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the-south-asian.com                               April  2001

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Page  6  of  11

Zarathusthra.jpg (31353 bytes)
Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds

 

Parsis - the Zoroastrians of India

by

Sooni Taraporevala

Pioneers of modern India

Modern India owes a large debt to the visionary Jamsetji Tata who had the foresight to lay a firm foundation that would allow India to be economically independent.

His descendant JRD Tata, took over the running of Tata Sons and expanded the business empire even further. A keen aviator, JRD was the first Indian to start a national airline (Tata Airlines) that later became Air-India.

Parsis also established the first cotton mills in India, the first newspaper, the first Indian owned bank. In the navy we had Admiral Jal Cursetji, in the airforce Air Marshal Engineer and the Indian army was commandeered by another Parsi-Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw. The late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's father Feroze Gandhi also came from the community. And of course there is Zubin Mehta who belongs collectively to every Parsi mother.

Fifty-three years after Independence, we have nothing to fear but ourselves. We are the only community in fertile India that has a diminishing birthrate. We intermarry amongst ourselves, marry late, have few children and have so confused religion and race, that many would like to lay down laws that prohibit anybody from ever becoming either a Parsi or a Zoroastrian. In a political climate where religions vie with each other to gain converts, we zealously try to keep them out.

As we enter the Millennium, Parsis continue to live in several centuries simultaneously, inhabit several identities; a balancing act that takes us from Stone Age rituals to Freddy Mercury (real name Farrokh Bulsara). Out of these diverse elements we have created a culture that is uniquely our own. Fifty years from now, will we still be around? Will Zarathustra's Good Religion be a living faith, or will the world's first messianic prophet having survived four thousand years, finally be relegated to the history books?

 

Political Activists

Dadabhai Naoroji
(Born: September 4, 1825, Bombay, India ; Died: June 30, 1917, Bombay, India.)

The "Grand Old Man of India" was the first to formulate and articulate the 'economic drain theory' in his book, Poverty and Un-British Rule in India, published in 1901. He fought for the Indianisation of the Indian Civil Service and protested vehemently against the extravagant expenditure on military expeditions against Afghanistan, Burma and Egypt, undertaken at the Indian tax-payer's expense for the glory of England. To educate the British public and to fight for Indian rights, in 1892 he stood for elections to the British House of Commons as a liberal from Central Finsbury, London. He won by three votes and his constituents nicknamed him 'Mr Narrow Majority'. He was the first Indian to beat the British at their own game. The conservative press did their best to stir up racial prejudice against him:

"Central Finsbury should be ashamed of itself at having publicly confessed that there was not in the whole of the Division an Englishman, a Scotsman, a Welshman, or an Irishman as worthy of their votes as this fire-worshipper from Bombay."

In 1893, Dadabhai Naoroji expressed the spirit of an emerging national identity when he stated: "Whether I am a Hindu, a Mohamaden, a Parsi, a Christian, or of any other creed, I am above all an Indian. Our country is India; our nationality is Indian."

Born to a Parsi priest's family in Bombay,he studied in Elphinstone College, Bombay, and became a professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy there at the age of 27. He was the first Indian to become a professor of the college. At age thirty, he left for England, where he was to spend most of his life. In 1895 he was appointed to the royal commission on Indian expenditure. He returned to India and was thrice elected to the post of the president of The Indian National Congress - in 1886, 1893 and again in 1906.

In 1893, Dadabhai Naoroji expressed the spirit of an emerging national identity when he stated: "Whether I am a Hindu, a Mohamaden, a Parsi, a Christian, or of any other creed, I am above all an Indian. Our country is India; our nationality is Indian."

The Congress' demand for swaraj (independence) was first expressed publicly by him in his presidential address in 1906.

 

Madame Bhikaji Cama  
(1861-1936) 
Our radical firebrand, was exiled from
India and Britain and lived in France. Bhikaiji was a tireless propagandist for Indian Independence. Russian comrades used to call her India's Joan of Arc. Lenin reportedly invited her to reside in Russia but she did not accept the invitation.

In 1907, she addressed an audience of 1,000 Germans at the Stuttgart Conference. After her impassioned speech she unfurled a flag, a tricolour, which became, with some changes, India's national flag forty years later. As her activities grew more radical the British requested the French to extradite her. The French refused. In 1936, alone and seriously ill, wishing to die in her own country she petitioned the British government to be allowed to return home. Her request was granted, provided she sign what she had refused to all her life; a statement promising she would take no part in politics. She returned to Bombay and after an illness of eight months, died lonely, forgotten and unsung in the Parsi General Hospital.

 

Pherozeshah Mehta
Born: August 4, 1845, Bombay, India.
Died: November 5, 1915, Bombay, India.

In 1890, as President of the Indian National Congress, Pherozeshah Mehta (nicknamed Ferocious Mehta) delivered the presidential address in which he said,

"In speaking of myself as a native of this country, I am not unaware that,

incredible as it may seem, Parsis have been both called and invited and

allured to call themselves, foreigners."

 

He saw through the British tactics of binding Parsi loyalty to the crown. They repeatedly made Parsis feel superior by showering them with decorations and praise. Up until 1946, a total of sixty-three Parsis had been knighted; of the four Indians who had been made hereditary baronets until 1908, three were Parsis. In 1877, Sir J. R. Carnac, Governor of Bombay, declared: 

"Then, gentlemen Parsis, I would ask you to remember that you have what is called the very bluest blood in Asia."

Known as the "Father of Municipal Government in Bombay", he drafted the Bombay Municipal Act of 1872. He was the Municipal commissioner in 1873 and the Chairman in 1884-5 and again in 1905. A lawyer by profession, Mehta was elected the president of the Indian National Congress in 1890. He founded the newspaper Bombay Chronicle in 1910 and in the same year he was made the Vice Chancellor of the Bombay University. Studied at Elphinstone College, Bombay, and later went to England to study law. . He was called to the bar in 1868.

The zeal with which the Parsis still pursue certain trades is best exemplified by their unique surnames - a community directory lists not only Printer and Purveyor, but also Readymoney, Screwwala and even SodawaterBottleOpenerwala.

 

Extracted  from the book
'Zoroastrians of India: Parsis: A Photographic Journey' 
by Sooni Taraporevala.
 
c 2000 Sooni Taraporevala. 
Reproduced with permission of Good Books, Mumbai, India.

next page

 

Parsis - The Zoroastrians of India

The story of the Ancestors

Arrival in India and the beginnings of a new life

The Early Entrepreneurs of Bombay

Pioneers of Modern India

Eminent Parsis of India

What is Zoroastrianism?

Who was Zarathustra?

Rituals, Customs & Manners

 

 

 

 


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