History of Parsi's

mount Damavand Panoramic View


Up to the 17th century, sources offer only fragmentary information, but then, with the arrival of various European powers, a number of external accounts of the Parsis appeared, and the Parsis themselves began to keep more records. There were two earlier Western reports by the friars Jordanus in 1322 and Odoric de Pordenone in 1325, but they give scant detail. Although records increase, problems of history remain. The political situation in western India was complex. Mainly to the north were the Muslim powers, and from the south came Hindu Marathas. Their conflict ebbed and flowed so that territories changed hands several times, especially trading centers like Surat, where there was a growing number of Parsis. The situation was complicated by the rivalry between Western powers. By 1558 the Portuguese dominated an area of some thousand square miles in northwest India. Under Portuguese rule Parsis became traders and are mentioned by Portuguese writers (Firby,). By 1600 the Portuguese were rivaled by the Dutch and the French and in the 17th century by the British, especially in Surat, a port of increasing importance and a meeting point for traders and the Parsis.

Father Anthony Monserrate was a Portuguese Jesuit who encountered Parsis on his journey through Gujarat to visit Akbar, the Mughal emperor, in Fatḥpur Sikri around 1580-83. He commented on their base in Navsari and noted their Persian ancestry. Like other Portuguese, he compared the Parsis to Jews “[i]n colour they are white but are extremely similar to the Jews in the rest of their physical and mental characteristics, in their dress and in their religion” (Firby, p. 91). He evidently had heard of some of the apocalyptic beliefs of Zoroastrians. He gave a reasonably accurate account of the sodra and kosti (sacred shirt and the girdle cord invested with when being initiated into the religion), described Parsi funeral practices, noted their reverence for the fire and the sun, and commented on their festivals.

The first Englishman to refer to the Parsis was John Jourdain (ca. 1572-1619), a former merchant navy officer and an employee of the newly established East India Company. In 1609 he and the rest of the ship’s company were shipwrecked near Gandevi and made their way via Navsari (he refers to the Ātaš Bahrām) on to Surat. Writing of the Parsis in Navsari, he wrote “In this towne there are manie of a strange Kinde of religion called Parsyes. These people are very tall of stature and white people. Their religion is farre different from the Moores or Banians for they do adore the fire, and doe contynuallie keepe their fire burninge for devotion thinkinge that if the fire should goe out, that the world weare at an end” (Firby). The comment that Parsis were white is a theme followed by several later travelers.

In 1616 Edward Terry (1589/90-1660) became chaplain to Sir Thomas Roe, the British ambassador, who was seeking trading opportunities in India from the Emperor Jahāngir, Terry’s account of the Parsis was written in 1625 and an expanded edition appeared in 1665. One of the two main European travelers’ accounts was that of Henry Lord (b. 1563) who was chaplain at Surat in 1625-29. Lord wrote a book, the first part of which is on the banians (Hindu traders) and the second on “the Persees.” Lord is noteworthy for his use of Zoroastrian texts, and he relates that he was instructed by a Parsi priest. Although some of his account is inaccurate (e.g., he thought Zoroaster had come from China), he was writing only twenty years after the Qeṣṣa-ye Sanjān had been written, making him almost a contemporary of what is seen as the key source for early Parsi history. Much of his description of the community is perceptive. According to Lord, the original settlers arrived in seven ships at Suwali (the port down the River Tapti from Surat where ocean going vessels docked); another landed nearby at “Baryaw,” but all were killed by a conquering Rajah (presumably a reference to the Variav massacre mentioned above); five landed at Navsari and the last group landed at Cambay. His account of the Zoroastrian creation story, though couched in biblical language, is broadly accurate; his account of the legends concerning the life of Zoroaster is fairly traditional (e.g., the account of the prophet laughing at birth). His description of the priesthood displays respect for their values, as does his account of their ceremonies, especially their attitude to the sacred fire and funeral practices.

The next two travelers to comment briefly on the Parsis were Thomas Herbert(Surat, 1629, he explicitly used Lord) and Peter Mundy (Surat, 1650s). Nora Firby notes that subsequent British travelers’ accounts fall silent until the Restoration of Charles II and the British acquisition of Bombay (1662). Firby then, for the first time in the study of travelers’ accounts of the Parsis, drew attention to W. Geleynssen de Jongh, who took charge of the Dutch factory at Broach in 1625. His account (tr. by Kreyenbroek, in Firby,) is more comprehensive and probably more accurate than other 17th-century sources. He described the towns of Broach, Baroda, Cambay, and Ahmadabad. The sources on which he based his account were largely from Broach, a city neglected by historians, yet clearly important in Parsi history prior to the rise of Navsari. Geleynssen stated that 18,000 Parsis arrived in fifteen ships, with eight landing at Sanjān and seven at Cambay, further evidence of early 17th-century interest in the Parsi settlement in India. Geleynssen said that Parsis were to be found in many trades as merchants, shopkeepers, craftsmen, agriculturalists, and especially in the toddy trade (a drink from the sap of several species of palm which yields a potent brew). More than his contemporaries, he emphasized the role of the Parsis in the sea borne trade of Gujarat. As a merchant, his account of Parsi beliefs and practices betrays less theological bias than those of clerical writers such as Terry and Lord. He appears not to have seen fire temples, although he had heard of the Ātaš Bahrām at Navsari. His account of the funerals is well informed. Generally, he writes positively about the Parsis, commending their high ethical standards. His account of their theology, calendars, dress, domestic worship, and social customs is also informed and extensive.

Other 17th-century travelers to comment on the Parsis were Niccolo Manucci (1639-1717) who arrived in Surat 1656 and spent most of his life in Delhi, visiting Surat occasionally; Gerald Aungier (d. 1677), an early Governor in Bombay in 1669 who encouraged Parsis to settle in the new center; his Factor, Streynsham Master (1671-72), also comments on the sacred fire at Navsari and on a temple in Surat); John Ovington, who arrived in Bombay in 1689 and spent three years in Surat and gave a mostly sympathetic account of Parsi beliefs and practices. Ovington emphasized their charitable work “to such as are Infirm and Miserable; leave no Man destitute of Relief nor suffer a Beggar in their Tribe … They are the principal Men at the loom in all the country” (Hinnells, 2000). The last traveler of the century was Alexander Hamilton (b. before 1688, d. in or after 1733), who arrived in Surat the same year as Ovington and used it as his base for trade as a merchant captain until 1725. His account of the trades that the Parsis were engaged in (ship building, weaving, ivory, agate, cabinet makers and toddy production) is particularly useful.

Thus, in nearly a thousand years the Parsis gradually migrated around Gujarat, with their main centers in Sanjān, Broach, Navsari, and Surat. Themes commonly noted by travelers were the Parsis’ distinctiveness among India’s races, their resemblance to white Europeans and Jews, their funeral and devotional practices associated with the fire, their charitable nature, and their involvement in textile production.