Today Mumbai is the spiritual and demographic center of Zoroastrianism, the 3,000 year-old faith that flourished in the Persian court of Cyrus the Great. The Parsis, whose ancestors migrated from present-day Iran to Gujarat in the 9th century, were instrumental in the transformation of Bombay under the East India Company, and in the 19th century founded iconic Indian companies like the Tata and Godrej Groups. While the rest of India struggles to accommodate its 1.23 billion people, the 47,000 Parsis left in Mumbai today face extinction unless the community’s low fertility rate changes dramatically.
Historically progressive with regard to education and employment opportunities for women, Zoroastrianism is paradoxically in danger because Parsi women tend to marry and start families later than their Hindu and Muslim counterparts. Recognizing the outsize philanthropic contributions of the community, the government of India is now taking extraordinary measures to preserve the population that constitutes its living legacy, including the six month-old Jiyo Parsi program, which offers free or subsidized fertility treatments to Parsi couples who qualify for the program.
The Jiyo Parsi program is open only to Parsi men and their spouses however, and while the children of intermarried Parsi fathers can be initiated into the community in the traditional navjote ceremony, the same privilege isn’t accorded to the children of Parsi mothers who marry outside the faith. Alongside the efforts to reverse the downward fertility trend, conservative and liberal community groups are challenging each other over the issue of who is legitimately Parsi.