Zoroastrianism – The Rise and Growth of Parsis in British India

Zoroastrianism Symbol
Zoroastrianism Symbol

In the earlier post, I focused on the rise of Zoroastrianism in the Persian Empire and how Zoroastrians were persecuted which led them to migrate from their homeland to India and other parts of the world. In this one, we move further on from that period when Zoroastrians decided to spread across the globe in an attempt to survive and ensure that their religion lives on forever. In India, Zoroastrians are further divided into two groups; Parsis and Iranis. Ethnically, both the groups have descended from Persian Zoroastrians, but it is believed that Parsis migrated to the western borders of South Asia immediately when the persecution began across Iran and therefore they were the early settlers. While Iranis decided to rebel against the Arab invaders for almost 200 years, but later on they decided to take refuge in India.

One of the main reasons why Parsis decided to settle down here on the western coast of India is because the Hindu king offered them a land where they can follow their own religion without any fear of conversion and persecution. Parsis also had the permission to build their own temples that attracted more Zoroastrians from across Iran. In India, they settled first in Sanjan and gradually relocated to other interior towns like Navsari, Ankleshwar and Surat. Many others decided to move on to other places like Dehradun and even in Sindh and Punjab provinces (now in Pakistan). Parsis built their own Atash Behram (highest grade of fire temple) in Sanjan called as Iranshah (King of Iran) initially in Sanjan where they landed. Its fire is said to have been consecrated in 721 CE shortly after the Zoroastrians landed in India. The fire was placed at the new location in Udvada, Gujarat in 1742 and it still remains there today.

However, Zoroastrians in India once again had to face an old enemy – persecution by Islamic rulers. In 1465, Sanjan, the city where Zoroastrians settled was attacked by Muslim Sultanate. To battle it out, Parsis joined hands with Hindu benefactors and rulers to fight Islamic rulers side-by-side for a battle that took 12 long years. In a way, the battle proved that Zoroastrians were equally loyal and patriotic about their new country – India. Although, Zoroastrians were not warriors, they had the skills that allowed them to contribute in many different ways to bring prosperity to the land. The locals Zoroastrians – Parsis quickly adopted to the local language – Gujarati, while they were still in touch with the native Persian language. They also adopted Hindu customs and practices and their dressing style. Today, majority of Parsis speak Gujarati and have lost touch with the native Persian language.

India, as we all know has been invaded by many foreign rulers and by the 15th century Indian land was ruled by foreign powers like the Portuguese and the Dutch. Even before they arrive, the land was ruled by the Mughals who allotted lands and permissions to the Portuguese and the Dutch to establish their colonies and factories across India. Parsis were already traders and entrepreneurs by the time the foreign invasion happened. Many of the Parsis had already moved down south to Bombay (now Mumbai) establishing their companies and businesses. In 1665, when Portuguese handed over the power to the British (East India Company) Parsis were already present all over the city with complete control on the economy of the city.

Byculla Standing Parsi
Byculla – Standing Parsi Statue in Bombay

For East India Company, Bombay was the perfect place to handle international trade and British soon found out that Parsis were entrepreneurs with a business mindset. They had great plans set for Bombay and making it into a commercial centre. To do that, they needed the support of local traders and merchants and craftsmen and for them Parsis were the right companions. Parsis collaborated with the British seizing most of the prime properties and areas and boosting the economy of the country.

Jamsetji-Tata
Jamsetji-Tata

As per records, Parsis moved into Bombay by 1640, almost 25 years before British seized the power. In 1673, the British handed over a piece of land in Malabar Hill to the Parsi community to establish their first, Tower of Silence (where Parsi funerals are held). Some of the top Parsi entrepreneurs like Lowji Nusserwanji Wadia (shipbuilder from Surat), Jamshetjee Jeejeebhoy (merchant), and Cowasji Nanabhai Davar (cotton mill entrepreneur) entered the economic scene to boost Bombay’s earnings. East India Company made a very handsome income from India’s first spinning mill – The Bombay Spinning Mill established in 1854. This move impacted the Lancashire mill owners as East India Company saw that they were making more income from Indian mills than from their own cotton mills. In 1870, Bombay had 13 spinning mills; by 1895 the number of mills escalated to 70 mills and by 1915 Bombay was among the top cotton mill cities with 83 spinning mills. It generated lot of employment for the local Indians who were now quickly turning from farmers to workers and traders. Jamshetji Tata gave India its first steel industry and hydro-electricity taking the economy to a whole new level.

Parsis also collaborated with the British to start new education and learning centers across Bombay and India. In 1820, Monstuart Elphinstone established the Bombay Native Education Society. By 1860, Parsi women were focusing on educating girls that come from middle and poor classes. However, at the same time, Parsis also had to ensure that they remain loyal to the country and in the eyes of the Indians who were often labeled as “British bum-lickers”. Parsis were often in a tight situation when they had to choose between their country and their commitment towards the people of their country.

Dadabhai Naoroji Bhikaji Cama Sir Pherozeshah Mehta
Dadabhai Naoroji – Bhikaji Cama – Sir Pherozeshah Mehta

On the other side, many young Parsis that were now gaining access to western education and liberal thinking were on the forefront of the Indian Independence movement like Dadabhai Naoroji, Madam Bhikaji Cama and Sir Pherozeshah Mehta who walked hand in hand with the Indians to push British out of India. Like most Indians, Parsis were also in the favor of Indian independence, but they were equally concerned about the improvement of the society. While Parsi community is very small, it has also taken a great step to boost art, culture, music and entertainment in India. While Dadasaheb Phalke is the Father of Indian Cinema, Ardeshir Irani directed the first Indian sound film called Alam Ara (The Ornament of the World) in 1931 that focuses on a love story between a prince and a gypsy girl. Parsis also adopted theatrical skills from the Europeans and blended it into a new style. In 1850s, the students of Elphinstone College in Bombay formed a dramatic society to perform Shakespeare. Soon after that the first Parsi Theatre Company called – Parsi Natak Mandali evolved in 1853. By 1869, 20 more theatre companies were formed blending performances, songs and stage presentation. Most of the plays incorporated humor, sensationalism and drama punctuated by songs, a format that is still visible in current Indian movies. Parsis were also equally attracted to the Symphony Orchestra of India that failed to attract Hindus and Muslims in the country.

Symphony Orchestra of India
Symphony Orchestra of India

In the 20th century when the Indian Independence movement was buzzing all over the country with Mahatma Gandhi at the lead, Parsis came under fire as their patriotism was heavily questioned. Parsis reaction to the growing political nationalism was very critical and they opposed the non-cooperation movement led by Gandhi from 1920-21. This only amplified their image as “British bum-lickers” and disrespecting and following the freedom path that Gandhi envisioned. Parsi weekly newspaper Jam-e-Jamshed criticized Gandhi’s methods as both ill-conceived and naive. In a year, the revolt took a violent turn and Gandhi felt that the revolt was veering off-course. Disappointed with all that was happening, Gandhi called off the mass non-cooperation movement in a year’s time.

Parsi Well Churchgate
Parsi Prayer Well in Churchgate, Mumbai

By the time, India was about to be a free-country, Parsis were into almost everything. They had started their own medical centers, boy scout troops, ambulance corps, literature groups, newspapers, magazines, educational institutions, legal institutions, housing estates, art, music, entertainment, and even governance. From petty traders and entrepreneurs that focused on shipbuilding, heavy industries, and cotton mills, Parsis had strengthen the Indian economy in every possible way without trying to gain dominance on any Indian community. Many Parsis decided to stay in Pakistan and continue to contribute to the development of Pakistan without hogging the limelight there. I have never heard of any Hindu or Muslim or for that matter any other religion person being converted to Parsi so far (if someone has kindly let me know) and Parsis don’t allow any other community to enter the fire temples or any religious place (at least that’s the case in India – check the prayer well picture above). Many Indians might have a question in their mind – Why don’t Parsis allow other religion people to enter their temple? That’s because we still keep the promise that we made to the Hindu king when we entered India. We are just like the sugar that makes the milk sweet.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. shabana says:

    Very informative. ..thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. I hope you like the upcoming blogs and continue commenting.

      Like

  2. Cyrus says:

    I am curious as to whether you can answer my question regarding Parsis and language.

    Parsis are a Gujarati-speaking people and haven’t spoken Persian as their mother tongue ever since they left Persia. This is understandable to initially lose your language when such a tiny minority in a huge country, but why didn’t they ever learn Persian again? Persian was the official language of India for hundreds of years prior to British colonisation, and there was still heavy emphasis put on learning it in Muslim communities in India (and Pakistan) well into the mid-twentieth century.

    It strikes me as strange that Parsis never saw an affinity towards this language or thought to revive it among themselves when it was the official language of the country they were living in for several centuries.

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    1. Well, I am no expert on topics like religion. However, your question is very valid and I will try and answer your question in the upcoming post where I can elaborate further. My answers will be based on information and simple logic, so don’t expect some highly researched material coming up. Like I said, I am just an average guy with passion for writing.

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