Delhi is celebrating the Zoroastrian and Parsi community this spring. As part of the program, National Museum is hosting the exhibition, Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination which was previously hosted at Brunei Gallery, SOAS, University of London in 2013. The exhibition provides a chronological visual narrative of the history of Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest religions and its cultural heritage. It traces the beginnings of Zoroastrianism from its early days in ancient Iran to its position as foremost religion during the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian empires. It also documents the influence it has had on the major religions of the world, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and to the present day where the community is spread out in various parts of the world. Using archaeological artifacts, literary sources, scriptures, textiles, sculptures, paintings, videos and photographs the development and spread of Zoroastrianism is depicted.
Thematically the exhibition is divided into 10 sections, covering aspects of Zoroastrian history and culture. It starts with ‘Pre-Zoroastrian’ world, where one is greeted with exquisite objects from civilizations around the world, from Elam, Mesopotamia, Iron Age in Iran, Western Central Asia and India. This section displays objects from the famous Luristan bronze collection from British Museum. The next section focuses on ‘Sacred texts’ and Gathas, where rare manuscripts in Avestan are displayed. Exhibited is Khordeh Avesta, the Zoroastrian prayer book acquired in India by Thomas Hyde. This particular copy became the model for the Avestan that he created for his History of the Persian Religion published in 1700, also exhibited. The section on ‘Central Asia and China’ explores the spread of Zoroastrianism in the region and various motifs that come to be associated with Zoroastrianism can be seen here. Among the rare manuscripts on display in this section is ‘a Zoroastrian prayer fragment’ written in Avestan and discovered in Dunhuang in China in 1917 by Aurel Stein, the Hungarian-British archaeologist who undertook four significant expeditions in Central Asia, which brought to light the spread of Buddhism via the Silk Route. Fragments of wall paintings help in the further telling of this story. Some of the most interesting objects are the Ossuaries which have never been exhibited before. An Ossuary serves as a chest, or a box, which is made to serve as the final resting place of human skeletal remains. The body is buried in a temporary grave, and then after some years the skeletal remains are removed and placed in an ossuary. They are frequently used in places were burial space is scarce. The Ossuaries from State Hermitage Museum, Russia and replicas of ossuaries from Samarkand highlight the unique funerary practices of the community.
The section on ‘Judaeo-Christian World’ explores the close contact between the Jews and the Zoroastrians, using spectacular manuscripts from John Rylands Library and British Library. One of the most unusual exhibits in this section is a copy of Raphael’s School of Athens; but one needs to see the Key to the School of Athens, also on display to understand the impact Zoroastrinism had in the Judaeo-Christian world. Zoroaster, (as Zarathustra is known in the Judaeo-Christian world) is represented in the School of Athens. A grand and spectacular glass etching of a decorative stone relief welcomes one in the section on ‘Imperial and Post-Imperial Iran’. This etching was specially commissioned for the exhibition and is lit from underneath. This work takes over a whole wall in the room and adds a different dimension to the narrative. In addition to the glass etching there are beautiful silver objects from National Museum of Iran, and a gold enamel reliquary casket from British Museum, portrayed with biblical imagery of the three wise men bearing gifts for infant Jesus and his mother Mary.
A delightful animation of Shahnameh from Chester Beatty Library continues the story in a section on ‘Post Arab Conquest’. Juxtaposed in the middle of this chronological narrative is a replica of a fire temple; located between the ‘Post Arab Conquest’ and ‘Journey and settlement’, is the replica of the Manekji Navroji Sett Temple, Mumbai, a fire temple. In fact this is one of the highlights, since it allows the visitor to enter a space which is closed for non- Parsis. This ‘disruption’ offers an interesting perspective to the whole narrative and puts the cult of fire temples and the ritual of tending to the ever burning heath fire in a context which is both ancient and contemporary. The replica, while being quite different, is also cluttered with quite a few portraits of Parsi priests, ladies and gentleman; a number of such portraits adorn the walls of the incense-filled sanctuaries of Zoroastrian places of worship. The replica recreates the inner sanctum of a fire temple for the visitor. In fact the literary history of Zoroastrianism is narrated through rare manuscripts from the British Library, the first time that such objects have been lent to any Indian institution for an exhibition. On display is also a rare illustrated Arda Viraf Namah from John Rylands Library which shows visions of hell for sinners.
The section on ‘Journey and Settlement’ shows Zoroastrians travelled from Iran in the wake of the Arab Conquest. Beautiful Zoroastrian coins which show various Zoroastrian divinities (yazatas) are displayed in this particular section.. The Kushana kings of Bactria used a mix of Hindu and Zoroastrian deities on their coins. Also on display is Sad Dar: 100 Zoroastrian rules in prose, written in Persian but in Avestan script together with a Gujarati translation. This highlights a culmination of the journey of those Zoroastrians who had fled Iran and landed on the west coast of India in Gujarat and eventually became citizens of India. The fact that Zoroastrian texts were translated in Gujarati shows how well they had adapted to the local culture and language.
Perhaps the most resplendent section of the exhibition is the Parsi Salon, bright red and inviting it highlights the 19th century material culture of the Parsis, as the Zoroastrians came to be known in India. On display in this section are heavily embroidered Garas, intricately carved furniture, Parsi portraits and jewelry. There are portraits by Pestonjee Bomanjee, Jehangir Lalkaka and M.F. Pithawalla. The wealth of the community’s trade links is visible in this section in terms of the motifs, material and decadence. The exhibition then moves on to talk about the Diaspora, where the spread of Zoroastrians is shown.
While the exhibition is curated in a water tight fashion, there are a few problems. This exhibition can be too academic, and the theme and the unfamiliarity with thesubjectmayleavequiteafewpeopledisinterested.Therearealso moments where there seems to be cluttering and over-crowding in some parts. The text, while being easy to read, seems too inadequate and in some cases labels cannot be read easily because of low lighting. The best way to see the exhibition is to refer to the catalogs (the original one from 2013 SOAS exhibition and the supplementary one published by National Museum) or take a free guided tour while seeing the exhibition.
The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination has been organized in collaboration with SOAS, British Library, National Museum of Iran, and Parzor Foundation. It has been sponsored by the Ministry of Minority Affairs, Government of India. The exhibition at National Museum is jointly curated by Sarah Stewart, (SOAS), Firoza Punthakey Mistree (Zoroastrian Studies, Mumbai, Ursula Sims-Williams (British Library), Amut Hintze (SOAS), Pheroza Godrej (Independent author and curator) and Shernaz Cama (Unesco Parzor). Designed by: Colin Morris Associates with assistance from Soku designs.
National Museum, New Delhi
March 19 to May 29, 2016