Human angle to history
A group of Zoroastrians from the West visits Iran, the birthplace of their ancient religion. The journey, recorded as a documentary film, shifts between the past and the present and raises questions that need to be explored, says CHITRA CHANDU.
At Persepolis amidst the ruins of the Achaemenian kingdom.
INTERSPERSED with discussions among the pilgrims, glimpses of Iran and insights into Zoroastrianism, "In the Footsteps of our Forefathers" is like a dialogue within the 20-something generation of Zoroastrians about their religion and the land of their forefathers. In the 60-minute colour documentary, "In the Footsteps of our Forefathers", Tenaz Dubash, a New York-based filmmaker, records the visit of 35 American, Canadian and British Zoroastrians to Iran, the ancient home of their religion's founder and prophet, Zoroaster. Thought provoking and informative, it's a wonderful introduction to Zoroastrianism.
Within the first few minutes, the film gives a brief explanation of Zoroastrian history and theology. Images of ancient sculpture and stone reliefs are shown while the narration tells one that Zoroastrianism flourished under three Persian dynasties: the Achaemenian (550 B.C.-331 B.C.), Parthians (250 B.C.-224 A.D.), and the Sassanians (224 A.D.-651 A.D.). Under the Sassanians, it became a state religion. Many Zoroastrians migrated to India and elsewhere only after the Arab invasion in the 7th Century. The Parsis are the Zoroastrians in India.
Words like "Ahura Mazda" "Zarathustra" fade on the screen while the narrator explains that Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion that believes in Ahura Mazda. Zarathustra is his prophet. Zoroastrians believe in the three principles of good word, deed and action and the concepts of good reigning over evil, and heaven and hell. The introduction serves the purpose of introducing Zoroastrianism and also as a reminder that Muslims did not always dominate Persia.
In Persopolis, amidst the ruins of the Achaemenian kingdom, a group discussion about the importance of history concluded that it was important to remember that there are various views of history. This prepares the viewer for the historical information that would follow. Next is a tour of some Zoroastrian temples. At Bishapur is the temple, dedicated to Anahita, the guardian angel of water. It has stone reliefs of the Sassanian kings' victories. Dubash explains that the engravings on the walls in Naqsh-e-Roshtam refer to power being passed down from Ahura Mazda to the kings. A few hundred feet away is another temple rectangular shaped without any carvings once a fire temple and a resting place of the Avesta, the Zoroastrian Holy Scriptures. Dubash narrates that water and fire were symbols of God's love for man and were not to be taken for granted.
The group forms a circle in Naqsh-e-Rostam and recites a prayer, which is followed by a discussion on the recitation of prayers in a language they do not understand. One pilgrim liked the sound of the words while another said that the curiosity to find the meaning would make the prayer more meaningful.
The group moved on to Pasaragada and visited Cyrus' tomb, a pyramid-like structure, about 40 feet in height at the pinnacle. The base too is about 40 feet in length and width. A pilgrim, Cyrus, said that it was an honour to be named after a humanitarian Achaemenian king like Cyrus who allowed his subjects to practise their own religion.
In Yazd, they visited Zainabad, where the people maintained their Zoroastrian faith and still tended to the fires in the temples. Dubash visits the Towers of Silence, where vultures devoured the dead bodies. In Yazd, Dubash meets a group of five tourists who ask her several questions about Zoroastrianism why non-Zoroastrians cannot enter the temples and why Zoroastrianism does not accept converts that need to be reflected on.
Some of the pilgrims at a restaurant.
In Pir-e-Banou, Armaity Homavazir, a Canadian woman, led the prayer. This led to a discussion about women not being allowed to become priests. The discussion concluded that it was important to have a spirit of inquiry, to rethink the old rules and come to new understandings. There was recognition of the need to change old customs.
The documentary also records a Novjote, the Zoroastrian initiation ceremony, of two children aged about nine. It's almost like a festival: women cook together, then there's a prayer with family and friends, presided over by a priest.
Esfahan marked the end of the Iran tour. Some of the pilgrims said that the trip provided a visual base of the religion; a great sense of respect for the Zoroastrians who survived here; and a sense of being connected to other people.
Dubash manages to shift between the past and the present without losing the audience and the discussions provided a human angle to history. While the documentary appreciates the history of Zoroastrianism, it also puts forward questions that need to be explored: women not being accepted as priests, outsiders not being allowed into temples, and not accepting converts questions that challenge Zoroastrianism today. Shahriar Badi's photography has rendered beautiful shots of the Iranian mountains and landscape.
"In the Footsteps of our Forefathers", Writer/Producer : Tenaz Dubash, Running Time : 60 minutes.
TENAZ DUBASH, the producer of the documentary, "In the Footsteps of our Forefathers", spoke about her documentary and religion.
In retrospect, what was the impact of the trip on your life and faith?
The trip was very meaningful, intense and thought provoking. I learnt a lot about our history, culture, and the origin of our religion. It's definitely made my faith stronger because it gave me a chance to introspect the religion and reassured me that it was here to stay. We met people in Iran, who recite the same prayers that we recite in India and the United States but with a slightly different accent. It was amazing that something that started so long ago is still continuing.
What is the general subject of your documentaries?
"In the Footsteps of our Forefathers" was my first documentary. I'm more driven by cultural and social issues. I'm working on two films now: One on Muslim women and another on contemporary Zoroastrians. The first is about empowering Muslim women and giving them a voice. The other takes a look at the relationships Zoroastrians are forming in the new countries that they live in what they have held on to and what they have let go of.
What were some of the challenges you had to face while making the documentary?
It was a low budget documentary ($25,000). Then there were other issues such as travelling with so many people. It was almost like having 34 directors and not everyone gives constructive criticism. Some of them felt that the camera was intruding into their personal journey. Some of the traditional Zoroastrians in our group had a problem with one of the cameramen being Muslim. When we were in the bus, we would take off our heejabs, sit next to whever we wanted to, but there was this fear among some that this Muslim cameraman would go and tell the authorities. I had to convince them that our cameraman was very forward thinking, that he wouldn't do something like that and that he'd been very helpful to us. So there was a bit of internal strife.
Tell me a bit about growing up as a Parsee in Mumbai? How is the Zoroastrian community abroad?
In Mumbai, the Parsee's interpret the text, the Gathas, more literally. For example, they believe that Zoroastrians can have salvation only if their bodies are left at the Towers of Silence. In a lot of ways, I guess they are a product of their environment. You have the safety of numbers there so you don't really question things there. It's really when you go away from the system that you begin to think about religion and rituals. In the west and in Iran, many have let go of the concept of the Towers of Silence. Other rituals such as marriage rituals it's interesting because the marriage rituals are very different for Zoroastrians in Mumbai and those in Iran. I was at an Iranian wedding and the bride wore a dress. At the wedding table, both the families sit with the bride and groom; it's almost like both the families are getting married. In Mumbai, it's just the bride and groom that sit at the table.
Were there any preconceived notions that took you by surprise during your visit to Iran?
Well, yes, we had been trained, if that's the word, in terms of our interactions with the locals, and how strict they would be. We were told that everyone had to wear black hejaabs and cover themselves from head to toe, and that not a strand of hair was to be shown; that we'd be jailed if we made eye contact with a man. But when we went there, women wore light coloured hejaabs; and there were shots that showed our hair. We also found the locals delightful. Of course that was when we got out of the larger cities and there were no guards in the villages. They were very interested in knowing more about us, and where we were from. Most people were like `Oh, you're Zoroastrians. Welcome back, this is your home.' But we did have our fears because if we did anything accidentally that was considered immoral or wrong; we could have been thrown in jail.
Do you plan to visit Iran again?
Not in the near future but I loved Iran and would, at some point, like to visit again.
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