Preserving forgotten Zoroastrian Yasna traditions through film


In early March, a doctoral student from Shapoorji Pallonji Institute of Zoroastrian Studies at SOAS carried a 360-degree virtual reality headset to the Zoroastrian Return to Roots Tour in India—a two-week programme curated for the young diasporic  Zoroastrians to connect with their cultural roots. The VR set had a preloaded 4-minute film on the ancient and the important ritual of ‘Yasna’, and most participants admitted to knowing very little or nothing about it.

‘Yasna’ refers to Zoroastrianism’s principal act of worship, as well as the collection of Avestan (an ancient Iranian language) texts that are recited during the ceremony. Traditionally, these texts were recited from memory, with priests passing them down down orally: they were not documented in the written form until the 5th-century C.E. The recitation of these texts is considered one of the most important rituals in Zoroastrianism: however, its authentic interpretation remains challenging due to lack of proper and incomplete documentation, inaccurate translations and less focus and engagement with oral history traditions by official bodies.

The lack of knowledge amongst participants of this tradition, which dates back to the second millennium BCE, wasn’t very surprising. Having almost vanished from Iran about 40 years, its practice is also declining in India. Thus, the tradition is an endangered one and requires to be documented and preserved before it dies. A SOAS research initiative that led the above-mentioned virtual reality project is relentlessly working towards keeping this tradition alive.

MUYA or the ‘Multimedia Yasna’ project aims to ‘examine the performance and written transmission of the core ritual of this Zoroastrian tradition’. Funded by the European Research Council, the research is being spearheaded by Almut Hintze who is a Zartoshty Brothers Professor in Zoroastrianism at SOAS. It includes an international team of researchers in the UK, Germany, India and Iran.

Taking a two-fold approach, MUYA will ‘film a performance of the Yasna ritual and create a critical edition of the recitation text examining the Yasna both as a performance and as a text attested in manuscripts’. The idea is to study Yasna as a ritual event as well as its texts in manuscript and make its understanding, which until now has been limited to the small community of Zoroastrians,  accessible to the world.

MUYA follows a combination of methodologies in its research by using sophisticated software and combining approaches from Digital Humanities, Philology and Linguistics to film the ritual, develop electronic tools for editing Avestan texts, and produce full-text transcriptions of manuscripts and carry out automatized manuscript collation. The film produced will be interactive and subtitled; allowing the watchers to pause where they want—read the translation and understand its meaning and context. The second film which is the VR film enables full immersion of the audience into the ritual allowing them to grasp the nuances of YASNA.

MUYA is also developing an online platform that puts together editorial tools to access editions, translations and commentaries of the Avestan Yasna. It has proposed six elaborate and critical philological studies of parts of the Yasna text and ritual, each to be published as a book. MUYA also wants to investigate the training of cultic personnel in Zoroastrian priestly schools in India and Iran. It claims that it will be the first study of its kind, for no documentation of it exists apart from some anecdotal accounts.

Find out more about the MUYA project.

Devyani Nighoskar is a SOAS Digital Ambassador from India. A former journalist, she is currently pursuing her MA in Critical Media and Cultural Studies. Check out her work on Instagram @runawayjojo

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