The Erstwhile Zerdusht people of Malabar

Many years back, while working in Bombay, I had a colleague, a mild mannered Parsi lady. Taking pity on my bachelor existence and my terribly scrawny frame, she suggested that I get myself a Dabba delivered daily to our Nariman point office for lunch, much like the one she ate. And that was how I got introduced to Parsi food, which I ate for the next two years or so. Patra, Dhansak, Khichdi, Saas and of course the Pora omelet at times with rice, delivered from some home in Tardeo. It was mild from a spice point of view and when I moved to Bangalore after that, the tastes started to fade. Perhaps the food that I ate and that brief acquaintance with the Parsi lady, left a lasting fondness in my mind for those persecuted people of Persia who came to India, only to give and never to take away…

Looking at India’s history, Jews and Parsees could be found where trade is conducted with the west, for they understood and spoke western languages and were considered an acceptable interface by those western traders and masters. It is for this reason that they were found in decent numbers at settlements in Cochin, Calicut, Surat and much later at Madras, Bombay & Calcutta to name a few places. Some months ago, I wrote about Navroz and since then I have briefly mentioned the Parsis now and then, so I guess it is time to dwell a little bit more on their long association (two centuries or more) with Calicut.

As you stroll down the busy SM Street or the sweet meat street of Calicut and come near the Bata shoes showroom, you will find a closed gate with creepers and mold around it, behind which is the Parsi Anjuman temple or fire temple. The mysteries and stories of the few hundred Parsis who once lived in Calicut are so very difficult to prise out from the musty annals of history, for it was a tight community, engrossed in their work and little else, but intrigued me enough to spend hours digging.

What I came up with was little bits of information, of some people who went on to become titans elsewhere, of simple people who loved the land and remained, of others who became servants of society like doctors and statesmen, of traders and money lenders, shopkeepers and soda makers, of coir merchants and hosiery mill owners and so on, a group that got together to enjoy their evenings in the cosmopolitan club they helped start in Calicut or even others who participated in the freemasonry lodge of Calicut. I even came across a mention of a group of aggressive Parsi women of Calicut who cross questioned an American who visited the town and I had a smile across my countenance as I imagined the very scene. Regretfully the information flow starts mainly from the 19th and 20th century when the British ruled Calicut, though Parsi stalwarts mention that their forefathers have been in Calicut since the 18th century. Let us take a look….

By 1500 the Parsees had settled down in Surat, Navsari and in the neighboring ports of Ormus, Malacca and Aden, all trade links in the Indian Ocean trade. While they came to India to escape persecution during 780-940 AD, the original settlements were around Navsari and Surat. In 1322 they find mention in Jordanus’s texts and later they are seen congregating in places where the British went.

The first reference to the Parsis in a European language is from 1322, when a French monk, Jordanus, briefly refers to their presence in Thana and Broach. Subsequently, the term appears in the journals of many European travelers, first French and Portuguese, later English, all of whom use a Europeanized version of an apparently local language term. For instance, Portuguese physician Garcia d'Orta, who in 1563 observed that "there are merchants [...] in the kingdom of Cambai [...] known as Esparcis. We Portuguese call them Jews, but they are not so. They are Gentios."

So the next task at hand was to figure out when they came to places like Cochin and Calicut. For this we turn to Portuguese writers after Vasco Da Gama’s arrival at Kappad in 1498. One of the first though oblique mentions of Pardesis (Psa) in Calicut is a mention by Barbosa during his stay there in 1512. ML Dames states - There is nothing about languages in the Portuguese text. The enigmatical "Psa " probably stands for Parsi. Lord Stanley's translation from the Spanish gives it simply as "Persian."

It appears from a passage in Barbosa’s travels that these merchants were (in the words of William Mardsen who transcribed the travels of Marco Polo – page 690)

Partly at least, if not chiefly, Parsis, as we have been accustomed to call those natives of Persia and their descendants, who, on account of their adherence to the religion of their ancestors, which was that of Zerdusht or Zoroaster and termed fire-worship,‘ were driven from their own country by the Mahometans. He, however, ignorantly calls them Moors, and seems to confound them with Arabian and other traders whose commercial operations he describes in the following manner. “ Caricano molto pepe, gengevo, garofani, cannella, sandolo, “ verzino, lacca, cardamomo, mirabolani, tamarindi, cassia fistola, e tutte le sorti “ di gioie, perle, muschio, ambraean, riobarbaro, legno di aloe, molti panni di “ bambagio finissimi, e molteporcellane, e cosi caricate si partivano ogni anno “ dieoi 6 dodici navi del rnese di Febraro, et facevano il lor viaggio verso il mar “ rosso, et alcune per larcitta di Adem, et anche al porto del Zidem (Jiddah or “ Juddah) dove vendevano le- lor mercantie ad altri, che le portavano poi in “ navili piu piccoli al Sues, e di li per terra al Cairo, e dal Cairo in Alesandria.” Fol. 310-2. The returning cargo is then civcumstantially described, with which they make the port of Calicut in the month of August, or from that time to the middle of October, of the same year.

While this is extending the wordings somewhat, is entirely possible and plausible. Gundert’s kerala Pazhama also mentions them in various chapters. In the section relating to Capt Soares – he mentions Parsi Christians, but is obviously confused with Jacobites from Persia. Later he mentions them in the chapter concerning Ludwig of Bologna, where Ludwig Sayip boards a ship carrying contraband for a Parsi merchant. However I believe some of these are mostly erroneous as Parsi is confused with Persian in translation.

We thus find them existing as traders, brokers, farmers, doctors or vaids and weavers. The one trade they would not get into was iron smithy as it apparently involved snuffing out the fire after work (was against their religious tenet). They are later found in Mughal accounts, and the first of the important names are Rustom Maneck Seth of Surat and Dorabji Nanaboy a tax collector for the Portuguese in Bombay. Then came the relationship with the British, which later Parsis defined as the golden period for their community. Taking on western education, they were soon trusted partners for the English and took care of all mediation and brokerage business for them.

Dosabhai Framji karka states in his book on the history of the Parsees – Shortly after this memorable visit to the court of perhaps the wisest prince, who ever directed the destinies of the eastern people….for at an early period they had established a connection and intimate business relations with different foreign factories which carried on trade in Gujarat and along the western coast of India… But the major connections were with the British.

Recall now that the first English factory started up around 1616/1648. By 1800 the British had a number of financial and commercial relationships with the Parsis at Bombay & Surat and it is natural that they were later represented in Malabar where much of the spice and cotton sourcing needed to be done. So it is conjuncture that their presence at Calicut was larger by that time, assuming that were a few during the Portuguese, Dutch and Mysore rule as evidenced by Barbosa & Tome. Varthema also mentioned their presence in Malabar

Initially the main Gujrati jain trader who had huge interests and connections in Calicut was the famous Virji Vora. He operated through brokers such as Somji Chitta and Benidas. Later we hear of Dubashes and brokers like as well as the many Bombay Parsi shipwrights who sourced their teak from Malabar. Anyway, almost 200 years back i.e. perhaps around 1670 or so, writes Logan, "Parsis settled in Kozhikode and engaged themselves in various trades. They built a temple at S. M. Street which is named ' Fire Temple'. This was built in the early 19th century and renovated in 1920. The generation of the early 20th century or late 19th was the one which laid the foundation of Parsi business and industrial houses in Calicut. According to Darius Marshall, in an article in Parsiana, The generation prior to this was the one which laid the foundation of Parsi business and industrial houses in Calicut.

With some difficulty I dredged out some information on these families

The Dalals - Khan Bahadur Kunwarji Ardeshir Dalal established his firm at Calicut in 1876. He dealt mainly in salt and yarn. The hand spinning and weaving industry at Malabar was encouraged by him. He had trade contacts with various parts of India and the later Dalals started and continued with rosewood export
Now let us look at the Hirjees - If you look at my article on Edward Lear’s visit to the heaven of Malabar - Calicut, he mentions - Went out and bought twelve tins of soup and meat at Hirjee's. Then to Mission Shop where I bought twelve more tins, and four bad flannel shirts, about which had a row with the people because mostly the shirts were moth-eaten and worthless, yet they wished to prevent my opening them before purchasing. So that is how they started, a shop selling European import goods and fancy stuff of rthe british consumption - Hirjees were famous for their aerated waters factory and their ‘recuperative elixir’ soda shop as Logan mentions. Soda water machines are worked by two Parsi merchants. One of the later Hirjees, Bomi became a statesman, as advisor to the J&K governor. Some like Hirji Visram Sait became money lenders running firms such as Rayasi Amerchand. Fali Hirjee the Osho man hailed from Calicut, his father Pesi Hirjee had substantial property near Chevayur. Pesi moved to Bombay in the 40’s and became a prominent figure there, controlling Tata stocks and owning a football team, a shipyard in Sewri etc (FH’s story can be read in the book Allah to Zen – by Osho)

The Mugaseths were more prominent, especially Kobad Dhunjibhai Mugaseth, Esq., Medical. Practitioner, Calicut, Madras who found mention in history books due to his somewhat controversial visit to check out the welfare of the resettled Moplah convicts at Andaman and subsequent report conflicting majority views and instead supporting the British. They were the family who purchased land in the SM street for the Anjuman’s extension and provided ample financial support for the temple. According to Marshall, Dr Kobad Mugaseth was among the most respected medical practitioners and his treatment of a choking elephant was a story dutifully recounted to each succeeding generation in Calicut

There were so many others, that I could not track down such as the Dasturs, and the Wadias. The Bhumgaras starting with Meherwanjee Bhumgara were well established coir traders of Calicut.However the situation with respect to family life and marrying out of community, which the Parsees abhorred, was the reason another family split away and vanished from Calicut. They were none other than the Burjorjis who later rose to fame in Burma. Recounting her story in Parsania (full story here), she mentions the early travails

As to how my mother’s ancestors first came to Burma is a story of adventure. Since the early 19th century, my great-great-grandfather, from my mother’s side, had settled down with his family in Calicut (Kozhikode) on the west coast of India. Before the year 1865 (when the first Indian Succession Act was passed), Parsi Zoroastrians living in India — like all other religious communities — were not enjoined to be monogamous. Men folk could lawfully marry, and marry again. But when my mother’s ancestor in Calicut decided to marry again, during the lifetime of his first wife, it was his sons (the Burjorjees of the second generation) who rebelled, and in protest they left home, setting out in a sailing boat, not knowing where they would land. Three months later, after much privation, they found themselves at the mouth of the Irrawaddy. The Burjorjee brothers soon ingratiated themselves with the ruler and even got to run the king’s postal service for him

Life progressed, but was never made any easier for the Parsees. Their numbers did not multiply and many migrated to Bombay perhaps to establish families or seek better fortunes. They were also not too happy with later issues such as the Moplah revolt and the rise of communism in Kerala. We see that there were some Parsee carpenter families in Calicut during 1898, who were petitioned against by one Mr Bailie. Hodgson the judge and magistrate at Calicut took up the case. The six carpenters were later provided bail security by Mr Thomas Baber and were released. We see in 1899 that a Parsee store was plundered by some Moplahs who took away rice from there.

Life continued and during 1952, we can read a very interesting case involving them. Thomas D Clark, an American scholar professor and peoples historian (subject – Kentucky) visited India, ‘an ancient land in the grip of history’ as he put it. He visited Bombay, Delhi, Agra, Ambala, Calcutta, Madras, Coimbatore, Cochin, Bangalore, Mangalore, Poona and Calicut. He was sent to retrace the steps taken by Saunders Redding, who had been quite agitated

He states that his visit to Calicut proved to be the most demanding, a town with distinctive character, a center for shipping legal and illegal products abroad (!). He stayed in a coconut thatched hotel (beach hotel?). It was here that he visited a textile factory. (I presume it was the Malabar spinning mills or the Wadia’s Calicut spinning mills – am not even sure if they were the same). He continues

The audience was nearly all Parsees. The manager was a bright, dark skinned Hindu who had miraculously survived a horrendous incident in which angry communists captured all the company officials save him and had them thrown into a roaring furnace. The rather arrogant Parsee women took me for a merry intellectual ride over the race problem in the United States. The Hindu manager eventually broke into the discussion and went around asking the women if they would marry a Negro man. They answered unanimously in the negative. The manager then turned to the women and yelled ‘then shut up’. They did.

Darius also mentions in one of his interviews that many Parsee entrepreneurs of the 20th century left Calicut after problems with the communists.

And with that we come to the sole remnants of that once illustrious Parsi community, the Marshalls – Darius, Katy, and their children. I will not write too much about them, they are subjects of many interviews in various newspapers and I have linked those under references. The Marhsllas were the early coir merchants of Calicut and Darius today runs the HitechMarshall Automobiles and is a keen sportsman. His son takes after him.

But before we leave, we must also make mentions of the Parsi community at Cannanore and Tellichery, especially the Parsee school - In 1856 a school was started as the Basel German Mission School. It was later re-christened BEMP School as a mark of respect to Kaikose Ruderasha, a Parsi philanthropist who donated funds for the development of the school. We also see mentions of Richard Burtoin drinking Parsee Sherry and see other mentions of parsee lawyers like Dinsha representing Moplah traders like Musa at the court. We also see from Digby Mackenworth’s book that they had a burial ground and a fire temple in Cannanore.

Robert Mingan writing about his trip in 1833, mentions one Darashah Cursetjee, who has resided at Tellicherry part of the Malabar Coast for the last five and thirty years; and who will readily procure palankeen bearers, and baggage coolies, for the trip hence, to any inland station, without expecting, or even consenting to receive any remuneration, for such service. He details the Parsees of Malabar thus -

This is a class of people whom I much venerate. They are a link between the Hindoos and Mahomedans; a sort of Quaker or non-descript blending of the other two. The Parsees form the centre, the Hindoos and Mahomedan, the droite and gauche; by the mere vis inertia, the difficult art of keeping quiet where they have burning skies and several synagogues militant around them, they contrive, in their own unnoticed way, to do an immense deal. By weighty purses, excellent address, and few words, they wield everything, are courted by the poor attorneys, and now and then, when their assistance is requisite, are charitably assured that they may be saved. I know no one more eloquent before a Hindoo, who has any understanding, than a Parsee. If they were transplanted into England, they would excel in carrying loans, railways, job gaols, joint stock companies, and such like improvements, without difficulty or suspicion..

And that friends, is a short summary on the Parsees who inhabited Calicut, they did a lot for the people there, though memories of their association are sparse, is not to be forgotten.