A study of the training of Zoroastrian priests in India was undertaken by Kerman Daruwalla as part of his PhD research. This is the first study of its kind and throws light on a field about which very little has been previously documented apart from a few anecdotal accounts. The research findings are based on extensive fieldwork in India during 2017-2020 and data gathered from over fifty interviews with Zoroastrian priests and training staff. The study includes an in-depth analysis of the contemporary priestly training imparted to the students at the Dadar Athornan Institute in Mumbai, the only functioning Zoroastrian priestly training school. The study was supported by hours of filming undertaken by Chouette Films of the daily routine of these students. For the documentation of the historical practice, the study relied extensively on Gujarati language archives.
Zoroastrian priesthood is hereditary and only sons belonging to the priestly class (athornān) are eligible to be initiated as priests. The Zoroastrian priests follow a long-standing oral tradition whereby all the ritual texts are learnt by rote and recited from memory during liturgical performances.
The candidate for priesthood undergoes the initiation ceremony of Nāvar (referred to as Nowzud in Iran) typically between the age of 10-15 years, after which he becomes eligible to perform the basic priestly functions. In order to perform the more intricate and exalted ceremonies and in order to function as a full-fledged priest, the candidate is required to undergo a second advanced stage of priestly initiation known as the Marātab.
The study of priestly training investigates the following research questions:
An overview of some of the areas explored as part of the research study is presented here.
A candidate for the priestly initiation generally undergoes training either at home or at a priestly training school. A majority of the candidates trained at home or under a local priest tend to follow a curtailed curriculum in which only a small portion of the requisite texts are memorised and the student is given a basic introduction to the rituals. Such a candidate undergoing the priestly initiation ceremony with limited training is referred to as an adhuro ‘incomplete’ Nāvar.
Conversely, candidates who intend to complete the entire priestly training curriculum are enrolled at one of the priestly training schools. Such a candidate who memorises all the requisite ritual texts and attains proficiency over their performance and then undergoes the Nāvar and Marātab initiations, is referred to as a sampūrna mobed ‘complete priest’.
There are two resident priestly training schools known as the Athornan Institutes, both located in Mumbai. The Dadar Athornan Institute (DAI), formerly known as the Athornan Boarding Madressa, was founded in 1919 by a body of priests, the Athornan Mandal, with funds collected from the community. The DAI is presently the only fully-functioning Zoroastrian priestly training school in the world.
The M. F. Cama Athornan Institute (MFCAI) was started in 1923 from the munificent donation by its founder, Meherwanji Muncherji Cama and named in memory of his father, Muncherji Faramji Cama. At present, the MFCAI is dormant and does not have any active students on its rolls.
Since the time of their founding, both the Athornan Institutes have imparted comprehensive training to a multitude of students, who after graduation have gone on to fulfil the priestly requirements of the Zoroastrian community. However, the number of enrolments at these institutes have rapidly declined in the past few decades. Compared to the nearly 200 students during the 1930s and 1940s, the present student strength hovers at around 20. Thus, there are barely a handful of fully-trained priests passing out each year. This has put a question mark on the sustainability of the important liturgical ceremonies like the Yasna, Visperad and Videvdad.
The aspiring students are typically enrolled at the Athornan Institutes between the ages of 6-9 years. At the Institutes, the students are imparted priestly training, while simultaneously pursuing their secular education at a day school. On average, the complete priestly curriculum (cf. image A below) spans seven years, however individual students may complete it faster or take longer based on their learning ability.
The students have two classes per day dedicated to memorisation (cf. image B below) of the ritual texts. While the class is common, each student is taught individually and pursues the memorisation of his own portion of the text. A meticulous record of the daily progress of the student is maintained and recorded in the individual lesson book of that student (cf. image C below). These student lesson books are thus an excellent source of information on the learning process at the Institutes. Once the student has progressed in his memorisation study, hands-on ritual training (cf. image D below) is imparted by the teacher. Only when the student has finished memorising the texts and gained proficiency in ritual performance, he is given the permission for the initiation ceremony.
The Zoroastrians and the Vedic tradition of India share a common Indo-Iranian heritage, with both relying heavily on the oral transmission of their religio-cultic texts over their long history. Thus, there are significant similarities in the methods of priestly training in both these traditions.
The present study explores a few key aspects of the training of Vedic priests and presents a comparison with the Zoroastrian tradition.