The history of human civilization shortlists a few races that could reach heights of glory and perfection, intellectually and culturally, making contributions towards the betterment of the human race. One such race is that of the Persian Aryans who inhabited the Iranian plateau. Their story gains credence from the time of the first known Zarathushtrian King – Jamsheed Padshah of the Peshdadin Dynasty and continues with the Achaemenid Kings – Kurush (Cyrus the Great), Darius and his descendents Xerxes, Arta Xerxus and Darius II and III. After the destruction of Persepolis by Alexander of Macedonia, and an interregnum, the Persian Aryans once again rose like the phoenix from its ashes to establish yet another flourishing dynasty with the Sassanian kings Nooshirwan, Ardeshir Babakan, Faridoon, Shapour I & II, Khushrou and others. Then came the Arab invasion of Persia during the reign of Yazdezard III, which saw the decimation of not only the Zarathushtrian state but of the clergy as well. What followed was an ignominious and systematic attack on the life and self-esteem of a once glorious race.
The history of the genome however does not die by the sword, and can never be undermined by brainwashing or torture. It survives and needs but an excuse to blossom forth. The Persians who fled from Iran in order to safeguard the freedom to practice their religion set sail from the Port of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf and found refuge in Gujarat on the western shore of India in about 930 AD, three hundred odd years after the downfall of the Persian Empire. They adapted themselves to the environs like sugar candy in a bowl of milk, assimilating all that was good in the Hindu culture but retaining the pristine purity of their religious practices and their own unique identity. Much later, another group of Persians migrated to India via the land route. These are the Zoroastrian Iranis who settled down in Mumbai, Pune and other cities taking predominantly to the bakery, tea café and restaurant, and ice making businesses.
The Persian race throughout its history has always sworn allegiance to its rulers, and so the trend continued with those who migrated to India. Known as Parsis because they came from the province of Pars in Persia, they worked initially as agriculturists in Gujarat, which was their first home in India. They brought with them the skills and techniques that they had developed in Iran – unique irrigation systems, cultivation of fruits and vinification skills and metallurgical techniques. They also branched out into spinning and weaving at which they were experts. They ushered innovation in textile weaving and designing, both in cotton and silks, especially the silk 'tanchoi' weave that began to be sought all over the country and abroad as well. Their inherent love for literature made them learn Sanskrit, the classical language of India and also made them adept at Gujarati, which was the native language of the state.
Surat was a French Fort and soon passed into the hands of the English. These foreigners needed to deal with the native Indians for trade, commerce and other needs. The Parsis of Gujarat also realized the benefits of learning the English language and having mastered this communication skill, and devoid of any orthodox restrictions or fears of losing one’s caste by associating with the white races, the lightcomplexioned Parsis were able to function as brokers between the Europeans and the native Indians. The Parsis now pursued the Western system of education and soon began to flourish at trade, commerce, the fine arts, building and construction, and administration.
Gujarat was too small a world for the Parsis, and they soon pioneered their way to Bombay as traders, and especially as wine merchants.
Their Western education paved the way for them to become civil administrators in the new state of Bombay, which was presented by the Portuguese to the English as a dowry for Catherine of Braganza when she married Charles II in 1662. In 1668, the East India Company took Bombay on lease from the British Crown for an annual rent of 10 pounds of gold. The Company invited people from Gujarat to migrate and build the city. The first Parsi to arrive in Bombay was Dorabji Nanabhoy Patel. Later when the Siddhi chief of the Janjira tribe attacked Bombay and tried to reclaim it through force it was Nanabhoy’s son Rustomji Nanabhoy Patel who along with the resident 'kolis' (fishermen) gave a stiff resistance and held on to the territory.
In the years to come it was demonstrated that in the archetypal consciousness of the Parsis lay the dormant seeds of the architectural splendours and the engineering marvels that they had once given shape to in ancient Iran. It was time for the re-awakening of these skills and they went about with pioneering zeal to build a modern city on the western shore of India. Majesty, beauty and utility combined with modernity in the building of Bombay. Once built, the firm foundation of an efficient administration was also set in place. Their enthusiasm at nation building saw some eminent Parsis playing an active role in seeking the political freedom of India from British rule both in India and on the English soil as well.
The development story of Bombay had to be replicated in other parts of India as well, and Parsis fanned out to the rest of India. The Tata family crafted the pattern of modern India in Bihar where they set up India’s first Iron & Steel factory and built the model city now called Jamshedpur, keeping in mind corporate social responsibility. Several Parsis became trusted lieutenants in the courts of Indian Rajahs and Nawabs, their advice being sought by the respective rulers on matters of finance and governance. In the courts of the Rajahs the Hindu culture was adapted by the Parsis and when they worked for the Mughals, they adapted themselves to the niceties of the Mughal culture. Similarly, in Mumbai, where the Parsis associated with the British, they taught themselves to speak the English language fluently and their lifestyle was impeccably British prompting the comment: "Parsis are more British than the British themselves".
An interesting story of adaptation of Nawabi culture is that of the Chenoy (Chenai) family of the Deccan. Initially the family was involved in a prosperous trade with China, hence the name Chenai. They brought back to India huge wooden chests filled with Chinese embroidered silks, perfumes, engraved silver articles, gold and much more. The Chenoys were based in Poona, but one branch under Pestonjee Maneckjee Chenoy set out to establish itself in Jalna, which is situated on the banks of the river Kundalika, in the north Marathwada region. The Mohameddan rulers from Gujarat had conquered it, and it was named Jalna after the word ‘julaha’, which means weaver. It was held as a ‘jagir’ by Amir Abu Fazal. The climate being more salubrious than that of Aurangabad, the Nizam ul Mulk – Asaf Jah made Jalna his base.
Jalna’s soil and climate was ideal for the cultivation of fruit orchards, especially grapes. Handloom weaving and beedi making were prevalent as also the manufacture of gold and silver threads used in silk textiles. The entrepreneurial genius of the Parsis flourished in this crucible and they got themselves appointed as shroffs, bankers and contractors to the Asaf Jahi government and as military contractors to the British. But their main business interests lay in establishing cotton ginning and pressing mills in this belt that was earlier within the Nizam’s dominion, and post-independence, now lies partly in Karnataka and Marathwada region.
The Asaf Jahi dynasty popularly known as the Nizams of Hyderabad, attracted some of the best Parsi talent in administration, business and infrastructure planning and execution. The Parsis being enjoined by their religious faith to be loyal to their ruler, were exemplary in this respect and served the Nizams with unswerving loyalty and dedication and thereby attained to some of the highest offices in the land.
It was in about the year 1853, during the premiership of Sir Salar Jung I, Nawab Mukhtar ul-Mulk realized that the only way to establish a chaos-free rule was to bring in reforms and tighten up the administration. But for a modern administration to succeed, he required the services of a talented and enterprising group of public servants who were honest, efficient and dedicated and could be allowed to function independently without undue political interference or pressure or harassment. The Asaf Jahi rulers attracted some of the best Parsi talent. As the Parsis kept aloof from politics and court intrigues, it was possible for them to rise to high offices purely on the basis of merit and their abilities. Their presence was recorded in almost all departments of the government; General Administration, Revenue, Customs, Postal Department, the Mint, the Judiciary, Medical Services, as translators and in the service of the Paigahs (the Nawabs who were obligated to maintain and train soldiers in return for grants of estate).
Some noteworthy Parsis in the service of the Nizams of Hyderabad State were: Nawab Faridoon-ul-Mulk Bahadur, the President of the Executive Council of the Nizam; Nawab Barzo Jung Bahadur, Commissioner of Revenue; Nawab Sohrab Nawaz Jung and Nawab Rustom Jung who were appointed Commissioners of Customs; Rustomji Jamshedji Chenoy – the Post Master General, Hormusji Jamshedji Chenoy, Medical Director; Hormusji Vakeel –Home Secretary; Pestonjee Bapuji Chenoy – the first Indian to hold the post of Master of the Mint; Nawab Darab Jung Bahadur – Sadr ul-Mahm of the Sarf-i-Khas-i-Mubarak; Faridoon Sohrabji Chenoy – the Chief Engineer of Hyderabad State and Nawab Erach Yar Jung Bahadur who attained to one of the highest offices in the Nizam’s dominions when he was appointed Agent General of Berar. The Parsi pioneers in the Deccan spoke English, which helped them in their dealings with the British, and advanced their role as facilitators between the British and the natives. They were also fluent in Persian and Urdu, the two official languages of Hyderabad. In fact, one of the chief Persian translators at the court of the Sixth Nizam was Khan Bahadur Sohrab Pestonjee Kanga who also happened to be the Finance Secretary. Later, Kaikobad Jung Munshi was appointed Persian tutor to Mir Osman Ali Khan, Seventh Nizam of Hyderabad. Knowledge of the local languages also made it possible for the Parsis to execute their work as administrators with ease and to follow the customs and traditions of the land.
Besides the Chenoy family, other families like the Viccajis, Pestonjis, Italias, Debaras, Norias, Kangas, and others also contributed to the prosperity of the Hyderabad State through their innovative enterprises and administrative skills.
The British officials stationed in the Nizam’s dominions recognized the contributions made by the members of the Parsi community in public affairs and administration, and especially the splendid achievements of the members of the Chenoy family. In fact, the Hon’ble Stuart Fraser, the Resident of the Nizam’s dominions once remarked: "It is a common place to say that no community in the world is more famous than the Parsis for public-spirited philanthropy, wherever they may happen to reside, and among the most notable Parsi families, which have long been settled in this State, none more worthily lives up to this tradition of the race than the Chenoys." (Dossabhoy N. Chinoy, The Career of Dossabhoy Chinoy (For Private Circulation to his Friends), p. 13. Quoted from Polly Naushir Chenoy, ‘The Contribution of the Parsis to the Administration of the Nizams of Hyderabad’, Islamic Culture,1997).
Such recognition is a testimony to the Zarathushtrian religion that Parsis follow, which advocates a happy life, lived according to the principles of truth and righteousness, based on the trinity of Humata, Hukhta, and Havrashta, which translates as good thoughts, good words and good deeds. It enjoins its followers to work diligently and honestly, to amass wealth and enjoy the fruits of wealth, and, most importantly, to share this wealth with the less fortunate. It is imperative for an affluent Zoroastrian to ensure that the less fortunate too may be helped to reach standards of affluence to be able to enjoy the richness and goodness of life. Thus philanthropy is the cornerstone of the Zoroastrian faith resulting in hundreds of charity trusts being established for the welfare and well-being of the less fortunate, the sick, the orphans and the destitute. It is also imbedded in the Zoroastrian psyche that human beings are custodians of nature and that they must always endeavour to maintain the essential purity of the environment. In whichever city or region of India that the Parsi community settled in, it has left its imprint on the economic and social life of the place.
As Mahatma Gandhi once remarked, "In numbers, Parsis are beneath contempt, but in contribution, beyond compare."