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Teenage Zoroastrian priests lead dwindling congregations

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A teenage priest at Dadar Athornan Madressa in Mumbai performs a religious ritual he learned in school. (Peter Cox/Columbia University)

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At 12, Sheherazad Pavri is the youngest ordained priest at the Dadar school. The "child genius," as the school principal calls him, plans to become an accountant despite his religious skill. (Peter Cox/Columbia University)

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Rayan Dastoor, 12, memorizes verses from sacred scriptures as part of his training to be a Zoroastrian priest. ***Please note small file size: 1280 pixels by 960 pixels*** (Neha Singh Gohil/CNS)

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Boys studying to become priests at the Dadar Athornan Madressa in Mumbai spend their Saturday mornings memorizing ancient Zoroastrian scriptures. ***Please note small file size: 1280 pixels by 960 pixels*** (Neha Singh Gohil/CNS)

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Ramiyar P. Karanjia, principal of Dadar Athornan Madressa, explains that the boys are not obligated to join the priesthood once they graduate. The idea is that they get the tools to make that decision for themselves. This concept of free thinking is a central tenet of Zoroastrianism. (Peter Cox/Columbia University)

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Young boys from priestly families come to the Dadar Athornan Madressa in Mumbai to learn ancient Zoroastrian rituals and prayers. Many will go on to lead professional lives outside of the priesthood, perhaps volunteering their priestly services only in their free time. ***Please note small file size: 1280 pixels by 960 pixels*** (Neha Singh Gohil/CNS)

Like most 12-year-old boys, Rayan Dastoor watches movies, goes to school and surfs the Internet for the latest tunes by Linkin Park. But Rayan also spends five hours a day in prayer sessions and religious studies. His homework includes memorizing sacred scriptures in the ancient Persian language.

Rayan is one of 30 boys enrolled in Dadar Athornan Madressa, a boarding school for future Zoroastrian priests. The school, in Mumbai, India, is one of only two worldwide. Graduates, known as “mobeds,” or priests, serve Zoroastrian communities from Atlanta to Pakistan.

By age 14, when Rayan and his classmates are ordained as priests, they will face declining congregations and an uncertain future. Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic faith thousands of years older than Islam or Christianity, was once the dominant religion across west Asia. But with interfaith marriages on the rise and orthodox priests unwilling to allow conversions to the faith, Zoroastrians have dwindled to 200,000 worldwide.

Nearly 25,000 live in North America, scattered from Toronto to Los Angeles. Most are Parsis, descendants of Zoroastrians who fled persecution in Iran and landed on the shores of India 1,000 years ago. Following the three tenets of their religion--good thoughts, good words and good deeds--the few thousand faithful rebuilt what was left of their ancient traditions. Fire temples were consecrated around the state of Gujarat, where an eternal flame representing the Zoroastrian God still burns 24 hours a day.

After arriving in India, Parsis began training their priests at a young age, according to Kersey Antia, a mobed in Chicago. Having lost their traditions under Arab and Greek rulers, rote memorization of the few remaining texts was “all we had to offer our priests,” Antia said.

Memorization is still the focus of training at the two Parsi schools, both near Mumbai. Students spend six years learning to recite Zoroastrian scriptures from memory in an ancient language, Avesta, that most never formally learn. “We know only a little bit about what it means,” said Jamshed Sidwa, 14.

The idea, according to Ramiyar Karanjia, the school’s principal, is to give the boys the tools they may use later in life.

Karanjia adds that there "is no compulsion for a child to enter the priesthood. First he gets educated, then he decides.”

Presently, none of the nearly 100 mobeds in North America work as full-time priests. Antia, who graduated from a priest academy 55 years ago, is a busy psychologist during the week, volunteering his services as a mobed on weekends and for special occasions. He can't afford to give up his day job. “There was no way the community, despite all its trusts and organizations, could have supported us,” Antia said.

Many of the schools’ pupils are also aiming for jobs outside of the priesthood. Sheherazad Pavri, 12, the Dadar school’s youngest ordained priest, memorized the first two books of scriptures in only two years. Still, the “child genius,” as Karanjia calls him, plans to become an accountant. A quick poll of the boys yielded at least two future hotel managers, a handful of engineers, a pilot and a chef. To meet their wide-ranging interests, the school combines religious training with secular education at a nearby government school.

At both places, school uniforms include the traditional black cap worn by Zoroastrian priests. While the cap commands respect from other Parsis, non-Zoroastrian students sometimes try to knock it off, the boys complain. But they stick together for moral support. “We have a P.G. Gang in school--the Parsi Gang,” Kerfegar Panthaki, 13, said laughing.

Ask them which school they prefer, and the boys excitedly point to the secular one. They have more freedom there, they say. Not to mention “there are girls there also,” one boy added.

The two schools are not the only place where mobeds are trained. Because Zoroastrian mobeds come from a line of priestly families, called Athornan, many of them memorize the prayers and rituals at home before being ordained. That is largely the way American-born priests are carrying on the family tradition.

Jehan Bagli, president of the North American Mobeds Council, teaches Athornan boys in the United States and Canada. Most of his students memorize their prayers from cassettes and CDs, so class time is used to explain the rituals, Bagli said. But there are downsides. Privately trained priests aren’t required to memorize all the scriptures and rarely get the in-depth training about Parsi history, culture and language that is taught at the boarding schools.

For North American Zoroastrians, however, that may be enough. Priests’ duties here are mostly limited to weddings, memorial prayers and initiation ceremonies for children, Antia explained. “There’s less and less demand for higher rituals and less and less pay.”

Still, the number of Western-born boys being trained as priests is increasing: In the last year, a dozen were ordained in India and returned to the United States, Bagli said. Many who are trained, though, choose never to practice. Of his own generation of mobeds from India, Bagli estimates that only 25 to 30 percent serve as priests.

To fill the gap, he now trains boys from outside priestly families as assistant mobeds, who perform some basic prayers. The program is popular in small Parsi communities.

Questions about this sort of broadening of traditional roles will be the biggest challenge for the next generation of mobeds, Bagli said.

On Saturday mornings, the boys at the Dadar school fill the wooden benches of their classroom for prayer class. Each student reads loudly out of a sacred book, memorizing the words as he goes along. Some lean drowsily across the large pages, the spring Mumbai heat lulling them to sleep despite the cacophony of voices around them. A few barely make it through half a sentence before their voices crack to a shrill note. Others stare listlessly out the window.

They may be preparing to lead a new generation of Zoroastrians through an unfamiliar world, but for now, “We get prayer-bored sometimes,” the teenagers admit.

E-mail: psg2107@columbia.edu