The town of
Navsari, near Surat in Gujarat,
is the ancestral home of many eminent Parsi families (of which several were prominent in the China trade).
The First Dastoor Meherjirana Library
was founded and endowed by a prominent mercantile family
and it has been sustained for over one hundred forty years by other Parsi families from Navsari.
The library’s brochure explains: ‘in 1872, a wealthy Mumbai Parsi, named Navsariwala Seth Burjor Bamanji Padam,
commissioned a building to be erected on his own land, known as Lakkad Falia, and,
with a fund of Rs 225, the First Dastoor Meherji Rana Library was born’.
The library is named after a figure of great significance in Parsi history – a Zoroastrian savant by the name of Meherji Rana: ‘According to a Persian biography in the library’s possession… Meherji Rana was chosen by the Mughal governor at Surat to have an audience with the Emperor Akbar to explain the Zoroastrian religion. During his stay at the court from 1578-9 AD, Meherji Rana impressed the emperor so much that according to the Mughal court historian ‘Abd al-Qâdir al-Badâ’ûnî, the empreror ordered his vizier Abu’l-Fazl to keep a fire burning day and night at the court… Meherji Rana’s presence in Akbar’s court was a great historic incident for not only the Parsis for Navsari, but for the whole Parsi community. Appreciating this, when he returned to Navsari, all the priests accepted him as the head of the Navsari priests, and for the first time the title of high priest (vadâ dastur) was bestowed. Therefore, he became famous as the First Dastoor Meherji Rana, beginning a priestly lineage which continues to the present day.’
Today one of the Library’s most treasured possessions is the Mughal firman that granted land to Meherji Rana. It was issued under the seal of the Emperor Akbar and was signed by Abu’l Fazl, the great Mughal chronicler, in his own hand.
The Library has an extensive collection of manuscripts
in Avestan, Pahlavi, Farsi and
Old Gujarati and
many of which were found in this Godrej safe (built of course, by a Parsi family).
The Library also has a small museum with a collection of finely-worked gara textiles.
Their Chinese inspiration is evident in their motifs and designs.
During my brief visit to Navsari I had the good fortune to see a performance by a Parsi theatre company, based in Surat.
The company is headed by Yazdi Karanjia
and it is a family enterprise involving three generations of Karanjias.
It was as if I’d been granted a glimpse of theatrical history: for the Parsi theatre has had a huge impact across Asia – the origins of Bombay cinema have been traced back to it for example. Its influence extended far beyond the Indian subcontinent however: in the 19th and early 20th century Parsi theatre troupes traveled widely in Southeast Asia and such was their popularity that they inspired a genre of performance that came to be known as Wayang Parsi.
In his study of this form Jan van der Putten writes:
‘Parsi theatrical companies on tour through Southeast Asia met with great success in the [Straits] settlements through its combined appeal for both a relatively large and established Jawi Peranakan community, and more recent migrant groups from South Asia, such as Tamil indentured labourers. Prominent members of the Jawi Peranakan community also invited groups from South Asia…. Localized theatrical troups were formed as nodes in that network, where South Asian, Chinese, and Javanese influences converged into new forms such as Komedie Stamboel, Mendu, Dul Muluk, and Bangsawan. The last of these, which was most popular in the Malay Peninsula, seems to be the most closely related to the Parsi theatre, which triggered the foundation of ‘imitation Parsi theatre groups’ (tiruan wayang Parsi) in the last two decades of the nineteenth century… It is reported that in the mid-1880s, Mamat Pushi, a Parsi businessman in Penang, formed the first local Wayang Parsi troupe, which he named Pushi Indera Bangsawan of Penang, also known as the Royal Malay Opera/Komidi Melayu, and most grandiloquently, The Empress Victoria Jawi Peranakan Theatrical Company, Penang. From the very start this group was a big hit, and stimulated the formation of two other groups around the same time: Sri Indramawan, also known as The Prince of Wales Theatrical Company and Sri Mudawan.’[i]
Navsari has many fine buildings consecrated to Zoroastrianism.
A large seminary attached to a small fire temple;
the complex is known as the Vadi Dar-e-Meher.
Priests of the rank of Navar and Martab are trained here.
And the town also has an exceptionally handsome Atash Behram (fire temple).
Vada Dasturji Firoze M. Kotwal
is currently the seniormost Zoroastrian priest in India.
One of the most interesting aspects of Navsari’s history is its connection with the China trade. Many of Navsari’s Parsi families were deeply involved in this trade and two of the subcontinent’s foremost China traders were born in this town – Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy and Sir Jamshedjee Tata. They were born in the same neighbourhood, in very similar houses, both of which are now maintained as museums by family trusts.
This is the birthplace of Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy (1783-1859),
who, from these modest beginnings,
would go on to become one of the world’s richest men.
This is said to be his father’s loom.
The house is built in a style that is simple yet elegant as well as utilitarian.
The rooms branch off from a corridor that runs down the length of the house. This is the room where the future magnate was born.
This is the kitchen
and the cistern, where water was stored.
Above the rooms, tucked beneath the pitched roof, is a loft,
that spans the length of the house.
It is now presided over
by a statue of Sir Jamsetjee.
The birthplace of Jamshedji Nasserwanji Tata (1839-1904),
founder of the Tata industrial house,
is only a few hundred yards away.
The layout of the interior is much the same as that of the Jejeebhoy house.
There is a similar corridor,
with bedrooms branching off it,
and a ladder leading to a loft above.
And an outhouse in the courtyard beyond.
I don’t know if any research has been done on this, but to my eye, these houses appear to have more in common with the ‘shophouses’ of Southeast Asia and Guangdong than with the urban dwellings of the interior of the Indian subcontinent. Should this be true, it would provide yet more reason to believe that in many respects the coastal regions of the Indian Ocean have more in common with each other than with their hinterlands.
Small wonder that enterprising young men born under these roofs would go eastwards to seek their fortunes!
Sadly I was unable to determine the exact location of Bahram Modi’s birthplace. But I think this may have been it.
[i] Putten, Jan van der: Wayang Parsi, Bangsawan and Printing: Commercial Exchange between South Asia and the Malay World, in Feener, Michael R. & Terenjit Sevea (ed.): Islamic Connections: Muslim Societies in South and Southeast Asia, Instt. Of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2009; pp. 90-1. I am grateful to Michael Feener for bringing this article to my attention.