Slideshow: The Iranian Mandaeans at Parwanaya (Panja) time, 2015

<p>Mr Salem Choheili is a <i>Shkanda</i> (deacon) and highly respected for his learning and teaching. Here he reads from <i>Ginza </i><i>Rba</i><i> - </i><i>Smala</i> (The Mandaean Holy Book – left side), explaining its meaning during a Mandaean women’s class in Ahvaz. As one of the few who still speak the Mandaic language, his greatest aim is to help the Mandaeans learn their own language to ensure its survival. He says his biggest concern is that the Mandaeans are not acknowledged in the Iranian Constitution as <i>‘</i><i>Ahl</i><i> Al </i><i>Kitab</i> (People of the Book), which has consequences for their existence in Iran.</p>
<p>Mandaean priests prepare for the funeral ceremony of <em>Ganzibra</em> Jabar Choheili (the Head of the Mandaean community in Iran, who died in December 2014) in Ahvaz.&nbsp; Among them is Tarmida Taleb; this funeral rite, which is called<em> Ingirtha </em><i>Dakhia</i> (The Pure Message), will be part of his initiation to the rank of <i>ganzibra</i> (senior priest). A <i>tarmida</i> (priest) can become a <i>ganzibra</i> if he performs two rituals - <i>Ingirtha</i> <i>Dakhia</i> and a marriage ceremony where the bridegroom is a priest.</p>
<p>A betrothal - Ganzibra Salwan came from Sweden to be engaged to a Mandaean girl from Iran. According to Mandaean tradition, the Mandaean priest must marry a virgin girl from a <i>halali</i> family (i.e. ritually pure for seven generations). In October 2015 Tarmida Taleb performed the marriage ceremony (<i>Qabeen</i>) for Ganzibra Salwan and his fiancée and was elevated to <i>ganzibra</i> rank.</p>
<p>Ganzibra Taleb Doraji, a well known goldsmith, in his shop in Ahvaz.&nbsp; Mandaean jewellers still have shops in Ahvaz, though few still make handmade jewellery. Ganzibra Taleb said that his favourite type of work is “engraving on silver” and the black enamelwork which is the trademark of Mandaean craftsmanship.</p>
<p>Mr Asaad Askari, one of the few Mandaeans who still speaks Mandaic. Born in Khorramshahr, he left the city during the Iraq-Iran war and lives mostly in Tehran. Mr Askari sings and writes poems in Mandaic. Mr Askari appears in some recordings in our archive, singing in Mandaic.</p>
<p>Mr Salim Choheili and Tarmida Sam Zahrooni check Mandaean manuscripts in order to photograph them. In the past, Mandaean priests usually used to copy the manuscripts by hand; however this artwork is time-consuming, and has almost disappeared. Hand copying a sacred manuscript involves much preparation and is considered a sacred activity, bringing good luck and blessing in the Mandaean tradition. There are concerns about preserving Mandaean written literature.&nbsp;</p>
<p>Tarmida Behram’s mother weaves a <i>hymiana</i> (religious belt, worn for all religious activities) made from ram’s wool. She is one of very few people who still know and practise this tradition. Some of the belts are exported to Mandaeans in the diaspora. Tarmida Behram’s mother says that she uses 60 threads in weaving&nbsp; one <i>hymiana</i>, around 1.5 metres in length.</p>
<p>Ms Amal Sabti lives in Ahvaz and works at the Mandaean Cultural Centre there. Here, in preparation for the Parwanaya festival, she checks the white clothes to be worn in the rituals and removes any unwanted small objects.</p>
The five days of Parwanaya festival,&nbsp; the most important in the Mandaean calendar, begin with baptism. Ganzibra Najah and Tarmida Sam are performing <i>Tamasha</i> (purifying ritual) in preparation for <i>Masbuta</i> (baptism). This baptism pool was built inside a big room and resourced with water from a nearby creek. It is one of two pools on this site, on a small farm next to a creek around 2 hours drive from Ahvaz. The large room where this pool is situated also contains a <i>shkhenta</i> (a north-facing hut built from mud and bamboo, used for rituals).
<p>Tarmida Sam baptises Mandaeans in a pool inside the Mandi (temple) – the water comes naturally from a nearby creek. Mandaean priests in Iran still use water from the river daily. Some Mandaeans have raised health concerns about using this water.</p>
Ganzibra Najah, Tarmida Peyam, Tarmida Behram and Ms Amal Sabti perform Hawad Maniya (a ritual performed for those who died without being ritually pure, to assist the soul in her way to the world of light). Ms Sabti cannot speak during the ritual - she is taking the place of a deceased woman, using her religious name (melwasha) – and she cannot touch any object which has not been purified. The priests performed this ritual for about 90 souls on days 2-4 of Parwanaya. These souls had passed away in many parts of the world;  the parents of one young man killed in an accident in the Netherlands came to Iran especially for this ritual, which is a symbol of love and religious duty towards the beloved deceased.
Ganzibra Najah reads from a manuscript written in Mandaic called “<i>Sharah</i> <i>ed</i> <i>Parwanaii</i>” (Explanation of Parwanaii). Ganzibra Najah wears his original gold ring, “<i>Shom</i> <i>Yavar</i> <i>Ziwa</i>”,&nbsp; given to him at his initiation as a priest, with his crown “<i>tagha</i>” made from silk and worn under the turban. He also has a new olive stick in order to lead other priests in performing the <i>Masiqta</i>. Ganzibra Najah consults the manuscript about ritual steps in <i>Masiqta</i>. Any error in the ritual would undermine the priests`purity and they would need to have several baptisms to become religiously pure again.&nbsp;
<p>Day 5 – the final day of the Parwanaya festival: Ganzibra Najah and Tarmida Peyam are purifying the <i>shkhenta</i> and utensils in order to start performing <i>Masiqta</i> (a detailed series of rituals) inside it. <i>Masiqta</i> must be performed during the five days of Parwanaya to initiate the Mandi (shkenta) and make it ready for rituals throughout the year. Everything must be purified in water before entering the <i>shkhenta</i>. The <i>drabsha</i> (religious banner) also needs to be assembled during the rituals.</p>
<p><i>Sidra</i> <i>Rba</i> – a Mandaean sacred book engraved on metal tablets and purified through baptism in order to be used in <i>Masiqta</i>. Also shown are <i>Niara</i>, small cups made from brass used to drink sacred water through rituals.</p>
<p><span>Tarmida&nbsp;</span><span></span><span>Behram</span><span>,&nbsp;</span><span></span><span>Shkenda&nbsp;</span><span>Salim </span><span>Choheili&nbsp;</span><span>and </span><span>Ganzibra&nbsp;</span><span></span><span>Najah&nbsp;</span><span>perform </span><em>Masiqta</em><span>. Here the </span><span><em>Masiqta</em>&nbsp;</span><span></span><span>took place with three priests (one </span><span>ganzibra&nbsp;</span><span>and two </span><span>tarmidi</span><span>) with a number of </span><span>shkendi</span><span>(deacons) and lasted for almost 15 hours. </span></p>
<p>Ganzibra Najah is waiting for another two <i>tarmidi</i> and a <i>shkanda</i> to join him to start performing <i>Zidqa</i> <i>Brikha</i> (‘blessed almsgiving/oblation’), the final ritual for <i>Masiqta</i>. This ritual can be performed only by priests (with the help of a <i>shkanda</i>, who is essential for all rituals). The most obvious characteristics of the rituals done in Parwanaii are their great length and very precise detail.</p>
All priests must be baptised on the first day of the Parwanaya festival; Ganzibra Najah, who had recently had an operation, was baptised several times by three priests.
<p><span>Tarmida&nbsp;</span><span></span><span>Behram&nbsp;</span><span>takes water from the River Karun in Ahvaz for daily use.</span></p>
<span>In religious rituals and in everyday&nbsp;</span><span>life, </span><span>Mandaean&nbsp;</span><span>priests use only utensils purified&nbsp;</span><span>through baptism. They cannot be made from plastic. Only pure metal vessels can be used and purified. Mandaean priests take their own purified vessels when they travel and can not share their meals with others. </span><span></span>
<p><span>Mr Salim </span><span>Choheili&nbsp;</span><span>holds a dove with branches from the myrtle plant. The dove must be free from any type of deformity as it represents the sacred liberated soul. Myrtle is used widely in the </span><span>Mandaean&nbsp;</span><span>rituals; it is one of the sacred trees in the World of Light and symbolises evergreen eternity.&nbsp; </span></p>
<p><span>The </span><span>Mandaean&nbsp;</span><span>religious meal called&nbsp;</span><span>Lofani/</span><span>Dokhrani is made</span><span>&nbsp;in remembrance of the ancestors and beloved ones who have passed away from this world (</span><em>Ara ed&nbsp;Tibil</em><span>). It is done throughout the </span><span>Parwanaya&nbsp;</span><span>festival, day and night. The meal needs to be prepared from natural, unprocessed food, using metal utensils purified through baptism – all done by religious people only.&nbsp;For more on Lofani, see our 'Rituals' collection.</span></p>
<p><span>Two religious </span><span>Mandaeans&nbsp;</span><span>pray </span><span>for the dead during the religious meal </span><span>Lofani/</span><span>Dokhrani.</span><span>&nbsp;The religious names of the deceased need to be recited. Every </span><span>Mandaean&nbsp;</span><span>has a religious name (</span><em>melwasha</em><span>) as well as their everyday name. </span></p>
<span>Two Mandaean boys are waiting for </span><span>Masbuta&nbsp;</span><span>(Baptism). Mandaean priests usually ask their children to assist them in performing their rituals. They understand the challenges in keeping the tradition alive with the new generation. Even white clothes need to be purified in the water in order to be used during the rituals. </span><span></span>
<p><span>Tarmida&nbsp;</span><span></span><span>Muhanad&nbsp;</span><span>baptises </span><span>a group of women during </span><span>Parwanaii</span><span>. </span><span>Tarmida&nbsp;</span><span></span><span>Muhanad&nbsp;</span><span>is from Iraq and was initiated as a </span><span>tarmida&nbsp;</span><span>(priest) in Ahvaz after 2003. As the community in Iran decreases, with many families leaving over the last 10 years, the numbers of people attending </span><span>Parwanaya&nbsp;</span><span>constantly diminishes and </span><span>Mandaeans&nbsp;</span><span>are concerned about the future. </span></p>
<p><span>A few days after </span><span>Parwanaya&nbsp;</span><span>has finished, </span><span>Ganzibra&nbsp;</span><span></span><span>Najah</span><span>,</span><span></span><span>Tarmida&nbsp;</span><span></span><span>Behram</span><span>, </span><span>Shkanda&nbsp;</span><span>Salim </span><span>Choheili&nbsp;</span><span>and Mr </span><span>Faez&nbsp;</span><span></span><span>Zahrooni&nbsp;</span><span>visit </span><span>Mandaean&nbsp;</span><span>families who live in </span><span>Hamidiyah</span><span>, about an hour from Ahvaz. As the Mandaean population decreases in Iran, </span><span>Mandaeans&nbsp;</span><span>are concerned that they are not acknowledged by the Iranian constitution as ‘People of the Book’ (‘</span><span>Ahl&nbsp;</span><span>al </span><span>kitab'</span><span>). </span></p>
The Mandaean court for marital dispute has been authorised by the Iranian authorities in Ahvaz; however, concerns remain about the Mandaeans’ situation in Iran.
<p><span>Ganzibra&nbsp;</span><span></span><span>Najah</span><span>,</span><span></span><span>Tarmida&nbsp;</span><span></span><span>Behram</span><span>, </span><span>Shkanda&nbsp;</span><span>Salem </span><span>Choheili&nbsp;</span><span>and Mr </span><span>Faez&nbsp;</span><span></span><span>Zahrooni&nbsp;</span><span>visit some of the five Mandaean families who live in Khorramshahr. Most of the large </span><span>Mandaean&nbsp;</span><span>community left after damage inflicted on the city during the Iran-Iraq war. </span><span>Mandaeans&nbsp;</span><span>say that many </span><span>Mandaean&nbsp;</span><span>books were lost during the conflict. </span></p>
<span>This rock, located about two hours from Ahvaz in the town of </span><span>Shushtar</span><span>, features strongly in local </span><span>Mandaean&nbsp;</span><span>memory as the site of a massacre of </span><span>Mandaeans</span><span>, around two hundred years ago – the so-called ‘</span><span>Shushtar&nbsp;</span><span>massacre.’</span><span></span>
The site has been officially identified as a Sabaean temple (see the notice). Local Mandaeans have suggested that a shkenta be built on the site to raise awareness of the history of the community in this area, but this has so far not been successful.


The Mandaeans of Iran


Notes from Yuhana Nashmi's fieldwork, including the Parwanaya (Panja) festival and travels in Khuzestan, March 2015


Yuhana Nashmi




Still Image




1st March 2015


Metadata and all media released under Creative CommonsCreative Commons BY-NC-SA


Yuhana Nashmi, “Slideshow: The Iranian Mandaeans at Parwanaya (Panja) time, 2015,” The Worlds of Mandaean Priests, accessed June 17, 2024,