As already mentioned the festival of Nowruz is connected to the cycle of seasons, which in turn is dictated by the movement of the Sun. Observed on March 21, by the adherents of Zoroastrianism and their Parsi descendants in India, it marks the time of the year when the Sun regains strength, driving away the harshness of winter and regenerating life. The ancient Indo-Iranians revered the Sun as a life-giving force, and gave it a prominent role in their mythology. To the Persians, the Sun was known as ‘Khor’ – a name closely related to the Avestan ‘Huuar’ and Sanskrit ‘Svar’. All three can be traced back to the Proto Indo-Iranian ‘Suhar’. Working further back into the past, etymologists arrived at the Proto Indo-European ‘Sohwl’. A look at the names used for the Sun in Indo-Iranian languages will demonstrate this underlying unity – Surya (Sanskrit), Suraj (Punjabi, Hindi) Surjo (Bengali), Sura (Odiya) on the one hand, and Huro (Avestan), Khor (Tajik, Dari, Farsi), Khur (Kurdish, Ossetian) on the other.
The Sun as a deity was of great importance. Ancient Iranians had Vivahvant while their Indo-Aryan cousins spoke of Vivasvat. According to historians specializing in Indo-European studies, both can be traced back to an older deity, Vivasvant (the Shining One), who was supposed to be to be the progenitor of mankind. He fathered the Twins (one of whom was Yama of the Indo-Aryans, or Yima of the Iranians) who would go on to populate the earth. The ‘Yima’ of the Old Persian and Avestan languages evolved into the the Jam of Middle and New Persian. The name Jamshid (or Jamshed) is a combination of ‘Jam’ and ‘Shid’ (Persian epithet meaning ‘radiant’, derived from Avestan and Old Persian ‘Kshaita’). Names such as Jamsetji Tata (famous Parsi industrialist of late 19th century British India) and Sultan Cem (Ottoman prince of late 15th century Anatolia) are derived from the same source. A legendary figure of Iranian mythology, he is the ruler of the world in Ferdowsi’s Shahname (the greatest of all Iranian epics), an all powerful monarch who teaches mankind the arts and crafts of civilization (farming, weaving, wine-making, mining, metallurgy, architecture and navigation). Bestowed with divine favor, he fritters it away on account of growing pride, and dies a most horrible death.
Jam is a key figure in the narratives surrounding Nowruz; his accession being connected to the origins of the festival. The Persian Rivayats narrate how Jamshid was summoned by God and blessed with kingship and its symbols – signet ring, throne and diadem. He returned to the earth, descending on Mount Alborz, radiant like the Sun. In the Shahname, there is a description of Jamshid sitting on his jewel-encrusted throne, suspended in the air and glowing like the Sun. Historians believe that the Parsis of India did not have any secular observance of Nowruz till the nineteenth century, when they decided to observe a Jamshedi Nowruz on the 21st of March. This was due to the rediscovery of their links with the glories of pre-Islamic Iran. Parsi pride in the achievements of monarchs such as Cyrus II and Darius I must have triggered the desire to reclaim and celebrate the ancient past. It is said that some of them visited Iran, and having seen the the ruins of Persepolis (famous as the Takht-e Jamshid, or Throne of Jamshid) and read Ferdowsi’s Shahname, decided to have a celebration along the line of Nowruz festivities.
Persepolis (or Parsa, as it was known in the Old Persian language) was the ceremonial centre of the mighty Achaemenid Empire. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, it lies in the Fars Province, the heartland of the Persian people. Dating back to the 6th century BCE and built up during the reigns of Cyrus II, Darius I, Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I, it was one of the great cities of the ancient world. After the Battle of the Persian Gate (330 BCE), Alexander’s Macedonian army captured the Achaemenid capital and set it on fire, bringing down the curtains on one of the most glorious epochs of Iranian history. They might have destroyed the outer manifestations of Persian civilization but the Macedonians, like the Arabs who came later, could not extinguish its memory from the minds of the populace. The tale of Persepolis became entwined with that of King Jamshid. In this tradition, the ruins are what is left of a magnificent palace, the Chehel Menar, built by Jamshid around the beginning of his reign, when he had moved from Seistan to Fars.
A legend narrated by Tha‘alibi describes the link between Jam and Nowruz: “It was the day of Ohrmazd of the month of Fravardīn, the first day of spring which is the beginning of the year, the renewal when the earth revives from its torpor. People said: ‘It is a new day, a happy festival, a true power, a wondrous King!’ And they made this day, which they called Nowruz, their chief festival, honouring God for having raised their king to such a degree of grandeur and power, and thanking Him for all the ease, well-being, security and wealth which had been granted them through the good fortune of this king and beneath the shadow of his government. They celebrated the fortunate festival by eating and drinking, playing musical instruments and giving themselves over entirely to amusement and pleasures”. Another legend makes a reference to Jam’s sun-like brightness, an obvious allusion to the Avestan epithet ‘Kshaita’. It speaks of Iblis’ attempt to destroy the world, and Jam’s successful intervention under the command of God. Iblis is defeated, justice and prosperity are restored, with Jam rising like the Sun on that day, light beaming from him. The world begins anew, with even dried-up wood becoming green, furnishing the name – ‘New Day’ (Roz i Naw).
Image Attribution: The image above, from Wikimedia Commons, is based on a Mughal painting, ‘Jamshid Writing on a Rock’ dating back to 1588. It was executed by the master painter, ‘Abd al-Samad Shirin Qalam. Also known as Khwaja Abdus Samad, he was Persian by nationality and hailed from the city of Shiraz. A key figure in the evolution of the Mughal miniature painting style, he headed Emperor Akbar’s imperial workshop. The calligraphy is attributed to Faqir Mir Ali. The painting is part of the Asian art collection at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington DC, USA.