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Happy new years

  • 17 August is Parsi New Year but it is only one of three
  • Lounge explores the story through three calendars and millennia of history

Parsis at an agiary in Mumbai.
Parsis at an agiary in Mumbai.

Parsi New Year or Nowruz is a good time to consider why the Parsis of India celebrate three new year days marked on three separate calendars. And what each means in the larger narrative of history, migration and preserving age-old traditions.

The oldest of these calendars is the Shahenshahi calendar that dates from the Sassanid period in Iran. Now this 365-day calendar did not account for a leap year and as a result, was no longer in sync with the sun. “An extra month was added by the ancient Zoroastrians in Persia to every 120th year on the calendar, which would bring it back to sync. This tradition however ended after the Zoroastrians came to India following the Arab conquest of Iran. And so the Shahenshahi calendar is frozen to the reign of the last Sassanid ruler, Yazdegerd III," says Mumbai-based historian Kurush F. Dalal. As per this calendar, the new year day is in August.

A few centuries later, a group of priests from Iran came to India and announced that they had updated the Shahenshahi calendar and the Indian version was now one month out of sync. While some Zoroastrians decided to switch to this calendar, there were those who were happier with the older version. This led to the split and two calendars were formed—the Shahenshahi calendar of the original Indian Parsis and the revised Kadmi calendar. In the Kadmi calendar, New Year’s day is celebrated one month before the one on the Shahenshahi calendar, which mostly falls in July.

Finally, in the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of a more logical calendar was floated in Mumbai by a group of Parsis calling themselves the Fasli, or seasonal society. They proposed a modified calendar that would be acceptable to all and bring all these different calendars into sync. On it was marked an important date to make the idea of a modern calendar palatable to the traditionalists. This was Jamshedi Nowruz —a 3,000-year-old Zoroastrian festival heralding the new year and named after the mythic Persian king Jamshid . In the Fasli calendar, this festival coincided with the spring equinox in March. And oddly enough, even though the Fasli calendar was not passed by the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP), the date for Jamshedi Nowruz somehow ended up sticking and that became the first of three celebrations of Nowruz, says Dalal.

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