Behind the Belief: The Zoroastrians of Singapore

1a734a318a85c16722ec40455414a8acHow much do you know about the diversity of faiths in Singapore? In this series, Yahoo News Singapore explores the lesser-known rituals and branches of religions in the country.

There are only about 300 Parsis of the Zoroastrian faith, one of the country’s 10 official religions, in Singapore. But they represent a heritage that goes back thousands of years, and a religion that pre-dates Christianity and Islam.

“We are one of the smallest communities, not only in Singapore but in the world,” said student Zeena Avari, 16, at a gathering of the Parsi community in Singapore in late August.

“You kind of are on the verge of extinction, so you really want to uphold this tradition. You want to keep this community moving forward.”

Zoroastrianism began in ancient Persia (modern-day Iran) around 3,000 BCE with the emergence of the prophet Zarathustra Spitama, also called Zoroaster. He founded one of the world’s first monotheistic religions after receiving a revelation of a god named Ahura Mazda, which combines a Sanskrit word for “Lord” and Zarathustra’s own term for “magnificent creator”.

The faith became Persia’s dominant religion under the rule of kings such as Cyrus the Great, who is mentioned in the Bible as the deliverer of Jews in captivity. The three main tenets of the religion: good thoughts, good words and good deeds.

Zoroastrians worship in fire temples, where a sacred flame burns constantly, as fire represents truth and purity. Other practices include sky burial, or leaving dead bodies on mountaintops to be consumed by vultures.

A Tower of Silence, where sky burials were once carried out, in Yazd, Iran. (PHOTO: Gillian Ang)
A Tower of Silence, where sky burials were once carried out, in Yazd, Iran. (PHOTO: Gillian Ang)

“We believe that once you bury a body in the ground, you pollute the ground for 100 years,” explained Inter-Religious Organisation president Rustom Ghadiali, 82, of the practice that still survives among Zoroastrian communities in parts of India. Most Zoroastrians now bury or cremate their dead.

When the Persian empire fell to the Arab caliphs around the 7th century ACE, Islam became the dominant religion. A century later, fearing persecution, some Zoroastrians left Persia and eventually landed on Diu Island off the western coast of India. They later sailed to Sanjan on the mainland.

“They migrated to India. And because we came from the province of Pars in Iran, we were called Parsis,” explained orthopaedic surgeon Pesi Chacha, 79.

Today, there are an estimated 190,000 Zoroastrians worldwide, who can be found in places ranging from India to Iran to Russia.

(video by Nurul Amirah Haris)

On 19 August, about 170 members of Singapore’s Parsi community came together at the Holiday Inn Singapore to mark Pateti. According to the Shenshai calendar, it is the day before Nowruz, or the New Year. It is a day for reflection and repentance, while the eight to 10 days before Pateti are marked by prayers for the dead.

It was a colourful occasion for what is clearly a tight-knit community, with many of the women decked out in saris, reflecting the Indian influence on their culture. Many of the children present were ushered onstage to kick off proceedings with a short prayer, asking for blessings and a good future. There were also many greetings of “Navroz Mubarak”, or “Happy new year”.

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