Yazd, the original home of Zoroastrians (2005)

Yazd, the original home of Zoroastrians (2005)

Driving through the streets of Teheran, the Iranian capital, during the evening peak hour is an excruciating experience, especially if you have a train to catch. “Have oil, will drive,” seems to be the motto of Teheranians. There is an endless stretch of Paykans before, behind and beside my taxi – also a battered Paykan – inching their way down the swanky Vali-Asr avenue. We move at a snail’s pace and there is a good 30 kilometres to go. My nerves are on edge, but the taxi driver seems unfazed as he weaves through the traffic lanes, past flyovers and underpasses, and manages to deposit me at the Teheran railway station just in the nick of time. Iranian trains are very clean and the stations virtually deserted – almost a culture shock for those of us from the subcontinent. I find myself in the women’s coach where all my fellow travellers are fully veiled in black chadors. Suddenly, I feel self-conscious in my token headscarf.

The Original Fire Temple

I am on my way to a fascinating destination – Yazd – located 690 km south of Teheran, right in the heart of the vast Iranian desert. Wedged between Dasht-e-Kavir and Dasht-e-Lut, Yazd is a town unlike any other. The recorded history of Yazd province goes back to 30 B.C., when human settlements dotted the arid Persian countryside. Yazd is also the capital of the province bearing the same name. Yazd town is believed to be the second oldest, continuously inhabited town in the world, after Jerusalem.

Yazd, the original home of Zorastrians

It is home to the descendants of the original Zoroastrians, who refused to convert to Islam when the Arabs invaded Persia. When the Arab hordes descended on their town in the 8th century A.D., most Yazdis fled to safe havens such as India, where today there is a distinguished and flourishing Parsi community. But some stayed back, defying their aggressors and keeping alive their faith, rituals and practices.
The next morning I take a taxi through the deserted streets of Yazd to my hotel, which turns out to be a delightful old caravanserai in the heart of the old town. From outside, the inn looks unpretentious, and but for the English signpost scrawled in charcoal on the mud-brick wall, one could not have located it. Winding steps lead you into a central courtyard with a small pond in the middle, surrounded by rooms on all sides. Colourful rugs set off the earthy hue of the walls, roof and the floor. Hookahs and ornamental pitchers blend in with the setting. I am to share a room with a Lebanese woman from Chicago. She had given up her lucrative banker’s job to discover the joys of travelling. She had traversed Asia through the land route from Japan, stopping in every country along the way, including India. When I met her in Yazd in March, she had been travelling continuously for three years.


The inn is a charming place just to lounge around and spend the evenings under a brilliantly starlit sky, smoking a hookah or sipping tea and exchanging notes with fellow guests, almost all of them foreigners like me. But that will have to wait until evening.

Gendered Door Knockers

I set out on a walking tour of the old town, savouring the leisurely pace of life in this part of the world. Adobe, bricks of sun-dried earth and straw, is the dominant building material and the houses look as though they were built eons ago. Every once in a while the monochrome of adobe is relieved by brilliant turquoise tiles embellishing the domes of mosques and minarets. Many houses are crumbling and look uninhabited, but Yazdis are very much there, behind those formidable doors. Like many ancient houses in Yazd, the front door sports two knockers – a slender one for women and a sturdy one for men. From the sound of the knocker, the inmates would know whether the visitor is a male or a female and accordingly decide who should open the door. This practice certainly predates the Islamic revolution. Now it is just a relic, with electric call bells supplementing doorknockers. Behind that crumbling facade, most Yazdis live in modern comfort – with wall-to-wall carpeting and electronic gadgetry. Many even have computers with Internet connectivity.
Apart from the minarets and domes, what strikes one about the Yazd skyline are the badgirs – the cooling towers of a pre-electricity, pre-air-conditioning era.

Badgirs, the indigenous air conditioners

Badgirs are rectangular structures that rise above the skyline. Sometimes, they were built around a central dome. The simplest towers contain two or four shelves. The trunk of the tower contains shafts. The shelves at the top catch the hot air and redirect it away from the dwelling below. The flaps effectively redirect the cool air and circulate it. The air currents that enter the house through these channels pass over a pool of cool water – usually under the dome. I use one of the female knockers and seek permission to stand under the dome to judge the effectiveness of a badgir. It is incredibly cool under the tower, though the outside temperature must have been around 38 degree Celsius.

Quaint Qanats

Another feature, typical of desert country, is the qanat or underground water channel – an ingenious irrigation system of Persian origin. The author Vikram Seth describes a similar channel in Turfan in Xinjiang province of China in his book From Heaven Lake. There are also qanats in Morocco and parts of Central Asia, but qanats were originally conceived and designed by ancient Persians. Along the length of a qanat, which can be several kilometres long, vertical shafts are sunk at intervals of 20-30 metres to remove excavated material and to provide ventilation and access for repairs. The main qanat tunnel often slopes gently down to an outlet, usually near a habitation, and from there canals would distribute water to the fields for irrigation. It is no wonder Yazd is dotted with pomegranate and almond plantations on apparently arid plains.
I spied several qanat outlets in Yazd. They are usually canopied, with an ornamental circular skylight providing ventilation. At Meybod, a small town near Yazd, there is an exquisitely decorated qanat located in the middle of a caravanserai, and next to an amazing ancient storehouse for ice. There is also a qanat inside Yazd’s Jame Mosque, but it is barred and barricaded to prevent the feet of tourists from defiling its pure waters. There are over 50,000 qanats scattered all over Iran, and invariably the qanat builders came from Yazd province. Mohammed Kharaji, a 10th century Persian scholar, wrote a whole chapter on qanat construction, in a manuscript that was recently discovered.

Eternal Flame

Gradually, I wend my way to the Fire Temple – called Atashkadeh in Farsi – the congregation point for all Zoroastrians in Yazd. The flame in this temple was brought from Ardakan in A.D. 1474, and has been burning continuously since A.D. 470 in other locations. It is a Friday, and in a hall behind the temple, I find a heap of footwear. After a moment’s hesitation, I enter the premises and make my way across the row of women seated on the far side. A young priest is delivering a fiery speech in Farsi, peppered with animated gesturing. I do not understand a word of what he says, but am mesmerised by his body language.

Two members of the Zorastrian community outside the Fire Temple in Yazd

Everyone listens in rapt attention, at times nodding vigorously. There are framed paintings of Zoroaster and a huge bowl of fire in an adjacent chamber. Unlike Muslim women, Zarthushti women wear colourful headscarves and clothes. The men wear white skullcaps. The priest’s speech is followed by an elaborate Zarathusti prayer, with everyone standing and holding both palms outstretched towards the sky. The men pull out a thread from around their waist – the belt of humility – and chant more prayers. It seems like eternity when the prayer finally ends.
I befriend the priest, a banker by profession. I was very curious to know the content of his impassioned speech, but unfortunately he could not speak English. But he gestures for me to follow him. We get into his car and drive off to find an interpreter. We find a young university student and all of us drive to another Fire Temple, where I am schooled in the rudiments of the Zoroastrian religion, Farsi traditions and history.

Zoroastrianism or Zarthusht – as the Persian followers of Zoroaster call themselves – was the official religion of the Achaemenids and the Sassanids, the two great ancient dynasties of Persia. In fact, during an earlier visit to Iran, I visited Persepolis – the great capital of the ancient Persian Empire – which Darius built 2,600 years ago, where I saw several bas-reliefs of Zoroaster and the ancient Zarthusht god, Ahura Mazda. Even though recorded history is rather skimpy on the details of the religion, Herodotus’ description of Zoroastrian rituals confirms that the religion as it is practised today in Yazd is the same one dating back to 4,000 years. After the sacking of Persepolis by Alexander the Great, Zoroastrianism probably went underground during the Parthian era until the Sassanid dynasty revived it in A.D. 228. It is widely believed that the three wise men who bore gifts for Jesus of Nazareth were Zoroastrian Magi. During the sixth century, Zoroastrianism spread to Armenia and through the Silk Route, to as far as China.

Exodus to Mumbai

But the Arab conquest of the Sassanids in the 7th century A.D. saw Zoroastrians fleeing Persia in huge numbers, with many of them seeking refuge in western India. Jaidev Rana, a Hindu king, gave them refuge on the condition that they marry within their community and desist from proselytising. The Parsi community in India now outnumbers the Zarthusht in Iran, but because of endogamy, their numbers are dwindling. In Yazd, the community is said to be 30,000-strong. The language spoken by the Zarthusht in Yazd is different from the Farsi spoken by Muslim Iranians and Indian Parsis.

While there is no overt persecution of Zoroastrians in Iran, I got the impression that they are just about tolerated in post-revolution Iran. There is one member of the community represented in the Majlis. There are a few special schools where Zarthusht children learn their traditions and rituals. Zarthusht settlements are found in clusters in and around Yazd town, although there are a few of them scattered all over Iran. Inter-religious marriages are rare. There is a Zarthusht Anjuman Society, where the members gather to discuss issues of concern. Men and women enjoy equal status in Zarthusht society. Zarthusht women do not wear chadors, but only a headscarf. After a long chat with the priest and other members of the Zarthusht community in Yazd, I felt they were weighed down by the responsibility of having to keep their identity, traditions and faith alive, even as their numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate.
Tower of Silence

The next day, I made a detour to the Tower of Silence situated on the outskirts of the town. There were two mounds – both were used a hundred years ago, to leave the dead to vultures and the elements. Today, the Zarthusht bury their dead in concrete crypts in a special cemetery. The Tower of Silence seems a misnomer today. Young boys on motorbikes race up and down the mounds, kicking up a huge cloud of dust and making a racket. At the foot of the mounds are the ruins of an old caravanserai. Further away is the new Zarthusht cemetery. I stroll into the cemetery, where I bump into Fariborz, a Zoroastrian living in Canada. At last, I can converse freely without the aid of an interpreter. Fariborz had lived in Mumbai for 20 years before he shifted to Canada. He visits Yazd every year. He maintains a website on ancient Iran, and makes a serious effort to bring the Zarthusht diaspora together through newsletters and magazines.
Locked up in Jame Minaret.

I am irresistibly drawn back to the walled city with its ramparts, towers and tunnel-like streets. It is easy to get lost in its labyrinthine lanes, but always someone materialises magically to escort you all the way back. There is a delicious aroma of baking bread in the numerous little bakeries that dot the old city. I make my way to the Jame Mosque, which towers over the old city with its glittering twin minarets. Folklore has it that unmarried young women used to ascend the minarets on Fridays. From the top of the minaret they would throw down the key to a lock affixed on their headscarves. The young man who found the key could claim the girl’s hand in marriage.

Jame Mosque with its twin minarets

The 14th century mosque was built under the loving gaze of Bibi Fatema Khatun, the wife of the Governor of Yazd. Its Mehrab (prayer niche) is intricately patterned in dazzling blue and dappled green, but the stark interiors appeal to me more. I coax the caretaker to open the winding stairwell to the top of the minaret, from where I could get a bird’s eye view of the rooftops. He insists I give him a written request and I promptly oblige. I am not sure he could read English, but he seemed satisfied enough to open the door for me. I wander around on the roof, taking pictures and admiring the view of the town. But when I get back, I find the door locked from outside. It took some banging and screaming before the caretaker came and opened the door rather sheepishly.


Yazd has many traditional houses that are well preserved. One such is Khan-e-Lari, the mansion of Lari, a rich merchant. It has exquisite stained glass windows and carved alcoves, and many fruit trees in the courtyard. Not very far from there is Alexander’s Prison, its ornamental dome belying its sinister history. I also visit the 11th century monument of the Seljuk period, called 12 Imams, although not one is actually buried there.

I wander around Amir Chakmagh Square – the striking landmark named after the Governor of Yazd. Amir Chakmagh is the most visible face of Yazd, found in picture postcards and tourist brochures. The monument is a study in Islamic architecture, an ode to symmetry and form. But it is just an ornamental facade lacking depth, and seems to serve no discernible purpose. With no one to explain its origin and purpose, I saunter off to the nearby bazaar. I had expected Yazd bazaar to be as glamorous and interesting as the Shiraz and Isfahan bazaars, but it was a let-down. At the entrance is a vendor selling just-hatched chickens dipped in lurid pink, green, red and blue colours. Inside the covered market there are rows and rows of plastic goods, pots, pans and electrical items. Not a single shop sold Yazd’s famed brocade or carpets. I retrace my steps back to the Silk Route Hotel for a well-earned cup of tea under the starry skies.

(Published in Frontline dated March 12, 2005)

 

 



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