The Everlasting Flame An Exhibition not to Miss

Soft Diplomacy

The Parsi Community in India has often been known and understood through their stereotypes depicted in Hindi films. But who are they? Where did they come from? And how did they become an integral part of India in the past several centuries? Find out in the Exhibition at National Museum titled The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination

No Parsi is alike and every Parsi is an institution, quoted Mr Arun Jaitley, Finance Minister of India while inaugurating the opening of the Everlasting Flame International Programme on March 19, 2016, two days before the Parsi New Year or Navroze.

As part of this international endeavour, Delhi opened three spectacular exhibitions celebrating the contributions of the Zoroastrians to India and the world. The exhibitions are sponsored by the Ministry of Minority Affairs under their scheme Hamari Dharohar (Our Heritage), and are being shown at the Ministry of Culture’s National Museum, National Gallery of Modern Art and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

The Parsi Community in India has often been known and understood through their stereotypes depicted in Hindi films. But who are they? Where did they come from? And how did they become an integral part of India in the past several centuries? This powerful and engaging story of a small but extremely poignant people is captured in the Exhibition at National Museum titled The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination.

The exhibition was inaugurated on March 19, 2016 by Dr Najma Heptullah, Minister of Minority Affairs and will be on show till May 29, 2016 at National Museum, Janpath, New Delhi. It features over 350 exquisite objects – archaeological finds, manuscripts, wall painting fragments, paintings, silver, gold, coins, sculptures and ritual objects and has been curated by Dr Sarah Stewart, Firoza Punthakey Mistree, Dr Ursula Sims- Williams, Dr Almut Hintze, Pheroza Godrej and Dr Shernaz Cama.

First curated and exhibited by SOAS, University of London in 2013 at the Brunei gallery, the exhibition has now journeyed to India with a large number of new objects and additions. Important museums such as the British Library, British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the State Hermitage Museum in Russia and the National Museum of Iran have contributed objects to the show. A spectacular collection of paintings and ritual objects have been lent by the Bombay Parsi Punchayet and the CSMVS, Mumbai. The exhibition also enjoys the benefits of the star collections of textiles, jewellery and photographs from eminent members of the Indian and world Zoroastrian communities.

Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest world religions, originated amongst Iranian tribes in Central Asia during the second millennium BCE and spread to Iran, where it became the principal faith until the advent of Islam. Central to the religion is the belief in a sole creator god, Ahura Mazda, his emissary Zarathustra (Zoroaster) and the dichotomy between good and evil.

The exhibition takes the visitor on a visual journey from the earliest days of Zoroastrianism to its emergence as the foremost religion of imperial Iran. From the shores of Iran to the west coast of India, the maritime journey of Zoroastrians is followed to their settlement in India where they came to be known as the Parsis. The Exhibition examines their growth as an immigrant community under British rule in India and the later expansions.

The narrative is divided into 10 sections: The Ancient World, Sacred Texts, The Silk Road- Central Asia and China, The Judeo-Christian World, Imperial and Post-Imperial Iran, Post-Arab Conquest, Journey and Settlement in India, Parsi Salon and Fire Temple.

Set in the beginning of the ancient world, the exhibition captures the journey of Zoroastrianism through time, recounting religious teachings, sacred texts, birth and death rituals and the Zoroastrian philosophy of good thoughts, good words and good acts. One of the important exhibits is the Replica installation of the Fire Temple. The cult of the temple fire grew out of the ritual tending of the ever-burning hearth fire, a custom that goes back to Indo-Iranian times when the fire in the home was kept alight for the duration of a man’s lifetime. Acknowledged as the household divinity, the hearth fire received offerings of wood, incense and oblations. It is not known when an ever-burning fire first came to be permanently housed in a dedicated building, but it is likely that the space was designed after the model of the chahartaq (four arches framing a square chamber supporting a dome), which distinguished many Sasanian religious buildings. The entire temple complex is now called the agiary by the Parsis. Iranian Zoroastrians use the term atashkadeh. This is a replica of the front entrance of one of the oldest fire temples in Mumbai, built in the name of Manekji Navroji Sett. The facade of the fire temple was inspired by the Sasanian site of Taq-e-Bostan in Kermanshah, Iran, and began a custom for fire temples to feature architectural motifs from the Achaemenid and Sasanian periods.

Another unique and pertinent object in the show is a very old fragment of a manuscript titled A Zoroastrian Prayer from the collection of British Library, London, which describes the Zoroastrian prophet Zarathusthra addressing an unknown God (presumably Ahura Mazda). Scholars claim, this manuscript is the earliest evidence of a Zoroastrian prayer document called the Ashem Vohu written in an archaic form of an ancient Avestan language. The British Library has lent objects from its collection for the first time to India and their collections include a large number of beautifully illustrated manuscripts. An impeccable copy of the Tresor de Histories - a world chronicle describing the world from the time of its creation until the author’s time contains 763 chapters. The 8th chapter in the large format illustrated book is dedicated to Zoroaster, who is shown sitting surrounded by mathematical and musical instruments, and is imagined as the creator of the liberal arts. The manuscript belonged to Henry VIII of England.

Dazzling silver and gold objects, coins and plates from the British Museum and the National Museum of Iran are also part of the Exhibition.

The journey of Zoroastrians from Iran to India (landing in Sanjan, Gujarat) after the Arab conquest of Iran brought the Zoroastrians to India, and they came to be known as the Parsis. Excavations at Sanjan have revealed that there was a sprawling ancient port city there, where the Parsis began with farming and small businesses. Fascinating textiles, particularly Iranian Zoroastrian costumes and Parsi Gara sarees, exquisitely carved furniture and portraits of important Parsis are also on display, symbolic of their trade connections and position in society.

Today, almost 5000 years later, the Zoroastrian communities are still around and so is their tradition and culture. India has only 61000 Parsis left and the community is grazing along extinction. The Parsi community has made key contributions to modern India by setting up industries and investing heavily in philanthropy. They are very much part of the Indian fabric but still hold a distinct strand, which makes them unique. The Exhibition is a must watch for the most unique objects on show and for the powerful story of the Zoroastrian culture, which has transcended time and space.

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