The Parsi Journey : Pre & Colonial Era
Significant incidences of Pre Colonial Time

In the Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, it is recorded that the Parsis settled near the temple of Kumarika Kshetra at the mouth of the Mahi in Cambay, grew prosperous and overbearing and drove out all the Hindus from that area. A Bania, Kalianrai, nursed revenge against the Parsis of Cambay. He took refuge in Surat, grew rich by trading in pearls, and one night sent a force of Rajputs and Kolis into Cambay who set fire to the houses of the Parsis and put many to the sword. The remainder fled, together with their sacred fire, and Kalianrai toyed with the idea of building a new city of the embers of the old.

The second tragedy is also recorded in the Bombay Gazetteer. Towards the end of the eleventh century, the prosperity of the Parsi settlers at Variav roused the cupidity of the Rajput chief of Ratanpur. He demanded an exorbitant tribute. The Parsis refused to pay. Troops were sent to enforce payment. The Parsis defeated the force. This enraged the chief even more. Another force was sent when the Parsi men were attending a feast at Tena, near Surat. The women, undaunted, put on the armour of their menfolk and fought valiantly and nearly won, when the helmet of one of the fair warriors fell and revealed her to bea woman. The Rajputs rallied and made a desperate effort and won. But the women flung themselves into the Tapi river, preferring death to hishonour. When the men returned from the fest, they were taken by surprise and massacred, together with the children.

The third tragedy occurred at the sack of Sanjan by General Alaf Khan, one of the generals of Sultan Mahmood Begda who ruled from 1459-1511. After the conquest of the fort of Champaner in 1484 by the Sultan, he ordered that Sanjan be taken. When the Hindu prince, Rae Zadeh Shah Zadeh, heard of the threatened invasion, he appealed to the Parsi leaders for help meninding them that it was his ancestors who had given the Parsi refugees shelter and land several centuries ago. The Parsis rallied round the prince and one, Ardeshir, mustered a force of some 1,400 men and won the first battle against the Muslims. The Sultan then sent a force of 30,000. The Parsis fought almost to a man, but the Hindu prince and Ardeshir were killed.

As the Parsi population grew, the need to form ecclesiastical divisions, known as pols, was felt. We know that as early as 1142 a priest, Kamdin Zarthosht, traveled from Sanjan to Navsari to perform religious ceremonies for the Parsis there. In 1215, two more priests were invited from Sanjan to Navsari to assist in the religious ceremonies in that city. This led to the formation of five pols in Navsari.

In 1290, larger ecclesiastical divisions, panthaks, were also formed. They were established at Sanjan, Navsari, Godavreh, Broach and Cambay. In this way, the religious needs of the entire community were catered for.

As the Parsis had very few religious texts with them, and as it was difficult for them to keep up their knowledge of Avesta and Pahlavi in their new surroundings, there arose various questions regarding the finer points in the performance of rituals and the interpretation of religious texts. Thre were, however, enterprising priests in those days such as Ervad Mahyar who lived towards the end of the twelfth century. In 1178 he made a voyage to Seistan from this native village of Ucch in the Punjab. He returned to India in 1190, after twelve years in Iran, bringing with him a manuscript copy in Pahlavi of the Vendidad. This, however, was not sufficient to solve the problems which arose in the community.

Towards the end of the fifteenth century, therefore, the much loved and much respected Dahewad, revenue collector, of Navsari, Changa-bin-Asa, (Changashah), collected the various knotty questions on religious matters, and, at his own expense, sent to the Dasturs in Iran an intrepid Parsi of Broach, Nariman Hoshang, requesting the Iranian Zoroastrians to answer the list of questions.

Nariman Hoshang was probably the first Indian Zoroastrian to go to Iran by the land route, via Afghanistan. After many months, he eventually arrived at Yezd where a colony of Iranian Zoroastrians existed, and where the Iranian Dasturs were considered learned in the scriptures. Not knowing Persian, Nariman Hoshang spent a year learning it, keeping body and soul together by selling dates in the market place.

When he was fluent in Persian, he presented his list of questions to the Dasturs of Yezd who received him with great cordiality and answered all the queries. Nariman Hoshang returned to India around 1478. Thus started the Revayets, questions and answers between the Zoroastrians of India and the Dasturs of Iran, which lasted for nearly 300 years (1478-1773).

Changa-bin-Asa, or Changashah, (c.1450-1515), was a leading citizen in the Parsi community of his day. Behman Kikobad in his Kissa pays a warm tribute to his generous and upright nature. He writes:

“In the latter times, that man of virtuous qualities did not allow the good faith to remain in imperfection. If one had no Sudreh or Kusti, he used to provide the means to him (for the same) out of his own pocket…no one came to him full of affliction to whom he did not provide, or whose heart he did not console with this whole soul. In those days several men of the good faith became religious through his favour.”

Changashah also used his influence at the Mughul court to have the hated jezia, or poll tax levied on non-muslims, removed from the Navsari Parsis. The post of Desai, revenue collector, remained in the family of Changashah for nearly a century when it passed, in 1608, tp Kaikobad Meherji Rana, son of Dastur Meherji Rana.

Parsis may justly be proud of Dastur Meherji Rana (1536-1591), also of Navsari, who expounded the Zoroastrian religion at the court of Akbar, and invested the Emperor with the two great symbols of the faith, the Sundra and the Kusti. Dastur Meherji Rana participated in the religious debated held at Fatehpur Sikri between 1576 and 1579, together with Muslims of various sects, Hindu pundits and yogis, and Jesuits from Goa.

Not only did Dastur Meherji Rana invest Akbar with Sudra and Kusti, but he also installed the sacred fire, with due Zoroastrian rites. The fire was placed in the charge of Shaikh Abul Fazal, the court historian, who was commanded never to let it go out.

Dastur Meherji Rana returned to Navsari in March 1579 and was enthusiastically welcomed by the Parsis. The priests elected him their Dastur, with hereditary rights, so his son, Kaijobad, became Dastur on his father’s death.

Akbar held Dastur Meherji Rana in great respect, and awarded him 200 bighas of land as a subsistence allowance, which, after his death, was increased by one half in favour of his son, Kaiobad.

According to Parsi tradition, Meherji Rana performed a miracle at Akbar’s court which impressed all present. The story goes that a Hindu priest who claimed magical powers and who called himself Jagat Guru, spiritual Instructor of the World, sent up into the sky a large metal disc which shone like a second sun. he challenged those present at the court to bring the platter down. The Maulvis and the Ulemas were not successful, but they heard that there was a Zoroastrian priest at NAvsari who was ready to take up the challenge. He was sent for. On arrival, Dastur Meherji Rana lit the sacred fire in the midst of the assembly, and started to recite certain prayers from the Avesta. The platter fell clattering to the ground.

Tansen, the famous singer who came to the Mughul court around 1562, commemorated the event by composing a beautiful khyal, Hindustani ballad. In it the Dastur is described as the long-bearded Parsi, Mehriar, whose prayers were recited in front of the sacred fire fed with sandalwood and incense, and were found acceptable to God. Tansen concludes the khyal by telling Akbar that Meherji Rana is ‘the flower of Paradise’. The poem is still extant. There is also a beautiful Mughul miniature depicting Dastur Meherji Rana, seated, wearing the flowing white robes of a Parsi priest and with a red fento (round hat) on his head.



Colonial Era

In 1790, when there was widespread famine in Gujarat, the first great influx of Parsis to Bombay began from the small towns and areas of the State. The second wave of Parsis came in 1837 when a fire destroyed more than half the town of Surat.

From 1790 onwards, the Parsis congregated in the Fort area of Bombay where all business was transacted. Behind the present Mahatma Phule (Crawford) Market, there existed at the time a small street known as Yatha Ahu Vairyo Street, named after the opening line of the most sacred prayer of the Parsis. This historic street housed many a poor Parsi who later rose to fame, such as the first Indian baronet, Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy. The street was completely destroyed in the great fire of 1803 which consumed almost the whole of Bombay.

As the Germen sociologist, Eckehard Kulke, points out, there was a phenomenal growth of the Parsi population in Bombay from the end of the eighteenth century. Problems followed in the wake of such extensive growth. For the first time, the Parsis realized their lack of legal system and a cohesive social structure.

The impact of western education on the Indian mind was tremendous. Outstanding reformers such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy appeared in Bengal, while Kulke points to many distinguished Parsis who graduated from Elphinstone College.

In 1848, a group of young Parsi and Hindu reformers, under the leadership of Dadabhai Naoroji, and with the help of their English teachers at Elphinstone College, organized the Students’ Literary and Scientific Society. The aim of the society was to educate the population by providing school facilities and voluntary, partially paid teachers. Within two months, the society recruited forty-four pupils for the four Parsi classes, and twenty four pupils from the three Hindu classes. After six months, the society got into financial difficulties, but was helped by four Parsi donors, three of them from the Cama family.

The education of girls had been sadly neglected by Elphinstone College. The society at once took up the challenge. It founded nine schools for girls. Kulke points out that in 1855, out of the 740 girls who attended the schools, 475 were Parsis, 178 Marathi Hindus and 87 Gujarati Hindus. Two years later, in 1857, the Parsi Girls’ Association took over the schools attended by Parsi Girls. Maneckji Cursetji (1808-1887) founded the Alexandra Girls’ Native Education Institution in 1863 where for the first time English was used as the medium of instruction. A spate of girls’ schools followed with English as the medium of instruction. The best known among these were: the Petit High School for Girls, the Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School for Girls, and the Cowasji Jehangir School for Girls.

Several wealthy Parsis felt responsible for the education of Parsis living in the outlying towns and villages of Gujarat, and gradually endowed several schools in those areas.

Gujarati studies were also encouraged b the Parsis. In the same year as the founding of the Students’ Literary and Scientific Society (1848), Dadabhai Naoroji also established the Dnyan Prasarak Mandali, Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge, which was deservedly popular. The Mandli was active till 1858. It was revived in 1870 by a group of Parsis including the reformer, S. S. Bengalee, and the journalist, K. N. Kabraji.

Kaikhushrau Navrojee Kabraji (1842-1904) was a journalist of some standing. He also published several novels on Parsi family life in Gujarati and edited a journal for women, Stri Bodh, Woman’s Wisdom, which was very popular. He was also the Editor of two influential newspapers: Parsi Mitra, Friends of the Parsi, and Rast Goftar, Herald of the Truth, founded by Dadabhai Naoroji in 1851. For the first ten years, the Rast Goftar was the mouthpiece of reformist views, both in politics and social reforms. But as the struggle for independence gained momentum, Kabraji became steadily more conservative, and the Rast Goftar became a reactionary paper. Kabraji was, perhaps, the first Indian to be elected a member of the British Institute of Journalists.

The spirit of reform even spread to the religious sphere. The Rahnumai Mazdayasnan Sabha was founded in answer to the constant criticism of the Christian missionaries who dubbed the teaching of Zarathushtra as nature-worship, and accused him of dualism. Every inducement was put forward by them to persuade Parsi lads to become Christian. As R. P. Masani, in his biography of Dadabhai Naoroji, writes: “The method of these zealous followers of the Cross was simple-for one hour given to Christianity, a gift of four hours’ English, history, geography and mathematics.”

Eventually, two young lads, Dhunjibhoy Naoroji and Hormusji Pestonji, who attended the school of the Reverend Dr John Wilson, were converted to Christianity. There was a storm of indignation and great bitterness among the Parsis. The Panchayat filed a suit in the Bombay High Court appealing to the British Government for help. The suit was dismissed, and the two boys quietly shipped to England where Dhunjibhoy, eventually took Holy Orders and wrote a book about his conversion. The membership of Dr. Wilson’s school dropped from 500 to sixty or seventy.

The Parsis realised, however, that conversions from their community were due to the ignorance of their faith both by the priesthood and the laity. The level of education of the priests needed to be raise, and, in the words of Kulke, they should be so well schooled in the traditional language that they could undergo and argument with the Christian religion, just as they should be in a position not only to recite prayers, but to present an intellectual exegesis of the holy scriptures and a sophisticated explanation of the essence of religion and religious matters also acceptable to educated believers like Christian priests in the sermon.

The Rahnumai Sabha was the meeting place for discussion and enlightenment of the religion for both priests and laity. In 1842, a monthly magazine, Rahnuma-e-Zarathoshti, was founded to defend the teachings of Zarathushta.

Various madressas, or seminaries for Parsi priests, were also established about this time.

The first Parsi to go abroad and study the Avesta under recognized Western scholars was K. R. Cama (1831-1909), who worked under Mohl in Paris, and Spiegel at Erlangan, from 1858-1859. In his schooldays, Cama had been persuaded by Dr. John Wilson to attend services at St Thomas’ Cathedral for the sake of the beautiful church music. The next step was to persuade the boy to come to small discussion groups on the Christian religion. Cama might have become Christian if his mother had not got to hear of his regular attendance at Christian meetings. She rebuked him and made him promise not to go to such meetings in future.

It was fortunate for Cama that he traveled to England with Dadabhai Naoroji, who belonged to a priestly family of Bavsari and hence was able to explain the tenets of Zoroastrianism to him on the voyage. On his return to Bombay in 1859, Cama advertised the opening of a class in Iranian languages. In February 1861, he received his first pupil, a shy, young priest from Navsari, Ervad Sheriarhi Dadabhoy Bharucha. A fw months later, three more priests joined the class, and by the end of the year there were twelve pupils. The class continued for three years.

In 1864, Cama founded the Zarthoshti Din-ni-Khol Karnari Mandli, the Society for the Promotion of Researches in the Zoroastrian Religion, which, from the beginning, was the field of activity of young priests.

Cama continued his good work by founding the journal, Jarthoshti Abhyas, Zoroastrian Studies, and also donated handsome prizes for essays on different aspects of the religion.

Many eminent Parsi scholars on the Avesta were either Cama’s pupils, or were deeply influenced by his life and work. Mention may be made of Dastur Peshotan Sanjana; Ervad Kavasji Edulji Kanga, who translated the entire Avesta into Gujari, still the most widely read translation in Parsi homes; Dastur Sir Jivanji Jamshedji Modi (1854-1933), the lifelong friend and biographer of Cama and amoth whose numerous writings, The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsees is still a classic; Dastur M. N. Dhalla (1875-1956), whose studies on Zoroastrian theology and civilization are standard works of reference; and Tehmurasp Anklesaria and Behramgore Anklesaria, both of whom devoted their lives to painstaking research in the editing of difficult texts so that standard editions became possible.

Again, it was Cama, with his discerning intellect and tranquil outlook on human affairs, to quote his English biographer, S. M. Edwardes, who was instrumental in founding new Dasturship among the Parsis. Cama persuaded the poor priest, Maneekji Nusserwanji Dhalla, of Karachi, to join one of the madressas in Bombay, had him trained under Professor A.V.W. Jackson of Columbia University, and on his return to India, persuaded the Parsis of Karachi to appoint him their High priest. Dastur Dhalla held the position created for him till his death, loved and venerated by the entire Parsi community for his saintly life and his scholarly works.

Not only were the Parsis active in religious reforms in India, but also in Iran where the pitiable condition of the Iranian Zoroastrians roused the compassion of the entire Parsi community. Karim Khan Zand, chief of an Iranian tribe, started life as a common soldier in Nadir Shah’s army, rising by degrees to be the ruler of the whole country. Under his benign reign (1750-1779), Iran had peace for over twenty years. On his death in 1779, chaos broke out. Iranian Zoroastrians were mercilessly persecuted. They fled, in small batches and in secrecy, to the Parsis in India.

About the middle of the nineteenth century, the wave of Iranian Zoroastrians who came to India as refugees reached its peak.

The son of respectable Parsi shopkeeper, Framji Bhikaji Panday, aided with body, mind and money the Iranian Zoroastrians who fled to Bombay. In 1834, his eldest son, Burjorji, started a small fund for helping the Iranian Zoroastrians. In 1854, his youngest brother, Merwanji, started a second fund to help the Iranian Zoroastrians in their own land. Thus was founded the Society for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Zoroastrians in Persia. From its inception. K.R. Cama was appointed Treasurer which post he held almost to his death.

The first representative to go to Iran on behalf of the Society was Manekji Limji Hataria (1813-1890). For nearly thirty years Manekji and his son, Hormuzdyar, devoted themselves to bettering the condition of the Iranian Zoroastrians.

About 1850, Parsis also came under the influence of theosophy. As Kulke points out, ‘For the Parsi theosophists the key to understanding the Avesta was lost with the Parsee mystics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For them the object was not to rediscover and expose this lost access. Unfortunately, in attempting to discover the lost meaning of the Avesta, all kinds of extraneous ideas were introduced which had no bearing on the original texts.

There was a reaction against this kind of criticism from the intelligent Parsi public. Led by Dastur Dhalla and P. A. Wadia, an economist and historian, the Iranian Association was founded in 1911. The following year, the Journal of the Iranian Association started to expose the absurdities of theosophical explanation of the Zoroastrian scriptures. The Journal aimed at maintaining the purity of the religion.

Side by side with theosophy, Free Masonry also attracted the Parsis. As early as 1844, Lodge Rising Star, an entirely Parsi Lodge, was founded and flourishes to this day.

Two outstanding social reformers also left their mark, not only on the Parsis, but on the entire country. They are Behram Malabari and Sorabjee Shapurjee Bengalee.

Behram M. Malabari (1853-1912) was born of poor parents and orphaned at the age of twelve. He went to Bombay to seek his fortune, chose journalism as his career, and devoted his life to fighting the evils of child marriage and enforced widowhood among the Hindus. His carefully documented Notes on Infant Marriage and Enforced Widowhood were published in 1884, and distributed to all the leading citizens in the country. His own paper, the Indian Spectator, gave wide publicity to the theme between 1884-1894. Malabari lectured throughout India, and met viceroys, governors, Indian princes, prominent Hindus and newspapermen.

He made three trips to England to mobilise British public opinion in favour of social legislation in this matter.

The seven-year debate ended in success for Malabari. In 1891, the Age of Consent Bill was passed, raising the marriage age for girls from ten to twelve years. Having achieved some measure of success, Malabari retired from public life. He declined the offer of a knighthood. Instead, with the cooperation of his future biographer, Dayaram Gidumal, he founded in 1908, the Seva Sadan, on the model of the YWCA. The Seva Sadan is active to this day, and its branches are spread all over western India. It welcomes destitute women of whatever caste and creed, and gives them material help, medical care, and a modicum of education.

A close friend and helper of Malabari, Sorabjee Shapurjee Bengalee (1831-1893), was the first Indian to advocate reform in the conditions for labour employees. As Secretary of the Parsi Law Association, Bengalee took an active part in the discussion for the reform of the Town Council in 1871. In 1878, he submitted a draft to the Governor of Bombay, detailing the reforms needed to establish a factory law.

The draft was bitterly contested, but eventually led to the Indian Factory Acts of 1881 and 1891. a new class consciousness emerged among the workers, and , the Bombay Mills Hands Association was formed in 1890; the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants of India and Burma in 1897; the Printers Union in Calcutta in 1905; and the Kamgar Hitvardhak Sabha in 1909.

The foundations of a modern trade union movement were laid by another Parsi, B. P. Wadia, the theosophist and friend and collaborator of Annie Besant in the Home Rule Movement. Wadia had a wider vision than his predecessors in that he wanted to integrate the labour movement with the national movement. In 1918, Wadia founded the Madras Labour Union, ‘the first modern trade union in India’, according to Kulke.

In 1920, Lala Lajpat Rai formed the All India Trade Union congress (AITUC). Wadia could not influence the policy of the AITUC but he advocated separate representation for labour in the legislatures. He also wanted to use trade unions as a forum to overcome caste differences, but in this he failed, for the Madras Labour Union disbanded in 1926 on this very issue.

Wadia, however, was successful in drawing the attention of international trade unions to developments in India. In 1919, he participated in the Trades Union Congress and the British Labour Party Conference in England. Following Wadia’s speech to the British Trades Union Congress, a resolution was passed appearing to all unions affiliated to the Congress for financial assistance ‘to our fellow trade unionists in India’.