As we celebrate Parsi New Year today, think about this. You cannot imagine modern India without the Parsis. The second president of the Indian National Congress was Dadabhai Naoroji. In 1971, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw liberated Bangladesh from Islamabad’s oppressive rule.
Soli Sorabjee, a legendary lawyer was a torch bearer for freedom of expression and protection of human rights. However, it’s their philanthropy that really sets them apart. The Parsis gifted Bombay with prestigious establishments like The Taj Mahal Palace, Jehangir Art Gallery, Taraporewala Aquarium, Sir. JJ School Of Art, The J.B Petit High School For Girls and The National Centre Of Performing Arts. Despite their meagre numbers, the Parsi community did not seek any special privileges under the Constitution, and yet played a large role in the development of the country.
For the ignoramuses, Parsis are Zoroastrians who arrived in India 1,200 years ago from Persia while fleeing persecution at the hands of Arab conquerors. They landed in Diu carrying nothing but a holy flame from their Temple. From Diu they went to Sanjan in Gujarat, where the local Hindu ruler granted them land. They were free to follow their own religion and were called Parsis to denote the region from where they had come – Pars (Persia).
Parsi wealth and charity was deeply imbricated in the formation of the original Bombay Settlement in the seventeenth century. After much success in shipbuilding and trade in rural Gujarat, many wealthy Parsis were bequeathed lands by the British in the island city. Names of philanthropists like Jeejeebhoy, Tata, Godrej, Cama, and Petit remain inscribed in the very city-scape of Mumbai—on its streets, hospitals, colleges, and schools.
The British legal instrument of the trust mapped particularly well onto existing Zoroastrian practice of charitable giving and allowed property to be endowed for very specific social or religious purposes beyond the inheritance practices of an individual family. Framed and managed by the instrument of the charitable trust, specific modes of giving have shaped the settlement of the city and continue to shape the contours of Parsi life.
Mahatma Gandhi’s words sum up how most Indians feel about Parsis: “I am proud of my country, India, for having produced the splendid Zoroastrian stock, in numbers beneath contempt, but in charity and philanthropy, perhaps unequalled, certainly unsurpassed.”