How I Spent My Summer Vacation
When Firoze Rao was a fifteen-year-old living in India, his parents asked him an important question: Did he want to go to the United Kingdom for the summer? or did he want to go to the fire temple and become a priest?
Mr. Rao chose to go to the fire temple. Nor was his experience unusual: some of his friends and cousins had faced the same question, and at the same age. As a Zoroastrian, he knew that his only chance to become a mobed (priest) would occur before puberty; if he decided later that he wanted to be a mobed, he would not be allowed to undergo the training.
Not all Zoroastrian boys face this dilemma. The title of mobed is a hereditary one, handed down from father to son; one generation can be skipped, but if two generations are skipped, the chain is broken. Mr. Rao's father was a mobed, and for this reason, Mr. Rao says now, "there was absolutely no pressure on me. It was always in the back of my mind while I was growing up, though – whether this was something I wanted to do.
"My father said prayers at home," he adds. "It was quite a treat being able to watch him. I think it made me decide to become a mobed as well. . . . I became a mobed knowing from day one that I wouldn't pursue it as a profession. I wanted to get an understanding of the religion. It was like learning Basic at school – not everyone goes on to do computer programming."
Few mobeds, in fact, go on to become full-time priests; most, like Mr. Rao and his father, take up other work. "Three to five generations ago, mobeds were looked up to in society and they were able to earn a living," Mr. Rao says. "Today, economic realities prevent most of them from becoming full-time priests."
Midnight – it was time to get up. Mr. Rao rose from his bed, said the special prayers that he recited when changing his clothes, and put on his day clothes. He owned three sets of clothes, one for sleeping, one for daytime, and one for trips to the toilet. Having finished changing, he walked out of the building where he and the other boys slept who were training to become mobeds; their sleeping area was located within a walled compound but outside of the fire temple itself. As he headed toward the temple, Mr. Rao walked past the building with the washroom, which he entered every day in order to bathe thoroughly – in between bathing, he did not wash himself, for it was expected that he would not undertake any activity that might destroy his purification.
Mr. Rao then walked up the flight of stairs to the temple. The temple – Banaji Atash Behram in Bombay – was in fact a cathedral by Zoroastrian standards: it was one of only eight Atash Behrams in the world. Mr. Rao entered the temple, passed through a public worship area, and stepped into an inner room. Within this room, in yet another room, was the inner sanctum that could only be entered by the priest who tended the sacred fire. (Zoroastrians – members of an ancient, monotheistic faith – center their devotions on fire in the same manner that Christians venerate crosses or icons.)
Mr. Rao could see the priest tending the fire – windows were set in the walls of the inner sanctum. Together they recited the prayers: Mr. Rao, the other boys, the priest tending the fire, and the priest who tended the grounds. After about an hour, the boys walked back to their sleeping area. Mr. Rao said the prayers necessary for changing his clothes, put his sleeping clothes back on, and returned to bed. He would rise again at dawn to repeat this ritual, which he performed five Times a day.
It sounds like a rigid life for a fifteen-year-old, but in fact, Mr. Rao says, "We were spoiled rotten." The work was not arduous, for the priests expected that much of Mr. Rao's study would already be completed by the time he came to the fire temple. In order to become a mobed, Mr. Rao needed to learn about 200 pages of prayers, but only the first 80 pages needed to be memorized. "What makes it difficult is that it's not a language you understand or speak," he says. To this day, Mr. Rao does not know which of two ancient Persian languages he learned.
At the temple, Mr. Rao was taught the rituals connected with being a mobed, such as tending the sacred fire. At other Times, the mobeds passed on their learning in a more informal fashion: "You could sit down with them in the evening and they'd tell you stories about ancient Persia [the birthplace of Zoroastrianism], stories that had been handed down by word of mouth." The whole training took three weeks.
Of course, training to be a priest in a Western faith takes much longer. "The big difference between the West and Persia is that the West tries to teach theology," says Mr. Rao. "We're trying to indoctrinate the person into a way of thinking. Zoroastrianism teaches you the basic tenets, which are very simple: good thoughts, good words, good deeds. The interpretation and application of the tenets are taught to you by life."
The boys had a good deal of leisure time as well. Though he could not leave the temple during his training, Mr. Rao was not lonely. His parents came to visit him each day, taking care not to touch him because of his purification, and the other boys were his companions.
"It was great fun having other boys there," he says. "It not only builds a bonding between you and the other boys, but you also build up a sense of interdependence. . . . You can't play games with the other boys because you can't touch each other. You can read, and there was a pretty good garden in the compound – it was quite treat to walk around in it. At the temple we were at, there were also goats and sheep and chicken. You could touch the animals – you could feed the goat and take him for a walk."
And, of course, the priests were present as well: the one who tended the fire gave Mr. Rao his religious training, while the one who tended the grounds, says Mr. Rao, "was responsible for seeing that we got fed on time, kept our rooms clean, and so on." At the end of three weeks, Mr. Rao showed the priests what he had learned, and there was a small ceremony. He was now a mobed.
After leaving the temple, Mr. Rao finished school, then attended universities in Bombay and the United Kingdom. He returned to India to work as an accountant, and there he met his wife, an American who was working in the country. Today he and his wife, Susan Rao, live in Washington, D.C. Within his home, he has performed rites as a mobed only once, but he is still pleased that he underwent the training. "It was a great experience," he says. Then he adds with a grin, "It's like summer camp."
Washington: Zoroastrians of Different Traditions Join in Solstice Celebration. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. Over the centuries, different Zoroastrian traditions have developed different calendars, with the result that Zoroastrians of one ancestry may be unfamiliar with the festivals of others Zoroastrians. (January 1998)
© 1998 Heather Elizabeth