Immigrants from Iran

THE ROAD FROM SURAT TO BOMBAY runs through flat terrain with many industrial establishments until it is within a few miles of the border between Gujarat and Maharashtra, a frontier that did not exist before 1960, when the former Bombay State split along linguistic lines into Gujarat and Maharashtra. Beyond the border, the countryside changes suddenly and dramatically, becoming hilly, greener, and much more rustic.

We stopped at Sanjan, a small town near the Arabian Sea and just within Gujarat. In 689 AD, some boatloads of Zoroastrian refugees, fleeing from the Moslems in Iran landed at the, port of Sanjan. The local Indian ruler gave them sanctuary. Thus, began the Parsi community in India.

Sanjan today is a small rather untidy country town surrounded by Arcadian landscape. The modernistic Parsi agiary (fire temple) stands in a walled enclosure at the edge of town close to the Surat to Bombay railway line. It is only open to Parsis.

Close to the agiary and open to the public there is a large enclosure dominated by a tall obelisk surmounted by a gold coloured jar from which gold coloured metal flames are modelled. On three of the four sides of the obelisk there are inscribed plaques: one in an ancient Parsi script (maybe Avestan), another in Gujarati, and the third in English. These notices explain that the obelisk was inaugurated in 1920 by Sir Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy. The column was erected to celebrate the arrival of the first Iranian Zoroastrians at Sanjan and their welcome by the Hindu ruler Jadi Rana.

Next to the obelisk, there is a structure containing a Parsi time capsule placed there in 2000. It contains objects that characterise the past and present of the Indian parsi community. It does not mention when the capsule may be opened.

About 50 yards from the monument stands a cluster of buildings. One of them that stands alone is a meeting hall. The other buildings are parts of a hostel (dharamshala) where Parsi pilgrims can stay for 15 rupees per night in simple accommodation. The main room of the hostel contains aging photographs of no doubt eminent Parsis. There is also a bust of Dadabhai Naoroji, one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress.

We left this peaceful flower filled Parsi compound and returned to the National Highway. We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant called Atithi (means ‘guest’) and ate a very good mutton dhansak, a Parsi dish containing meat cooked in a gravy rich in dals and spices. We were surprised how excellent it was. A few hours later, we met a Parsi friend in Bombay, who told us that the restaurant is owned by a Parsi.

After crossing the river or large creek near Vasai, which was once a Portuguese possession and port, we entered the region of Greater Bombay. Immediately, the countryside ended and the landscape became urban. We were 70 kilometres from the heart of Bombay. We drove that distance through an uninterrupted built up area containing modern high rise buildings that look over large areas of slums filled with makeshift corrugated iron shacks, most of which have TV satellite dish antennae.

Eventually, we crossed the attractive Rajiv Gandhi Sealink Bridge that connects the suburb of Bandra with the upmarket Worli Seaface. It was not long before we were cruising along Marine Drive, one side of which is the sea and the other a series of buildings that includes many fine examples of Art Deco architecture.

Soon, we became immersed in the social life of Bombay, a tropical version of Manhattan: endlessly fascinating but quite exhausting.

Parsis and Jews in India

Cyrus the Great, King of Persia and a Zoroastrian, ended the Jews’ long captivity in Babylon, and commanded them to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem

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Market near Bhadra Fortress, Ahmedabad

The places of worship of two of India’s minority religions face each other at one end of a small street in central Ahmedabad, not far from the busy market-place by the Bhadra Fortress. One building is the Magen Abraham Synagogue. Opposite, is a Parsi Fire Temple (‘agiari’). Both the Parsis and the Jewish people settled in India long ago and have lived there peacefully ever since. In proportion to their small numbers compared with the rest of India’s huge population, both communities, especially the Parsis, have made a disproportionately large positive contribution to the success of the country. In view of the great benefits they have provided to the country, some say that the Parsis are the ‘Jews of India’. Is this a fair description?

The Portuguese Jesuit priest Father Anthony Monserrate visited India in the early 1580s. After meeting Parsis in Navsari, he commented that they were: “…in 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.” This illustrates the priest’s poor understanding of the Parsis’ religion but does hint at his feeling that they had some similarities to Jewish people. Other travellers since the 16th century have remarked on similarities in the ways of life and public spiritedness of Jews and Parsis.

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Parsi community office, Ahmedabad

The Parsis, followers of the Zoroastrian religion, fled to India from Persia during the 7th century AD to escape the Arab invaders, who wished to impose Islam on their home land. They began settling in Gujarat, where they have thrived for many years without suffering any more oppression than their Hindu neighbours. During various episodes of Islamic rule in India, both the Parsis and the Hindus suffered at the hands of their rulers.

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Parsi Fire Temple, Ahmedabad

Nobody is sure when Jewish people first settled in India. Likewise, no one is certain why they did. It might have been, like the Parsis, to escape oppression or, maybe, for commercial reasons. There were Jewish people in Kerala when St Thomas first landed there soon after the death of Jesus Christ. Other Jews arrived on the Malabar and Coromandel coasts later. They were refugees from the persecution of Jews on the Iberian Peninsula following the expulsion of the Moors. Later, others arrived from Iraq. The Jews of Kerala, who have had a largely successful history, and have now mostly emigrated, are  different from the Jews, the more indigenous Bene Israel, who settled the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat.

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Magen Abraham Synagogue, Ahmedabad

The small congregation of the Magen Abraham Synagogue in Ahmedabad is Bene Israeli. Their origins are quite unknown. In my new book about Gujarat, I wrote: “Ahmedabad’s small Jewish congregation are Bene Israel Jews, whose origin is totally obscure, but the subject of much speculation. One of these is that the ancestors of Bene Israel Jews were originally sailors in King Solomon’s fleet, who got wrecked at Navgaon near Alibag. However, Benjamin Israel, author of ‘The Bene Israel of India’, wrote that there is no evidence for this. Nor is there any good evidence about when the Bene Israel began living in India.

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Magen Abraham Synagogue, Ahmedabad

The numbers of both Parsis and Jews in India are declining. Like many other Indians with economic and other ambitions, both Parsis and Jews have emigrated to ‘improve’ their lives. Parsi numbers in India and beyond its borders are decreasing because of lowered birth-rate. Sayeed Unisa, RB Bhagat, and TK Roy wrote in their paper “Demographic Predicament of Parsis in India” (see: http://iussp2009.princeton.edu/papers/91429) : “Parsis are a small but prosperous religious community of India, which reached a peak of population of about 114 thousand in 1941. The recent census enumerated Parsi population about 69 thousand in 2001.” They concluded that based on available statistics, the population will continue to decline by between 0.6% and 1% per year.

In contrast, the decline in India’s Jewish population is far less to do with birth rates than with emigration. Jewish people have not left India because of persecution. It is safe to say that Jews in India have never been persecuted by Indians or their Islamic invaders. The Portuguese, who began occupying seaports on the coast of India in the 15th century, were almost the only people to persecute the Jews they encountered. Many of them were victims of the Inquisition in Goa. The main reasons for Jewish migration from India are to do with the establishment of the State of Israel and seeking economic betterment.

Many centuries have passed since both the Parsis and the various Jewish communities first settled in India. None of them have encountered as much persecution as the Parsis in 7th century Persia and the Jews in most of Europe. India provided these minorities with a safe haven. In return, both Jews and Parsis have given much to India.

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Magen Abraham Synagogue, Ahmedabad

Is it reasonable to consider the Parsis as the ‘Jews of India’?

In terms of religious beliefs and customs, apart from monotheism, there are many differences. Like many of the Jews, the Parsis arrived in India as refugees, fleeing from persecution. Considered from the vantage point of what they have done for the greater good of India, the charitable Parsi communities have contributed to the well-being of India in a magnitude that is infinitely greater than their tiny population is in comparison with that of the country. In this respect, the Parsis resemble the successful Jewish communities of, say, Germany (formerly!), Great Britain, and the USA.

 

Adam Yamey’s new book about Gujarat, Daman, and Diu

is available in paperback by clicking HERE

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