Parsi Crafts: Gifts from Magi

Parsi Crafts: Gifts from Magi


Some say that the Three Wise Men who came bearing gifts for the infant Jesus to welcome his birth, were in fact Zoroastrian priests. Gifts form an integral part of the Parsi Zoroastrian tradition. These support a craft tradition descending from Bronze Age Iran which gathered momentum along the Silk Route, adapting Chinese, Indian and European influences to create distinctively Zoroastrian crafts.

The Zoroastrian craft tradition, begun in Iran, predates the foundation of the religion. Zoroaster, it is said, asked for only a woven girdle as a gift from his father when he left his home to seek enlightenment in the high mountains. This girdle persists today seen as the Kusti, the sacred girdle worn by all Zoroastrians. Woven with 72 woolen threads, it is a hollow tube completely inverted with great skill. Weaving is one of humankind’s most ancient skills and in the Vads of Navsari and other Parsi settlements, this skill continues, linking Bronze Age Central Asia and 21st century India.

When women, who constitute all the weavers of the Kusti, could not weave a sacred material during their periods of ritual “uncleanliness”, they used the same loom to fashion a beautiful decorative toran. Tiny glass beads are painstakingly designed in traditional patterns – the rooster for protection, the fish for plenty, flowers of blessing, Swastik and fire symbols. A few young girls still learn this craft from their grandmothers and weave torans. Unfortunately, customers in urban centres where they are sold do not always realize the skill involved and the cost of the beads, of which the finest quality come from Eastern Europe.

Zoroastrian men were also skilled weavers. Xenophon describes Cyrus the Great coming into battle “wearing a purple tunic shot with white…trousers of scarlet dye about his legs”, while tablets from Susa at the time of Emperor Darius mention not only flourishing weaving industries but also clothes of coloured embroidery. Marco Polo reports that “a thriving silk industry and Safavaid weaves of twill, satin, lampas, brocade and velvet were well known”.

As the Silk Route developed, the Iranian linkages with China grew. Several centuries later Parsi weavers from Surat and Chinese traders began a cross-cultural dialogue. There are many versions of the creation of the weave which we today call Surti ghat and the gajji, a fabric light enough to be draped as a six-yard sari and yet strong enough to bear the weight of several kilos of heavy embroidery. This technique is a lost art today. With the help of textile and silk researchers, Parzor hopes to be able to revive it. A revival would be of great benefit not only to Zoroastrian crafts but to the entire fashion industry of India.

The weaving of tanchoi, is another Parsi craft. The name originates in the three (tan) Parsi men (choi) who lived in China. These three brothers travelled to China and learnt the art of Jacquard weaving, which they brought home to Surat. Later, this craft shifted its base to Benares, where unfortunately its origins have been forgotten.

Weaving techniques are difficult, and simpler crafts were used to enhance daily life. The Parsi craft of chalk decoration is one practiced even today. Outside most Parsi homes there are little designs printed on the ground. Now made out of chalk powder, they originated in Iran where lime was used outside homes to keep away insects. In India, this mingled with the rangoli decorations of Gujarat, developing a decorative design vocabulary which distinguishes Parsi homes.


Another craft descended from an ancient past is working in silver. Silver symbolizes purity in the Zoroastrian tradition and is used on sacred occasions throughout life; after death, silver muktad vases permanently commemorate the soul. It is interesting to note that silver bowls found in archaeological digs of the Achaemenian period bear stylistic links with Parsi silver found today. The embossed decoration, floral motifs and central rosettes are common features across two millennia.

The silver ses is a most visible feature of the Navjote and wedding rituals, while the silver muktad vases are often works of art. The muktad is the annual period of remembering the dead. It is still the most important time in a family when, it is believed, those who have passed away return to their homes to be with their family. During this period they are remembered with fresh flowers and fruit each day during special prayers. The flowers are placed in special vases, only used at this time each year. Each muktad vase bears the name of an individual and the dates of birth and death engraved on it. Consecrated during prayers, it will stand testimony for that soul in perpetuity.

One of the few surviving silversmiths of the Parsis in Mumbai today is Mr Dossabhai Minocher Shroff. He explains that silver is a part of the Zoroastrian life cycle from birth to death, being used at birth, through childhood, the Navjote, wedding and for the last rites. It is also used for all ceremonial purposes, both in the Fire Temple and at home.

There were once three major Parsi shops for silver in Mumbai. Today only his, established in 1894, has continued the tradition. According to him, China used to supply the articles used in the ses. Every woman carries a silver ses, gifted by her father to her married home. This round silver plate, filled with ritual objects, symbolizes family strength and unity. The ses also invokes upon the household the blessings of all aspects of creation as can be seen in the silver fish, betel leaf, coconut and other little objects in it. Later, as pure silver became expensive, a plated alloy known as German silver became a popular substitute.

Just as in the case of the ritual ses, silver rattles, whistles and enamelled silver toys are traditional gifts for children at their birth, while silver frames, dressing table sets and vases are gifted at the Navjote to both boys and girls.

Gifts of jewelry form an important part in the life rituals, especially for women. Gold and pearls were traditionally used in Zoroastrian jewelry, a tradition kept alive by the famed Parsi jewel houses of Bombay. Catering mainly to Parsi clientele, it is time that their skills were appreciated by a wider audience. Intricate and delicate loops and wires of filigree continue patterns found first in Achaemenian Pasargadae. The Parsi vala is a traditional bangle, popular still at marriages and child birth, while the trellis and flower design, the rope chains or cheda, fish pendants and little horse shoes seen in Parsi jewelry reflect its intercultural links.


The use of the kerba or amber is also traditional. A baby is given small kerba bangles for protection, prayer beads were often made of amber and amber jewelry is popular. Parsis believe that the kerba has healing properties. A jaundice patient is made to wear a kerba, as it is believed to draw out toxins and cleanse the entire system. Specialist shops in Mumbai supplied amber to jewelers, the translucent red being the most valuable. The jerba, often mistaken for amber lends itself more to jewelry design today. It is more cost effective and suits modern taste for chunky beads and chains.

Several other crafts of the Parsis lend themselves to a craft revival. The wood carving of the Zoroastrians is again a multicultural tradition drawing together ancient Iranian design, Indian sandalwood carving, Chinese motifs and the Portuguese love for elaborately carved details in furniture.

The Pettigara Petis or caskets intricately carved with animals, especially the lion, royal foliage and scenes from the myths of the Shahnameh, are still prized possessions. The Pettigara family started this carving in Surat and lent their name to a craft treasured across India. This deep carving in sandalwood used border frames of ivory or bone to create velvet lined jewel caskets and boxes in which to store precious documents and rare prayer books. The boxes are so skillfully made that they remain airtight even 200 years after their creation. The scent of sandalwood wafts out of them when are opened.

Painting on glass developed in Europe in the Middle Ages. It came to the Parsis through the Chinese and is seen particularly in the depiction of epic heroes. Its centres in India from the end of the 18th century till the end of the 19th century were Satara and Poona in Maharashtra. Later in the 19th century, stained glass portraits created a tradition which is still being followed by Parsi craftspersons, a famous stained glass artist is Ketayun Saklat of Calcutta.

Thus we see that Parsi Crafts permeate all Parsi life. From the craft of chalk patterns which decorate homes each morning to ones that adorn elaborate lifestyles, they constitute a unique multicultural heritage of humanity.


This article was first published in UNESCO Power of Creativity Magazine; Vol. 2, August 2008


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