Zoroastrian: Observe ‘Greater Noruz’ on Khordad Sal

A Zoroastrian fire temple. Photo in public domainMONDAY, MARCH 26: The Persian New Year (Noruz or Norouz, spellings vary) events are coming to a close for most Middle Eastern cultures, but for Zoroastrians, they’re coming to a peak: Today is Khordad Sal, the celebrated birthday of Zoroaster and holiday better known as “Greater Noruz.” Six days after Noruz, Zoroastrians joyously mark the symbolic birthday of the founder of their faith (the actual birth date of Zoroaster is unknown). Devotees pray at fire temples; feast at ghambars; and wear new clothes. (Wikipedia has details.) Most modern Zoroastrians live in India, although smaller communities exist around the world. (Want to read about other Norouz and New Year festivities from other cultures? Here’s our helpful index of recent related stories.)

Historians agree Zarathustra was born in the first millennium BCE, and Zoroastrianism began in Iran. It’s believed that many important events in Iran’s history occurred on Khordad Sal, although since most Zoroastrians now live elsewhere, this day is now celebrated only as the prophet’s birthday. (Read more at Festivals of India.) Parsi Zoroastrians, most of whom live in India, understand this festival’s importance when reading references to Khordad Sal in their religious texts. Zoroastrians who follow the Qadimi calendar observe Khordad Sal in the summer (this year, in July).

As Zoroastrian numbers continue to dwindle, courts battle ancient rules in the 21st century. (TIME Magazine covered this topic in 2008.) Tradition forbids women who marry non-Parsi Zoroastrians from ever again entering fire temples, and as more and more followers enter interfaith marriages, leaders question the religion’s ability to continue in the world. Still, tradition is upheld, at this point: a woman in India, married to a non-Parsi, was recently denied the right to enter a fire temple—even in the event of the last rites of her aging parents. (Read more in the Times of India.) Even while the woman’s father was a trustee of the fire temple the woman had hoped to regain entry into, judges refused to grant permission, on the basis that there was no declaration that the woman had continued to follow Zoroastrian religion after her marriage.

Baha’i, Zoroastrian: Spring blooms on Norouz

A traditional Iranian table, set for Norouz. Photo in public domainTUESDAY, MARCH 20: Spring has sprung in the Middle East and Central Asia today! Following the Hindu festival of spring (Holi) and preceding the Christian celebration of new life (Easter), Iranians, Baha’is and Zoroastrians mark Nawruz today, a festival with ancient roots. (Spellings vary. Wikipedia has details.)

This New Year festival is so ancient that no one knows exactly how it started: some point to a pastoral fertility festival, while others say origins lie with the mythical King Jamshid; still others say the day was invented by Zoroaster, the founder of the Zoroastrian faith. As such, each group celebrates the day in its own fashion, and many Iranians have adopted the day as a cultural event, complete with bonfires, feasting and fireworks. Nowruz has officially been registered on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, celebrated for more than 3,000 years.

As a religious group, Zoroastrians have likely been marking Nawruz longest. Termed Jamshedi Noruz, this “New Day” party is the seventh obligatory feast on the Zoroastrian calendar, and dedicated to fire. The spring Noruz isn’t to be confused with the Zoroastrian New Year, however, which is marked in the middle of the Gregorian year. Through the years, Iranians—Zoroastrian and non-Zoroastrian—have adopted several Nawruz customs of their own, which include sprouting lentils; gathering around a table set with colored eggs, cakes and fruits; and wearing new clothes.

By the 19th century, when the Bab and Baha’u’llah inhabited Persia, Norouz was such a vital part of the culture that they simply adopted the day and altered it for Baha’is. Baha’u’llah tied Naw-Ruz with the Most Great Name of God, as this day ended the 19-Day Fast and was associated with new life. Today’s Baha’is mark Naw-Ruz with prayer meetings, music, dancing, gift-giving and feasting. (The Bab permitted musical instruments during Naw-Ruz, although he forbid their use during the rest of the year. Learn more from the Baha’i Library.) The exact date of Noruz in the Middle East varies slightly depending on the equinox, but is fixed for March 21 (beginning at sunset on March 20) for Baha’is outside of the Middle East.

Zoroastrian: Pass a plate on Ghambar Hamaspathemaeden

Photo in public domainFRIDAY, MARCH 16: Zoroastrians begin the five-day festival of Ghambar Hamaspathmaedem today, celebrating the creation of human beings and, at the same time, recalling loved ones who have passed. The ancient Zoroastrian calendar contains six seasonal ghambars—the only festivals noted in the faith’s holy book, the Avesta—and during these, devotees gather with food and cheer. Often, food is prepared en masse by volunteers, for all temple attendees to share. (Learn more about ghambars from the Heritage Institute.)

Zoroastrianism began centuries before the three Abrahamic religions—Christianity, Islam and Judaism—and many scholars believe the basic ideas of Zoroastrian eschatology influenced the “big three.” (Get details on Zoroastrianism from Wikipedia.) Most Zoroastrian followers today are in India, although numbers are falling rapidly as the faith primarily remains exclusive.

San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum has been reminded of days when Zoroastrian membership was higher, as it recently acquired a rare, solid-silver Zoroastrian bowl. (Check out an article here.) The 5-pound bowl, still shining beneath lights and in excellent condition, depicts scenes from Zoroastrian mythology in 3-D detail. The bowl is estimated to have been created in 1890 CE by Burmese silversmiths. It was donated by the Zoroastrian Association of Northern California and multiple private donors.

Zoroastrian: Visit the fire temple on Zartusht-no-diso

Most Zoroastrians remember the death of Zarathustra in a fire temple. Photo in public domainMONDAY, DECEMBER 26: One of the world’s oldest continuing religions marks the death of its founder today, on the Zoroastrian solemnity of Zartusht-no-diso. The birth date of Zarathustra is debated—some scholars place it 6,000 years before Plato, while others estimate it by the linguistic standards of the Avesta, the Zoroastrian holy book, around the 14th century BCE—but most agree he was born in ancient Persia. Today, Zoroastrianism continues to reign strongest in Iran, many live in India and followers reside all around the world.

Legends abound concerning Zarathustra’s life, as they do about his death, but most importantly, Zarathustra lived his life as one of the first teachers of monotheism; on Zarthusht-no-diso, Zoroastrians study the scholar’s life, his teachings and the Avestas. (Learn more at Zoroastrians.info.) In their fire temples, devotees review Zarathustra’s teaching of one creator God, “Lord Wisdom,” and his recognition of opposing positive and negative energy present in each human being. Experts believe Zoroastrianism was one of the first religions to connect a belief in one God linked to a moral code for humanity, eventually influencing Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Today’s solemnity hardly stirs up celebrations, but last week, Parsi Zoroastrians in New Delhi did have reason to celebrate: it was the 50th anniversary of their community’s fire temple. According to the Times of India, the community did not have a place to worship for many decades, until the Dar-e-Mehr was built in 1961. Unlike most exclusive Zoroastrian communities, this temple is progressive: it invites non-Parsi spouses to become members, too.

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Zoroastrian: Make Aush for the Paitishem harvest fest

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 12: It’s a fall feast for Zoroastrians today, as they gather for one of six annual gahanbars, or ghambars—today being the celebration of harvest, or Paitishem. To mark season changes and high feasts, Zoroastrians gather with food, family and friends, with the intent of creating community togetherness. (Read more here.) While intentionally practicing good deeds, Zoroastrians eat together and erase lines between rich and poor. Gahambars are the only festivals written about in the Avesta, or Zoroastrian holy books. Today’s harvest feast honors the creation of both the Earth and the summer crop. (To create Aush, a traditional gahambar stew, click here.)

Zoroastrian, Baha’i: Norouz, Naw Ruz, Persian New Year

Fire is essential to the Zoroastrian faith and is one of the Elements of Life usually represented at Nowruz celebrations

MONDAY, MARCH 21: Many ancient traditions are alive and well in diverse forms today—and that’s certainly true of the ancient Persian New Year, which becomes Norouz or Naw Ruz in various cultures that still reflect Persian customs of marking spring. In fact, there’s some speculation that the timing of Purim may be related to that Persian spring cycle, as well. We’re not alone in making these connections. Wikipedia also has an overview that combines Norouz and Naw Ruz. (You may enjoy browsing our other Equinox, Ostara, Purim and spring-related stories via links on the right side of the Festivals & Holidays page.)

Zoroastrian Norouz (or Nowruz, spellings vary)

It’s the beginning of a new year for Zoroastrians today; Nowruz, literally “New Day,” always occurs around the vernal equinox and promises new life in the coming spring season. Culturally, Nowruz is observed by Iranians, Afghan people and in select areas around the world; the joyous festival is rooted in the ancient Zoroastrian religion. (Learn more at Heritage Institute.) Sometimes considered the holiest day of all, Nowruz was suggested by Zoroaster himself—the founder of Zoroastrianism—and was recognized last year by the UN General Assembly as the International Day of Nowruz. Some countries marked Nowruz yesterday, at the equinox, but most Zoroastrians will celebrate today. (Check out a Nowruz video at PBS.)

Nowruz as it is known today has been celebrated for more than 3,000 years, and the extensive activities still last for almost two weeks. (Persia.org has more.) Following an extensive spring cleaning process that lasts for several weeks leading up to Nowruz, families dress in new clothes today and begin visiting relatives and friends; it’s common belief that one’s behavior on Nowruz affects that person’s fate in the new year. (Wikipedia has details.) In most households, a sacred Haft Sin table setting is set up to represent the seven elements of life and the seven elements of Nowruz, among other things. Zoroastrian belief has it that the moment when the life cycle started in this world was the first Nowruz.

Around the world, Zoroastrians have been fearing for their numbers in recent years. Leaders are beginning to wonder just how few devotees will be celebrating Nowruz in the future, because Zoroastrians continue to forbid interfaith marriages. In response, groups like the Zoroastrian Youth for the New Generation have been attempting innovative measures that include a speed dating service in Mumbai. (Read the article in Indian Express.)

Baha’is May Spell it Naw Ruz

Prominent figure Abdu’l-Baha likened the varied equinox celebrations to the Manifestations of God: All celebrating the same messageBaha’is are forbidden to work today, as they mark the first day of a new year on Naw Ruz. Since the two most prominent figures of the Baha’i faith—the Bab and Baha’u’llah—were both Persian, devotees have celebrated on the Persian New Year ever since. The first day of the New Year is known as “the Day of God.” (Baha’i Library Online has more.) Baha’i days officially begin at sunset, though, so Naw Ruz dinner parties and dances began last night; still, festivities will continue into today and Baha’is worldwide will be spending the day praying, feasting and giving thanks for this holy day. (Planet Baha’i has an insightful article.)

Baha’is may follow in the tradition of observing the Persian New Year, but they have prepared for the day quite differently. As the Baha’i calendar consists of 19 months of 19 days (with a small period of Intercalary Days), the entire month leading up to Naw-Ruz is spent in fasting. (Wikipedia has details.) After reminding themselves that they can overcome their material desires, Baha’is often begin Naw-Ruz with a feast at sunset. At present, Naw-Ruz is fixed as March 21 for Baha’is living outside of the Middle East; but since the Baha’i day begins at sunset, the 2011 Baha’i day that includes the equinox is also March 21.

Naw-Ruz traditions vary widely, and can range from gift-giving, dancing and potluck dinners to prayers and holy readings. Baha’is are acutely aware of the fact that several religions celebrate on or around the vernal equinox, and in accordance with their religious tenets, embrace that fact. It was Baha’u’llah’s son who explained the equinox as a symbol of the many Manifestations of God: just as Jesus, Muhammad and the Bab all spread messages that were “like a spiritual springtime,” Naw-Ruz can celebrate these collective messages.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.)



Zoroastrian: Welcome spring and prepare for Nowruz

New life and new beginnings take center stage in Nowruz preparationsFRIDAY, MARCH 4: Zoroastrian communities around the globe are bustling with excitement today, as devotees and Persian citizens are beginning preparations for the Zoroastrian/Persian Nowruz (New Year). Nowruz officially begins on the vernal equinox, but preparation begins almost a month beforehand—and afterward, Nowruz celebrations continue for 13 days. (Wikipedia has details.)

Devotees—as well as Iranian citizens, who live in a country where Nowruz is also a cultural holiday—often spend weeks cleaning their houses, mirroring the “getting rid of old and making new” that is seen in nature in springtime. The official term for Nowruz cleaning is “Khaneh Tekani,” meaning, “Shaking of your house.” (Persian Mirror Magazine’s site has a full description of Nowruz preparations and other Persian holidays.) The Zoroastrian religion has always been closely tied with nature and agricultural seasons, and followers still uphold that aspect. Some Zoroastrians also believe the souls of their departed relatives visit during Nowruz, and so houses are also thoroughly cleaned for any spiritual visitors.

As Jews follow specific pre-Passover traditions in preparing for such a major holiday, Zoroastrians, too, begin elaborate preparations for their Nowruz Haft-Seen table. The sacred Zoroastrian table is covered in white cloth and is set with specific items brought by each family member: a mirror, for example, represents reflection of the past and showing of the future, while candles represent light and energy. (IranHeritage.org has details.) Wheat and barley seeds are sprouted for 10 days prior to Nowruz, and represent the gift of new life that comes with spring.