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Zoroastrian Heritage

Author: K. E. Eduljee




Zoroastrian Pilgrimage

Yazd, Iran Pilgrimage Sites - Pirs

The Six Pirs and Pilgrimage Calendar

Age of the Pirs

Responsibility for the Pirs

Associated Legends

Stories of Hidden Treasure & Vandalism

The Six Yazdi (Iran) Pirs

Pir-e Sabz / Chak-Chak

Seti Pir

Pir-e Naraki

Pir-e Banu

Pir-e Narestaneh

Pir-e Herisht

Cypress at Abarkuh / Abarqu


Udvada (Udwada)

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Zoroastrian Pilgrimage

A pilgrimage is a journey made for religious reasons. There are various sites in Iran and India that are destinations for Zoroastrians making a journey for various religious related reasons. These range from the desire a visit a site considered to be particularly holy and auspicious, to the remembrance of a deceased individual, to celebrating a jashne or gahanbar / gahambar festival, to fulfilling a custom such as a nearly wed couple visiting a shrine, or the desire to be part of a tradition.

In India, a pilgrimage destination is the cathedral fire temple that houses the Iranshah Atash Behram, is located in the small town of Udvada in the west coast province of Gujarat.

In Iran, there are several pilgrimage sites or destinations called pirs in several provinces, though the most familiar ones are in the province of Yazd. In addition to the traditional Yazdi shrines, new sites may be in the process of becoming pilgrimage destinations. The ruins are the ruins of ancient fire temples. One such site is the ruin of the Sassanian era Azargoshasb Fire Temple in Iran's Azarbaijan Province. Other sites are the ruins of (fire temples?) at Rey, south of the capital Tehran, and the Firouzabad ruins sixty kilometres south of Shiraz in the province of Pars.

In general, historical sites that have some connection to the Zoroastrian religions and legendary fire temples are pilgrimage destination candidates, and only time will tell if they become destination sites. To become established as a true place of pilgrimage, the site will need an infrastructure to enable and support the pilgrim's visit, the principle elements being travel, boarding and lodging facilities.

A quasi-pilgrimage Iranian site popular with tourists, if not pilgrims, is the 4,500 year old cypress (Persian, sarv) tree in Abarkuh (also spelt Abarqu, Abarku, Abarkouh and Abarkooh), on the border between the Iranian provinces of Pars and Yazd. More and more, Iranians in general are taking to calling the tree sacred, perhaps because the tree has seen so much history pass by, perhaps because it is a symbol of longevity and steadfastness and perhaps because the cypress is so closely connected with the legends surrounding Zarathushtra and the establishing of the Zoroastrian faith - the taking root of Zoroastrianism if you will.

Yazd Pilgrimage Sites - Pirs

Map of Yazd Zoroastrian sites. Click for a larger map. Base map courtesy Microsoft Encarta. Additions copyright K. E. Eduljee. This map cannot be copied or reproduced in any manner without permission
Map of Yazd Zoroastrian sites. Click for a larger map. Base map courtesy Microsoft Encarta. Additions copyright K. E. Eduljee
Maroon: Pilgrimage sites
Green: Zoroastrian neighbourhoods, villages and landmarks
Black: Principal towns and cities

Many Yazdi pilgrimage sites bear the suffix 'pir' meaning old or aged. Pir is likely short for 'pirangah' meaning an old place. The name also carries the connotation of age old wisdom, wisdom that comes with age and wisdom carried by these age-old sites.

There are sites nestled in the mountains and urban sites as well. In days before the coming of metalled roads and vehicles, the sites in the mountains would have been considered remote, even secretive. Fifth century BCE Greek historian Herodotus, wrote in his Histories, "It is not their (Persian) custom to make and set up statues and temples and altars but they offer sacrifices on the highest peaks of the mountains." Even those urban sites that are located underground below a non-descript house, seem to follow this hidden or secretive tradition. For instance, Pir-e Ma-Siti located in a northeast Yazd city suburb, is situated below ground in a cave-like setting. The mountain sites have (or had) an associated spring or source of water. The urban sites have a well. The articles that are worship focus points and few.

According to Parviz Varjavand in an article at fravahr.org there are around sixty pir sites around Yazd in various states of repair or disrepair because of vandalism. These include Pir-e Shah Morad, Pir-e Shah Fereydoun, Pir-e Shah Mehr Izad, Pir-e Shah Ashtad Izad, and Pir-e Shah Tistar Izad. Pir-e Morad is situated near Qasemabad

From amongst the numerous Yazdi pilgrimage sites, there are six major pirs.

The Six Pirs and Pilgrimage Calendar

 Pilgrimage Days
Pilgrimage Site Gregorian Calendar Zoroastrian Calendar Site Dedication
Pir-e Herisht March 27-31 Mah Farvardin. Ruz Amordad-Khorsheed Royal Maid Morvarid
Pir-e (Mah) Seti June 14 Mah Khordad. Ruz Ashtad Queen, Shahbanu Hastbadan
Pir-e Sabz (Chak-Chak) June 14-18 Mah Khordad. Ruz Ashtad-Mahraspand Princess Nikbanu
Pir-e Narestaneh June 23-27 Mah Tir. Ruz Aspandmard-Adar Prince Ardeshir
Pir-e Banu July 4-8 Mah Tir. Ruz Meher-Bahram Princess Banu Pars
Pir-e Naraki August 3-7 Mah Amordad. Ruz Meher-Bahram Nazbanu, governor's daughter

While most of the pilgrimage sites are accessible throughout the year - weather permitting and subject to local variations - certain days of the year are set aside by local residents as special visit days for each site and have effectively constitute a pilgrimage calendar. These days are noted in the table to the right. Some pilgrims make the trip to the sites a day trip while others will stay at the sites between the days noted in the calendar. During the appointed days, the pilgrims often engage in feasting, music and dancing.

Age of the Pirs

Some of the structures at Seti Pir are thought to date back at least to the start of the Sassanian era (c. 224-649 CE) and possibly earlier. Another pir, the Pir-e Blashgerd is thought to date back to the reign of one of the three Parthian kings named Balash or Volakhsh (51-147 CE) (Varjavand at fravahar.org).

Responsibility for the Pirs

While the residents of the various Yazdi Zoroastrian dehs, villages or neighbourhoods, visit all six major pirs, the responsibility of their maintenance as well as the organization of festivals held at each pirs, is the responsibility of a specific village anjuman (community council). For instance the anjoman of Sharifabad, the oldest of the Zoroastrian villages, is responsible for Pir-e Sabz, one of the better known and most frequented pirs, and Pir-e Herisht as well. The khadem, that is the guardian or keeper of the fire temple at Sharifabad is also the khadem of Pir-e Sabz and Pir-e Herisht.

Associated Legends

Stylized representation of a fleeing royal
Stylized representation of a fleeing royal
Image credit: Bijan 1351 at Flickr

The legends surrounding the significance of the pirs are invariably associated with the Arab invasion of Iran in 636 CE. The last Zoroastrian Iranian king was the hastily installed young prince Yazdegird III (reign 633-649 CE). Arab Muslim rule of Iran commenced with the defeat Yazdegird's armies by the Arabs in 649 CE.

The women of the royal family fled before the advancing Arab army towards Khorasan. They were determined to avoid capture for that would mean a fate worse than death. If captured, they would either be forced to 'marry', that is become a sex slave of an Arab leader, or they would be humiliated, tortured and put to death, or be made to suffer both indignities. In addition, the royals wanted to keep their Persian-Aryan blood lines free of Arab contamination.

The queen, two princesses and their ladies-in-waiting, fled to Khorasan via Yazd, but they were pursued relentlessly. They had reached Yazd by the time the pursing hordes closed in on them. There, in an effort to evade their pursuers, they decided to split up. However, the strategy bought them only temporary relief. Eventually, they were trapped in their respective hideouts and they chose death over capture.

In fleeing and seeking to hide, the royals carried the hope that one day Iran would be freed from the vestiges of the Arab conquest, and that the ancient Iranian-Aryan civilization could be restored to the land. This sentiment is embedded in the Atash Bahrams, the ever-burning victory fires that have been kept burning by Zoroastrians ever since. The Atash Bahram housed in a temple in Udvada, India, is called Iranshah or the King of Iran, the king in waiting. In building a fire for religious ceremonies, six pieces of wood are placed on top of the fire urn in the shape of a throne.

In all cases, the members of the royal entourage were on the verge of capture when they either chose death (for instance by leaping into a well) or were taken in to the womb of mother earth. In the cases where the rock opened by create a portal for entry, this often happened in full sight of the Arab pursuers who were frozen in astonishment. The portals closed before the Arabs could gather their wits. The sites where the royals left this existence are today's pilgrimage sites, the pirs, to which Zoroastrians journey and offer prayers in remembrance.

However, some legends state that the sites where the royals disappeared into the womb of the earth were not originally known to the people. The were discovered through visionary dreams in which the spirit of an aged and saintly person, a pir, appeared, informing or guiding the recipient of the vision about the sites. The recipients of the visions were invariably people in need. Other sites were found by shepherds who also received these visions.

On the spiritual plane, the pirs are invariably associated with the veneration of the arch-angel of the earth and the guardian of the rights of women, Spenta Armaiti - Spendarmard or Esfand in the modern vernacular. Associated as well is the angel Anahita, guardian of the waters. The two angels would have been the protectors of the royal women, including all women in need, as well.

Stories of Hidden Treasure & Vandalism

Rumour has it that the fleeing royals carried their most valuable jewellery with them. If the rumours were true, then the jewels could be hidden at the pirs or somewhere close by. The quest to find the jewels, treasures that would fetch great wealth, has led to the pirs being repeatedly vandalized. Or perhaps some loyal subjects who gave the royals sanctuary, have the jewels in safe keeping, waiting to return them to their rightful heirs.

There are sixty or so pirs in the province of Yazd are raided periodically by vandals who dig up the structures on the site looking for buried artefacts and treasure (Varjavand at fravahar.org). Rumours of large treasures of gold hidden at the pirs motivate these destructive and senseless vandals. Unfortunately, the rumours are fuelled by reports of the discovery of royal gold articles, articles that were melted down to destroy any evidence of their origin. Varjavand adds, "One only can shrug with pain at what treasures of art and culture have been lost thus due to ignorance."

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Pilgrimage pages:

» Pilgrimage start page

» Pir-e Sabz / Chak-Chak

» Seti Pir. Pir-e Naraki

» Pir-e Banu. Pir-e Narestaneh

» Pir-e Herisht. Abarkuh

» Udvada