The Zoroastrian myth of migration from Iran and settlement in the Indian diaspora

Author:   Alan Williams
Publisher:   Brill publications
Reviewer:   Arsala Nizami
Designation:   Research Student

Williams, Alan.2009.  The Zoroastrian myth of migration from Iran and settlement in the Indian diaspora: text, translation and analysis of the 16th century Qesse ye Sanjan, the Story of Sanjan. Brill publications. ISSN no. -0169-8834. ISBN no.- 9789004176980

In formation of a diasporic identity culture and history are two things that play a pivotal role. Texts and oral histories are the embodiment of culture and history. If the memories of past get blurred, texts revive them. Sometimes memories are formed through texts only. Therefore, it is essential to interpret and analyse texts because their authenticity can only be checked through rigorous research. Alan Williams’ book ‘The Zoroastrian myth of migration from Iran and settlement in the Indian diaspora’is one such attempt to interpret and examine a 16th century text , which forces readers to reflect whether Qesse ye Sanjan is a mythical narrative or a historical one.

Qesse means story and Sanjan is a place in Gujarat, so Qesse ye Sanjan means story of Sanjan. The author translates, studies, analyzes and re iterates the importance of Qesse ye Sanjan. Having done an extensive study on this poem, Williams asserts Qesse ye Sanjan is an important manuscript, perhaps the only text, documenting Zoroastrian migration from Iran to India and formation of ‘Parsi’community.   

Qesse ye Sanjan(QS) is quite familiar among Parsis, but scarcely studied. Also, previous texts on translation and analysis of QS have been insufficient; therefore, the purpose of the author is to give a new and satisfactory analysis of QS.  Author reiterates that the rationale of the book is the presentation and study of the manuscript and not rebuilding or restoration of Parsi history

The book is divided into 6 chapters, including introduction and conclusion.  Along with purpose of the study, background of author and his family, Chapter 1 includes composition of Qesse ye Sanjan, important themes of the poem, lenses through which the poem has been analysed etc.

After having dealt with Authors background, Williams asserts that the importance of QS has increased manifold in the 21st century due to spreading of the community across the globe. QS re-estates the morals and beliefs of their past, which no other document of their origin in Iran and emigration to India provides for.  Therefore, QS is their sole text on formation of their identity.

Williams analyzes the text in a chronological manner through the events of which author, Bahman, tells his story. He also made a synoptic Chart of the Narrative Structure of poem, which makes it easy for readers to understand the structure of a complex and multifaceted poem.  According to this chart, the tale mainly highlights the following things: the journey to Sanjan, India; the battles fought along with a Hindu ruler against a Muslim invader; the history of the Zoroastrians till the Muslim invasion and the depiction of the survival and flourishing of the Zoroastrian community after the invasion of Sanjan. 

Third chapter is devoted to translation and transcription. Along with translating the poem from Persian to English, author has also made a chart of romanised transcription system.

After having translated the poem from Persian to English, he moves to his fourth chapter. He describes the narrating structure of the poem, gives a detailed account of the meaning of its verses and also examines Bahman’s frame of mind and personal and social orientations at the time of writing different verses.

Analysis in chapter 5 forms the crux of author’s work, where he analyses whether QS should be interpreted as a clock or mirror. Williams stresses that the text has been seen as a source of chronological information, like a clock or a timetable for many years. Against clock model, Williams very convincingly introduces the concept of mirror. According to which, QS should not be seen more than as a representative of two interrelated things: Bahman’s own interests and traditions that he followed.

This book is not only an account of author’s primary research and analysis. In fact he has brought to readers a very interesting debate of different scholars on rival chronologies regarding the date of Parsis arrival in India. These are traditional chronology, historical revision and the literalist reading. The dates of Parsi arrival in India are different in all types of chronologies.

A fascinating point is reached in the analysis of QS, when Williams concludes calling it a mythical narrative. The myth of a journey starting from exodus of Zoroastrians due to fear of persecution to transformation of Iranian Zoroastrians into Indian Parsis after having fought in support of Hindu Raja against Muslim invader in Sanjan and finally successful settlement in India.  This heroic process has been called a mythical narrative, which has played more important role in enriching their story than what a historical narrative based on facts would have. However, the author fails to give the account as to why is it that a myth has been given so much importance that it empowers historical narrative describing actual human events.

Williams has reiterated at many places that he intends to present text of QS and not narrate Parsi history. But, the book does explain Parsi history along with presenting the text.

Nevertheless, Williams has presented a very thought provoking analysis of QS while putting emphasis on the role that mythical stories play in formation of ethnic and religious identities especially in the case of diasporas. Mobility and distance reinforced the need for formation of a common identity of Parsi diasporic community, which is acquired from the manuscript of QS as it presents mythical story as well as imageries of homeland.

Apart from creating a new edition of the poem in an English version, the book provided a detailed commentary on the text, discussed its narrative structure and deliberated in mythological and religious dimensions of what is considered a foundational document of Parsi Zoroastrian culture.

Review by Arsala Nizami, Ph.D. Student School of Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Studies, IGNOU, New Delhi. Email: [email protected]



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