When Souls Come-a-Visiting

by Ervad Marzban Hathiram

Ten days before the Parsi New Year, Fire Temples around the city are dotted with roses and other flowers. One can see Parsi families dressed in spotless white, heads covered with scarves or caps, proceeding solemnly to their Agiaries with their hands full of floral offerings.

Zoroastrians believe that during these ten days – called Farvardegan in Pahlavi or Muktad in Gujarati – the ruvans or souls of their dear departed visit the Earth.  It is considered the duty of their living kin to welcome and honour them by the observance of various ceremonies.  Each departed soul has his/her individual vase, which may be a simple copper one or an elaborately carved silver one. Families book tables at their respective Fire Temples, where these vases are kept, filled with fresh well water that is changed daily.  For, it is in this water that the souls reside during their ten-day earthly sojourn.

Everyday, family members visit the temples with fresh flowers while priests recite the Afringan, Farrokshi, Stoom, and Baj prayers.  Fresh fruits and vegetarian meals are offered to the souls. An atmosphere of piety and devotion fills the halls of the Agiaries where row upon row of tables loaded with an array of vases and flowers are lined up amidst the smoky haze of sandalwood fires and the aroma of incense.  The high notes of the priests’ recitals complement the low drone of the faithful’s prayers. Indeed, it almost seems as if one is in paradise.

So what is the significance behind the ceremony?  The word Muktad is derived from the Sanskrit mukta atma (free soul). The word Farvardegan means the days of nourishment. Together, they give us the true import of these days.  According to Zoroastrianism, every thought, word and deed of an individual is recorded in Nature. As time passes, this collection of our life assumes a form called kerdar. This kerdar meets the soul on the dawn of the fourth day after death – and presents itself either in the form of a beautiful maiden or an ugly hag.  It is the soul’s constant duty, in case the kerdar is a hag, to slowly work on her blemishes, which were caused by the individuals thoughts words and actions, and transform her into a beautiful maiden so that the soul and kerdar may both pass on to higher realms.

However, during the ten Muktad days, the souls get a “vacation” from this beautification, and descend to the Earth accompanied by the souls of very highly evolved entities, called ashaunam fravashinam who come down to cleanse the earth during this time.  It’s hard work and the souls expect their kin to nourish them spiritually to recharge their persona so that they may go back to their ardous task revitalized.  As the Avesta says, they come down singing: “Who will praise us? Who will offer us prayers? Who will meditate upon us?  Who will love us?  Who will receive and welcome us with (spiritual) food and clothes in hand and with a prayer worthy of bliss?”

The ceremonies performed for the souls during these days, combined with the coordinated use of specific metal vases, special flowers, spiritually charged well water and vegetarian meals give immense help and benefit to the visitors in their ongoing mission to cleanse their kerdars. Finally, on the tenth night, the relatives gather at the temple for the last prayers. A special hamper of food is prepared and laid out which the souls can “take back”. It is a moving sight to see relatives, some with tears in their eyes, bidding adieu to the visitors as they take off for their respective (spiritual) planes, happy and content with the gifts they have received. Traditionally, the ceremonies are supposed to continue for another seven days, which would cover the time taken by the souls to reach their destination. However, this practice has now been largely discontinued.

The Muktad is of great social significance since these ten days strengthen family bonds as estranged family members forget their petty differences and get together. Houses are cleaned, an atmosphere of devotion is created and a feeling of respect for elders and the departed is instilled in younger members.

The Muktad days are also an important reminder to the living about the transient nature of their existence, and the need to live lives of truth so that their own kerdars do not haunt them when they pass over to the other side.