Ritual Matter(s): Nowruz Ceremonies of the Zoroastrian New Year in Tehran

The following is a photo essay by Behrad Nafissi Mistry. Behrad is half Indian Parsi, half Iranian. He is a photo-journalist at Amordad Zoroastrian News Agency and Humans of Tehran. He holds a B.A. in English Literature and an M.A. in Comparative Literature from Shahid Beheshti University. 

This photo essay extends the focus of an earlier one addressing Tehran’s Zoroastrian community and the annual ritual of Nowruz, or the ushering in of the new year. Here Behrad describes the contents of a ceremonial table setting that features in this annual ritual. The following text has been translated from Persian by Behzad Sarmadi and Shima Houshyar.

The Mobed puts fresh logs of wood into the fire and continually stokes the flames of the New Year’s fire.

The Zoroastrian New Year coincides with the Spring Equinox. It marks not only the beginning of the calendar, but the renewal of life in its perennial struggle with death. This annual milestone is an occasion for celebration, and involves a series of ritual arrangements and acts.

Perhaps the most widely known among these is the ceremonial spread called the Khan-e Nowruz or the Haft Chin. It features a variety of objects that symbolize key figures and values of Zoroastrian cosmology. The arrangement of this spread — or most of its elements — has historically emerged as a cultural practice shared among numerous peoples across West Asia, the Caucasus, and India.

However, despite its popularity, the Zoroastrian symbolism of the Haft Chin’s contents are less widely known. This is partly as a result of the minority status of Zoroastrians in their societies; these are primarily Iran (estimated to be about 25,000) and India (estimated to be about 70,000). This article will elaborate this content and the celebration of the Zoroastrian New Year.

In the hour before the beginning of Nowruz, Zoroastrians lay out a special table setting, called the Khan-e Nowruz or the Haft Chin. Zoroastrians spread the Khan-e Nowruzi in their homes, religious centers, and temples and will leave it for the nineteen days following Nowruz.

The Khan-e Nowruzi includes seven items, each of which represents a divine spirit. Because the names of these seven items all begin with the letter S, non-Zoroastrian Iranians call the setting Haft Sin (“the seven S’s”).

In the Zoroastrian tradition, these seven items represent the Ahura Mazda and the six major Ameshaspand — divine angels, whose responsibilities are represented in the Haft Chin.

  1. Vohumana: the angel of thought and wisdom.
  2. Ashavahishta: the angel of truthfulness, also the fire-guardian. Represented by the mirror and the sugar cane.
  3. Xshatra Vaeiriya: the angel of kingship, also the guardian of the metals.
  4. Spanta Armaeiti: the angel of patience and humility, also the guardian of the earth.
  5. Haurvataat: the angel of completion and maturity, also the guardian of the waters.
  6. Amerataat: the angel of immortality and the everlasting, also the guardian of plants.
The Zoroastrian Khan-e Nowruzi

The seven main items of the Khan-e Nowruzi include garlic, sumac, sabzeh (wheat sprouts), samanu (wheat pudding), senjed (Russian olives), vinegar and apple. Other non-essential items include pomegranate with coins, painted eggs, a spool of thread and needle, mirror, a portrait of Zoroaster, noql (sugar-coated almonds), rosewater, the Khorde-ye Avesta or Avesta-ye Kuchak (the “Little Avesta”), which includes Zoroastrian daily prayers.

Zoroastrians are not adamant about including the hyacinth flower, coins, or goldfish as these depart from the historically earlier version of the spread. Unlike their Iranian counterparts, Indian Parsis also include tropical fruits, a silver statue of a fish, and a bouquet of flowers. Both Iranian and Indian Zoroastrians include a cup of wine as well. However, as wine is prohibited among the priestly class, their arrangements do not feature them.

Zoroastrians of the cities of Yazd and Kerman include sweet komaj, milk bread, and an assortments of other homemade pastries. Their spreads also feature a silk bag of nuts and a bowl of dried fruits that were soaking in marinated water the night before. A metal bowl filled with water is also placed. In cities of Kerman and Bam, a new broom and box of matches is also placed on the spread which, following the Nowruz holidays, are donated to the fire temple. A popular Zoroastrian pastry from Kerman called chaimaal –made of dates and rolled into a ball — can also make an appearance on the spread.    

In the moments leading up to the Nowruz family members gather around and recite prayers. These prayers are known the “Haftan Yasht” (seven songs) of the Avesta. Immediately following the arrival of the New Year, the male head of the household (usually either the father or the grandfather) immediately closes the Avesta, kisses it, touches it upon his eyes and forehead, and proceeds to individually offer it to family members so that they may do so as well. The other head of the household (usually either the mother or grandmother) pours rosewater on the hands of family members and puts to them a ceremonial mirror to gaze into. This ritual action of looking into the mirror is imagined to enhance one’s honesty and cleanse away any impurities.

The apples, senjed, eggs, milk, bread, cheese and basil leaves should be eaten after the New Year. But the overall arrangement of the spread should not be disrupted, so these items will be replaced after consumption. This continual replacement will continue until the 19th of Farvardin (the first month in the Iranian calendar), so that the spread always remains fresh.

A few hours after the arrival of the New Year, Tehrani Zoroastrians first go to the Adorian Fire Temple and then to the Shah Varharam Izad Temple in order to begin the New Year by praying to Ahura Mazda.

The attendees stand in front of the window of the fire and light the candles on its ledge.
The sacred ash is placed in front of the window of fire. Using their index fingers, attendees spread a little bit of the ash on their foreheads and their necks.

The New Year’s ritual of visiting each other begins at the Fire Temple.

After praying at Adorian Fire Temple, Zoroastrians go to the Shah Varharam Izad in Tehran’s Amiriyeh neighbourhood.

Khan-e Nowruzi in the Shah Varharam Izad Temple in Tehran.
Lighting the candles in front of the statue of Ashu-Zarathustra
Pouring oil into the fire is part of the customs of worship at the Shah Varharam Izad Temple.
The sacred tree of the Shah Varharam Izad that had previously been cut down to a stump is alive and growing again. One of the customs of worship in Shah Varharam Izad is to pour rice for the pigeons where the tree has been cut.

Having dried chickpeas and raisins is part of the customs of worship at Shah Varharam Izad.
Dahesh or the ritual of donating money to help the needy and the sick is part of the customs of the two temples.
Zoroastrians often welcome guests with a mirror, rosewater, and sweets (noql) whether at home or during ceremonies. In the Zoroastrian tradition, rosewater represents purity, mirror represents honesty, and white sweets represent joyfulness.
Zoroastrian Mobeds only wear their religious robes during ceremonies, but must otherwise dress normally. Even though during the Sassanid period, the Mobeds constituted an upper class in society and were instrumental in the politics of the Persian Empire, the Mobed is not set apart from others in today’s Zoroastrian community. Aside from conducting doctrinal ceremonies and teaching religion and Zoroastrian philosophy, the Mobed should not interfere in other affairs. Furthermore, the Mobed should not receive any compensation for performing religious ceremonies and is expected to have another career and source of income as well.

On March 26th, six days after Nowruz, the ceremonies celebrating the birth of Zoroaster begins by youth recital of the Gathas. The Gathas is part of the book, Yasna of Avesta, which includes part of the Ashu-Zarathustra’s sayings, his dialogue with God (Ahura Mazada), and Amshaspandan (the six divine spirits).

From a linguistic perspective, the Gathas is considered the oldest part of the Avesta; it is written in the form of poetry in the Old Avestan language. That Gathas is considered some of the most important principles of Zoroastrianism and their recitation and comprehension is often taught to children.

Zoroastrian youth recite the Gathas.
The attendees stand in deference to the Gathas.
In Zoroastrianism, the Gathas is the sacred language, which is called “Mantra” in Avestan. Every September, there are Mantra competitions across Iran and Zoroastrians in different age groups compete in them. The judges of these competitions comprise of Mobeds and university professors in fields of ancient Iranians languages and cultures.
Mobed Sohrab Hengami gives a speech about the Iranian prophet and his global message. As a representative of the Council of Iranian Mobeds, he describes how Zoroaster does not just belong to Zoroastrians; rather he was a social reformer who had a universal goal. Basing his speech on a paragraph from the Avesta, he states that Zoroaster offered his religion as a gift to people from the Seven Corners of the Universe (meaning all over the world). Zoroaster invited all people to be honest; to foreground the slogan of “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds;” and to attempt to preserve the four natural elements (fire, water, air and earth) so that the world becomes replete with peace.

Performing folk Zoroastrian music in the Gavruni language or Zoroastrian Dari. This language is mainly spoken among Zoroastrians in Yazd province or Yazdi Zoroastrians who have settled in Tehran, Karaj, Isfahan, Shiraz, Zahedan and Ahvaz.

Zoroastrians from the province of Kerman also used to speak in a particular dialect of this language, but since it has been largely forgotten today, they speak in Persian.

Dari Zoroastrian is one of the most ancient languages of Iran, and it resembles Sassanian Pahlavi and Middle Persian in particular.



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