History of Parsi's

mount Damavand Panoramic View

Early History

Qeṣṣa-ye Sanjān (The Story of Sanjān). Iranians have been involved in trade with India from Achaemenid times, but the creation of a Parsi settlement in India was the outcome of the migration of Zoroastrian refugees from their original homeland in medieval Islamic Persia. There is debate over the exact date of this exodus: 716 CE, 775 (Seervai and Patel), 780s (Qeṣṣa; all quotations from this source are taken from Eduljee’s translation), 785 (Modi, 1905, pp. 1-11), and 936 (S. H. Hodivala, pp. 1-11) have been variously cited. A Parsi School - 1910 The variations are due to the fact that the only source, the Qeṣṣa-ye Sanjān does not give precise dates but rather uses round figures (e.g., “In this way three hundred years, more or less, elapsed … in this way another two centuries passed by … In this way seven hundred years passed by …,”). Furthermore, these are dates between events not all of which can be confidently identified. There is also a further overriding problem. The Qeṣṣa states that it was written down in 1600, based on oral tradition and it must therefore be used with due caution and appropriate allowances as a historical source, given the way it was composed and transmitted.

The Qeṣṣa is, however, important as an indicator of the Parsis’ own perception of their settlement in India. The account of the exodus begins by describing how a group of devout Zoroastrians in Persia went into hiding in the mountains during a time of fierce Islamic persecution. After a hundred years they moved on to Hormuz, but still remained under threat of oppression. “At last a wise dastur, who was also an astrologer, read the stars and said: 'The time Fate had allotted us in this place is now coming to an end, we must go at once to India.’” They sailed to Diu in western India, where they settled for nineteen years: “[t]hen a priest-astrologer, after reading the stars, said to them: 'Our destiny lies elsewhere, we must leave Diu and seek another place of refuge.’” But a storm came while they were at sea, endangering their lives, so they prayed “O Almighty God! Help us to get out of this danger. O Victorious Bahrām! Come to our aid” and they vowed to consecrate a Bahrām fire if they arrived safely in India. “Their prayers were heard; the victorious fire of Bahrām abated the storm,” so they arrived safely in India. There they sought permission to settle from the local ruler, Jadi Rana. He asked for an account of their religion and laid down four pre-conditions before agreeing to grant them sanctuary: They should use only the local language, the women should adopt the local dress, they must put down their weapons and vow never to use them and, finally, their marriage ceremonies should be conducted only in the evening; the dastur agreed. In his account of their religion he emphasized the features that accorded with Hinduism, for instance, reverence for the sun and the moon, fire and water, and the cow. He also stressed that their women observed strict purity laws. In short, the settlement in India was written in the stars, their safe arrival was due to divine aid, and they were not asked to forsake any significant aspects of their religion; indeed Zoroastrianism shared much in common with that of the Hindus. Oral tradition relates that Jadi Rana felt apprehensive about granting sanctuary to people of such warrior-like appearance, but the priests convinced the king that they would be 'like sugar in a full cup of milk, adding sweetness but not causing it to overflow’ (a variant relates the placing of a gold ring in the cup of milk; see Axelrod). Tradition states that the Parsi affirmations of their religion were delivered in sixteen statements (Skt. ṡlokas; though the oldest manuscripts date from the 17th century;Qeṣṣa,). They emphasized the points where their religion was consistent with Hindu tradition, but some details do not reflect Hindu practice; for example, there was no reason why weddings should be held at night.Class with teacher in vernacular school BombayIt has, therefore, been plausibly argued that these traditions seek to explain why certain Parsi practices have evolved by imbuing them with an aura of historical legitimacy and authority, harking back to the covenant reached with the Hindu ruler when they first settled in India.

The Qeṣṣa outlines the common Parsi perception of the pattern of their settlement in western India. After some time the settlers approached the king for permission to build a temple to house their most sacred grade of fire, an Ātaš Bahrām. He consented and gave them suitable land. The history of that fire, known as Irān-šāh, their “king of Iran” in exile, is central to much subsequent Parsi history. The legend states that “three hundred years more or less” elapsed while the Parsis settled in peace in Sanjān and beyond. Then the Ghaznavid ruler, Sultan Maḥmud, pledged to add Sanjān to his kingdom. His army advanced on Sanjān “like a black cloud.” The Parsis stood alongside the Hindus. The battle is depicted in epic style. The sultan’s forces included not only horsemen but elephants “… the plain was distressed by the weight of the elephants … Day and night the battle raged … The two leaders were as dragons, struggling with each other with the fury of tigers. The sky was covered with a dark cloud from which rained swords, arrows, and spears. The dead lay in heaps and the dying got no succor - such was Fate’s grim decree.” The battle went against the Hindus, who fled, but the Parsis stood firm and after three days the Muslim forces withdrew, before returning the following day with reinforcements. The Parsi leader, Ardašir, rushed on to the field like a lion and roared out a challenge. A Muslim knight “… riding a swift horse, charged at Ardašir with his lance … the two warriors were locked in combat. The two fought like lions … Ardašir managed to … drag him down, and then he cut off his head.” Then the Muslim reinforcements charged. “The din of clashing swords rose above the land, waves of blood flowed over the field like a river.” Ardašir was struck by an arrow, “blood poured out of his wound; weakened, he fell from his horse and died. When tragedy beckons even marble becomes soft as wax”. The Hindu-Parsi alliance was defeated and Muslims ruled the land. Various Parsi scholars have attempted to identify this invasion with known external history, but with no clear conclusion. Perhaps the significant aspect of the story is not its debatable historical significance and plausibility, but rather the literary manner in which it invokes imagery from the Šāh-nāma, and particularly the way the heroic figure of Rostam is evoked in the description of Ardašir.

Zoroastrians wanted to convince dear Indian king that they do not take so much space in India but they will be like that sugar added to that bowl of milk in society by serving country well.

The Qeṣṣa then focuses on the story of the sacred fire, Irān-šāh. Fearing for its safety in the face of the Muslim invasion of Sanjān, Parsi priests took it to the mountain of Bahrot, south of Sanjān, and hid it in a cave for twelve years before taking it to the village of Bansda; the dates are again disputed. Jivanji J. Modi dates the sack at 1490, while Shapurshah Hodivala puts it before 1478, probably 1465. There were two major Muslim conquests of Gujarat in the approximate period referred to in the Qeṣṣa, in 1465 and 1572; it is not clear which of the two dates is relevant. Because the route to Bansda was impassable during monsoons, Irān-šāh was eventually moved to Navsari at the behest of a legendary leader, Chāngā Āsā. The date is again a matter of debate. H. E. Eduljee considers it one of the few fixed dates in Parsi history, namely 1419. The first rivayat (rewāyat;), that of Nariman Hōšang in 1478, explicitly refers to Chāngā Āsā as leader in Navsari and his achievement in obtaining relief from the jezya (the poll tax levied on non-Muslims), but there is no mention of the transfer of Irān-šāh to Navsari through his proposal, a momentous event which would have been mentioned if it had occurred by then. There is a hint that it had been installed in Navsari by the time of the second rivayat, often referred to also as the rivayat of Nariman Hōšang (though he is not said to be the bearer of the letter) dated 1480 or 1485. In short it seems that the Irān-šāh was moved to Navsari sometime in the late 15th century, and that a precise date cannot be given. This does not bring into question the basic narrative that the Parsis settled in the northwest coast sometime in the first millennium, that they consecrated a fire of the highest grade, and that they were threatened by Muslim conquest, which forced them to take the fire into hiding before establishing it at Navsari. Such events shape community identity and their memory is generally carefully preserved, but precisely because of their importance the stories can be subject to later “elucidation.” Sanjān was at the turn of the millennium a thriving port, and it is plausible that it was a major Parsi settlement as the Qeṣṣa indicates. It was from there, for example, that the Navsari community first called for priests in 1142, but the community there disappears from Parsi history after the “sack” of Sanjān.

Early Parsi settlements in Gujarat

The Qeṣṣa outlines the dispersal of Parsis around Gujarat. It has generally been interpreted as indicating a migration from Sanjān northwards to Broach (Bharuch), Navsari, Ankleshwar, and Cambay, but, as Eduljee points out, the Qeṣṣa does not claim that it relates the only migration of Zoroastrians from Persia. The early settlements were in locations with harbors, some of which could accommodate large ships that crossed the oceans, for example Cambay and Broach, while others, such as Navsari, were harbors used by ships pursuing the coastal trade. The sea-borne trade between western India and the Persian Gulf (and to East Africa and China) dated back centuries (Kearney). The Parsi migrants were not therefore venturing into unknown territory, but to a region with which Iranians had long traded. It is plausible that there were several groups who migrated over the years. As noted below, there were a variety of traditions about the settlement in the early 17th century. The Qeṣṣa-ye Sanjān is the tradition that has become the focus of communal and consequently academic attention and should be viewed, as convincingly demonstrated by Susan Stiles Maneck and Michael Stausberg, not primarily as a historical source but as an example of a particular genre of Persian poetic literature (it is composed in Persian couplets), with theological and apocalyptic overtones that owe much to Islamic convention, especially in the opening doxology, the praise to God “the Giver, the Merciful, the Just … You have made Adam out of clay” (Qeṣṣa,).

There are a number of hints about early Parsi settlements in a range of sources, some Muslim, some notes on old manuscripts, and some early buildings. An extensive collection of such notes is in Seervai and Patel. Some of the earliest are: the Kenheri cave inscriptions of 1009 CE; reports of the presence of Parsi traders in Cambay in the 11th century; the settlement in Navsari, which is said to date from 1142; and a copy of theVendidad made in Ankleshwar in 1258. A new daḵ-ma was built near Broach in 1309 because the old one (undated) was dilapidated. Some grants of land were made to Parsis around Thana in the 11th century, and there is a communal memory and ritual recall of a Parsi massacre at Variav in the 12th century (though the legend takes various forms, see Qeṣṣa,). With such fragmentary evidence it is difficult to plot a coherent chronological history.

There are indications of Iranian Zoroastrians in India about whose history we know little. In the 19th century some western academics and Parsis were excited by what were first thought to be long lost ancient Zoroastrian mystical texts, the Dabestān-e maḏāheb and Dasātir. They were soon shown to be modern texts reflecting the beliefs of some Zoroastrians interested in Sufism and Hindu and Buddhist mysticism. The Dabestān relates that it was the product of one Dastur Āḏar Kayvān and some of his followers. He settled in Patna in his later years and died there in 1617-18. It is not implausible that other Zoroastrians interested in mysticism might also have traveled to India, not only to escape persecution but also in search of enlightenment.

The Rivayats

Chāngā Āsā, credited with the bringing of the fire to Navsari, was a pioneer in another important development in Parsi history. Conscious of the lack of ritual knowledge in his community, and supported by leading Parsis in Surat and other centers, he arranged for a Zoroastrian layman (behdin) of Broach, Nariman Hōšang, to go and seek guidance from the Zoroastrian authorities (dastur) in Yazd and Kermān. He appears to have gone without any letters of introduction, indeed with no knowledge of Persian, so he spent a year in Yazd learning the language while earning a living by trading in dates. The reply he brought back in 1478 was addressed to Chāngā Āsā, as well as to the leaders of the various settlements. Of the 26 Rivayatswritten between 1478 and 1773, 13 were written before 1600, an era otherwise sadly lacking in sources on Parsi history. The Rivayats provide information not only on Zoroastrian belief and practice, but also offer a glimpse into the conditions experienced by Iranian Zoroastrians. They were concerned with the Parsis’ lack of knowledge and urged them to send two priests (ērvad;) to Iran to study the religion, as they themselves suffered from a shortage of priests and could not spare any of their own to be dispatched to India. They praised Chāngā Āsā for negotiating freedom from the poll tax for Navsari Parsis. Sanjān is not named among the settlements greeted in the Rivayat, presumably indicating that the Parsis had moved on. Certain Indian centers were mentioned regularly in the Rivayats, namely Navsari (which had always the largest number of people addressed), Surat, Ankleshwar, Broach, and Cambay (or Khambat). It is a feasible that these were regarded as the main Parsi settlements at the time. ARivayat sent in 1511 expresses regret that Iranian Zoroastrians had been unaware of their co-religionists in India, despite the earlier Rivayats. The Iranian Zoroastrians sent manuscripts of various Zoroastrian texts to India. The signatories of theRivayats were from Torkābād, Šarifābād, Khorasan, Sistān, and Kermān. A common theme in several Rivayats is the terrible hardships suffered by Iranian Zoroastrians, who interpreted their suffering as signs of the final assault of evil before a savior would come and the renovation commence. In contrast, the Parsis were beginning to occupy important social positions such as patels or desais (village leaders and tax officers). The period of Mughal rule (1573-1660) was a time of relative peace and security, in contrast to the earlier period of oppressive rule from the Delhi Sultanate (13th-15th cent.).

Early religious organization

Over the years a system of ministerial districts (panthak) was established, allocating different areas to the religious care of specified priestly lineages. We do not have a precise date when these agreements were reached. The oldest manuscript detailing them is dated 1543 (Sanjana, pp. 98-99). The Panthaks were: (1) Sanjān between the rivers Pardi to Dahanu (nowadays based in Udwada); (2) Navsari between the rivers Pardi to Variav and the River Tapti; (3) Godavra, from Variav to River Narmada near Broach; (4) Pahruc from Ankleshwar to Cambay; and (5) Cambay. Some of the regions, for instance, Sanjān and Navsari, long predate that period. As the Parsis moved around the region, disputes, sometimes violent, erupted over priestly rights and privileges.

The transferring of the sacred fire (ātaš) from Bansda was greeted with joy in Navsari, but it resulted in what might be called substantial “ecclesiastical problems.” The families of priests who had tended the sacred fire from its consecration in Sanjān came with it to Navsari. The initial agreement was that only the “Sanjanas” (priests from Sanjān) should tend to the sacred fire and all other family rites in the town should be performed by the resident priests of Navsari, the Bhagarsaths (the sharers, i.e., of the priestly duties that the original priests sent from Sanjān had shared among themselves). The problem was a delicate one, because Parsi priests then (and now) are not paid a salary for rites performed. When the lay people of Navsari requested Sanjana priests to perform their family ceremonies, bitter disputes arose. In September 1686, seven Bhagaria behdins and two Sanjana mobads were killed. The behdins took one Bhagaria, Minocher Homji, into their fold and established a dar-e mehr in his home (which is still known as Minocher Homji Agiary;). It was a long-lasting conflict involving appeals to secular courts. Eventually it led to the moving of the sacred fire, which had been temporarily moved to fortified Surat 1733-36, because of Marathi Pindari invasion, and from Navsari to Bulsar in 1740, the date established by Shapurji Hodivala (1927,) on the basis of the date of the permission (parvāna) given by the Gāēkwād/Gāēkwār (ruler of Baroda) to move the sacred Irān-šāh. At Bulsar the sacred fire was kept in the house of a priest, since there was no special building, for approximately two years. Despite an appeal in 1741 for it to be returned to Navsari, it was taken in 1742 to the village of Udwada, which was in the Sanjana Panthak, but with a second line of dasturs representing the lineage of the two priests who brought the fire to Udwada (S. K. Hodivala, 1927). There had been a Parsi community at Udwada beforehand, for it had a daḵ-ma built in 1697, but it appears to have been a poor community. There was some rivalry with the larger community in Bulsar.