The oldest surviving Zoroastrian scriptures were not found in Iran or India, but in China

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In the UK, the British Library has an unrivaled collection of Zoroastrian manuscripts and therefore welcomed the opportunity to exhibit three of its Zoroastrian treasures in the current “Epic Iran” exhibition organized by the V&A with Iran Heritage Foundation in association with The Sarikhani Collection.

The exhibition covers around five millennia of Iranian history and is the first of its kind since the Royal Academy’s International Persian Art Exhibition of 1931. Organized into nine sections, it explores and brings together the full range of Iranian material cultures, from the earliest known writings to the Revolution of 1979 and beyond. Out of around 300 pieces, the British Library has contributed fifteen manuscripts which will be the subject of two blogs. In this first article, I will focus on the three Zoroastrian elements.

Zoroastrianism, the religion of the ancient Iranians, owes its name to Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) whose hymns (Gathas) are thought to have been composed 1500 BC-1000 BC. It teaches the importance of good thoughts, words and deeds, in a dualistic cosmos where the forces of the All-Knowing Lord, Ahura Mazda, are constantly opposed to those of the Evil Spirit, Angra Mainyu.

Originating in Central Asia, Zoroastrianism spread east to China and south to Iran where it became the main religion from the 6th century BC until the middle of the 7th century AD. After the arrival of Islam, Zoroastrian refugees from Iran established settlements in Gujarat, where they were called Parsis (“Persians”). Zoroastrian diaspora communities have since established themselves all over the world.

Prayer “Achem vohu”

Zoroastrianism is essentially an oral religion. The oldest scriptures, called Avesta or Zend, are in an ancient Iranian language, Avestan. They were not written, however, until around the 6th century AD during the Sassanid period, several centuries after their composition. Even after that, the main liturgical texts were transmitted orally. This is partly the reason why, in addition to Ashem vohu fragment mentioned below, there is no surviving manuscript prior to the end of the 13th century.

The ‘Ashem vohu’ prayer transcribed in Sogdian script, dating from around the 9th century. Photo credit: British Library (public domain)

This fragment dates from around the 9th century and comes, not from India or Iran, the lands today associated with Zoroastrianism, but from Dunhuang in central China, where it was discovered in the Mogao caves by Aurel. Stein in 1907. It contains a short text in Sogdian (the language of Middle Iran) on the prophet Zarathushtra followed by a phonetic transcription in Sogdian script of one of the holiest Zoroastrian prayers, the Ashem vohu, originally composed in Avestan.

Remarkably, the language of prayer is not recognizable as Sogdian or Avestic, but is likely to represent a much older Iranian dialect, possibly an archaic form of Avestan. The prayer must have been preserved orally in this ancient form, which was not affected by the codification of the Avesta in the Sassanid era when the sacred texts were first written (N Sims-Williams, The eternal flame, p.94).

Zoroastrianism was transported east to China from the first centuries of the first millennium by Sogdian traders, whose homeland was the region of Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan. This document provides written evidence of its continuation into the 9th century and, more importantly, it is the only example of its kind, dating to about four centuries earlier than any other surviving Zoroastrian text.

‘Videvdad Sadah’

The Videvdad Sadah is a liturgical presentation in Avestan of the most important of Zoroastrian legal works, the Videvdad (“Law repudiating demons”). The text, described as sad (“Clean”), that is, without any commentary, is recited in a ritual context. This opening shows the beginning of chapter nine which concerns the ritual of purification of the nine nights (barashnum nuh shab) for someone who has been defiled by contact with a dead body.

Most of our Zoroastrian manuscripts originate from India, copied by and for the Parsi community which traditionally emigrated from Iran starting around the 8th century. However, this beautifully written and decorated copy was made in Yazd, Iran in 1647 by a Zoroastrian Mihrban Anushirvan Bahram Shah who copied it for a Kirman Zoroastrian called Marzban Sandal Khusraw. While Zoroastrian manuscripts are generally un-illustrated except for small devices such as verse dividers and the occasional diagram, this one, unusually, contains seven color illustrations, six of trees, and a diagram. The header was decorated in the style of contemporary illuminated Islamic manuscripts.

This copy was most likely brought from Iran to India by the Iranian poet and writer Siyavakhsh Urmazdyar, himself a descendant of the original patron, in the mid-19th century before being acquired by Burjorji Sorabji Ashburner, a man of prosperous Bombay business which introduced him to the Royal Society, London in May 1864. Transferred to the India Office Library in 1876, it was incorporated into the collection of the British Library in 1982.

The ‘Bundahishn

Chapter 27 of the ‘Bundahishn’. Photo credit: British Library, Mss Avestan 2 (public domain)

The Bundahishn, or “Primordial Creation”, is perhaps the most important Zoroastrian work on cosmogony and cosmography. Composed in Pahlavi (Middle Persian) at the beginning of the Islamic period, it is conventionally dated to the 9th century. It presents the Zoroastrian worldview beginning with a detailed account of the perfect creation of the all-knowing Lord, Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd in Middle Persian), who was attacked by the evil spirit, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman) and tainted with disease and the death. .

The cosmic drama culminates in the resurrection of the dead and the defeat and elimination of Evil from the world of Ohrmazd and its perfection at the end of time. The cosmographic parts of the text include descriptions of the lands of the world, rivers, lakes, mountains, plants, animals, and human races.

The text of the Bundahishn is preserved in two distinct versions, an Indian and a more complete Iranian. This manuscript gives the text of the Indian Bundahishn and is written in Pazand, an Avestan phonetic script. Copied in India in the 17th or 18th century, it was acquired by the East India Company surgeon Samuel Guise (1751-1811) while working at the East India Factory in Surat and was purchased by the library of the East India Company after his death.

A published catalog of Epic Iran is available from the three curators: John Curtis, Ina Sarikhani Sandmann and Tim Stanley Epic Iran: 5,000 years of culture.

The author is the main curator, Persian, at the British Library,

This article first appeared on the British Library’s Asian and African Studies blog.


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