotton skirts gathered full round the waist, and long, loose robes of silk, lace or muslin, all more or less decorated according to the wealth of the wearer. The dress of the men is composed of trousers and shirts of white or colored silk and long caftans of muslin, with the addition of a fanciful little scarf fringed at the ends, and worn jauntily across one shoulder and under the other arm. Their caps are made of pasteboard covered with gay-colored silk, embroidered and studded with precious stones or pearls. The form of a Parsee's shirt is a matter of vital importance, both in regard to respectability and religion. It must have five seams, neither more nor less, and be made to lap on the breast exactly in a certain way. Both sexes wear around the body a double string, which they loosen when at prayer, and which a Parsee is never, under any circumstances, permitted to dispense with. No engagement or business transaction is legally binding if by any chance this talismanic cord was left off by either party when the contract was made. The cord is first placed on children when they have completed their ninth year, and this serves to mark the most important epoch of their lives. Before the investiture the eating of food with Christians or heathen does not defile the juvenile Parsee, and girls may even go about in public with their fathers; but after the bestowal of the sacred cord the girls must be kept in seclusion and the boys eat only with their own people.

Only the most liberal Parsees will permit those of other creeds to eat under the same roof with themselves, and even these never eat at the table with their guests. The table is first covered for the visitors, and they are waited on with the utmost assiduity, often by the members of the family in addition to the servants. When the guests leave the board not only is the cloth changed, but the table itself is washed before being recovered: salts, castors and other similar articles are all emptied and washed, and the table newly laid in every particular. Small flat cakes are distributed round the board to do service as plates, and the various dishes arranged in the centre within reach of all. The family then wash hands and faces and the father says a short prayer, after which all take their seats and the meal begins. Neither knives nor forks are used, but the meat is torn from the bones with the fingers only, and with the left hand each one dips, from time to time, bread, meat or vegetables into the broth or gravy as he wishes, and then tosses it into his mouth, without allowing his fingers to touch his lips. This requires some dexterity, and children are not permitted at the family board till they have learned thus to acquit themselves. If, however, the fingers of any one, child or adult, should chance to come in contact with the lips, though ever so slightly, he is required to leave the table instantly and perform his ablutions over again, or else to take the dish from which he was eating to himself, and touch no other during the meal. In drinking they exercise the same caution, adroitly throwing the liquid into the mouth or throat without touching the lips with the cup or glass. The left hand is the one with which food is always taken; and the reason assigned is, that the right, having of necessity to perform most labor, is more frequently brought in contact with things unclean.

I once made a voyage with an American lady and gentleman in a Bombay ship that was owned and commanded by a wealthy Parsee merchant, though the real sailing-master and mate were Englishmen. Our party ate at one table, and the Parsee nabob had his own in solitary state. I was then quite a youthful wife, and, as my husband was not of the party, the Parsee supposed me unmarried, and overwhelmed me with the most gallant attentions, among which were frequent invitations to our party to dine in his cabin. But, though he would stand at my side all the time I was eating, fill my cup or glass with his own hands, and urge me to partake of certain dishes that were favorites of his own, nothing could induce him to eat or drink in our presence, even after we had left the table. And I learned afterward that the costly service of rare china, silver and glass from which we had eaten and drunk at his table, though carefully laid aside, was never again used by the owner. One evening, as we sat on the upper deck inhaling the balmy air, he invited me to smoke. Of course I declined, and when he insisted I told him that it was contrary to the customs of good society in our country for ladies to use tobacco in any form. He laughed heartily, and said, "Did you suppose I would ask a lady to pollute her fragrant breath and dewy lips with so foul a thing as vile tobacco? Taste and see." He brought his splendid hookah, which I found filled with the "fragrant spices of Araby" perfumed with attar of roses, while a long slender tube rested in a vessel of rose-water at my feet; and the fumes were certainly as agreeable as harmless. But this, my first experiment in smoking, cost my Parsee friend three hundred dollars, the estimated value of his gold-mounted hookah, with its complicated array of tubes and vessels of the same precious metal, none of which he durst ever use again.

As we sat chatting together in the bright moonlight our ears were suddenly greeted by the sound of sweet music—wild, unearthly melody that seemed to rise from the very depths of the ocean just below our feet. At first it was only a soft trill or a subdued hum, as of a single voice: then followed what seemed a full chorus of voices of enchanting sweetness. Presently the melody died away in the distance, only, however, to burst forth anew after a brief interval. All the time we were being regaled with the music we could see nothing to enlighten us as to its source, and were inclined to pronounce it a trick played by our fun-loving sailing-master. He, however, denied all agency in the matter, but counseled us to "keep a close look-out on the lee bow" if we wanted to see a mermaid. We had noticed a sort of thrilling motion on the lower deck, not unlike the sensation produced by the charge of an electro-galvanic battery; and this, the Parsee captain gravely assured us, was the mermaids' dance, and their efforts to drag down our ship. "But I'll catch one of them yet—see if I don't," he said energetically as he caught up something from the deck and ran forward, and was presently, with two of the Lascars, leaning over the bow. Half an hour afterward he returned, and with a merry laugh laid in my lap two little brown fish, informing me that they were singing-fish, and that the music we had heard had been produced by shoals of these tiny vocalists then clinging to the bottom of our ship. Our Parsee friend told me that the Arabs and Persians always speak of the singing-fish as "tiny women of the sea;" but he had never heard our version of their long hair, and their twining it about hapless sailors to drag them down to their coral caverns beneath the ocean's wave. He showed me how to preserve the fish by drying in the sun after repeated anointings with an aromatic oil, which he gave me for the purpose; and I have still in my cabinet these two specimens as a reminder of the incident.

The manner in which the Parsees dispose of their dead seems to us too shocking to be tolerated by a people so gentle and refined. But they have grown familiar with a custom that, generation after generation, has been observed by their race till it has ceased to be repugnant. They call it "consigning the dead to the element of air." For this purpose they have roofless enclosures, the walls of which are twenty-five or thirty feet high, and within are three biers—one each for men, women and children. Upon these the bodies of the dead are laid, and fastened down with chains or iron bands. Presently birds of prey, so numerous within the tropics and always waiting to devour, pounce upon the corpse and quickly tear the flesh from the bones, while the skeleton remains intact. This is afterward deposited in a pit dug within the same enclosure, and which remains open till completely filled up with bones; after which another is dug, and when the enclosure can conveniently contain no more pits a new one is selected and prepared. None but priests and bearers of the dead may enter, or even look into, these walled cemeteries. The priests, by virtue of their holy office, are preserved from defilement, but the bearers are men set apart for this express purpose, and they are considered so unclean that they may not enter under the roof of any other Parsee or salute him on the street. If in passing a bearer do but touch one's clothes accidentally, he is subject to a heavy fine, while he who has been thus contaminated must bathe his entire person and burn every article of raiment he wore at the time of his defilement.

I was anxious to visit one of their temples, but this, Sir Jamsetjee assured me, was impossible, as none but the initiated are allowed even to approach the entrance, still less to get a glimpse of what is passing within. He, however, volunteered the information that, so far as the sanctuary itself was concerned, there was little to be seen, only naked walls, bare floors, and an altar upon which burns the sacred fire brought with the Parsees from Persia, and which, he said, had never been extinguished since it was kindled by Zoroaster from the sun four thousand years ago. Of the form of service I could not induce the baronet to speak, but I learned afterward from my ship-friend that the altar is enclosed by gratings, within which none but the priest may enter. He goes in every day to tend "the eternal fire," when he must remain for the space of an hour, repeating certain invocations, with a bundle of rods in his hand to repel any unclean spirits that should venture to approach the sacred fire. Meanwhile, the assembled multitudes prostrate themselves without and offer up their silent adoration. "Yet, after all," musingly said the Parsee, "the universe is the throne of the invisible God, of whom fire is but the emblem, and we worship Him most acceptably with our eyes fixed on the east when the sun rides forth at morning in his celestial chariot of fire." This form of worship those curious in such matters may see on any bright morning at Bombay, where whole crowds of Parsee men, women and children rush out at sunrise to greet the king of day and offer up their morning oblations. I was not surprised at the avowed preference of my Parsee friends for out-door worship, since it is well known that the ancient Persians not only permitted few temples to be erected to their gods, and held in abhorrence all painted and graven images, but they laid it to the charge of the Greeks, as a daring impiety, that "they shut up their gods in shrines and temples, like puppets in a cabinet, when all created things were open to them and the wide world was their dwelling-place." It was probably religious zeal, even more than revenge against the Greeks, that induced the burning of the temple at Athens by Xerxes, led on, as he may have been, by the fanatical zeal of the Magi who accompanied him.

Plutarch speaks of the Persians, in common with the Chaldeans and Egyptians, as worshipers of the sun under the name of Mithra, whom they regarded as standing between Ormuzd, "the author of good," and Ahriman, "the author of evil," occupied alternately in aiding the former and subduing the latter. So do the Parsees of our own day regard him; and their only hope for the ultimate triumph of Ormuzd is in constant sacrifices and prayers and propitiatory offerings to the sun as the fire that is to burn out and utterly consume all evil from our earth. Fire is to the Parsees now, as it has ever been, the holiest of all holy things, carried about by princes and great men for safety; by warriors, as that which is to give them the victory over their foes; and by all, as their sole and ever-present deity. Sir Jamsetjee assured me that the intelligent Parsees regard the sun and fire as only the symbols that are to remind them of the God they worship. But there can be no doubt that the mass of the Parsees literally worship the sun and the "sacred fire;" and hence arise the utter repugnance many of them have to celebrating their religious rites within closed walls, and the decided preference ever shown for out-door worship. I have often heard them say that the Fire-god shows his aversion to confinement by drooping when he is shut up, and growing vigorous just in proportion as free scope is given him. The sun appears everywhere on the shields and armor of the ancient Persians, as on some of the old-time monuments that have come down to us; while occasionally Mithra is depicted as a youthful hero, with high Persian cap, his knee on a prostrate bull, into whose heart he seems plunging a dagger—symbolically, "the power of evil" in complete subjection to the victorious sun, and about to be for ever annihilated.

Zoroaster (called by the Persians Zerduscht) was not, the Parsees say, the founder of their sect, but only the reviser and perfecter of the system as it now exists among them. Living in the reign of Darius Hystaspes, he was the contemporary, probably an associate, of the prophet Daniel. Before the advent of this reformer the Magi acknowledged two great First Causes—i.e., the light and the darkness, the former the author of all good, the latter of every evil, moral and physical—and these they believed were at perpetual war with each other. Zoroaster taught, as he may have learned from Daniel, that there was One greater still, who created both the light and the darkness, making both to subserve His own will. He also inculcated the duty of building temples for the preservation of the sacred fire from storm and tempest, when "by sudden extinction of the light the powers of darkness do gain often a signal victory." The Parsees hold in supreme veneration the name of Zoroaster as the most noted of all their Magi for wisdom and virtue. They believe that the sacred fire was lighted by him miraculously from the sun—that it has burned steadily ever since, and can never go out till it has consumed all evil from the earth and the good has become universally triumphant. They claim also that from the reforms wrought by Zoroaster there was never the slightest change in any of their observances until about twelve centuries ago, when Persia was overrun and conquered by the Mohammedan Arabs. But not the fiercest persecution could induce the Fire-worshipers to change their religion for that of the Koran. Preferring liberty and their altars in a foreign land to the alternative of apostasy or persecution at home, the aboriginal Persian inhabitants fled to other lands, settling immense colonies in Surat and Bombay, where their descendants form in our day a large and valuable element of the population. Their integrity, industry and enterprise are proverbial all over the East; and while they live strictly apart from all other races, the Parsees are never wanting in sympathy and help for those who need them. Dwelling amid nations who are almost universally destitute of veracity, the Parsees are eminently truthful; surrounded by polygamists and sensualists, they maintain habits of purity and virtue; and accustomed to every-day association with those who make a boast of cheating, my memory fails to recall the case of a single Fire-worshiper who was not strictly upright and honorable in his dealings.

Commencing with the worship of the sun, and of fire as his emblem, the Parsee grew into a sort of reverence for the elements of air, earth and water. The air must not be contaminated by foul odors, and of necessity no filth could be tolerated anywhere in house, street or suburb; and to this reverence for the purity of the atmosphere may be traced the absolute cleanliness for which Fire-worshipers are everywhere noted. As the earth must receive no defilement, the Parsees would deem it sacrilege to deposit therein their dead for corruption and decay; and hence have doubtless originated their strange rites of sepulture, as they believe that the body is thus more readily and rapidly reduced to its original elements. Streams of water, even the tiniest rivulets, are deemed too holy to be desecrated by washing or spitting in them, and still less would they make the water the receptacle of offal of any sort. To each of these elements, as well as to the fire, the Parsees still make oblations on their high-days. It is true that their ceremonies now are less imposing than those described by Xenophon, when a thousand head of cattle were immolated at a single festival, four beautiful bulls presented to Jupiter, or the sky, and a magnificent chariot, drawn by white horses crowned with flowers and wearing a golden yoke, was offered to the sun; while the king in his chariot was escorted by princes and great nobles, two thousand spearmen marching on either side, and three hundred sceptre-bearers, armed with javelins and mounted on splendidly-caparisoned horses, bringing up the rear. But those jubilant days have passed: the Fire-worshipers are in exile, and have no king to lead them, either in battle against their foes or in triumphal processions in honor of their gods. Yet is Parseeism not dead, nor even on the decrease. Sacrifices, numerous and costly, are still piled upon their altars, the finest cattle are dedicated to their gods, the flesh being cut up and roasted for the people, while the Magi cast the caul and a portion of the fat into the fire as emblematic of the souls of the victims being imbibed by the gods, while the grosser portions are rejected.

The sacrifices and those who offer them are always crowned with flowers, but the pontifical robes of the Magi, though of pure white silk, are severely plain in style and utterly devoid of ornament. In their lives the Magi claim to practice a rigid asceticism, making the earth their bed and subsisting wholly on fruit, vegetables and bread, besides submitting to frequent painful penances from fasting, scourging and the endurance of fatiguing exercises. "Wine, women and flesh" they are commanded to eschew as "special abominations to those who aspire to minister before the gods." The most remarkable feast of the ancient Parsees was one called by them the "sack-feast." On the appointed day a condemned malefactor was clothed in royal robes, seated on a kingly throne and the sceptre of regal power placed in his hand. Princes and people bowed the knee in mock homage before this king of a day, and he was suffered to glut his appetite with all manner of sensual delights till the sun went down, and then he was cruelly beaten with rods, and forthwith executed. (Were the crown and sceptre, the purple robe and mock reverence, that were the antecedents of the Redeemer's crucifixion, a reproduction of this barbarous custom?) The modern Parsees, though recognizing this feast as a legitimate part of their worship, say that they have not observed it since their flight from Persia in the eighth century, because since then, being under a foreign yoke, they have had no jurisdiction over human life, and durst not sacrifice even those who chanced to be in their power. This may be one reason for the renunciation of this barbarous practice of the olden time, but there has been wonderful progress in civilization during the last twelve hundred years; and certain it is that scenes of cruelty that suited the ferocious tastes of the eighth century could not possibly be repeated in the nineteenth.