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 Zarathusthra.jpg (31353 bytes)
Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds


Parsis - the Zoroastrians of India


Sooni Taraporevala


The Early Entrepreneurs of Bombay

The Parsis are intimately connected with the history of Bombay. The cotton boom was largely fuelled by Parsi entrepreneurs. The oldest newspaper in Bombay, "Bombay Samachar", was run by Parsis. Congress stalwarts like Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta and Dinshaw Wacha were Parsis. One of India's biggest industrial houses was founded by a Parsi, Jamsetji Tata. Even the physical shape of Bombay was determined by donations to build causeways, roads and buildings by members of the Jeejeebhoy and Readymoney families.

The first record of a Parsi, Dorabji Nanabhai, settling in Bombay dates from 1640. After 1661, when Bombay passed to the British, there was a concerted effort to bring artisans and traders to settle in the new town. A large part of the Parsi migrants to Bombay in these years was constituted of weavers and other artisans. In 1673, the British handed over a piece of land in Malabar Hill to the Parsi community for the establishment of their first Dakhma, Tower of Silence.

Lowji Nusserwanji Wadia – the shipbuilder from Surat

It has been said that it was not the British merchant but the Parsi shipbuilder who was the real creator of Bombay. In 1736, East India Company officials, very impressed with the work of a young Parsi foreman in their Surat dockyard, invited him to Bombay, with ten of his carpenters, to build the Bombay shipyard. Lowji Nusserwanji Wadia came to Bombay and put in fifty years of service, at a salary of forty rupees a month, handing down his skills to his sons and grandsons. For many decades, it was the success of the shipyards alone that persuaded the East India Company to keep this otherwise expensive settlement going.

The Wadias made ships of Malabar teak for an international clientele. Their Bombay Frigates were ordered by the British Admiralty and used in the Battle of Trafalgar. One of their ships sailed the world for years with the following message carved on her kelson by the chief shipwright, Jamshetji Wadia, "This ship was built by a d----d Black Fellow AD 1800." The Wadias weren't the only stars in the Parsi firmament. Parsi entrepreneurs began springing up in every direction, attempting new professions and being enormously successful. It is said that the Bombay of those days was a level playing field where there were fortunes to be made, caste, colour, creed, no bar; though in the colour-conscious world of British India, it could not have hurt to be light-skinned like some Parsis.


Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy – the first merchant-prince


Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy’s is a rags-to riches story. Born into a poor priestly family in Navsari in Gujarat, orphaned at a young age, he started his career as a seller of old bottles. He made his maiden voyage to China when he was sixteen and it was in trade that he made his fortune. He was to make several more trips-some of them uneventful, others arduous and dangerous. He was to lose most of his money in the great Bombay fire and start from scratch again. With Bombay as his centre, he traded with China, sent them opium, brought back tea and silks and traded with Europe, bringing back the English goods needed to sustain the empire in India. He made a vast amount of money and gave back an equally massive amount to the city. Hospitals, colleges, roads, housing for the poor, all still bear his name. In 1842 he was the first Indian to be knighted. In today's times his charities would add up to millions of rupees.He died in 1859.


Cowasji Nanabhai Davar

The first Indian cotton mill, "The Bombay Spinning Mill", was founded in 1854 in Bombay by Cowasji Nanabhai Davar – to offset the unfavourable balance of trade with England. India was exporting raw cotton to England and importing textiles from the Lancashire mills at an escalating cost. Opposition from the Lancashire mill owners was eventually offset by the support of the British manufacturers of textile machinery. By 1870 there were 13 mills in Bombay At the end of 1895 there were 70 mills; growing to 83 in 1915. After World War II, under strong competition from Japan, the number of mills declined. In 1953 there remained only 53 mills in the city.

As our fortunes changed, so did our names. Names that sounded strange to English ears became easier to remember. Thus some of us became what we did; Lawyer, Doctor, Paymaster, Engineer, Confectioner, Readymoney (first to loan money to the British).

By 1800, Parsis owned half of Bombay and were even renting out their magnificent houses to the British. Later, with industrialisation, they established the first cotton mills and were instrumental in founding the Indian steel industry. These entrepreneurs, shethias, as they were called, followed in Sir J J's footsteps and in accordance with Zoroastrian doctrine, dispensed large portions of their fortunes to charities that benefited both the community and the city at large. Gradually certain families acquired wealth and prominence (Sorabji, Modi, Kama, Wadia, Jejeebhoy, Readymoney, Dadyset, Petit, Patel, Mehta, Allbless, Tata etc.), many of whom are noted for their participation in the public life of the city, and for their various educational, industrial, and charitable enterprises.


The Bombay Native Education Society

By the early nineteenth century, another force came into play that was to change the community without coercion or threats. In 1820 Monstuart Elphinstone established the Bombay Native Education Society, where Indians could for the first time receive, "A systematic inculcation of the literature, languages, science and philosophy of Europe."

In 1835, Lord Macaulay expressed the goal of this new educational system with the following words: "To rear a class of people who maybe interpreters between us and the millions we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect."

Parsis of the middle and poorer classes made quick and extensive use of this new opportunity, branching out from the traditional occupations of trade and commerce into the professions and the colonial administration. Once they began to receive an English education, Parsi men embarked on a conscious path of reform in community matters. Having banished the social evils from their own community, the young Parsi reformers felt themselves responsible for initiating similar reforms amongst Hindus and Muslims.

As early as 1860 Parsi women were educated in schools, ate with their husbands instead of after them and accompanied them in public.

Macaulay's plan paid rich dividends but it also backfired. It was the Indians educated in British classrooms, now liberal and humanistic in their thinking, in accordance with their education, who were the agitators for political change and Independence. Amongst them were the Parsi stalwarts Dadabhai Naoroji, Madame Bhikaiji Cama and Sir Pherozeshah Mehta.


Extracted  from the book
'Zoroastrians of India: Parsis: A Photographic Journey' 
by Sooni Taraporevala.
c 2000 Sooni Taraporevala. 
Reproduced with permission of Good Books, Mumbai, India.

next page


Parsis - The Zoroastrians of India

The story of the Ancestors

Arrival in India and the beginnings of a new life

The Early Entrepreneurs of Bombay

Pioneers of Modern India

Eminent Parsis of India

What is Zoroastrianism?

Who was Zarathustra?

Rituals, Customs & Manners




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