‘The Everlasting flame- Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination’

The Everlasting flame - Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination

Written by Hema Guha

The exhibition ‘The Everlasting flame- Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination,’ was held at the National Museum, New Delhi from 20th March to 29th May, 2016. It was jointly curated by Sarah Stewart (SOAS), Firoza Punthakey mistree, Ursula Sims-Williams, Almut Hintze, Pheroza Godrej and Shernaz Cama, in collaboration with SOAS, University of London, British Library, London and the National Museum of Iran, Tehran.

 Gilded silver dish from Rasht, Gilan. (Photo courtesy National Museum)

Gilded silver dish from Rasht, Gilan. (Photo courtesy: National Museum )

Displayed neatly and presented on level 1 of the National museum, the exhibition comprised of 10 sections blending beautifully into one another with 300 objects on view. Tracing the historical development of Zoroastrianism with varied objects it threw light on the origin, growth and spread of the religion from central Asia to china via the trade routes. The objects included excavated pieces, fragments of fresco reliefs brought from the hermitage museum, silk fragments, copies of books, scriptures, coins and imperial seals from the British museum and finally reaching the homes and personal collections of the Parsis in the Indian subcontinent where most of the Parsis, the followers of Zoroastrianism, are settled now.

 Dastur Noshirwan Dastur Kaikhushru Behram Framroz (1822-97). (Photo courtesy: National Museum)

Dastur Noshirwan Dastur Kaikhushru Behram Framroz (1822-97). (Photo courtesy: National Museum)

Now, a word about the faith of the Zoroastrians. As we all know, the sacred text of the Zoroastrians is the ‘Avesta’ which is the oldest comprising of 17 hymns called the Gathas attributed to Zarathustra. It speaks of a single god ‘Ahura Mazda’ and the struggle between good and evil. Avesta was composed in Avestan language, an ancient Iranian language. As in all major ancient religions, teachings were passed down through oral traditions for many centuries and were written down during Sasanian period in 224-651 CE.

The entry point of the gallery greeted audience with clay figurines and other artifacts excavated at Susa, the ancient city of the first Persian Empire. About 40 of them of these are in the British Museum. One of the interesting figurines was that of a naked woman possibly a fertility goddess with elaborate hairstyle and her hands cupped underneath her breasts. On display were also some type of time capsules with written words belonging to the old Babylonian period and painted pots called Susa pottery. This reminded me of the clay figures of the Indus valley civilization displayed in the same national museum.

The ‘kaftari ware’, a type of pots with painted designs of birds was also on view. A humped bull, 9th-8th c.BCE (Iron Age) loaned from the British Museum was an attractive piece. By the look of it’s shape, it was possibly used to pour liquid or oil. Another interesting display was the photographs of towers associated with the Parsi’s death rituals. In Iran, it is known as Dakhma, a circular and tubular structure, and it is no longer in use. The Tower of silence in Mumbai is still in use although youngsters prefer burial or cremation as I was informed by the young guide.

Some interesting frescoes and wall paintings were on display in original. Fresco dating from 7thc. CE portraying gods and goddesses and scenes of worship had been sourced from the excavations at Sogdian cities. In the wall painting from the state hermitage museum showing the ‘combat of Rustam’, Rustam is riding a horse Rakesh and he is fighting a demon or a warrior. I found it interesting that in one of the fragments, the middle aged man has Chinese features. Another intriguing exhibit was the terracotta Ossuaries, containers for holding the bones of the dead. In the exhibition, only fragments of Ossuaries from the excavations at Biya Naiman area were displayed. The ossuary was originally decorated on four sides by a repeated motif which probably represents six deities, each holding a ritual implement.

Silk fragments, Sogdian in style, designed with animal motives and influenced by Sasanian Iran art, collection of V@A Museum.800-1000 BC and the part bird, part beast patterned silk fragment were interesting to view. Some replicas of mosaics-6th C. from basilica San Vitale were on display. It is a proof of the fact that there were exchange of ideas between Jewish rabbis and Zoroastrians priests, Persian or Zoroastrian imagery has often been used to portray the biblical wise men from the east. This could be seen in the enameled reliquary basket on display where these scenes are depicted. A copy of Zoroastrian law book- vendidad, coins and imperial seals with images of Rustum and fire holders from the British museum were also on display.

Inner sanctum of a fire temple (photo courtesy: https://www.soas.ac.uk/news/newsitem106036.html)

Inner sanctum of a fire temple (photo courtesy: https://www.soas.ac.uk/news/newsitem106036.html)

One of the important exhibit was the replica of the front entrance of one of the oldest fire temples in Mumbai, built by Manekji Navroji Sett. As mentioned in the accompanying booklet, ‘the hearth fire, acknowledged as the household divinity, received offerings of wood, incense and oblations. It is not known when an ever burning fire came to be permanently housed in a dedicated building, but it is likely that the space was designed after the model of the Chahar Taq (four arches framing a square chamber supporting a dome) which distinguished many Sasanian religious buildings). The coins have replicas of fire temple.

Inner sanctum of a fire temple (photo courtesy: https://www.soas.ac.uk/news/newsitem106036.html)

Enamelled reliquary casket, from Limoges, France 1250 CE (Photo courtesy: National Museum )

Moving on to the objects from the personal collections, an eye catching object was a wall clock with wooden casing. It was an integral feature of fire temples as the priests had to perform rituals exactly at the right time. We can see most of the items found in Parsi households like sacred shirt, navjot cap, lobandon, khodesh avesta and kusli as well as a scene of the yasna ceremony, which has been recreated. The garments worn by the Iranian women originally like Kamiz, Makhnum and Shalwar were also on display. In 11thc.Selquiq Turks and Mongols invaded and destroyed their literature and fire temple following which they fled to India and reached Gujarat.

The execution of Mazdak North India Early 17th century, British Library (Photo courtesy: National Museum)

The execution of Mazdak North India Early 17th century, British Library (Photo courtesy: National Museum)

Some paintings from the Shahnameh, illustrating stories from Zoroastrianism provided a change from the materialistic objects.

Coming to the textile section which I found most interesting, we could see the beautiful and intricately hand woven Tanchoie Saree and Gara saree. Interesting is the red gnat satin gara saree with a scene from 1900 displaying Khakho stitches and flowers. Close to the sarees were displayed furniture which one might find in Parsi households and paintings in European style of famous personalities of the Parsi clan like the Tata family, included in the exhibition.