The Hindu of today has carried an article that I wrote on the Meherjirana Library Conference of January 2013:
A small-town wonder
The Meherjirana Library in Gujarat is one of the most important centres in the world for the study of Zoroastrianism and Parsi history. Dinyar Patel takes a peek into its illustrious past and what it stands for today.
I never saw such a fine collection in a small town,” declared the French orientalist James Darmesteter after surveying the First Dastoor Meherjirana Library in Navsari, Gujarat, in 1887. Nearly 140 years after it first opened its doors, the Meherjirana Library remains one of the most important centres in the world for the study of Zoroastrianism and Parsi history. And it continues to draw visitors from far and wide. Earlier this month, from January 12-15, the library hosted about a hundred people — including scholars from the US, Great Britain, Germany, and Japan — for a special conference to celebrate some very important changes here.
Unlike many other institutions in India, the Meherjirana Library has eagerly embraced a programme of modernisation and document conservation. In recent years, it has received funding and support from various trusts and organisations, including UNESCO, INTACH, and the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, something that has in turn helped rekindle global academic interest in its collections. It has cooperated with a team from the University of Salamanca in Spain to digitise some of its most important Zoroastrian manuscripts. The conference built upon these international networks by bringing together both veteran researchers at the library, such as Dasturji Firoze M. Kotwal, the most learned scholar-priest in the Parsi community, and first-time visitors to Navsari like the novelist Amitav Ghosh.
For the Parsi community, Navsari has long been a bastion of religious knowledge and training, a town known reverentially as the dharamni tekri (“summit of the religion”). According to tradition, one 16 century Parsi priest, Meherji Rana, so greatly impressed Akbar that the Mughal emperor invited him back to his court in Fatehpur Sikri. From him sprang a priestly line (currently in its 17 generation) that both produced and collected a vast trove of knowledge on Zoroastrianism and other religions — a collection that was finally put into a formal library in 1874. The oldest manuscript in this collection dates from 1323 AD; there are also several Mughal sanads and firmans.
Many of these treasures were on display at the conference. Reza Huseini, an Afghan national and MA candidate in history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, pored over firmans from Akbar’s court, pointing out a note written by the vizier Abu’l Fazl. “It is so exciting to hold in my own hands actual documents from the Mughal era,” he commented. “These firmans show that the Parsis enjoyed special relations with the Mughals from the time of Akbar down through Aurangzeb.”
The conference also provided scholars an opportunity to survey the rich Parsi heritage of Navsari that exists beyond the library’s walls. “Navsari was a revelation,” stated Amitav Ghosh, who visited the birthplace of the industrialist Jamsetji N. Tata and the family house of Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, the 19 century opium baron and philanthropist. “It was amazing to see how this small town has played such an important part in the life of Indian Parsis — and how, through them, it became a crucible also of trade and industry.” On the conference’s last evening, attendees were invited into the ancestral homes of several local Parsis, where they examined family heirlooms and portraits and listened to family stories.
One of the conference’s chief goals was to promote such interaction between scholars and the Navsari community. “A number of famous scholars have been through the Meherjirana Library and generations of scholarship have been produced as a result,” commented Dan Sheffield, a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton and one of the conference’s organisers. “However, very little awareness of that scholarship exists in Navsari.” Sheffield first thought of ways to bridge this gap while spending five months at the library in 2008 for his dissertation research.
An equally important challenge — something openly acknowledged by library officials, visiting scholars, and Navsari residents alike — is sustaining future restoration work and facility improvement. Many manuscripts and rare volumes are still badly damaged and are awaiting conservation. There is still no constant climate control at the library, something rendered even more difficult by Navsari’s spotty power supply. Monique Vajifdar, a paper conservator based in South Africa, stressed that the Meherjirana Library needed to build up its own in-house talent for conservation and repair rather than relying on outside or foreign expertise. “The library is at a crossroads, with wonderful resources which we have to preserve for the future,” she remarked. “What has been achieved here is truly remarkable but there is a long way to go.”
Dinyar Patel is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Harvard University.
Tomorrow is an important day in Navsari: the inauguration of an international conference on Zoroastrian and Parsi studies, “Celebrating a Treasure: 140 Years at the First Dastoor Meherjirana Library,” held at the Meherjirana Library in Tarota Bazaar. The conference will last until 15 January and will include some of the world’s leading authorities on Zoroastrianism. It has been a pleasure for me to serve as one of the organizers of this conference.
The First Dastoor Meherjirana Library has been serving the people of Navsari as well as the Parsi and scholarly community since 1874. The library is named after one of the most significant figures in the history of the Parsi community, Dastur Meherji Rana (b. 1534), a Parsi priest who visited the court of the Emperor Akbar in Fatehpur Sikri from 1578-79, who, according to tradition, represented the Zoroastrian faith in the inter-religious dialogue at the Mughal Court.
According to the Mughal historian Badaʼuni, the Zoroastrians at the court impressed Akbar so much that he ordered Abu’l Fazl, his vizier, to keep a sacred fire burning day and night. Upon his return to Navsari, Meherji Rana was honored with the title of vada dastur (high priest). The hereditary line of Meherjirana priests—who, over the centuries, amassed a vast collection of Zoroastrian manuscripts and books—continues to this day.
The Library now holds this family collection in addition to other valuable material, making it one of the most important research libraries in the world for the study of Zoroastrianism and Parsi history, as well as the history of Gujarat and western India. A selection of the library’s most important manuscripts, some of which are more than six hundred years old, will be on exhibition during the conference.
In order to celebrate the international importance of this institution, the trustees of the Library and Parzor decided to organize a major conference focusing on Zoroastrian and Parsi studies.
The conference has been designed with two purposes in mind. First, we aim to familiarize international scholars with the resources of the Library. Secondly, we desire to promote interaction between these scholars and the local Navsari community, which has been a cradle of so much Parsi tradition and history over the centuries.
The conference will bring together some of the world’s leading scholars of Zoroastrian studies as well as several Zoroastrian high priests, providing a unique confluence of academic and priestly knowledge. On the evening of 12 January, Dr. Dasturji Firoze M. Kotwal, the most respected scholar-priest in the Parsi community, will deliver an inaugural lecture.
Amitav Ghosh, the acclaimed novelist whose most recent work, River of Smoke, features a Parsi protagonist, will deliver a special plenary address on the morning of 14 January.
A range of scholars from India and abroad—including professors and researchers from Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, the School of Oriental and African Studies (London), Free University of Berlin, Waseda University (Tokyo), Jawaharlal Nehru University, and the universities of Delhi and Mumbai—will feature on panel discussions.
These panels will focus on themes such as Parsi history in Gujarat and Mumbai, Parsis in modern India, Parsi rituals and traditions, study of the Avesta (the Zoroastrian holy text), and Zoroastrian manuscripts. Reflecting our commitment to the Navsari community and the broad promotion of knowledge beyond academia, scholars will tailor their presentations to a general audience.
In order to take full advantage of the richness of our surroundings in Navsari, the conference will feature several staples of Parsi culture: a Parsi Gujarati natak performed by Yazdi Karanjia’s troupe from neighboring Surat, demonstrations and exhibits of Parsi embroidery and textiles, and, of course, hearty Parsi cuisine.
The conference is being supported through the generosity of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and Mr. Nusli Wadia.
To learn more about the conference, please see our website.
Last week, the International Society for Iranian Studies (ISIS) held its biennial Iranian Studies Conference in Istanbul, attracting over four hundred professors, graduate students, and other researchers involved in the study of Iranian history, politics, religion, literature, and culture. Istanbul was an appropriate venue: for centuries, the region has had political, economic, and cultural links with Iran. Herodotus tells us that Darius the Great built a pontoon structure across the Bosporus’ narrowest point, probably somewhere near the present-day Second Bosporus Bridge (incidentally, this is also where the Ottomans built a strategic fort, Rumeli Hisari, for launching their invasion of Constantinople). Anatolia was under Persian control for much of the Achaemenid Empire. In more recent times, the Turks, while embroiled in military and religious disputes with empires to the east such as the Safavids, participated in a broad exchange of culture and literature with Iran, perhaps best represented in individuals such as the Sufi mystic Rumi. Istanbul has, historically, also hosted a large and vibrant Iranian community.
Perhaps more so than many other regions, it is impossible to study Iran without looking at the cultures and societies that border it. At this year’s ISIS conference, I was privileged to be a part of a panel that explored relations between India and Iran. Moreover, our panel looked specifically at the Parsi Zoroastrian connection, evaluating how Parsis, and certain Parsi individuals, helped shape some contours of recent Iranian history. Our panel chair—the distinguished Oxford historian Homa Katouzian—assisted in framing our research within broader historical themes such as the development of Iranian nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. We were very fortunate to have in attendance the “grand old man” of Iranian studies, Professor Ehsan Yarshater (Columbia University emeritus), who, at the age of 92, shows few signs of slowing down or restricting the scope of his academic activities.
Two of our papers approached their subjects from the perspective of Iran and Iranian society. Monica Ringer, associate professor at Amherst College, spoke about Kaikhosrow Shahrokh’s reforms of funerary customs among Iranian Zoroastrians. Shahrokh, a Zoroastrian from Kerman and the most prominent Iranian Zoroastrian leader in the 1920s and 1930s (he was the Zoroastrian representative in the Majles, the Iranian parliament, until his death), introduced cemeteries in 1935 and dissuaded the use of dakhmas. Shahrokh’s justification for this reform, Ringer argued, was threefold: invoking modern science, he claimed that burial was more hygienic; relying upon religious texts and contemporary scholarship, he postulated that dakhmas were not “authentic” since they were not enjoined by Zoroaster; and finally, giving the expanding nature of cities like Tehran, he pointed out that dakhmas would soon be swallowed up by urban growth. These funerary reforms, Ringer concluded, constituted an important moment for the Iranian Zoroastrian community: it represented a clear break with Parsi custom, which had predominated since the time of Manakji Limji Hataria.
Manakji, incidentally, was the topic of a paper presented by Reza Zia-Ebrahimi, a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom. Many Parsis are aware that Manakji played an extremely important role in the late nineteenth century in ameliorating the conditions of the Iranian Zoroastrians, helping establish schools and lobbying for the elimination of the jizya tax placed on non-Muslims. What is less known, however, is Manakji’s significant influence on Iranian nationalism. Zia-Ebrahimi noted that Iranian nationalism, formulated between the 1850s and 1870s, revolved around the belief that the country had fallen from glory and power since the Arab Muslim conquest in the seventh century. The nationalist ideology promoted by individuals such as Fathali Akhunzadeh and Jalal ed-din Mirza, which argued for reviving Iran’s past greatness, was therefore decisively anti-Arab and anti-Muslim. As a Parsi Zoroastrian with a deep conviction of the glory of ancient Iran, Manakji became an “object of fascination” for such nationalists, buoying a belief that Zoroastrianism was intrinsically linked to Iran’s supposed golden age. Manakji was an active participant in the promotion of this nationalism, as well: he wrote and disseminated texts on Zoroastrianism and ancient Iran and had a wide network of contacts within Iran’s intelligentsia.
Both Afshin Marashi’s paper and my presentation concentrated on the Indian side of the Parsi connection with Iran. Marashi, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, spoke on Dinshah Irani, who worked quietly behind the scenes to promote Indo-Iranian educational and cultural exchange in the early twentieth century. Irani, a Bombay-based solicitor keenly interested in the welfare of the Iranian Zoroastrians and Iran itself, was directly and indirectly responsible for the dissemination of much Zoroastrian scholarship among the Iranian reading public. Aside from his own works, Irani was an early supporter of Ebrahim Purdavud, a prolific scholar of Zoroastrianism who rendered the Avesta into modern Persian and also published Iranshah, a book on the history and achievements of the Parsis of India.
Irani is an important figure in my research on the Iran League of Bombay. My presentation, based on detailed reading of the organization’s publication, the Iran League Quarterly, between 1930 and 1941, examined the ways that Parsis tried to promote cultural, economic, and educational links with the country that we regard as our ancient motherland. Individuals such as Irani and G.K. Nariman promoted scholarship that stressed the common ancestry and history of Indians and Iranians while working to decrease anti-Muslim sentiment among Zoroastrians and anti-Zoroastrian sentiment among Muslims. Others labored to promote Parsi tourism in Iran and also advocated Parsi investment in the Iranian textile and manufacturing sectors. As the 1930s progressed, however, League members became increasingly drawn toward the brand of nationalism promoted by the Reza Shah and even advocated the Parsis’ “return” to Iran. Such rhetoric, I believe, was the result of growing Parsi disillusion with the Indian National Congress in the 1930s: authoritarian Iran seemed appealing to many as British India was convulsed by mass-based nationalism. Parsi illusions of Iran under the Pahlavi regime came crashing down in the early 1940s, first by the assassination of Kaikhosrow Shahrokh and later by Reza Shah’s removal from power in 1941.
Several other panels and presentations were on topics relevant to the study of ancient Iran and Zoroastrianism. Two panels were devoted to evidence of the Achaemenid Persian presence in Anatolia, drawing on literary, archeological, and architectural sources. Shervin Ferridnejad (University of Göttingen) and Manya Saadi-nejad (Concordia University) both spoke on how religious texts—ranging from the Yashts to Pahlavi literature such as the Arda Viraz Namag (Ardaviraf Nameh)— described and portrayed the physical appearance of Ahura Mazda and yazatas such as Anahita. Alberto Cantera, professor at the University of Salamanca and director of the Avestan Digital Archive, put forth the case for creating a new edition of the Avesta (the last edition of the Avesta in a modern language was done by Karl Geldner in the 1890s), citing as one reason the recent discovery of many Zoroastrian manuscripts in Iran (thus also disproving the notion that Iranian Zoroastrians gave up all their texts to the Parsis by the early 1900s). Mehmet Alici, a Turkish Kurdish scholar, provided a fascinating glimpse into the celebration of nowruz in Turkey, pointing out that it was a state-supported festival under the Ottomans, who had their own version of the haft-sin (which included the simit, or bagel). While state support of nowruz ended in 1908, the festival has enjoyed a revival in Turkey since the fall of the Soviet Union, where it has been used to celebrate Turkic cultural connectivity with the new Central Asian republics.
Finally, Professor Richard Foltz of Concordia University spoke on topics that have created great controversy in the Zoroastrian community: conversion and the supposed proliferation of neo-Zoroastrianisms in Iran and abroad. Foltz, importantly, noted the extremely limited number of individuals in Iran and elsewhere who have actually elected to convert to Zoroastrianism, providing more evidence against the widespread Parsi belief that Iran and Central Asia are burgeoning with individuals desirous of embracing the faith. In a recent visit to Tajikistan, for example, Foltz was struck by how little interest or knowledge that ordinary Tajiks displayed in Zoroastrianism; indeed, he left the country with the belief that it was experiencing a pronounced Islamic revival. State rhetoric, which has stressed Tajikistan’s Zoroastrian roots and culture, has been at complete odds with public sentiment. Like many other scholars, Foltz expressed concern about Zoroastrianism’s survival among its current adherents, regretting the litany of controversies that have embroiled the Parsi and Iranian Zoroastrian communities. We Zoroastrians would be well advised to recognize such scholarly opinions, reassess our priorities, and promote community concord as our worldwide numbers continue to shrink.
One unfortunate development detracted from the overall success of the ISIS conference. In the weeks leading up to the event, Kayhan, a state-supported Iranian newspaper, lashed out at ISIS and its conference, accusing them of being “Zionist and monarchist” and promoting Baha’ism. Furthermore, the paper issued not-so-veiled threats that any Iranian academics attending the conference would lose their jobs. Turkey is one of the few countries where Iranian nationals can travel to without a visa; a conference in Istanbul, therefore, would have provided a welcome opportunity for large-scale representation from the Iranian academic community. Sadly, Kayhan’s actions resulted in nearly all the Iranian participants deciding to pull out of the conference. A few non-Iranian scholars, not wishing to antagonize the Iranian government, also dropped out.
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: email@example.com. 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.
“The eighth programme in the series will focus on the years around the end of the first millennium CE, when the political and cultural strength of the Abbasid Caliphate was on the wane and when the Eastern lands of the Islamic empire began to be take on a new character, which has been dubbed ‘Persianate’ or ‘Perso-Islamic’.”
Date: 21 May 2011 Time: 9:30 AM – 4:30 PM Venue: Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre, SOAS Organisers: Centre for Iranian Studies (SOAS) and the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford Sponsor: Soudavar Memorial Foundation