BOMBAY — The Zoroastrian religion was expounded sometime before 600 BC by the ancient Persian prophet, Zarathustra, who lived in what is now eastern Iran. Some scholars, however, say the prophet, whose name means "rich in camels," dates back as far as 1200 BC.
Central to the religion is a concept of righteousness or natural law, the notion of a supreme all-knowing and benign God, and the rejection of polytheism. The word Parsi is thought to be derived from Fars, the name of the port in Persia from which the Parsis fled in the 10th century AD to protect their religion from Islamic persecution.
The first Parsi settlers soon arrived on the coast of Gujarat, taking with them the sacred fire that, according to legend, has burned continuously in their temples ever since. Like earth and water, fire is sacred to the Zoroastrians and symbolizes asha, the concept of truth, order, and righteousness.
When Bombay became a trading center under the British in the 17th century, the Parsis moved to the city in large numbers, quickly establishing a reputation for hard work, entrepreneurship, and honesty. Their ability to adapt to Western ways made them into a colonial elite, and they flourished under British patronage. While the Parsis are unique to India and remain the largest contingent of the Zoroastrians today, pockets of followers remain in Iran as well as in other parts of Asia, the United States, and Canada.