“If you’re raised overseas, if you’re raised in diaspora; you have no exposure.”
James Ball is talking about his own heritage, which stretches back more than 3000 years, to ancient Persia. Ball, a Yale-educated environmental engineer from New Jersey, is Zoroastrian.
Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s first monotheistic religions and one of its oldest faith communities. But growing up in New Jersey Zoroastrianism was not part of Ball’s life. Zoroastrians live mostly in India and Iran. There are only about 1500 in the Tri-State area.
But while on a trip to India when he was 28, Ball had the opportunity to witness Zoroastrian rituals performed in a traditional context.
“You get a whole different sense of your heritage when you’re there seeing it,” he reflects.
“I had been searching myself for that reconnection, and found it on my own.”
Now Ball belongs to a team that organizes 12 to 14 day-trips annually to India aimed at inspiring Zoroastrian youth to connect with their cultural and spiritual roots, just as he did. The project, called Return to Roots, is part of a UNESCO-sponsored effort to preserve Zoroastrian heritage.
For Ball the experience of witnessing the spiritual side of his ancestors’ faith was life changing. He returned to India and underwent an initiation ceremony called navjote, normally conducted in childhood. In the ceremony, Ball put on a sacred undershirt called a Sedreh, and belt, Kushti, and recited prayers in an ancient Persian dialect called Avestan. Before returning to life in New Jersey, James Ball formally became an adult in the eyes of a community that is 3500 years old.
Ball’s initiation to Zoroastrianism was not a drop in the bucket. The world’s Zoroastrian population is in steep, possibly terminal decline. Every person counts.
While Zoroastrianism originated in ancient Persia, Zoroastrians have been living in India for over 1300 years, comprising two distinct communities, the Parsi and the Irani. Once the reigning state religion of the Persian Empire, Zoroastrianism may disappear over the next few centuries according to evidence in recent studies. A 2012 study found that only approximately 120,000 Zoroastrians remain in the world. In India, where the Parsi community constitutes the world’s largest Zoroastrian population, there has been an estimated 10% drop in population every decade since 1940. The Zoroastrian population in Iran, the faith’s ancestral homeland, is believed to be around 25,000. The rest of the world’s Zoroastrians are spread across the globe, mostly in North America, Australia, Europe, Hong Kong and Singapore.
The decline of the Indian Parsi community has been so drastic that UNESCO, through its New Delhi offices, is involved in preserving the heritage of the Zoroastrian community. The UNESCO Preservation of Parsi Zoroastrian Heritage project (PARZOR Project) established in 1999, encompasses new academic research, oral histories and museum exhibitions, according to Dr. Shernaz Cama, Honorary Director of the PARZOR project.
The centerpieces of this effort are the Return to Roots trips, in which young members of the Zoroastrian community are taken on guided tours around India and immersed of Zoroastrian history and ritual. In addition to temples and museums, trip participants see concerts, eat at Parsi restaurants, and visit schools as well as Parsi-run hospitals and orphanages that serve the broader community. In addition to Mumbai, where the Parsi community is concentrated, the trips visit small towns in Gujarat and Maharashtra where the Zoroastrian community first established itself in India in the 8th century CE.
“I’m happy to say that it gets Zoroastrian youth to the grassroots in the interior parts of Gujarat; takes them to a priestly Seminary, shows them their heritage and gets them more involved with their unique identity,” says Cama.
The first trip was conducted between December 2013 and January 2014, the second in March of 2015 and a third trip is currently underway. The group’s trips are small, usually around 10 to 15 people, accompanied by organizers.
“In such a small community it shows them that they are not alone,” says Cama.
“Their friendship with other young Zoroastrians is an attempt to create a new generation of activity and bonds across a thinly spread global diaspora.”
These trips were inspired in part by Birthright trips to Israel, according to organizer Arzan Wadia. Unlike Birthright trips, however, they are not free. Participants pay $3000 to attend, out of an organizer-estimated cost of $5000 for each participant. Most of the funding comes from donations from the world’s Zoroastrian communities.
Return to Roots is the brainchild of UK-based scholar Rosheen Kabraji, who is also Ball’s fiancee. Inspired in part by the annual World Zoroastrian Youth Congress, she wanted to create a moment that brought Zoroastrian youth together and simultaneously put them in direct contact with their heritage. Kabraji shared her idea with friends, fellow Zoroastrians spread across the diaspora. Together they came up with a project and submitted it to PARZOR for support, and began fundraising drives in the world’s Zoroastrian communities. Kabraji says that the trips have received positive feedback. Former participants have held meet-up reunions, and are happy to now know fellow Zoroastrians from around the world.
“It’s connecting to individuals you know you won’t necessarily live down the street from, but as a diaspora community you know you have a friend in New York or L.A. or London or Mumbai,” says Kabraji.
“We’re one of the oldest diasporas and ethno-religious communities, and we’re so spread out.”
Zoroastrians have traditionally not sought or accepted converts. Intermarriage is frowned upon, and children of mixed marriages may be excluded from certain religious functions. Many Zoroastrians, including many Parsis, favor an open approach, and Return to Roots has to negotiate this complexity. Trips are divided into two types: “A” track trips involve visits to two forms of Zoroastrian temple, Atash Behrams and Agiarys, which do not allow non-Zoroastrians to enter. Because some Parsi Zoroastrians require a person’s father to be considered Zoroastrian to be considered a full member of the community, this means some Return to Roots attendees are not eligible.
While the track system reflects disagreements in the community over who is truly a Zoroastrian, Ball, whose father is not Zoroastrian, says the point of Return to Roots is to be as open as possible.
“Inclusivity has been a priority for the team,” Ball says.
Ball says the Return to Roots organizers hope to conduct a trip to Iran, the birthplace of Zoroastrianism, some time in 2016. Political and safety concerns are currently the main obstacle.
“The desire is absolutely there,” says Ball, placing emphasis on the adverb.
“If you want to go to the roots of the roots then Iran is the place to go to.”