The Parsis

Now linked by the Zoroastrianism home page.

Language: Gujarati, Religion: Zoroastrianism, Estimated population: ?.

Gujarat ...

Some Zoroastrian Persians migrated to India after the fall of the Sassanian Empire, and gave rise to the modern Indian Parsi community. According to a chronicle written in the 17th century, the Kissah-i-Sanjan, the Parsis first came to India in the 8th century. They landed in Diu, and were later given refuge in Sanjan (Gujarat) by the local king, Jadi Rana. Five years after this they built the first fire temple, Atash Behram, to shelter the holy fire rescued from Iran.

Over the years this community accultured to the new land. Gujarati became the native language of the community and the sari the garment of the women. However the Parsis preserved their separate cultural and religious identity.

Towards the end of the 10th century, the Parsis began to settle in other parts of Gujarat. This gave rise to difficulties in defining the limits of priestly jurisdiction, which were resolved in 1290 AD by the establishment of five panthaks or districts-- Sanjan, Nausari, Godareh-Ankleswar, Broach and Cambay.

Late in the 15th century Sanjan was attacked by a Muslim army, probably a war of conquest by the sixth Sultan of Gujarat. The Parsis supported the local Hindu king with 1400 men, and were annihilated. The survivors fled with the holy fire, which was installed in Nausari in 1516. Later, due to disputes between priests, it was transferred and came to its present location in Udvada in 1742.

... Bombay

From the 16th century, Surat became a major centre of trade, and more and more Parsis migrated to this town. The newly arrived European traders preferred to conduct business through this community, since their status as a minority gave them the necessary flexibility in their new role as brokers. The first record of a Parsi, Dorabji Nanabhai, settling in Bombay dates from 1640.

After 1661, when Bombay passed to the British, there was a concerted effort to bring artisans and traders to settle in the new town. Aungier wrote a letter to the Factor in Surat on November 21, 1647,

... to invite as many weavers as possible, ... whereinto you will promise them such priviledges, immunities, and exemptions from publique duties as they shall reasonably desire from you...

A large part of the Parsi migrants to Bombay in these years was constituted of weavers and other artisans. In 1673, the British handed over a piece of land in Malabar Hill to the Parsi community for the establishment of their first Dakhma, Tower of Silence.

In 1735 Lowjee Nusserwanji, a master shipbuilder, was granted land in Bombay by the East India Company. He took the name of his trade, Wadia, and moved into the developing town. Incidentally, the Wadias built the ship Minden, on board which Francis Scott Key composed the US national anthem "Star Spangled Banner".

In 1780, 9.2% of the population of Bombay were Parsis. A first wave of migration followed a famine in Gujarat in 1790. By 1812 the number of Parsis in Bombay had quadrupled. In 1837, a second large wave of migrations to Bombay followed a huge fire in Surat. Today, more than 70% of all Parsis live in Bombay.

The Parsis are intimately connected with the history of Bombay. The cotton boom was largely fuelled by Parsi entrepreneurs. The oldest newspaper in Bombay, "Bombay Samachar", was run by Parsis. Congress stalwarts like Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta and Dinshaw Wacha were Parsis. One of India's biggest industrial houses was founded by a Parsi, Jamsetji Tata. Even the physical shape of Bombay was determined by donations to build causeways, roads and buildings by members of the Jeejeebhoy and Readymoney families.

© Copyright and disclaimer. Created on Dec 3, 1995; last modified Feb 4, 1999.