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In Parsi genes, new clues on old cultures

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Parsi men were likely to have intermingled with and married Indian women after they first arrived on the Gujarat coast in the subcontinent from Iran following the emergence of Islam in that area in the 7th century AD.

cats78Strict inbreeding is often blamed for the dwindling population of the Parsi community in India. New research by Indian and other scientists now suggests that this might not always have been the case. DNA samples from centuries-old skeletal remains of Parsis from Sanjan in Valsad, Gujarat, show close genetic links of Parsi women with local Indian populations, suggesting that Parsi men did intermingle with women from outside their community in the past.

Researchers Gyaneshwar Chaubey and Veena Mushrif-Tripathy, who were part of an international group of scientists that carried out the study over 14 years, say Parsi men were likely to have intermingled with and married Indian women after they first arrived on the Gujarat coast in the subcontinent from Iran following the emergence of Islam in that area in the 7th century AD.

The study has been published in Genome Biology. “Since this community was mostly involved in trading and business, what we assume is that there was a higher number of males who travelled to parts of present-day Pakistan and India. They were probably accompanied by fewer female companions,” said Mushrif-Tripathy, of the department of Ancient Indian History Culture and Archaeology (AIHC) at Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute, Pune.

According to Qissa-e-Sanjaan, a widely believed account of early Parsi settlement in India, a local ruler in Sanjan, Jadi Rana, had offered shelter to the Parsis on the condition that the community accept all local practices. The king is also said to have assigned some females to the aid of the newly arrived Parsi men who, with time, settled and extended their stay in the country.

“In this process, some assimilation with local South Asian women could have taken place, particularly during the initial period of their settlement in Sanjan,” lead author Chaubey, senior scientist with the department of evolutionary biology at the genomics research institute Estonian Biocentre, told The Indian Express by email.

To understand one of the world’s smallest and now shrinking communities, Chaubey, Mushrif-Tripathy and their team studied 174 Parsi DNA samples from India and Pakistan.

Twenty-one of these samples were taken from Sanjan, the earliest known Parsi settlement in India. Sanjan’s Tower of Silence or the dokhama, where the Parsi community lay their dead to rest, still has some remains from the 14th and 15th centuries. Most of the remains from which samples were taken were found buried intact and relatively well preserved, despite hot and humid conditions. The DNA samples from Pakistan were not older than a century, the researchers said.

“We managed to excavate a number of teeth and long bones from the Gujarat site. Out of these, we analysed 857 teeth samples, 367 bone samples and a total of 180 skulls from this well [the dokhama],” Mushrif-Tripathy said. “Carbon dating of these samples have confirmed this dokhama to date back somewhere around 14th-15th centuries AD,” she said.

The DNA analysis showed that while the males had an “almost exclusively Iranian” lineage, the female genetic composition showed linkages with local Indian population groups. “It clearly indicates that the there were interactions and some kind of mixing with local Gujarati and Sindhi women living in Sanjan during the initial period of their settlement,” Mushrif-Tripathy said.

Chaubey said the Indian population too practiced endogamy at the time, so interactions with the Parsis would not have been very common when the Parsis first arrived. But as the Parsis continued their stay in India, it became possible for the two cultures to interact.

“This is an ideal example of role of culture. After migrating to the Indian subcontinent, Parsis did not admix genetically with the local Indian population right away. This is because the Indian community also practiced endogamy and did not marry outside their community,” Chaubey said. “But these interactions did happen over a period of time and that is what we see in the DNA samples of 14th and 15th centuries. We believe that it is only much later that the Parsis formed their own smaller groups and started practicing strict marriage rules.”

Published on Indian Express