'Spirit of India'
the-south-asian.com April 2001
Page 4 of 11
Parsis - the Zoroastrians of India by Sooni Taraporevala The Early Years Arrival in India and the beginnings of a new life According to Parsi lore they
Parsis - the Zoroastrians of India
The Early Years
Arrival in India and the beginnings of a new life
According to Parsi lore theyspent nineteen years on the island of Diu, after which they set sail again and landed in Sanjan also on the west coast of India, either in the year 936AD or in 716AD [many an intense battle has been fought amongst Parsis over which date is more accurate.]
Permission to settle was granted by Jadhav Rana, The Hindu ruler. These newly arrived strangers were called Parsis - to denote the region from where they had come - Pars, (Persia), once the birthplace of mighty empires, now the distant dream of a band of refugees.
Hindu India was kind to the refugees from Pars. They suffered no persecution, no fear. They were allowed to prosper and grow. They built the first fire temple in AD 721(Picture to the left), installed with due ceremony the holy fire which they called the Iranshah, the King of Iran; lived largely peaceful, obscure existences in various villages and towns of Gujarat as farmers, weavers and carpenters.
For about three hundred years after landing at Sanjan, Parsis are said to have lived in peace and without molestation. By that time their numbers had greatly increased. Many moved from Sanjan to other parts of India with their families: to Cambay, Navsari, Anklesvar, Variav, Vankaner and Surat in the north, and to Thane and Chaul in the south. Pockets of Parsis were also found in Upper India, mentioned by early travellers: in Sind, Dehra-Dun and Punjab.
Whenever they left Sanjan to settle elsewhere, they carried a part of the Iranshah with them-the first fire they had consecrated on Indian soil. But not all climes were as hospitable as Sanjan. In Sind, Ibrahim the Ghaznavid perceived the Parsis as a colony of fire-worshippers and attacked them. In Thana, which was ruled by the Portuguese, they were seen as idolaters and put upon by missionaries to convert to Christianity.
However, Islam did follow them even to India. In 1465 Sanjan was sacked and destroyed by the Muslim Sultanate. Parsis fought valiantly, side by side with their Hindu benefactors. Many lost their lives, but the priests managed to rescue the sacred fire and carried it safely to a cave on a hill, where, protected by jungle and sea, they guarded it for the next twelve years.
Though they didn't completely lose touch with the Persian language, Gujarati (their version of it), started to become their mother tongue. They adopted many Hindu customs. Parsi women dressed like their Indian counterparts. They even wore nose rings.
Many settled down in the port town of Surat, in Gujarat, where in the fifteenth century, Europeans (the Portuguese, the British and the Dutch) had been given permission by the Mughals to establish trading factories. Unhampered by caste prejudices, Surat provided an ideal opportunity for Parsis to engage in occupations that they had never attempted before. Farmers became traders and chief native agents, carpenters became shipbuilders. An adventurous few left Surat and moved south to Bombay, then only a set of islands, in the wilderness. Here, they acted as brokers between the Indians and the Portuguese. They were in Bombay when it was ceded by Portugal to England in 1665 and three years later when the Crown handed over the island to the East India Company, Parsis were already a presence.
"They are an industrious people," wrote Governor Aungier in a letter to England, "and ingenious in trade, therein they totally employe themselves. There are at present but few of them, but we expect a greater number having gratified them in their desire to build a bureing place for their dead on the Island."
The East India Company had grand plans for Bombay. They had visions of making this settlement a vibrant trading and commercial centre. In order to do so they needed to attract Indian traders, merchants and craftsmen to settle in and develop this frontier land. The terms they offered to native communities were generous and to an immigrant community like the Parsis must have seemed almost heaven-sent. All persons born in Bombay would become natural subjects of England. All communities migrating to Bombay were guaranteed religious freedom and were permitted to build their houses within the fort walls, alongside the British, where they would be protected from any hostile attacks. Though the Parsis were quicker to recognise and seize this unique historical opportunity and came to Bombay earlier than most and in larger numbers, they weren't the only ones. There were Muslim weavers from Ahmedabad, Bohras, Beni-Israeli Jews, Jains, Armenians. And though the residential area was divided into the white and native parts, in the real life of the city, in the counting houses, markets, docks, everybody jostled together in a cooperative venture.
from the book
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