India’s Troubled Archives and Libraries

India's history is literally rotting away in libraries and archives across the country.

The New York TimesIndia Ink has just recently published four pieces that I have written on the state of libraries and archives in India:

I: In India, History Literally Rots Away

II: Repairing the Damage at India’s National Archives

III: How Did Things Get This Bad?

IV: The Parsis, Once India’s Curators, Now Shrug as History Rots

For a country that is legitimately proud of its rich civilization, India can be remarkably callous about how it treats its history. Archives and libraries are, of course, only one aspect of what is in danger: one only has to visit other historical and archaeological sites in India to see how much heritage is being lost or is at perilous risk. It is hardly an understatement to say that, unless the Indian government gets serious about properly funding and staffing public archives and libraries, vast records of Indian history will literally turn to dust in the next few decades.

The problems associated with Indian archives are old. In the 1860s, the British Indian government became disturbed by the fact that Company records were rotting away and set up a special records commission. Allan Octavian Hume, who later went on to found the Indian National Congress, participated in committee proceedings. In 1871, he noted that, “Year by year the records are decaying; and unless some measures be adopted, it will, before very long, be found that, like the defunct Commission, the subjects of their investigations have dissolved themselves.” He urged the immediate publication of as much material as possible. Over 140 years later, as the historian S.R. Mehrotra remarked with disappointment, we face the same imperative: if conditions in Indian archives and libraries do not improve, then the only way to save important records will be to publish, photograph, or scan  them. A much cheaper and efficient method would be, of course, to improve the conditions at libraries and archives.

The idea for this series grew out of conversations I have had with other scholars, both Indian and non-Indian, while researching at the National Archives of India in Delhi during the past year. Over lunches and teas, we would trade stories of our experiences in various libraries and archives across the country. As I have mentioned in my article series, the sorry state of many of these institutions, and the destruction that is going on within them, is an open secret amongst scholars. However, due to the very real fear of institutional or staff retribution, we scholars mostly stay quiet and keep our complaints and observations to ourselves.


In order for Indian archives and libraries to change, this attitude has to change as well. As scholars, we have a responsibility not only to craft history out of our sources, but also to make sure that those sources survive to be used by future generations. If we only go to archives and libraries to fetch out information for our own personal use—and shut out the egregious practices that are going on around us—then we fail in this responsibility. There is still a real risk in speaking out, but, over the past year, I have heard many admirable stories about scholars who have protested against bad practices and bad policies. In many cases, they have succeeded in getting change instituted—something that benefits all of us. In the Maharashtra State Archives, one Indian Ph.D. candidate from a British university alerted the director that staff were retrieving bound 19th century newspaper volumes by flinging them off 15 foot-high shelves. In the West Bengal State Archives, a British Ph.D. candidate helped reverse the institution’s policy against using laptops (see more below).

It is my earnest hope that this series prompts some discussion, both amongst scholars and within the Indian government, about why so many archives and libraries are in terrible condition, and what can be done to change this sad state of affairs. Below are just a few suggestions on what needs to change:

  • Climate control: It is high time that 21st century India move beyond having libraries and archives that are open to the elements. Many British-era institutions remain in structures that have been hardly modernized or improved since they were built. Enclosed, climate-controlled structures will greatly cut down on weather, insect, and animal damage, leave alone providing more comfortable working conditions for scholars and staff.
  • Reevaluation of preservation policies: Methods of preservation in Indian archives, especially those involving the process of lamination, have often been disastrous. I have seen whole series of records at the National Archives, Maharashtra State Archives, and elsewhere that are now barely legible due to lamination. Lamination not only cuts down significantly on readability; the material also warps, discolors, and becomes brittle over time. The R.C. Dutt Papers at the National Archives are a travesty: on top of being laminated, these papers were bound into volumes (and occasionally bound out of order). I have been disturbed to hear staff in the National Archives talk about the same methods of preservation for the Dadabhai Naoroji Papers and have submitted a memo to the director strongly cautioning against this.
  • Staff training: Archives and libraries continue to function largely on the backs of “peons” or “boys.” These individuals, while doing vital work such as retrieving files and cleaning premises (in addition to making tea and doing countless other errands for staff), are given shockingly little training by their superiors. Steven Wilkinson, a professor of political science at Yale, observes that, “Not much of an effort is made to educate the lower-ranking staff on the importance of the documents and their careful handling.” I have seen this first hand: Dadabhai Naoroji’s letters scattered on a dirty floor so that a “peon” could find the specific files I requested. Superior officers need to be held accountable for training and monitoring the staff under them. As Wilkinson continues, it is very nice to be served namkeen and chai at your desk, but this “demonstrates something about the archival culture.” The bottom halves of staff hierarchies need to become invested in the mission of the archives.
  • A meritocratic culture: A professor at the University of Mumbai recounted how the university’s Kalina library benefited from a diligent assistant librarian who was keen on digitizing and better preserving some of the institution’s oldest holdings. She took the initiative to purchase equipment and develop long-term plans for the library. What was the reward for her initiative? The University of Mumbai’s head librarian demoted this assistant librarian to a third-rate college in the suburbs: her diligence and motivation were upsetting work patterns and was considered a nuisance. Such stories are not uncommon. In both public and private institutions, initiative and hard work need to be rewarded: these should be the factors for promotion rather than age or personal grudges.
  • Recruitment of qualified staff members: It is a miracle that, in spite of abysmally low pay scales and maddening bureaucracy, state-run archives and libraries retain so many qualified and dedicated staff members. There needs to be more of them, especially at the top. This requires a degree of bureaucratic reform and autonomy which the government is probably unprepared to allow. Hiring at government institutions is a centralized bureaucratic affair, oftentimes with an unhealthy dose of political interference. A deputy director at the National Archives recently informed me that it can take up to a year for a prospective employee’s file to make its way back to his desk from the central public services authorities. India produces no shortage of highly qualified historians, archivists, and curators. It is no mystery why so many of these individuals flee abroad to institutions that are better run, more meritocratic, properly funded, and not beholden to a sclerotic government bureaucracy.

The last few steps will contribute to perhaps the biggest required change in Indian archives and libraries: a change in mentality toward facilitating free research. As one Ph.D. candidate from the University of Chicago noted, neither institutions nor the government of India encourage an atmosphere of open inquiry for researchers. Foreign scholars must have their projects vetted by bureaucrats before they travel to India on research visas. All too often, institutes go out of their way to deny scholars, whether they are Indian or non-Indian, access to materials. Many librarians and staff members treat their institutions as personal fiefdoms and act as gatekeepers and regulators of information. This is a long distance from the model practiced elsewhere: that of librarians and administrators encouraging and facilitating free research. The Right to Information Act is changing the way things are working in Indian institutions. Let us hope that this also changes the way that many librarians and archivists understand their job responsibilities.

A volume of the Times of India from the 1870s, now reduced to shreds.


In the course of my research for this article series, I have visited and heard about several excellent institutions, as well as several disastrous ones. Here is some information about libraries of which India should be proud:

  • Forbes Gujarati Sabha: This small library in Juhu in Bombay contains a treasure-trove of Gujarati books and periodicals. Forbes is actively taking steps to preserve its material: aside from constructing a special chamber to mitigate the high acid content of Indian paper used in books from the 19th and early 20th centuries, they have digitized a large number of books and journals. One of Forbes’ trustees is Deepak Mehta, who had several decades’ experience in the Library of Congress’ India operations. Murali Ranganathan, a Mumbai-based independent researcher, is correct to describe Forbes as “easily the most excellent collection of Gujarati 19th century periodical material and books in Mumbai. The new air-conditioned premises, he adds, “are a cut apart from the library atmosphere of Mumbai.”
  • Institut de Chandernagor: This library, located in the former French possession of Chandernagore just north of Calcutta, has around 18,000 volumes, including rare French works. The institute includes Chandernagore-Pondicherry correspondence, which sheds light on French Indian trade in the 18th century. This correspondence has now been digitized and copies are available to scholars for a fee. Its director, Rila Mukherjee, is also a professor of history at the University of Hyderabad. “While I agree with you about the sad state of affairs in Indian libraries and archives,” Mukherjee recently wrote to me, “I should also point out that the small libraries and archives are already making the change.”
  • Sabarmati Ashram Library: As I mentioned in my article series, this library in Ahmedabad, the primary repository of Mahatma Gandhi’s papers, has kept its holdings in a sealed, temperature-controlled environment. They have also digitized their collection, which includes letters to Gandhi (not included in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi series). Scholars can use a comprehensive computer index of the holdings, access the scans, as well as purchase copies for a nominal fee, inside the library. I have used the library twice and have found staff members to be exceedingly helpful, friendly, and knowledgeable.

There are many other excellent institutions across India. Sadly, most of the feedback I received was regarding libraries and archives that are in terrible condition. Three of the most egregious cases of neglect and destruction are outlined below:

  • Patiala State Archives:  In January 2003, The Tribune of Chandigarh reported (here and here) how the government of Punjab took all of the archival records out of its premises—including material from the Khalsa durbar; eight princely states including Patiala, Kapurthala, and Faridkot; Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU); and around 35,000 books—packed them into tractor trailers, and dumped them into buildings at the Punjabi University. As a result, countless documents were damaged and a meticulously organized collection was literally scattered to the wind. Papers slipped out of their files and material was exposed to moist weather and possibly termites. Apparently, the task of organizing just the princely state papers had taken 33 years—in the span of two weeks, this multi-decade effort was completely undone. “The labour of years in cataloguing the records has thus gone [to] waste due to the criminal negligence of a few officials,” The Tribune noted. This hasty move prompted condemnation from the Indian Council of Historical Research. The motive behind the move was to vacate the archives’ premises—Rajindra Kothi, a heritage structure—for an art exhibit. However, the Punjab government subsequently decided to convert Rajindra Kothi into a heritage hotel. Shilpi Rajpal, a doctoral candidate at the University of Delhi, visited the archives in 2011 and reported that they are now located in a government building. The files were still—eight years after their hasty transfer—unorganized. One helpful staff member, Rajpal notes, did help her sift through the bundles in order to find the files she wanted to consult.
  • Tamil Nadu State Archives:  Getting access appears to be a particular headache at this institution. Foreign scholars are required to present proof that they have been permitted to access records at the National Archives of India in the last six months; otherwise, they must present a “certificate of proof,” indicating that the government of India has approved their research project. A legal historian from the United States reported waiting two weeks for permission to consult 18th century manuscript records; ultimately, he was only given permission to access printed materials.  One scholar from the United Kingdom reported that conditions in the archives have deteriorated in the past five years, with many files having gone missing. One of his colleagues had to hand out small bribes in order to get files. Monsoons present another hazard. One Ph.D. candidate from the United States reported having visited the archives in October-November 2005 while completing his M.Phil from Delhi: he found the compound “routinely flooded during the monsoon season. Sometimes, this meant that the archives were closed entirely, and sometimes open for a more limited period during the day.” After one particularly rainy day, he noticed staff members hanging a clothesline on the archives’ verandah in order to dry out soaked archival documents.
  •  West Bengal State Archives: There was not enough room in my article series to highlight all of the shocking stories about this institution. This is particularly saddening: one scholar from a Southeast Asian nation argued that the WBSA is one of the most important archives for the study of India and the Straits Settlements. “The materials are gold!” he remarked. “There must be a global effort to preserve or at least digitize these materials swiftly as a fire would destroy one of the greatest repositories of 18th-19th century historical materials in the world.” For the moment, conditions are dismal. As one Ph.D. candidate from the United States expressed it, “you can literally see the silver worms crawling through [the documents].” Faridah Zaman, a Ph.D. candidate from Cambridge, notes that the indexes list whether documents have sustained damage by water, rats, or white ants, and that sometimes all three categories have been ticked off. Zaman visited the Writers Building branch, which houses 20th century documents, and noted that it took a week-and-a-half to just get permission to use the archives since the director was sick and only he could affix his signature. While waiting for her permission to come through, Zaman took out her laptop, immediately causing panic among the staff since laptops were not allowed on the premises. She stood her ground and, after some communication amongst staff members, was told that the director (presumably from his sickbed?) had now allowed the use of laptops, though only when consulting pre-1947 material. So here is one small victory: scholars no longer have to write out everything in hand. When Zaman visited the Shakespeare Sarani unit of the WBSA, however, an assistant director told her that she could still not use her laptop here.

So much for archival institutions. Many of our colleagues face an even greater challenge: working in non-traditional archival collections such as those in small temples, government offices, and medical institutions. The problems here can be legion. In the 1990s, Steven Wilkinson saw documents from the Uttar Pradesh Secretariat (Sachivalaya) library in Lucknow that had been dumped and burned outside. The library included rare books, gazettes, settlement reports, and other printed materials that Wilkinson had been unable to locate elsewhere. In 2008, Shilpi Rajpal became the first scholar in eight years to get access to this library. She found the remainder of the library’s holdings packed up in bundles, waiting for disposal. Rajpal, who is writing a dissertation on mental asylums in northern India, also had great difficulty convincing administrators in these institutions to let her consult their records.


With some rare exceptions, Indian libraries and archives have placed very little information online about their holdings, policies, or even contact details. India is a long, long way away from having something like the United Kingdom’s Access to Archives, a comprehensive website that lists specific holdings of many institutions in the country. But concerned scholars have been filling in the gap. A team of Indian academics have started Archive and Access, which features articles on specific archives as well particular challenges, such as the difficulty of accessing post-independence material. SAGAR, a South Asian graduate student journal run from the University of Texas, Austin, features helpful “archive reviews” on its website. The University of Chicago’s Digital South Asian Library operates the Libraries and Archives in South Asia Wiki, which has a comprehensive list of most institutions of interest to scholars. Recently, the American Historical Association started a similar wiki for India; the AHA has been encouraging historians to contribute.

I will be contributing my bit to this online presence. In upcoming weeks, I will be adding to this website some guides to institutions with which I am familiar, such as the National Archives of India, Maharashtra State Archives, and smaller institutions such as Mumbai’s K.R. Cama Oriental Institute and the library of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet. These guides will be kept open access and can be incorporated into wikis. I encourage other scholars to message me with further information about particular institutions: I will be happy to post your observations and insights.

Stay tuned.

UDVADA, PART 3: An Interview with Dasturji Khurshed Dastoor

Dasturji Khurshed Dastoor, High Priest of Udvada, speaks about the Udvada land controversy case, how he and his family have been affected, and what Parsis can do to help Udvada.

The Gujarat Revenue Tribunal has issued a ‘status quo’ order in the Udvada land controversy case, temporarily suspending Nucleus Developers’ ability to develop the property. Is there still an immediate danger to Udvada?

Yes. If the Revenue Tribunal eventually rules in Nucleus’ favor, they can begin building immediately. Even if the tribunal does not rule in their favor, Nucleus Developers can still move the Gujarat High Court. The stakes are high. Nucleus could also break up the 168-acre property into smaller holdings, something that would make it much more difficult to stop development.

Right now, we have the support of the government of Gujarat, but if the government changes, this support could vanish.

What can Parsis do to help the Udvada Samast Anjuman?

Parsis need to stop listening to and spreading rumors about the case. There have been a lot of rumors and inaccurate accounts that have been floating around on the internet. For example, one such rumor is that the Udavada Samast Anjuman once owned the land in question and is now paying the price for its decision to sell it off. However, the anjuman never owned the land—a portion was owned by a separate trust call the Shree Bagh-e-Iran Trust. The Udvada Samast Anjuman has publically released several statements on the case and these are authoritative. But the spread of rumors has exacted a toll on the anjuman’s cause. In order to protect Pak Iranshah, we as a community need to show unity rather than divisiveness.

How do local Udvada residents feel about Nucleus Developers’ project?

The whole of the local Udvada population is now behind us. This was not always the case. Last Republic Day, representatives from Nucleus Properties were welcomed by panchayat officials at the flag-raising ceremony at Jhanda Chowk. I was originally barred from speaking at a gram sabha meeting scheduled for 7 February 2011. In response, I began approaching local organizations and committees, such as the machimar (fishermen) sabha, and I explained the negative impact that the project would have on Udvada’s infrastructure and fragile environment. By the time that the gram sabha meeting finally took place, by the grace of Pak Iranshah, villagers indicated their support for the Samast Anjuman and their opposition to Nucleus’ plans.

How have you been personally affected by the case?

Nucleus has accused me of wanting to stop their development so that we can bring in a Parsi buyer and make a profit on the land. They have also issued several verbal threats to me and my family as well as to Parsi supporters of the Udvada Samast Anjuman.

Fighting the case has been very taxing on my family and me, especially since I have to travel frequently to Ahmedabad and Valsad. Luckily, the anjuman has had a number of strong supporters. Behram Mehta of Aava Water has been instrumental in helping us in Ahmedabad with matters that involve the state government. Maneck and Eric Toddywalla have provided crucial local support in Udvada. Rustom Marshall has been providing his able assistance as our legal representative. Architects Jamshed Bhiwandiwalla and Pankaj Joshi have been working to provide infrastructure for saving Udvada’s unique Parsi heritage.

What is being done to protect the sanctity of Udvada for the long-term?

A special body, the Udvada Development Authority, was created in March 2011. The body has the authority to regulate development in the village. I represent the Samast Anjuman in the Development Authority, and the other members include the village sarpanch and a town planner. The village has been divided into three zones: the vicinity of Iranshah, which has been given the highest priority for regulating development; a buffer zone around this core region; and the peripheries.  All the Parsi-owned houses around Iranshah have now been graded for their heritage value. These can no longer be legally demolished without the approval of the authority.

Individual Parsi community members need to also do their part to preserve and protect Udvada. Many Parsis have property in Udvada but their houses are empty and in a state of complete disrepair. They have a responsibility to preserve these traditional houses, come what may. It is our heritage and it is a prerogative. It is not that expensive of a task.

Remembering Homai Vyarawalla: An Interview in Boston

Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first woman photojournalist, passed away on Sunday at the age of 98. Vyarawalla is a significant figure for any student of modern Indian history: pick up any book covering Indian politics for the period from the 1940s to the 1970s and you will find at least a few of her photographs.

I met her only once. In May 2008, when Vyarawalla was a sprightly 95, she traveled to London, Boston, and Chicago along with her biographer, Sabeena Gadihoke, for a lecture tour. It was her first trip abroad. She spoke briefly at a lecture at Harvard University’s Sackler Museum after Gadihoke delivered a lecture on her pioneering work. Below are some of my reminisces of her visit.

On 8 May, I helped organize a dinner in her honor with the Boston Zoroastrian community. While Gadihoke was visibly suffering from jetlag and nodding off to sleep, Vyarawalla was alert, relatively talkative, and quite enjoying drinking a Coke. She responded in a no-nonsense fashion to the questions put to her by the attendees. Did she have any message to give to enterprising Zoroastrian women, somebody asked. “No,” she responded. When we gave her a picture book of Boston as a gift at the end of the dinner, she looked at it and then politely handed it back. “What use will I have for it?” she asked us. From the little I got to know of her that evening in May, it was abundantly apparent that Homai Vyarawalla was part of a now all-but-vanished part of the Parsi community: those who knew real poverty and grew strong from the experience, exercising extreme frugality and self-reliance in all aspects of their lives.

Before we went to dinner, I had a chance to talk to Vyarawalla in her hotel room in Harvard Square. She told me that was enjoying her trip and liked how Boston was so clean in comparison to India. I asked her a little bit about her family background. Vyarawalla was related to the priestly Meherjirana family of Navsari but she grew up in Tardeo in central Bombay. Her mother wove kustis, which took about eight days to make, and sold them for Rs. 3½ each. “We were in abject poverty yet we were happy and healthy,” she remembered. Later, she was admitted to St. Xavier’s College, where the tuition was a princely Rs. 72 for three months.

As Gadihoke’s book did a good job covering her experiences interacting with various world leaders, I asked her about some more obscure matters, such as what she remembered from her childhood (it is not every day, after all, that you can meet someone who remembers the 1920s). She had some memories of the Prince of Wales Riots that broke out in Bombay in November 1921, when Vyarawalla was a schoolgirl. These were the last major riots where Parsis were participants; it is one chapter in Parsi history that the community has chosen to forget.

Late in November of that year, the Prince of Wales visited Bombay and, in keeping with the non-cooperation movement, Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress party called a hartal or strike. A number of Parsis and Anglo-Indians broke the hartlal, attended ceremonies for the prince’s arrival, resulting in them becoming the target of Hindu and Muslim mobs over the next few days. Vyarawalla recalled that many Parsi schools staged garbas on the day that the prince arrived at Apollo Bunder. Hindu and Muslim Congress supporters, she continued, spread rumors that the Parsis were against Indian independence and, in particular, targeted the Parsis’ involvement in the liquor trade. She remembered a liquor shop in Tardeo being pelted with stones by rioters. Hindu and Muslim rioters had only these stones, lathis, and aerated soda bottles as their weapons—though Vyarawalla noted that the marble stoppers used in the bottles could be especially deadly projectiles. Parsis had more options at their disposal: she remembered that a Parsi police supervisor provided brickbats to Parsi rioters on Wadia Street, who had also dragged out desks onto the streets to be used as barricades.

Perhaps these early memories of nationalist-inspired violence influenced her political views. Vyarawalla said that she studiously avoided politics and political movements—somewhat ironic, considering that she captured on camera some of the seminal political moments in the nationalist and post-independence periods. Regular people, she noted, could not afford to be involved in politics; only wealthy people such as the Captain sisters, Dadabhai Naoroji’s grandchildren, could. Gandhi was “a show.” “I would not call him a Mahatma,” she argued. How did Gandhi have any authority to tell men to go to their deaths in order to achieve Indian independence? This left many broken and grieving families, she noted. Vyarawalla had slightly more positive views about Nehru.

Vyarawalla was downbeat on the Parsis. “Parsis are always lazy,” she complained. The Parsis had lost their sense of pride, and how could the community survive when this had departed? Charity, she believed, had done the most harm to the community. Vyarawalla recalled that she used to give money annually to around eighteen families in Baroda, but she stopped this practice once one family demanded in writing that this dole be given early. She now isolated herself from Parsis in Baroda, where she lived.

With that, I ended the interview and she invited me to visit her in Baroda the next time I was in town, although she warned that the children living next door were particularly loud and rowdy. I did not get a chance to meet her again. But her humility and frankness has left a very strong impression on me.

Dinyar Patel


Further Reading:

Sabeena Gadihoke, Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla (Parzor, 2006). Click here for ordering information. See a review by Shyam Benegal, published in Outlook, here.

Doubt: Descartes and the Gathas

René Descartes, the seventeenth century French philosopher considered by many to be one of the founders of modern European rationalism, was troubled by doubt.  What if, he wondered, everything that I see, hear and touch is not fundamentally, really real?  What if everything I know, or think I know is false and even the truths of mathematics and physics, which seem entirely unshakeable, are clever lies and not universal laws?  Descartes confronts his doubt in a book he called Meditations on First Philosophy, composed in 1640.  At the beginning of the First Meditation, Descartes lays out his program:

Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them.  I realized that it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations if I wanted to establish anything at all in the sciences that was stable and likely to last.

Descartes begins his demolition work by acknowledging the ways in which the senses can be deceived while awake and the impossible visions that come to people when they sleep.  However, even if one’s perception can be called into doubt in these particular circumstances, the fundamental truths of the universe—meaning arithmetic, geometry, the laws of physics and the like—would still hold.  Even while asleep and dreaming, Decartes writes, two plus three makes five, never four or six.

However, the meditation goes further.  For who is to say if these laws, the world, the sky and the sun, the whole universe, do not really exist but that it is God who makes them appear to exist?  How can one know for certain that God himself does not contrive things so that one goes wrong every time one adds two and three?  God’s good nature renders unlikely this kind of malicious trickery and makes Decartes’ doubts themselves doubtful.  In order to reach his desired state of radical doubt, in which he can call into question everything he accepted, by habit, to be reality, Descartes makes use of a convenient fiction:

I will suppose therefore that not God, who is supremely good and the source of truth, but rather some evil demon (sed genium aliquem malignum) of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me.  I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgement.  I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, flesh or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things.  I shall stubbornly and firmly persist in this meditation; and, even if it is not in my power to know the truth, I shall at least do what is in my power, that is, resolutely guard against assenting to any falsehoods, so that the deceiver, however powerful and cunning he may be, will be unable to impose on me in the slightest degree.

From this position of radical doubt, in which he presumes that an evil force has directed all his energies merely in order to trick him, Descartes ultimately arrives at bedrock that he knows must be true.  This is the famous dictum cogito, ergo sum, I think therefore I am.  Whatever else happens, even if all his thoughts are false delusions, the fact that he is thinking cannot itself be wrong.  The evil demon is directing his energies at deceiving something and that something is him, Descartes.  The thought I exist can, therefore, never be false, however much the demon applies his energies.

What interests us here, though, is not the rationalist method Decartes builds from that moment of radical doubt.  To a Zoroastrian ear, the notion of an evil demon has a familiar ring.    Is Decartes not, somehow, reflecting the belief in the existence of the evil spirit, whose existence is entirely opposed to the good and who corrupts the world and deludes people’s beliefs and senses?  The parallel is not entirely accurate of course: Descartes’ evil demon is more reminiscent of the gnostic demiurge, that evil being who created the world solely in order to torment human beings, while the good, true God stands outside and beyond the world.  In the Zoroastrian conception, the world itself is inherently good, it exists (as do we) and our perception of it is to be trusted.  The evil spirit corrupted the world in his attack on it, evil and good have become mixed but the tradition does not embrace an ontologically dualist vision of the world itself and humans’ mortal lives as inherently delusions.

Nevertheless, doubt is linked with the evil spirit in the Zoroastrian tradition.  Doubt is not only the result of the meddling of the evil spirit but the cause of the revelation of his existence.  As in Descartes’ Meditations, doubt is productive.  In my previous post I mentioned the role that doubt plays in launching the theological quest in the Shkand Gumanig Wizar and the Dadestan i Menog i Xrad.  However, doubt plays this role in the Gathas as well.  We can take, for example, the opening section of Yasna 29.  In the first stanza of the poem, the soul of the Cow complains to Ahura Mazda (in Martin Schwartz‘s translation in his article “Gathic Compositional History, Y 29, and Bovine Symbolism):

To you the Cow’s soul complained: “For whom

did You shape me?  Who fashioned me?  Fury

with force, violence with brazen vice have gripped

me with might; I have no pastor other than You,

so appear to me with good pastur(ag)e.”

The soul of the Cow, that ideal manifestation of bovinity in the heavenly sphere, is troubled by violence and without a protector.  In its pain, the soul of the Cow calls out for aid.  This plea is repeated by the members of the divine panoply: the Fashioner of the Cow asks Rightness (Asha) who he will appoint as the lord and protector of the Cow.  The Fashioner of the Cow replies that no champion is to be found (29:3): “there is no liberator, free of malice, on behalf of the Cow.”

Only Lord Wisdom (Ahura Mazda) can provide a protector.  In stanza five, the Soul of the Cow and the soul of Zarathushtra himself are described as standing with hands outstretched in supplication, asking:

“Is there no

hope for the right-living person, none for the

cattleman surrounded by wrongful ones?”

Ahura Mazda’s answer is, it seems at first, negative: no hope has been found in the world, no judgement in accord with Rightness.  But in next stanza Lord Widsom asks his own question.  Having created the “mantra of poured butter and milk for the Cow,” he asks Good Mind (Vohu Mana) if he has found someone who can deliver this beneficent mantra to mortals on earth.  Vohu Mana replies that indeed he has; as 29:8 reveals, the revealer of the mantra is none other than Spitama Zarathushtra himself.

But the Soul of the Cow is unsatisfied.  Is this the champion he pleaded for?

“I who have

(thus) gotten (on my behalf merely) the mightless

voice of a powerless man instead, (I) who wish

for someone who is dominant with might!  When

will there ever be someone to give him help of hands?”

In the final stanza, the poet answers this lament.  Zarathushtra’s hands are helped by the divine triad of Rightness, Good Mind and Lord Wisdom.  Through his revelation, the Prophet aids mortals, including the long-suffering cows, more than any herculean strong man.  “Take account of me,” he says to them, “come down to us here.”  It is Zarathushtra’s ability to channel and call upon the divine that settles the Soul of the Cow’s complaint.

There are two species of doubt in Yasna 29.  The first is the doubt exhibited by the Soul of the Cow.  We might call this kind of doubt existential: it is closer to worry or anxiety, doubt about the safety of cows and pasturage, about protection against marauding raiders.  This is of a different order than Decartes’ posulation of the evil demon.  The Soul of the Cow’s doubt is existential while Descartes is epistemological: he doubts not his own life and safety but his perception and understanding of the world.

What of Zarathushtra’s doubt?  When Zarathushtra portrays his spiritual self as standing with his hands outstretched beside the Soul of the Cow, he does not ask Ahura Mazda for his own protection.  Zarathushtra’s question is one with deep ethical implications: can there be justice?  Is there no recourse for wrongdoing?  The poet’s doubt is global, addressing the foundation of the order of the universe.  It is to his doubt that Ahura Mazda responds – and the Soul of the Cow expresses its dissatisfaction –  granting Zarathushtra his ritual and poetic mission.  Like Descartes, Zarathushtra’s doubt is the catalyst for revelation.

Happy fiftieth to the padshah saheb of Delhi!

On 19 December, roj Ardibehesht mah Amardad (Shenshai), the Delhi Parsi community marked the fiftieth anniversary of the installment of the holy fire in its agiary, the Kaikhushru Pallonji Katrak Dar-e-Meher. Celebrations fell on two particularly cold and foggy days but that did not keep away community members, who came in large numbers to attend lectures, panel discussions, and entertainment. The Delhi Parsi Anjuman also hosted several political figures including Karan Singh, member of Parliament; Sheila Dikshit, chief minister of Delhi; and Salman Khurshid, law minister (who graciously stayed and watched performances put on by the Farohars, Delhi’s youth group, before rushing off to a 10pm cabinet meeting). On the evening of 18 December, Yezdi Karanjia’s theatrical troupe from Surat staged the Parsi natak ‘Ghar Ghungro ane Ghotalo’ before a packed audience.

Two of the high priests, Dasturji Framroze Kotwal and Dasturji Khurshed Dastoor, were in attendance. Dasturji Kotwal’s attendance was particularly significant since, in 1961, he had helped consecrate the fire. Dasturji Kotwal recalled that the alat, or ritual implements, and consecrated hom twigs were brought to Delhi via automobile from the Anjuman Atash Behram in Bombay. Priests conducted the yasna ceremony over four days as well as the seven-hour Vendidad ceremony. On the fourth day, the holy fire was carried in procession to the sanctum santorum of the new agiary. Dasturji Kotwal also mentioned that Delhi specifically chose to have a lower-grade dadgah fire inaugurated: in case the anjuman could not find a priest, a layperson could step forward and tend the fire.

One issue, in particular, seemed to dominate panel discussions and lectures: the state of the Parsi priesthood. Dasturji Kotwal observed that ‘the priesthood has dwindled drastically.’ Unless something is done quickly, the priesthood will be in real danger of extinction. ‘Without priests, there can be no Zoroastrian religion,’ he stated, emphasizing the priesthood’s role in preserving Zoroastrian traditions, rituals, and a corpus of religious knowledge. Dasturji Dastoor argued that ‘the laity have forgotten the priests completely’ and recalled how his own father had to seek out the support of various charities in order to get a surgery done, as he was unable to pay for it himself. Similarly, Dr. Shernaz Cama, director of Parzor, recalled how the late Dasturji Meherjirana had to hitch rides on the back of a bicycle in order to get around Navsari, something that greatly shocked the two Kashmiri photographers that had accompanied her to visit the Meherjirana Library. ‘You call yourselves an enlightened community? We’d be ashamed to have this happen in ours,’ they told Dr. Cama.

There were also calls for reform and liberalization amongst the priesthood. Ervad Yezad Kapadia, vice president of the Delhi Parsi Anjuman, noted that ‘no religion can survive without adapting itself. Certain things practiced in the past need to change.’ In particular, Kapadia argued that the priesthood needs to concern itself with making the religion relevant for its present-day adherents; it also needs to accept all children born from interfaith marriages. Kapadia’s views found a large degree of support within the audience.

Bombay Parsi Punchayet chairman Dinshaw Mehta briefly described a new trust being established for financially supporting the Parsi priesthood. Mehta anticipates that the trust will need an annual operating budget of Rs. 60 million (approximately US$1.14 million) and therefore appealed for financial contributions from the Parsi community. Dasturji Kotwal, who will serve as the chairman of the trust, mentioned that its first priority will be to strengthen the Dadar Athornan Institute, which is now practically the only functioning institution for training new Zoroastrian priests.

Thanks to Jehangir Cama of Delhi for contributions to this article. And thanks to the Delhi Parsi Anjuman and members of the Delhi Parsi community for their kind hospitality and continued support for the present writer.

Dinyar Patel

Further Reading:

See news coverage and photographs on the Delhi Parsi Anjuman’s website.

UDVADA, PART 2: The External Threat, posed by Nucleus Developers, to the Parsis’ Holiest Town

Image 1: Gate (now locked) to the property owned by Nucleus Developers, located next to Dastoor Baug in Udvada.

Udvada village currently sits a comfortable distance away from the messy industrial and commercial development that has sprung up around National Highway (NH) 8, a good eight kilometers to the east. For the moment, the village can still be accessed via narrow country roads that wind through orchards and wooded areas.

This might all soon change.  For the past year, a local consortium, Nucleus Developers Private Limited, has threatened to turn an expansive plot of land northeast of the village into a sprawling compound, replacing orchards and farmlands with brick and concrete, and threatening to dramatically alter the rural ambience of Udvada village.

The story of the current Udvada land controversy is long and complex. Without relevant court documents, it can be an extremely confusing case to follow, compounded by the rumors and unverifiable statements that have flown back and forth in the community over the past few months. The account I reproduce below is based on reputable news reports and conversations I have had with many Parsi community leaders over the past several months. In spite of this, I have still had great difficulty piecing together the facts. A lack of hard facts and transparency, and the widely diverging narratives on the identity of Nucleus Developers and their intents, only confirms—in my mind—the murkiness of affairs that surround this project.

Nucleus Properties currently owns an area of approximately 168 acres zoned for farming, which, according to a comprehensive article published by Parsiana in June 2011, is now the site of expansive orchards (wadis) consisting of some 7,000 to 12,000 trees. As satellite maps reveal, this is currently one of the densest concentrations of green cover immediately bordering Udvada village. While one corner of this property is only a few minutes’ walk from the Iranshah Atash Behram, in the direction of Dastoor Baug and Ashishvangh Hotel, the land spreads out to the north and west to almost touch the sea. The 38 acres closest to the Atash Behram were originally owned by the Shree Baug-e-Iranshah Trust (which is different from the Udvada Samast Anjuman, the local Parsi organization. In response to accusations that the organization should never have allowed the disputed land to slip out of the control of the Parsi community, the Samast Anjuman has on several occasions clarified that it has never owned any of the property now in dispute).  In 1966 it was sold to a Jamnadas Nagardas Modi, who in turn sold it to Lallubhai Jogi, a locally known figure, under whose tenure the property reached its current dimensions. Jogi sold the land to Nucleus in July 2010.

Parsiana, along with Vada Dasturjis Khurshed Dastoor and Peshotan Mirza, stated that Nucleus’ original plan was to set up some sort of factory—either a garments or a plastics factory—here. Aside from the desultory effects on nearby Iranshah, the project would have wreaked havoc on Udvada’s fragile environment, depleting groundwater reserves (the same reserves used by Iranshah’s wells, by the way) and potentially accelerating the process of coastal erosion in the region. Not to mention that the development would have been legally questionable—the land is specifically zoned for agricultural use and requires government approval if it is to be converted for other uses.

In spite of this, Nucleus had secured permission from local authorities, namely, the deputy collector of Valsad,  for conversion from non-agricultural use. In a statement released in February 2011, the Samast Anjuman noted:

Udvada Samast Anjuman found it surprising that whilst in normal circumstances change of tenure of land from ‘agricultural land to nonagricultural’ is a long drawn out process, in the present case the same was done speedily. Udvada Samast Anjuman therefore decided to take up the matter with the district authorities and the Government of Gujarat to enquire into the speedy manner in which the tenure of the land was changed from agriculture to non agriculture and that too so very close to sacred Shreeji Pak Iranshah. The authorities have been reminded that they had some years earlier designated Udvada as ‘Pavitra Yatradham’ [place of holy pilgrimage] on account of Shreeji Pak Iranshah being located there.

As Dastoor told Parsiana, the collector of Valsad overturned the deputy collector’s approval after the Parsi community registered its outrage. Once the story hit the news, Nucleus apparently backpedaled and stated that they only wanted to build farmhouses on the property.  Meanwhile, Nucleus filed an appeal with the Gujarat Revenue Tribunal, which overturned the collector’s decision. At the same time, however, the Tribunal issued an order that ‘status quo’ be maintained as on the date of the order, which I understand to mean that Nucleus is prevented from further development of the property for the time being (I have not been able to locate the Tribunal’s order through legal search engines, and the Tribunal’s website has not been updated since 2010). According to well-placed sources in the community, Nucleus has not as yet taken the next possible step of moving the Gujarat High Court on the matter, and thus the situation is deadlocked.

Image 2: Schematic diagram of Nucleus' planned development of farmhouses on its 168-acre site.

The Samast Anjuman, for its part, has tried to interest the highest echelons of the Gujarat government in its case. The land controversy was unmistakably in the background when Iranshah’s 1290th salgreh (anniversary) was celebrated on 24 April 2011 with chief minister Narendra Modi as the guest of honor. ‘Today, once again, when the sacred fire was facing a different kind of threat, [the] Government of Gujarat  at the behest of its unparalleled and dynamic Chief Minister Shri Narendra Modi has risen to the occasion to assure its safety,’ Dastoor stated in a message he issued on the occasion of the salgreh.

Just how big is 168 acres? On its website, Nucleus has a schematic diagram of its proposed development, divided into 128 plots for farmhouses (see Image 2). They have, perhaps wisely, not indicated how the property compares in size to the village of Udvada. I have attempted to do so in the maps included here.  In Image 3, I have traced the rough borders of the Nucleus site onto a satellite map of the Udvada area. In Image 4, I have superimposed Nucleus’ schematic diagram into this rough trace. It is readily apparent how this development would completely dwarf the existing village of Udvada. The developers themselves acknowledge on their website that their property is ‘double the size of the entire Udvada Village.’

Image 3: Vicinity of Udvada. Nucleus Developers' property is outlined in red, while the dashed orange line indicates the extent of current-day Udvada village.
Image 4: Vicinity of Udvada with Nucleus' development proposal superimposed on the disputed property.

In its development proposals, Nucleus has already had to make some concessions to the Parsi community. It has, according to its website, earmarked the 25 acres closest to Iranshah for ‘a beautiful garden for Parsis and other villagers of Udvada with parking space for vehicles bringing passengers to pay homage to Iranshah, etc.’ To their credit, Nucleus has also closed the main entrance to the property, situated just beyond Dastoor Baug (see Image 1), and made a new entrance one kilometer away, in response to fears of increased traffic right next to Iranshah.

In spite of these concessions, the project is still a cause for great concern. In a message posted on their website, addressed to ‘The Respected Parsi Community, Respected Elders & Dear Young Intellectuals,’ the directors of Nucleus, Pramod Banka and Salim Kherani, argue that their project has been ‘misunderstood.’ But the tenor of the rest of their letter only raised the sense of alarm for the present writer. After praising new boxy residential developments in Udvada that have shattered much of the village’s historical ambience, the directors explain away Dasturji Dastoor’s concerns about increased traffic by pointing out that the complex’s new entrance is now one kilometer away from Iranshah. No thought is given to the obvious uptick in traffic that will occur in the village, especially when the developers plan to open a parking lot on the grounds closest to the Atash Behram.

The developers further note that the farm houses will ‘be purchased only by the Elite Class of People from Cities of Mumbai, Surat, Baroda, Ahmedabad, etc.’ [sic] and will not serve as permanent homes. But one wonders whether there really will be such a great demand for these farm houses when upwards of 40 percent of existing houses in Udvada village, by one estimate given in the Zoroastrian Information Centre, are currently vacant and abandoned. And, if the farm houses are indeed restricted to ‘the Elite Class of People,’ there is even more worry that Udvada’s limited infrastructure and resources might come under great strain.

The remainder of Nucleus’ letter is bizarrely threatening in tone:

Now that the matter is in court, we shall be compelled to fight our case. It is very pertinent to note that, in Udvada, of the 33 [new] Residential Buildings which have come up, majority of them belong to Parsi Community and almost 70 % to 80 % of these buildings are illegal structures constructed without any regard to the law of the land. We have gathered all the evidences, using Right To Information Act, about these properties. Now, if we are harassed, even if our project is the most genuine and legally tenable, then, we shall also be compelled to move legally against these illegal projects where not only these vested interest persons (Vada Parsi Dastoorji [Dastoor] and his associates) and other Members of Parsi Community will suffer, a few other innocent people from the Udvada Village will also suffer. And with that, an unnecessary tension will be created in Udvada and an anti-Parsi environment will also crop up. If this happens, it will be very dangerous for all of us.

(I am unable to confirm whether, as Nucleus claims, so much new Parsi construction is illegal. Dasturji Dastoor disputed this figure when he spoke to Parsiana.)

Nucleus continues by raising allegations against Dasturji Dastoor:

And dear Readers, do you know why the Vada Parsi Dastoorji and his associates are creating hurdles for our project ? Its just because these very people want us to sell our entire Project Land to them at a price below our purchase price. And they are threatening us that if we will not sell the land to them at below cost, then they will not allow us to do any development activity on our project land.

Dastoor explained the Anjuman’s stance to Parsiana, and an excerpt of the article is given below:

‘We are ready to purchase the land at a reasonable price…we don’t want to cause any  nuksaan (loss)’ to the present purchase ‘but we will not pay double the price,’ Dastoor avers. He claims that the sale price from the previous owner Lallubhai Jogi to Nucleus was finalized at Rs. 37,50,00,000 (US$8,333,333) or around Rs. 22,50,000 an acre! But Kherani envisions selling plots to individual buyers at Rs. 500 to 600 a sq. ft. At 43,560 sq. ft. to an acre, the price works out to Rs. 2,40,000 an acre! If construction of homes is to be done Nucleus would charge an additional Rs. 600 to 700 a sq. ft. Thus the built up cost would work out to around Rs. 1,200 per sq. ft. The current price for an ownership flat in Udvada is around that amount.

Exorbitantly high real estate prices, unprofessional PR, threatening language, and insinuations—something does not add up here.

In January, when I spoke to the Anjuman’s advocate in the land controversy case, Rustom Marshall, he stated that the easiest resolution to this dispute is also the most difficult: purchase of the land from Nucleus by a creditable third party keen on maintaining the agricultural nature of the land. For the moment, the Nucleus case remains with the Gujarat Revenue Tribunal. And, as opposed to the case of a few months ago, it currently incites less discussion and provokes less interest in the Parsi community. One hopes that the Parsis—be they in India or abroad—take keen interest and involvement in the case. The sanctity of their holiest fire temple hangs in the balance, after all.

In my next post, I will delve further into Nucleus controversy, outlining some of the main arguments made by the Udvada Samast Anjuman against the developers by utilizing some court documents at my disposal.

My thanks to Parinaz Madan, a Mumbai-based lawyer, for her help with this and future posts on this topic.

Further Reading

‘The Wadi at Udvada,’ Parsiana, 7 June 2011, pp. 32-33, 47-48.

Nucleus Developers website

Udvada Samast Anjuman statement of October 2010

Udvada Samast Anjuman statement of February 2011

Videos and reports of Modi’s visit to Udvada for Iranshah’s salgreh, as compiled by ParsiKhabar

A Different Passage to India

As is well known, Parsis first came to India by boat.  The tale of the journey and the founding of the new community in Gujarat is told in the New Persian poem Qiṣṣa-ye Sanjan, a new English translation of which was recently published by Alan Williams.
However, this is not the only account of Zoroastrian travel to the subcontinent.

A ninth century theological work written in Middle Persian called the Shkand Gumanig Wizar, or Doubt-Breaking Treatise, also describes the author’s travels beyond the borders of Iran.  Mardanfarrox the son of Ohrmazddad, the otherwise unknown author of the Shkand, dedicated his work to founding Zoroastrianism on a firm rational basis.  He argues that clear observation of and reflection on human existence and world leads inevitably to one conclusion: God exists, as does his evil adversary, and the creation of the world is a trap by which good overcomes evil.  In other words, reason confirms the truth revealed in the holy scriptures.  Furthermore, Mardanfarrox applies his reason to critical readings of rival religious traditions, especially Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Manichaeism.  Here too, reason proves Zoroastrianism triumphant.  The rival doctrines are little more than a series of contradictions, tall tales and impossible theologies.

The impetus for Mardanfarrox’s book, as he describes it in an autobiographical passage, was a crisis of doubt.  He searched for a faith that was confirmed by reason, rather than simply accepting blindly the religion of his youth.  These travels led him outside Iran, to discuss questions of religion with all kinds of men.  India is the only named destination and it is clear that its mention is meant to indicate the length of his quest and the seriousness of his devotion to it.  We can imagine him: resting at a bend in the road among the pilgrims, merchants and fellow travelers, and the awe on their faces when he says: “How far have I gone? As far as India.”

During Mardanfarrox’s time, there was certainly commerce and traffic between India and Iran.  It is well established that, as they did in the later Middle Ages, traders plied the sea route between the Persian Gulf and the western coast of India.  One of the pieces of evidence that Iranians were engaged in this trade is an engraving on copper plates from Quilon in Kerala, South India.  The plates record grants to the traders of various communities by the local king and contain signatures written in, among other scripts, the alphabet particular to Pahlavi Zoroastrian Middle Persian.

However, scholars have called Mardanfarrox’s account of his journey into question.  First of all, while the Shkand is rich with descriptions of rival religions, Manichaeism in particular, Indian religions go unmentioned.  If Mardanfarrox did make it to India he would surely have encountered Buddhist or Hindu teachers and sages, as others had before him.  The absence of any reference to these faiths does detract from the believability of his story.

Moreover, the trope of a spiritual quest prompted by doubt can be found elsewhere in Zoroastrian literature in Middle Persian.  The Dadestan i Menog i Xrad is a book of advice, wise sayings and religious instruction in the form of a questions put by an unnamed sage to the Menog i Xrad, the Spirit of Wisdom.  There too, the sage describes the doubt that led him to journey to the provinces and districts of the empire investigating the beliefs of the inhabitants; on the basis of the mutual opposition of these sects, he comes to the conclusion that only the Zoroastrian religion is true.  The righteous sage Arda Wiraz, as is told in the book that bears his name, attempts a different kind of journey.  To assuage the community’s doubt surround correct ritual practice, Arda Wiraz enters a trance-like state and, in his spiritual form, visits heaven and hell and receives an audience with Ohrmazd himself.

Outside of Zoroastrian literature, Mani, the third century founder of the dualistic religion Manichaeism, is also said to have travelled to India on an overland route through today’s Afghanistan or Central Asia.  Mani’s own journey is hard to question, as he clearly incorporated elements of Buddhist teaching and terminology into his own syncretic faith.  Though the evidence of contact with Indian doctrines in the Shkand itself is slim, it remains conceivable that Mardanfarrox followed Mani, about whom he knew so much, on an Indian adventure.

What is important, though, in not the historical reality of Mardanfarrox’s journey but its symbolic value.  To travel t o India, even if only in words, is a measure of the seriousness of the author’s quest and his dedication to reason.  At the same time, this journey, fictional or not, is also a testimony to the challenge of the adversary: doubt.  It was doubt, and the danger doubt poses to unravel the truth of revelation, that prompted Mardanfarrox, Arda Wiraz and the sage of the Menog i Xrad to undertake their adventures.  India, just like the Heaven visited by Arda Wiraz, represents that other world, that place beyond the borders of our confusing, everyday reality, where the truth that vanquishes doubt is stored up and preserved.

UDVADA, PART 1: The Journey of Iranshah

My next few posts will be on the village of Udvada in southern Gujarat, the most sacred locale for the Parsi Zoroastrians as it is home to the Iranshah Atash Behram. Before I get to the current state of the village, I offer some discussion of Iranshah’s history.

The origins and early history of the Iranshah fire is shrouded in myth. Amongst many Parsis, it is popularly believed that the fire was brought from Iran by the first Parsi migrants who came to India in order to flee increased persecution in Iran. This is unlikely, especially if, as tradition holds, the first Parsis came via sea. We find a different story in the Kisseh-e-Sanjan, a lengthy Persian poem recounting how the Parsis left Iran for Diu and finally landed at Sanjan on the coast of Gujarat. The Kisseh is, however, a problematic source: written in 1599-1600 CE by Bahman Keikobad, a priest in Navsari, it purports to describe events that happened seven to nine centuries beforehand. In the past, Parsi historians have taken the content of the Kisseh all too literally, extrapolating precise dates of the Parsi migration (the two most commonly cited dates of the Parsi migration are 716 CE and 936 CE) and unquestioningly adopting its narrative of Parsi history.

As our only written source on the Parsi migration to India, it is nevertheless worthwhile to see what the Kisseh says about the holy fire now known as Iranshah. Sailing east from Diu, Bahman Keikobad tells us, the Parsis encountered a ferocious storm.  The dasturjis prayed to God:

‘Wise Lord, come to our rescue in this plight,
Save us just once from this calamity!

Victorious Bahrām, come to rescue me!
Make things auspicious for me in this trouble!

By your grace we’ll not suffer from the storm,
there’ll be no dread within our hearts or souls.

You are defender of the helpless ones!
Reveal the way to us who’ve lost our way!

If we should find salvation from this whirlpool,
and no disaster falls on us again,

If from this sea we reach the land of Hend,
and are contented there with happy hearts,

We’ll light a Fire of Bahrām, our Protector,
O save us from this plight and make us strong!

We’ve undertaken this ourselves with God,
Apart from Him we have no other help.’[123-131]

Ahura Mazda did not disappoint: ‘A fair wind blew, there was a glorious light,’ and the Parsis landed safely at Sanjan, where they were later met by the local raja Jadi Rana (whether this Jadi Rana existed at all is a valid question; there is no corresponding evidence in Gujarati historical records to such a figure) . After receiving Jadi Rana’s welcome and establishing a settlement at Sanjan (the Kisseh makes it seem as though nothing existed in Sanjan before the Parsis, though recent archaeological excavations have suggested that Sanjan might have been a significant international port), the dasturjis approached the ruler for permission to consecrate a holy fire:

The dastur said to him, ‘O noble prince,
you’ve given us a place in this domain.

Now I would wish that, in this land of Hend,
somehow we may set up the Fire of Bahrām.

We need to clear the land three leagues around,
so it is proper for the rite of Nirang.

No strangers shall encroach upon that place.
It’s only for the blest ones of our faith.

There must not be a single joddin there,
and then the ritual for the fire will work.

If someone makes a noise, no doubt that instant
the ritual will be rendered null and void.’[195-200]

Jadi Rana gave his permission, granted a plot of land, and cleared out non-Zoroastrians from the vicinity. Having received necessary religious implements from Khorasan (in northeastern Iran), the dasturjis went to work and, ‘With sacred rites the priests and elders all, set up the Irān Shāh in light on light’ [220]. This is also the earliest reference we have for the holy fire being called ‘Iranshah.’

Iranshah remained in Sanjan for several centuries, tended by the priests of the Sanjana panthak (the Parsis divided coastal southern Gujarat, where they settled, into five ‘panths’ or divisions of priestly authority). Several hundred years later—most likely in the fourteenth or fifteenth century—Sanjan was, according to the Kisseh, besieged by Muslim invaders and, following a protracted and bloody battle, the fire was removed to the remote Bahrot Caves for safekeeping. It remained in the caves for twelve years, after which it was transferred to nearby Vansda for another fourteen years. Finally, as the Kisseh tells us, Changa Asa, a prominent Parsi layman from Navsari, invited the Sanjana priests to take Iranshah to his hometown, a far more convenient location for Parsi pilgrims. ‘For, as it is, each year we take the road, and in this month there is great hardship for us. / For this falls in the month of monsoon rains, to make the journey there is difficult,’ Changa Asa reasoned [386-87].

The Kisseh ends with the Iranshah fire and the Sanjana priests being welcomed to Navsari, an event that took place around 1479 CE. This, of course, is not the end of the story of Iranshah’s migration. Navsari was the headquarters of another panthak, that of the Bhagaria priesthood, and, as such, the two panthaks had to engage in delicate negotiations over priestly authority and who could carry out various rituals. While Sanjana dasturjis preserved their custody of the Iranshah fire itself, Bhagaria dasturjis had the sole authority to preside over other ritual services required by Parsi pilgrims (Iranshah was, at the time, the only Atash Behram of the Parsis of India). This arrangement, as one could expect, proved highly unstable. Susan Stiles Maneck provides a glimpse of worsening Sanjana-Bhagaria relations in her book, The Death of Ahriman:  Culture, Identity and Theological Change Among the Parsis of India (Bombay: K.R. Cama Oriental Institute, 1997). Maneck notes that the increased power and prosperity of the Bhagarias—brought about by wealth of Navsari merchants as well as revenue from Parsi pilgrims visiting the holy fire—was matched by a growing impoverishment amongst the Sanjanas and a diminishment of their authority (in fact, historians have argued that the Kisseh-e-Sanjan might very well have been written with the purpose in mind of bolstering Sanjana authority). In 1686, the Sanjanas sided with the laymen of Navsari—keen to assert their own authority over community matters—in order to check the power of the Bhagarias. This led to a melee where six laymen and two Bhagaria dasturjis were killed. Further squabbles and fights ensued, at one time necessitating the intervention of the nizam of Bharuch, and at another time leading to the Iranshah fire being evacuated to Surat for three years.

Iranshah’s three century-long stay in Navsari came to an end in 1740 after the Sanjanas, with the authority of the gaikwad of Baroda, moved the sacred fire to Valsad or Bulsar (with Navsari deprived of the holy fire, the Bhagarias in 1765 consecrated their own Atash Behram). Two years later, they chose a small seaside village, Udvada, as the new home of Iranshah and the seat of the Sanjana panthak. The fire was brought into the home of Mobed Mehernosh Hormuzd Bhathela on 28 October 1742. It was housed in several other residences and buildings before Bai Motlibai Wadia commissioned the current-day structure to be built in 1894.

* * *

Jhanda Chowk, Udvada.

Udvada occupies a special place in the hearts of all Parsis. For me, it is especially personal. I am a descendant of two of the nine priestly families of Udvada—the Patels and the Mirzas—and three of my grandparents came from that village. Regardless, I had my first opportunity to visit Udvada only last weekend. I was well-acquainted with the common narrative of Udvada’s decline—its steady abandonment by Parsi residents, its crumbling and shuttered houses, and the continuous erasure of its history as old Parsi residences come down one-by-one.

Nevertheless, seeing the state of Udvada firsthand still came as a shock. I am not referring to the Atash Behram itself, which was recently refurbished in relation to the 1290th salgreh (anniversary) of the fire’s consecration. I refer to the village, which I believe that we must hold in equal reverence as it has been the setting for so much Parsi Zoroastrian history and tradition. Parsis might equate Udvada to Mecca or Jerusalem. But neither of those two holy centers is in such a neglected, decrepit, and shameful state.

In the following posts, I will write on two imminent threats to the village of Udvada, one external and one internal. The external threat manifests itself in the form of a major—and legally questionable—development planned on the village’s outskirts by a consortium known as Nucleus Developers. Nucleus Developers, which owns a 168-acre property just a stone’s throw away from Iranshah’s gates, is threatening to convert a bucolic landscape of mango and chikoo orchards into a massive complex of farmhouses. If built, the scheme would dwarf the village of Udvada—in area, at least.

The second threat emanates from the Parsis themselves. The community’s sheer neglect of Udvada’s impressive built heritage—its unique houses and buildings—has led to the loss of several old houses in recent years. In the place of these lovely old buildings are empty lots or ungainly concrete structures. In any other country, such heritage would be lovingly and conscientiously preserved—especially by a community that prides itself on being ‘educated.’ So much history is lost when we apply the sledgehammer indiscriminately.

Some Further Reading

The above passages of the Kisseh-e-Sanjan are taken from Allan Williams’ The Zoroastrian Myth of Migration from Iran and Settlement in the Indian Diaspora: Text, Translation and Analysis of the 16th Century Qeṣṣe-ye Sanjān, ‘The Story of Sanjan’ (Leiden: Brill, 2009). Williams provides a translation of the text as well as extensive historical commentary. Of special interest to the Parsi community is Williams’ discussion of the various dates that have been proposed for historical events such as the Parsi arrival in Sanjan. Other work on the Kisseh and early Parsi history include: Jivanji Jamshedji Modi, Dastur Bahman Kaikobad and the Kisseh-i-Sanjan: A Reply (Bombay: 1917); S.H. Hodivala, Studies in Parsi History (Bombay: 1920); S.K. Hodiwala, Parsis of Ancient India (Bombay, 1920); Modi, A Few Events in the Early History of the Parsis (Bombay: 1922); and H.E. Eduljee, Kisseh-i Sanjan (Bombay: K.R. Cama Oriental Institute, 1991). A discussion of recent archaeological digs in Sanjan—which strengthen the argument that the Parsi arrival in Gujarat was intimately linked to existing maritime networks, and perhaps ‘pre-existing’ Zoroastrian settlements in western India—can be read in Rukshana Nanji and Homi Dhalla, ‘The Landing of the Zoroastrians at Sanjan: The Archaeological Evidence,’ in John Hinnells and Alan Williams, eds., Parsis in India and the Diaspora (London: Routledge, 2007). If you can read Gujarati, the best source to consult is S.K. Hodiwala’s પાક ઈરાનશાહની તવારીખ, Pāk Īrānśahnī Tavārikh (Bombay: 1927). Also see Mitra Sharafi’s dissertation, Bella’s Case: Parsi Identity and the Law in Colonial Rangoon, Bombay and London, 1887-1925 (Princeton University), for discussion of a significant legal case involving the Iranshah Atash Behram in 1900, Navroji Manekji Wadia and others v. Dastur Kharshedji Mancherji and others.

My thanks to an anonymous caller from Udvada for pointing out errors in an earlier version of this post.

Dinyar Patel

Dadabhai Naoroji and the Naoroji Papers in Delhi

A flier for Naoroji dating from his parliamentary reelection campaign in Central Finsbury, London in 1895. Since his foreign name caused many twisted tongues among the British electorate, he was advised to simply go by "D. Naoroji." This still created difficulties, as Naoroji was regularly addressed as "Narejse," "Naorogi," and other permutations.

In future posts on this blog, I will feature information gleaned from one of the largest collections at the National Archives of India, the Dadabhai Naoroji Papers. Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), who was known as the “Grand Old Man of India,” was one of the earliest Indian nationalists, a man who began his political career before the Indian Mutiny and lived to mentor a young Mahatma Gandhi. In the course of over seven decades of involvement in Indian politics, Naoroji served in various positions in the governments of Bombay city and the Bombay Presidency; helped found the Indian National Congress, of which he was president three times; and, in 1892, became the first Indian elected to the British Parliament. More significant than this was the decades of agitation for political reform that Naoroji carried out in India and the United Kingdom, beginning with demands for greater Indian representation in the civil service of the British Indian government and ending with a call for a form of swaraj, or self-government. Naoroji, whose father was a professional Zoroastrian priest, was also intimately involved in Parsi community affairs from the 1850s through the time of his death.

For the last several months, I have been going through the Naoroji Papers in connection with research for my Ph.D. dissertation. In spite of their incredible breadth and scope, these papers have been largely neglected by scholars of Indian history. In this collection, we find letters from some of the most prominent early Indian nationalists–R.C. Dutt, Gopalkrishna Gokhale, Pherozeshah Mehta, Surrendranath Banerjea, and M.G. Ranade–as well as a vast array of correspondence with local political leaders and organizations across the subcontinent. Naoroji received some of the earliest complaints from South African Indians about their mistreatment–by the 1890s, he was in regular communication with Gandhi and brought the issue before the British Parliament and the Colonial Office. As Naoroji spent decades in London, he became a well-known figure within British political circles and took part in an array of progressive causes, ranging from trade unionism to women’s suffrage. As time went on, he adopted many socialist political views and engaged in lengthy correspondence with Henry M. Hyndman, the leader of the Social Democratic Federation of the United Kingdom.

Naoroji’s political career is only half of the story. Early in his life, he played an influential role in Parsi social and religious reform. Thanks, in large part, to Naoroji, the first attempts to educate Parsi girls were made in the 1850s and 1860s. Along with a prominent sethia (commercial elite), Manockjee Cursetjee, Naoroji also introduced the revolutionary concept of Parsi males and females dining together (traditionally, Parsi women would only eat until their menfolk had finished their meals). Once in England, Naoroji helped build the infrastructure of the tiny-but-growing Parsi community in London, helping establish the Zoroastrian Fund (now the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe) in 1861. By the 1890s, he was the recognized leader of the Parsi as well as Indian diaspora in the United Kingdom, mentoring Parsis and other Indians who had come to London and elsewhere to study, work, or simply travel. We find many such letters between Naoroji and Indian visitors and residents in the Naoroji Papers. Some asked Naoroji for his advice on what to study and how best to apply to institutions such as Cambridge or Oxford, others asked about more mundane matters such as setting up a bank account, and still others urgently telegraphed or wrote to him when in financial or legal trouble. Naoroji responded and attended to all of these requests, meeting with homesick or disoriented Indians, issuing loans, and, in at least one case, bailing an Indian out of jail in London after he was arrested for public drunkenness during new years day revels. He was president of the Zoroastrian Fund in London from its founding until Naoroji returned to India for good in 1907.

There are around 25,000 items in the Naoroji Papers, including individual letters, booklets, pamphlets, and newspaper cuttings. The majority of this collection is in English, while an uncatalogued portion is in Gujarati, but I have also found material in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Marathi and Telegu or Kannada. Unfortunately, the collection is in extremely bad condition, suffering from multiple forms of damage. Proper historical preservation, unfortunately, has not been a strength in modern India. For decades, these papers were kept in cupboards and open rooms that facilitated and accelerated damage by weather and insects. Already by the 1930s and 1940s, just decades after Naoroji’s death, large portions of material were already found eaten up by worms and, in the words of one individual who surveyed them in 1943, emitting a “bad stink.” In 1968, the Papers were finally transferred to the National Archives of India, though unfortunately some damage appears to have occurred here as well. Under new directorship, the Archives is now attending to proper preservation of this valuable collection.

Along with Professor S.R. Mehrotra, who has spent decades studying Indian nationalists including Naoroji, and with the support of the National Archives, I am now helping bring out an edited selection of letters from the Papers titled the Dadabhai Naoroji Correspondence. This volume will be published by Oxford University Press in 2012 and you can read more about it on OUP’s website.

In the mean time, check back here for some interesting finds from the Naoroji Papers.

Dinyar Patel

150 Years of Zoroastrian Studies: Conference for 150th Anniversary of ZTFE

Saturday 22nd – Sunday 23rd October 2011, 10.00am – 5.30pm
Zartoshty Brothers Hall, Zoroastrian Centre for Europe
440 Alexandra Avenue, Harrow, London HA2 9TL
(Diagonally opposite Rayners Lane London Underground station)

About the Conference

This conference celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe, established 1861. It is the oldest religious voluntary organisation in Britain of South Asian origin. The objective of the conference is to elaborate 150 years of research and academic activity in Zoroastrian studies. The invited speakers are from an academic background in Zoroastrian studies, but the conference is aimed primarily at a non-academic audience and will be of particular interest to those who are interested in the Zoroastrian religion, history, heritage and culture.

One of the objectives of the ZTFE is to advance the study and dissemination of information and knowledge of the Zoroastrian faith, which led our Founder President Seth Muncherji Hormusji Cama to sponsor the first English translation of the Avesta in 1864 by Arthur Henry Bleeck, from Professor Spiegel’s German translation.

To fulfil this objective in this sesquicentennial year, the ZTFE is organising a conference; ‘150 years of Zoroastrian Studies’ with an inaugural lecture by Dasturji Dr Firoze M Kotwal at the Khalili Lecture Theatre at SOAS on Thursday 20th October 2011 at 7pm, followed by a weekend conference at the Zartoshty Brothers Hall, Zoroastrian Centre, Harrow, on Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd October 2011, 10.00am to 5.30pm.

Speakers and Topics

Professor Jamsheed K Choksy – Indiana University; USA
The Zoroastrians of colonial Ceylon and independent Sri Lanka

Dr Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis – British Museum; UK
The Magic of Ancient Persia: Nineteenth century travellers and discoveries

Professor Frantz Grenet – Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes; Sorbonne, France. Zoroastrian funerary art in Sogdiana and China

Professor John R Hinnells – Honorary Research Professor, SOAS; UK
Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe: A history of 150 years

Professor Almut Hintze – School of Oriental and African Studies; UK
On the concept of creation in Zoroastrianism

Khojeste P Mistree – Zoroastrian Studies; India
Select English and European scholars and their study of Zoroastrianism: A narrative and a journey

Dr Jenny Rose – Claremont Graduate University; USA
Agents of change: Dynamic encounters between Parsis and New Englanders in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries

Dr Sarah Stewart – School of Oriental and African Studies; UK
Negotiating Transition: From dakhmeh to cemetery

Professor Alan Williams – University of Manchester; UK
Diaspora then and now in the mirror of the Qesse – ye – Sanjān

Dr Rashna Writer – School of Oriental and African Studies; UK
The role of education: Keeping the Zoroastrian heritage alive

Admission Fees: £40.00; £30.00 conc. (OAPs & ZTFE members / SOAS / LMEI Affiliates / Friends of the British Museum) £10.00 students (fees to include lunch and refreshments)

Enquires & Bookings: ZTFE Secretariat – Tel. No 020 8866 0765 / Email: Please return completed form with cheque payable to Z.T.F.E. (Inc.) with a SAE by Friday 14th October 2011 to Zoroastrian Centre, 440, Alexandra Avenue, Harrow HA2 9TL. For your convenience ZTFE has facility to accept payments / by credit and debit cards for this event.