Diary of a Festival

Yuhana Nashmi shares his experience of the Holy Feast of Parwānaya ,  The Sacred Five Days of Light – Sydney, Australia, March 2014.

It was nothing unusual for us to wake at 4:00 am on March 16 and get ready for our lift to the place where the Mandaean rituals would be held. Mandaean priests normally start their rituals at sunrise and Parwānaya 2014 would be no exception. When I was very young, Tarmida (priest) Sam bar Hawa (who died in 2003) used to say to me that the Mandaic expression “faroša d’Ziwa” – ‘the Light teaches’ - refers to sunrise; of course ‘the light’ refers to God. My kind host, a Mandaean priest himself, had also got up early, to begin his rituals with obvious passion and enthusiasm. And we’d had more kindness from the community – the shipping of our recording equipment had been delayed but a Mandaean wedding recording company kindly stepped forward at the last minute - so our good news had started with the beginning of Parwānaya!

In 2011, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) made a radio program about the Mandaeans of Sydney called “Mandaeans: The Water People”.  And indeed, Mandaean religion could hardly exist without a natural source of water “Yardǝna.” A major characteristic is the frequent use of water in baptism - “Mabuta” - and daily ritual purification. (Another is the strict use of Mandaic language in their written literature and performing rituals). A Mandaean priest cannot survive religiously without a source of water - preferably in a natural setting - and some priests drive almost two hours every two days to bring water from the river for their daily use. The purification rituals are very strict and when they practise them all priests must wear the “Rasta” (a white ritual dress made of natural material and contains of 5 pieces), hold the “Margǝna” (The Ritual Staff, made of olive-wood), wear a gold ring on the little finger of the right hand (written on it Šum Yāwar Ziwa - the name of Yāwar Ziwa) and a simple circlet crown made of silk.

The Mandaeans began to settle in Australia around 1981; after 1996, priests began to arrive and settle in Sydney to perform religious rituals for the community. There is no accurate statistic of the number of Mandaeans in Australia, but community leaders estimate that there are some 8000-9000. The vast majority live in Sydney (south western). Ten priests serve the community - (one Rišamma (head priest), one Ganzibra (senior priest) and 8 Tarmidi (priests) plus a number of Əškandi (deacons).

In Sydney, there are two Mandi (Be-Manda, the ‘house of knowledge’ is the Mandaean place of worship). One has a baptism pool built inside of the building and the other is under construction on the bank of the Nepean River. Some priests use water from the public water supply system in their ritual practice and in their daily use for drinking and preparing meals while others use the water directly from the river without any chemical treatment. This issue of the type of water source generates much debate within the religious community. Those who take water from the river would consider a priest who uses the water from the public supply system to be “religiously impure”. However those who use the purpose-built pool consider the public water supply system a legitimate source to practice their rituals, considering that the outside environment is more polluted. Each group claims religious legitimacy.
There is no doubt that the Mandaean priests are facing new religious and social challenges in their new countries in the west. Although the Mandaeans are now “safe” and enjoying “freedom” in the west after a long history of suffering from religious persecutions, wars and social instability, some of the remaining members of the Mandaean community are waiting as refugees in Syria and Jordan to be settled in the western countries and new challenges become obvious. Some of the priests mentioned these in their interviews, which will appear in our online archive.

My host, Tarmida Khaldoon, told me that the happy festival of Parwānaya has great religious significance and plays a very important role in the Mandaean spiritual subconscious. The great scholar of Mandaeism, Lady Drower, wrote in her book of 1937:

“These are the five intercalary days of Parwanaiia, or Panja, the happiest time of the whole year, during which the great baptismal river feast is held. It falls at the time when the river is swollen by melting snows from the north, i.e. during the first warm days of spring.”

This year, Parwānaya fell on 16th of March - Mandaean holy days and feasts move around in the calendar in four-year cycles. Although some Mandaeans see this as something that needs to be “fixed” in the Mandaean calendar, priests see it as part of the circle of life - Mandaean believers must spiritually experience the Mandaean religious feasts in all seasons as they are spiritual, not earthly events.

Parwānaya is the only Mandaean feast where rituals can be performed at night as well as during the day; at other times, priest would compromise his religious purity if he performs religious rituals at night.  There are also some specific rituals which can only be performed at Parwānaya, such as Əhāwa d’Manya (also called qǝmashi) – which assists the souls of the deceased on their way towards the light, and the ordination of the ǝšxenta, a special hut built of mud and bamboo and used for a variety of religious functions. 

The Mandaean priests believe that during the lucky days of Parwānaya, the world of darkness has no control or influence on earth. So a Mandaean person who passes away during Parwānaya is considered “very lucky” as his or her soul will be prioritized to cross Maarāi  “Purgatories” and reach Əmšuni Kuša” “the worlds of light”. Tarmida Valid explained further to me by saying “The soul will be saved from the negative impact of the materialist world - very lucky for that soul!”
In this world, light and darkness are vital parts of the circle of life. So before these five days of light come five days of darkness, known as mubaṭṭalāt, when Mandaeans fast, not eating meat, fish or egg. Some do not even eat or drink dairy products or light fires for cooking food or heating drinks. (There are 36 fast days throughout the Mandaean year). Also at this time, Mandaean priests cease their religious rituals and keep a low profile. If a person dies during these five days in which the world of darkness has stronger influence on earth, then the soul will be trapped in Maarāi and will experience many obstacles in its journey to the world of light; it needs to have specific rituals done to help it along.‌

Mandaean priests believe that these five dark days affect the purity of the priests, which is why all priests must be baptized on the first day of Parwānaya as an active symbol of spiritual purity. As the priests gather with their drabši (‘a ray of light’ - a sacramental banner used in different rites), ready for their baptism in the river, they are very happy that they have survived the five days of darkness and made it to Parwānaya. Before Parwānaya, priests are extremely busy with preparations of equipment and materials. They prepare the rasta (the white garment of five pieces) and qǝmashi (a white garment of seven pieces), heat up and clean all the crockery to remove any traces of oil, and build the ǝšxenta, the hut which will be used for rituals.  

We arrived early at a public park on the bank of the beautiful Nepean River in Penrith, some 50 kilometres west of the Sydney central business district. The priests and their assistants were preparing themselves and their religious equipment to start the first ritual, immersing themselves three times in the river (tamāša - cleansing). The priests started one by one to immerse themselves in the river in order to start their rahmi (an hour-long prayer) with their drabša or sacramental banner. (Although most of the time, one drabša can be used by seven priests at once, at Parwānaya, each priest had his own). When the priests had finished their rahmi, they started to baptize each other in two groups. The priests and their assistants must be baptized with their equipment before they can perform their religious duties. If a priest is not baptized during Parwānaya, then he cannot perform his religious duties for the Mandaeans till he obtains baptism during the following Parwānaya (in a year’s time).

In this Parwānaya, there were 7 drabši; each priest and lay Mandaean who wants to be baptized must hold the drabša and recite special verses from the book of Ənyāni d’Rahmi (the book of hymns of mercy and love) before they go to the river to get baptized. No baptism or rituals can be performed in Parwānaya without the drabša.

After the baptism, a group of three priests went to a farm owned by a Mandaean medical doctor on the bank of the Nepean River, where the ǝšxenta had been built. They had to begin preparations for the masexta which would take place on the second day. I photographed and recorded much of this.

Meanwhile, other priests were baptizing the lay Mandaeans who had started to gather for baptism. In accordance with Penrith city council's rules and regulations on crowds in public places, the organizing committee divided the Mandaeans into groups which were baptized at different times.  More than two hundred Mandaeans were baptized that day.

‌Very late that night, the priests had their religious meal, lofāni or, as they call it during Parwānaya, doxrāni.

Tarmida Valid told me that according to the Mandaean literature, the first day of Parwānaya is the day of the creation of Rabba Əlāya - The King of Kings.

While one group of priests were baptizing Mandaeans from early in the morning till after sunset, another group of priests began the religious ceremonies to initiate the Mandi or ǝšxenta (a little house of clay and bamboo), in a ritual called masexta. This is very detailed – preparations had taken a full day, and it took another day to perform the ritual itself. In Parwānaya 2014, the masexta followed by daxya brixa (a special religious meal) took about 15 hours to finish without any noted major religious errors. (Significant religious errors during masexta might mean the priests must suspend their religious practices until the Great Baptism or mabuta ǝd Hibel Ziwa - which is in fact 360 baptisms, lasting 7 days with 7 priests). The priests were very happy when they finished the masexta without religious mistakes! 

Tarmida Khaldoon told me that the second day of Parwānaya is the day of Māre d’Rabboa Əlāya - The Lord of the highest greatness.

A group of priests continue to perform baptism for the Mandaeans. Another group begins to perform the Əhawa d’Manya, which is known among the Mandaeans as qǝmaši. During this ritual, the priests give a Mandaean person who passed away without proper religious ceremonies a “pure garment”.  The religious garment is a crucial part of the ceremonies which assist the soul on her way to the world of light, according to Mandaean theology. But not everyone is lucky enough to have these when they pass away, and this ritual helps those souls. It is very close to Mandaean hearts as a symbol of love and religious duty towards their beloved deceased. The priests conducted the qǝmaši ritual, which can only be performed at Parwānaya, at a private farm on the bank of Nepean River in Sydney. They performed around 40 qǝmaši, for deceased males only on this day. Two halālis (religiously pure Mandaeans) were assisting the priests in conducting the rituals. The viewer of this ritual cannot miss its mysterious and theatrical nature. Here, a living man or a woman of the same marital and religious status needs to take the place of the dead person using the dead person's religious name; he or she is not allowed to talk at all during the ritual “as a dead person does not talk, however he or she can communicate through the spiritual dimension with the living people”. But they may say the prayers in their hearts…

Tarmida Assad told me that the third day is the day of manda ed Haii - the knowledge of life.

Baptism continued to be performed by one group of priests, and qǝmaši for females by another.

The ritual of qǝmaši  or Əhawa d’Manya needs 2 priests (one ganzibra or senior priest and one tarmida or junior, with ǝškandi (deacon) or halāli (ritually pure Mandaean). During Parwānaya it is common to greet each other with “obataba ǝlāwayxon!” – “good morning!” even at night.  As Tarmida Ayad explained, “Parwānaya is all light and there is no darkness in it”.

Tarmida Ayad also told me that the fourth day is the day of ǝdmo kuša - the reflection of truth.

‌All the priests were in the same place on the bank of Nepean River, once again performing group baptism. After they finished, they started to prepare their religious meals: doxrāni/lofāni. Again, any mistakes made in rituals during Parwānaya would mean they had to be baptized again in order to regain their religious purity.

Tarmida Saleem told me that the fifth day is the day of Yardǝni (plural of Yardǝna) - the waters of life - the running water.‌

In Australia, the Mandaeans are lucky enough to practise their rituals for Parwānaya in late summer, in contrast with Iraq, Iran, North America and Europe, where Parwānaya happens at the end of winter. Although some rain started to fall during the five days of Parwānaya this year, most Mandaeans would agree it did not spoil the joy of the celebration! Tarmida Valid looked at me with a smile on the face when I asked him about the weather and he replied “It does not matter! We will still practise our rituals!” Since Tarmida Valid is from Iran and speaks Persian very well, I took opportunity to show off a few Persian words I had learned recently in my work place, so I replied “xoda hāfez”. With the warmth of the Sacred Five Days of Parwānaya, my time in Sydney ended and I returned home to Melbourne looking forward to my next trip to gather stories from the world of the Mandaean priests.

I live and work in Melbourne, so I needed to make a trip to Sydney to meet with the Mandaean priests. All of the Mandaean priests in Australia live among the largest Mandaean community, in Sydney. My contact with the Mandaean priests traced back to when I was 13 years old, as a Mandaean-born person. Also, I was trained as a Tarmida but have stepped down from active practise. At the same time, I always have great interest for collecting and documenting the remaining heritage of the Mandaeans as an endangered culture. I think this is going to be vital and interesting on many levels for Mandaeans and non-Mandaeans alike. This desire that I hold took me on an epic trip to Iraq in 2008 and I hope in the future to be able to write about these experiences; to see some of the photos from that trip please see our slideshows from Iraq*.

Yuhana Nashmi

*Available soon