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Few but pious

Navroz, or the Parsi New Year, was celebrated quietly on August 17, the day all attention was on Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s last rites. That’s how Delhi’s tiny minorities always celebrate their festivals, away from the public eye

With Hinduism, Islam and Christianity constantly dominating the conversation about religion, the other religious communities that have thrived here for years tend to be forgotten. For the Parsis, Jews and Buddhists, their strength does not come from numbers but from bonding within the communty.

Fire-worshippers
The Parsi Dharamshala is situated at Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg — on the main road, in all its glory.

With a population of about 800 Parsis in Delhi, the facility thrives with a guest house, a community hall, and a Fire Temple within the premises. The Dharamshala has two in-house priests or dasturs —Marzban Pavri and Cawas Bagli, who conduct prayers on alternate days. Pavri, who has been working at the Dharamshala for two months now, confides that priests these days are dwindling in numbers.

As a matter of culture, the adopting of priesthood as a profession is something that runs in the families in the Parsi community. “And if the number of priests is decreasing, one can only imagine the strength of the community in numbers,” he says. He goes on to say that the Parsi community in Delhi does not make it a habit to attend the prayers either. Even though Pavri and Bagli conduct the prayer rituals five times a day and ring the holy bell nine times, the attendance is neither significant nor regular.

According to Pavri, the Parsi community in Delhi is rather laid back, compared to his experiences in Mumai.“They tend not to worry about praying regularly, they come and go as they like.”

On why the numbers of the community are slowly but surely diminishing, he says that many are marrying outside the community. As far as the priests are concerned, history and tradition suggest that they marry women who don’t earn as much as them — he admits that this is becoming slightly difficult since women are typically not allowed to be priests in Zoroastrianism, and therefore are often earning as much as, or more than a Parsi priest.

Bagli, who was born and brought up in this Dharamshala, and is a wildlife photography enthusiast, is content even though the numbers are slowly going down. “There isn’t really a way to bring about awareness or get people to convert,” he says, adding, “Those who want to continue to be part of the community will do so, regardless of whether it is popular or not.” And since the numbers in Delhi aren’t as high as the Parsi population in Mumbai and Gujarat, there aren’t many people persistently trying to keep the culture alive. Even though the community in Delhi might be somewhat easy going, the priests at the Dharamshala make it a point to be as true to the religion as possible, observing all the rituals and practices to a tee.

Followers of the Torah
The Jewish community in the city is even smaller than the Parsi one. “There are only about 10 Jewish families in Delhi,” says Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, the rabbi of Judah Hyam Synagogue, the only Jewish place of worship in Delhi. Despite the negligible number, Malekar still holds that India is one of the most peaceful places when it comes to the settlement of Jews. “The Jews came to India 2000 years ago and have never faced anti-Semitism or persecution here. India is our karmabhoomi and Israel our dharmabhoomi!” he says.

India houses approximately 6,000 Jews, of whom 30-40 people hail from Delhi. Mumbai, Pune, Gujarat, Kolkata and Kochi house majority of the Jews. Malekar, who often travels to preside over weddings, says the plummeting numbers are because of people’s love for their homeland, job opportunities and interfaith marriages. In spite of the odds of the plummeting numbers, over the 20 years of his service here in Delhi, Malekar runs his synagogue on his own terms. He does not abide by the gender discriminatory rules of Judaism – he allows men and women to attend prayers together in the same space.
During the Torah readings or memorial prayers synagogues generally require a minyan, which is a quorum of 10 men. Malekar forgoes the rule altogether and does not discriminate at all. Besides this, he has nothing against those from other religions visiting the synagogue, even going as far as allowing them to attend prayer sessions. The facility consists of a Prayer Hall, an interfaith study centre, a library and a space for conducting Hebrew classes.
The rabbi goes on to say that the Indian Constitution doesn’t exactly provide Jews a minority status, even though they are a religious minority in India. The only thing that can counteract the growing ignorance of Judaism in Delhi is interfaith and intra-faith dialogue. He says that with all the internal divides and prejudices, we as Indians first need to come to terms with, and fully understand, our own religions, and then begin arguing with one another. “I have received a lot of flak for presiding over interfaith weddings. But it should be more about the faith you have rather than the religion you belong to. That way, most of the dividers blur. Moreover,” he continues, ”We must make an attempt to understand our religion in today’s context, and not try to fit ourselves into archaic moulds.”

For the ‘Awakened One’
Rev. Tashi Khedup has been the resident monk at the World Buddhist Centre since 1994. Much like the Parsi and Jewish priests, he too is unperturbed by the lack of conversation about the Buddhist faith in Delhi. “It doesn’t matter if people are talking about Buddhism or not, that is something we hardly consider,” he says, adding, “What matters is what’s in your heart.”

Census reports suggest that 0.11 per cent of Delhi’s population follows Buddhism. Besides the two primary schools of Buddhism (Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism), followers have also been classified into smaller categories within the community, based on where they come from — like those coming from Bangladesh and some now settled in CR Park are called Bengali Buddhists and those coming from Tibet are called Tibetan Buddhists.

The largest population of monks in Delhi can be found in the Tibetan monastery in Majnu ka Tilla.
According to Rev. Khedup, in his experience the trend of the Indian government has consistently been that of ignoring the religious minorities. Besides allowing these religious communities some form of representation, no efforts have really been made to create a dialogue about these communities. “We don’t need fame or an overt presence in the city’s landscape, we just want to spread the message of Buddha as far as possible,” concludes the monk.