Parsis in India and the Diaspora

Author:   ohn R. Hinnells and Alan Williams
Publisher:   Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group
Reviewer:   Ramchandra R. Joshi & Dr.Urvashi Kaushal
Designation:   Faculty

Parsis in India and the Diaspora (2008) edited by John R. Hinnells and Alan Williams, Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, ISBN: 0-203-93450-4, Pages: 305

The present book here for review is an outcome of the research workshop held in 2007,intheSchool of Oriental and African studies conducted by John Hinnells and published in the following year, in 2008. The book comprises three parts which are categorically entitled and 13 chapters including introduction by the editors. Each article focuses on Parsi diaspora as a unique diaspora community in India and abroad, mainly in Europe and Sri Lanka. Part one includes first four chapters and in the second part, i.e. chapter 5 to 8 are covered, while chapter 9 to 13 are included in Part III. Each chapter in each part produces independent argument on the basis of the study area on Parsi community.The chronological positioning of the Parsis from their early arrival to present time is covered in an organised mannerinthese parts.Preface and Introduction provide a base for the reader to enter into the mainstream study on Parsis. In the very beginning, Introduction as chapter one prepares a base for the reader  to have anoverview of the Parsis in India and abroad. The editors have also systematically introduced their plan for the publication of the book.

Part I is entitled ‘The settlement of the Parsis in India’ which depicts the early arrival of the Parsis in India. First article as Chapter 2 entitled ‘The Structure, Significance and Poetic Integrity of the Qesse-ye- Sanjān’ by Alan Williams lays the foundation of Parsis positioning in India. It takes the reader to the rupture of the history of migration, linguistic competence of the migrant community and religious adherence to the culture and country that they moved out from. The article moderates the variety of perspectives on Qesse-ye- Sanjān(QS) a literary text which depicts narratives of Parsis’ arrival in India. Alan Williams has objectively attempted to unleash the mindset of general reader of Qesse-ye- Sanjān and he comes out to provide solution that Qesse-ye- Sanjān should not be considered simply as an historical record, pilgrimage or a religious text, rather  should also be considered to be a structural pattern for the Parsidiaspora study. Alan has argued that the text QS, enriched with creative linguistic citadels and embedded with historical fact, is not to propagate certain sect, religion but to record the positioning, placing and rooting of a diaspora community. Thus, Alan’s arguments focus on the basic structure of the text QS where the poet Bahman also seems to indicate that text QS is not a record of physical journey of the Parsis, but the transformation from Zoroastrianism to Parsis in India.

In Chapter 3,RukshanaNanji and HomiDhallaprovide an archaeological survey of the place Sanjān. The title, ‘The Landing of the Zoroastrians at Sanjān: the Archaeological Evidence’  goes on to describe the landing of Parsis at Sanjān, Gujarat, India. In this article, Rukshana and Dhalla provide a different perspective to the Parsi study because it is the place Sanjān which possessed favourable demographic characteristic that attracted not only Parsis but many more sea-traders from world. In short, the study related ceramic excavation and archaeological data on the sea-shore of Indian Ocean at Sanjān is meticulously dealt with in this chapter. Apart from this, Chapter4 entitled, ‘ParsiPrayer and Devotional Song in the Indian Diaspora’ by Sara Stewart manifests Parsi communities’ preservations of their oral tradition of songs and prayers. Focusing on moral values and their social discourse in Indian scenario, these devotional songs and prayers are most important socio-linguistic aspects to inculcate religious and moral values in next generation Parsi children. Sara Stewart, in a nutshell, has narrated the powerful effect of these textual practices using imagery, popular folk song and religious ceremonies as a matter of surviving cultural and religious temperament. 

Part II, of the book in chronological order, is entitled  ‘Parsis in nineteenth-century India.’ Chapter 5 ‘Partner in Empire: Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy and the Public Culture of Nineteenth-Century Bombay’ by Jesse S. Palsetia delineates the economic condition of the city of Bombay during colonial India. It also emphasises on the contribution and accommodating nature of Parsis in British time. The article as a whole narrates social and cultural image established through the crucial role of JamsetjeeJejeebhoy and his endeavours to reshape Indian cultural image through urban Bombay. Then in chapter 6, John Hinnells takes the reader to the authority related issues in Parsi community in terms of religion and establishment of sacred fire. As the title  ‘Changing Perceptions of Authority among Parsis in India’suggests, it looks into the changing nature of ‘authority’ in the Parsi community. In this article, Hinnells deals with the changing place of Irānsha- the sacred fire from remote Bāsda to Navasāriand marks it as themost notable change in Parsi community. Parsis early settlement in Gujarat state and later on their migration to Bombay especially during Bombay Presidency also leads to the formation of ParsiPanch which was again a matter of authority rather than recognition. The ParsiPanch mainly looks after social issues like marriage, social behaviour and religious issues like observance of purity and management in Anjuman. Apart from this, Hinnellsalso explains the Parsi conflict in placing the sacred fire and final settlement in Udwādā.The article narrates internal-conflict and religious ceremonial power of Dastur, AtashBahraman from Bombay ParsiPanchyat to modern times.

Chapter 7, ‘Bombay Parsi Merchants in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’ by Rusheed R. Wadia, recounts Parsi entrepreneurs, economic condition of colonial India and Parsis social networking for business growth. Along with this, the social behaviour of the Parsi entrepreneur towards education awareness, ethos, Indian philosophy, Indian value education is also recognised by RusheedWadia. In this article, the author has created a gallery of Paris entrepreneurs who have established international relationship with America, Europe, East Africa and Chine as well. The gallery includes RustomManek (one of the earliest Bankers in Surat,)Wadia, Tata etc. The primary focus of the article is on the small community of a large business, a community of commodity which remained united with the key words ‘& sons’ in the business world of that time. The collective business activities and identity formation on the basis of family kinship resulted in strong Indian economy in general and Parsi community in special. In a way, RusheedWadia significantly identifies the collaborative work in business by creating network system in business which resulted in one of the most prominent characteristics of Parsi entrepreneurship in India. In chapter 8, John Mcleod’s case study entitled ‘Mourning, Philanthropy, and M.M. Bhownaggree’s Road to Parliament’ describes the life journey of Sir MancherjiMerwanjeeBhownaggrree, second Indian and first Parsi to be elected in British Parliament. The case study, broadly, focuses on Bhownaggrree’s social and philanthropic projects which brought his name on international platform. Bhownaggrree’s visionary project on girls’ education and health awareness is also included in this article. The case study focuses on Bhownaggrree’s special attempts to establish his dead sister’s monument. It also unveils the mourning custom of Parsis during Victorian time.

Part III extends the study to modern time with the title ‘Parsis in Twentieth-Century India and in Their Diaspora.’ In this part, chapter 9 entitled ‘Judging Conversation to Zoroastrianism behind the Scene of the Parsi Panchayat Case (1908)’ written by Mira Sharafi is a case study of well-known ParsiPanchayat case of 1908 about the issue of conversion and views of Parsi judges on it. It is Davar who claimed that the term Parsi is associated with ethnicity while the term Zoroastrianism is related to religion. The entire case is all about various views on Parsi conversion to non-Parsi and vice versa. Sharafi’s argument logically moves towards describing the major conflict between community and religion. And finally, Davar emerges as  hero of Parsi community who saves the community from degeneration. In chapter 10,Jamsheed K. Choksy under the title, ‘Iranians and Indians on the shores of Serendib (Sri Lanka)’ depicts Parsi diaspora in Sri Lanka from Puranic age of Indian mythology to modern time. The journey of Parsis from Iran to Sri Lanka is a journey via India. In this articleJamsheed chronologically describesthe etymology of the word Sri Lanka, modern Ceylon andParsis in Sri Lanka in 17th and 18th century associated with sea trading and plantation in Colombo. Apart from this, Parsis in Sri Lanka also proved to be key role in money lending and transportation of goods like coconut and spices on the shores of Sri Lanka. DadyHirjee and Narimajee from Surat, CowasjeeColombowala who owned a coffee plantation in Colombo, Dada Naserwarjee who worked in printing department of ‘Times of Cyclone’, K. D. Choksy are well known businessman in Sri Lanka. In fact, there is a series of such successful Parsi diaspora in Sri Lanka who have adequately maintained their culture as well as social custom in Sri Lanka through their frequent visits to India. Jamsheed has also discussed the second generation Parsi diaspora in Sri Lanka and their achievements. In short, the article in an elaborate manner, describes how Parsis in Sri Lanka played an important role in Sri Lankan economy and society from ancient time to present world.

Chapter 11 ‘Zoroastrians in Europe 1976 and 2003, Continuity and change’ by Gillian Mary Towler Mehta comprises of two surveys the affirmation/rejection of purity laws of Parsis. The survey categorically focuses on the various views of Parsis on observance of purity law. The population of the surveys is divided in broadly three categories. First Parsi man and woman as a whole, secondly Parsi men, then Parsi women which is internally divided into many categories like age, marital status, country of residence, metropolitan or urban environment, levels of education, occupation and finally on the basis of the member of Zoroastrianism and non-Zoroastrianism. The data collection on the basis of questionnaire showed that there is significant difference in the approach of Parsi women of different age and area towards “affirmation/rejection” of purity laws. In chapter 12 ‘Para-Zoroastrianism: Memic and Transmission and Appropriations’ by Michel Stausberg manifests Parsi communities’ migration that is termed in the text as ‘memetic migrations.’ Focusing on ethnic aspects of Parsi diaspora and their religious boundaries for confining membership of certain people, Stausberge provides Parsi community in a transience mode in the present modern period. Since Stausberg looks at religion as a whole, thus, the study provides a new exploration in the field of Parsi diaspora and their memic migration on the basis of ethnic and religious practices. Then, in chapter 13 Hinnells, framing Parsis in Indian in last century, juxtaposes with the arrival and settlement of Parsis in India. Hinnells argues that the development and achievements that the Parsis attained in the last century in India and abroad is no less than the Parsis achieved in historical time. Hinnels’s arguments are based on the modern survey of Parsi community and structurally it brings the arguments of the collection, as a whole, to conclusion. It finally concludes that Parsi community, apart from Indian demography, had spread all over the world and has an important space and place in the world diaspora community.         

This book is an important phenomenon to undertake the journey of Parsis since their arrival in India to the settlement of modern Parsis diaspora throughout the world. The book can be a good introductory textbook to the scholars and researchers in the field of Parsi history, religion, literature and social position of Parsis in India and abroad as well. On the other hand, the book with the logical progression of arguments and chronological positioning the migrated country provides Parsis’ achievements and social networking either in business or welfare of the community and society at large. The collected articles in the book are well researched articles based on surveys and case studies which also adequately add to tell the tale of Parsis’ personality traits, philanthropic nature, legal aspects of community and religious adherences. In a way, the collection is a collage of Parsi socio-ethno-cultural, citadels of nuances that the reader finds according to his/her interest and understanding.      


Reviewed: Ramchandra R. Joshi, Assistant Professor of English, Dr. A.PJ. Abdul Kalam Govt. College, Silvassa, DNH, UT of India, [email protected] and Dr.Urvashi Kaushal, Assistant Professor of English, Applied Mathematics and Humanities Department,  National Institute of Technology, Surat, Gujarat. 

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