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Zoroastrian Heritage

Author: K. E. Eduljee



Bombay (Mumbai)

Zoroastrian & Parsi Influence

Parsi Settlement of the Maratha Konkan Coast & Karnataka

Parsi Settlement of Thana

Parsi Settlement of Thana Before Portuguese Occupation in 1530 CE

Portuguese Occupation of the Thana-Bombay Region. 1534-1737 CE

Aryan Maritime Trade Connection

Situation of Thana's Parsees After Portuguese Occupation 1530s CE

Maratha Occupation of Thana. 1737-40 CE

Situation of Thana's Parsees After British Occupation. 1774 CE Onwards

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Parsi Settlement. West Coast of India

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Parsi Settlement of the Maratha Konkan Coast & Karnataka

Today, the Konkan is the coastline of the Indian state of Maharashtra. Maps from the 18th century show that at one time in history, the Konkan coast extended north to Surat, a major Zoroastrian settlement in Gujarat. In a straight line, Surat is some 250 km north of Bombay / Mumbai.

The Parsi settlements of Thana and Chaul in the north Konkan existed before the coming of the Muslim invaders to Gujarat. Nowadays, Thana neighbours Mumbai, and Chaul is close to Revdanda, some 45 km south of Mumbai as the crow flies and at the mouth of the Kundalika river. Korlai / Borlai lies across the sound to the south of Chaul.

As early as 950 CE, Arab traveller Misar bin Mukhalihal noted that in Saimur or Chaul, "there are Mussalmans, Christians, Jews and Fire-Worshippers (sic)," and that "in the city there are mosques, Christian churches, synagogues and fire-temples." If by 950 CE there was a substantial enough Zoroastrian community to support and have a functioning fire-temple in Chaul, the community must have settled there in the early years of the Parsi-Zoroastrian migration to the west coast of India.

In the hills between Thana and Borivali to its northwest west, and some 6 km in a straight line, lie the caves of Kanheri. Amongst the cave's Buddhist carvings, inscribed in the stone walls are four Pahlavi inscriptions on the facade of cave 90 bearing the names of Zoroastrian visitors. They are dated A.Y. 378 (twice) and 390 (once), that is October 10,1009; November 24, 1009 and, 1021 CE. Inscribing names on rock is no simple matter. The writing must first be written or scratched on to the rock and then chiselled away.

Three centuries after the Parsi-Zoroastrian visitors left their names in the walls of the Kanheri caves, the oldest surviving Pahlavi manuscripts preserved by the Parsis in India, was written at Khambat (Cambay) in 1323. Since these earliest of known writings by the Zoroastrian of India were only in Pahlavi and not in another language, we can surmise that for a few centuries after their landing in Gujarat, the Zoroastrians continued to maintain the use of Pahlavi (even casually by tourists to Buddhist caves).

Other than the scratching of names on the walls of Kanheri's caves, we do not hear much of early Zoroastrian settlements in the Konkan from Parsi sources. Parsi sources tend to focus on Gujarat, the major population base of Zoroastrians at the time when the Muslims arrived there in the 14th century CE.

It stands to reason that if the scourge of intolerant Islamic rule had spread its vicious tentacles into Gujarat, the miniscule and ever vulnerable community of Zoroastrians, would have sought the protection of Hindu rule by moving south to lands ruled by the Hindu Marathas - especially to those towns where the Zoroastrians already had a presence. After the Muslim occupation of Gujarat in the 14th century CE, the Zoroastrian population in the Maratha lands increased substantially.

In his book Early History of Parsees in India, Rustom Burjorji Paymaster quotes John (Jean) Albert de Mandelslo's Les Voyages du Sieur (1638) as stating "that Parsees had settled in large numbers in the Konkan at the time of his visit." Rustam Paymaster goes on to cite Mandelslo as saying that in the Bijapur territories (probably referring to Bijapur district in Karnataka State south of Sholapur in Maharashtra State, "craftsman worked for Mussalmans, Hindus and Parsees, who were there in greater numbers than either Dakhnis (people of the Deccan) and Kanarians." Bijapur is inland, some 385 km southeast of Bombay / Mumbai. This reference tells us that by the 17th century, the Parsees had not only increased their numbers along the Maratha Konkan coast but had settled inland from the Konkan as well.

From 765 to 1343 CE, the Silhara dynasty of Hindu kings ruled the Konkan region as well as the hills of the Western Ghats (that is, all of today's Western Maharashtra State). The Silhara were initially vassals of the Rashtrakuta kings who ruled over the Deccan plateau.

Parsi Settlement of Thana

Parsi Settlement of Thana Before Portuguese Occupation in 1530 CE

Bombay and Salsette (Sashthi) Island 1893
Bombay and Salsette (Sashthi) Islands with Thana 1893

It was the port of Thana (also spelt and called Tana, Thane, Thanak) located on Sashthi (Salsette) Island just north of the old Bombay islands of Mahim and Parel (now joined to the other islands through land reclamation), that was the region's principle trading centre. As a port city, Thana had four bandars or wharfs. The major mainland city was Kalyan 20 km to the east of Thana.

In the local vernacular, Thana was originally known as Sthanaka and then Thanak. We find the name mentioned in this form in several 11th centuries CE inscriptions known as the Silhara Grants (see Silhara dynasty above). The grants where inscribed on stone and occasionally on copper. Some of the grants speak to Parsi settlements in and around Thana. One grant (of land?) made in 1081 is to the Khorasan Mandli. Three grants made in 1018, 1026 and 1094 CE were to a Hanjaman, a possible corruption of Anjuman, a term used by Zoroastrians to mean society or community.

The earliest historical reference to Thana appears to be one about a 636 CE plundering expedition from the Persian Gulf by Usman bin Asi Sakifi, Governor of Bahrain and Oman, [Elliot and Dowaon, I. 115,415; Reinaud's Fragments, 182; Journal Asiatique, V. 156]. About thirty years later, in 660 CE, Thana was again plundered and sacked by the Arabs [Calcutta Review, XCII]. Both these references indicate that Thana was rich enough to attract the attention of marauding Muslim Arabs who would have had to sail nearly 2,000 km in order to reach Thana.

In 913 CE, Masoudi (Masudi) noted that Thana (under the names Tanah and Tabeh) was one of the chief coastal towns of the Indian sub-continent [Prairies d'Or, I. 330, 381; Elliot and Dowson, I. 24]. About a century later, Al Biruni (970-1039) speaks of Tana as the capital of the Konkan [Elliot and Dowson, I. 60, 61, 66, 67; Eeinaud's Fragments, 109,121]. In 1310 Rashid-ud-din speaks of Thana as Konkan-Tana. Similarly, Ibn Battuta (1342) calls the town Kukin-Tana. In the Portulano Mediceo Laurenziana Atlas of 1351 CE, Thana is called Cocintana (Kokin-tana), and Cucintana (Kukin-tana) in the Catalan map of 1375 [Yule's Marco Polo, II, 331].

These references lead us to believe that in the 1300s, Thana was was one of the largest trading ports on India's west coast together with Khambat (Cambay) in Gujarat, as well as Kochi (Cochin) and Kozhikode (Calicut) further south. (Surat's rise to prominence as the west-coast of India's major port appears to have occured in the fifteenth century with the slitting of Khambat (Cambay) bay and the port's subsequent decline as a major port.)

Thana reached the peak of it fame and fortune in the late 1200s. Many ships plied in and out of its harbours and its merchants imported gold, silver, and copper, while exporting incense, cotton, cloth, and leather of various excellent kinds. [Yule's Marco Polo, II. 330.] Ab-ul-Fida (1273-1331) speaks of Thana as the best city of the province of Lar, further stating that it was renowned for producing tanasi a specialty cloth, and tabashir, a manna of bamboo-sugar [Da Cunha's Bassein, 180]. Tabashir is described as being made from bamboo's inner rind, and also from the roots of the sharki reed.

In 1541 CE, Portuguese writer Dom Joao de Castro [Primeiro Roteiro da Costa da India, 70, 75] wrote that Thana once (probably in the 1200s) was known to have provided work for 900 gold cloth and 1200 plain cloth hand-looms but by his time the manufacture had declined.

De Barros (1523-1552 CE) notes that Thana was full of people who lived by the silk trade and that it possessed a thousand silk looms. This reputation has Zoroastrian Parsi fingerprints all over it.

Traveller Friar Odoric (also spelt Oderic), who visited Thana in 1324, speaks of it as a city excellent in position, with a great store of bread and wine, and abounding in trees. The people included idolaters and fire-worshippers. The dead were not buried, but carried with great pomp to the fields and left there to be devoured by beasts and birds (We see here how the Zoroastrians disposed of their dead in the absence of towers of silence. We read elsewhere that in flat areas, stone structures were constructed in remote fields). There were great numbers of black lions, monkeys, baboons, and bats as big as pigeons. The oxen were very fine, with horns a good half pace long and a camel-like hump upon the back. The rats, called scherpi, were as big as dogs, and were caught only by dogs, cats being no good against them. The trees gave a very intoxicating wine [Hakluyt's Voyages, II. Ed. 1809, 160; Yule's Cathay, I. 60].

The end of the Silhara dynasty c. 1343 came with the occupation of Salsette Island and the Bombay archipelago by the Delhi Muslim Sultanate's Mubarik Khilji (r. 1316-1320). Thana was conquered in 1318 and a 'Musalman' governor was placed in charge [Naime's Konkan, 24; Yule's Marco Polo, II. 330.]. Despite their best efforts, the Parsees, it would seem, could not get away from Muslim rule. The imposition of Muslim rule marked the beginning of Thana's decline.

The Muzaffarid dynasty ruled Gujarat (and Thana by extension) first as governors of the Delhi Sultanate and then independently from 1391 to 1583. The period after the death of Bahadur Shah at the hands of the Portuguese between 1537 and 1583 was tumultous and the rule of Konkan-Thana would have been under flux. For thana yet another change was in the offing.

In 1347 CE, the Delhi Sultanate's governor of the Deccan, Zafar Khan successfully revolted against Delhi and established an autonomous Deccan kingdom. In doing so he assumed the name or title Alauddin Bahman Shah claiming ancient Iranian royal lineage (it is thought he may have been of Tajik-Persian descent) and became the founder of the Deccan's Bahmani Sultanate (1347-1527). In 1429, Thana came within the control of the Bahmani Sultanate. Thereafter, control shifted between the two Sultanates.

The fifteenth century also saw the rise of Chaul as a rival trading port to Thana (also see Parsi Settlement of the Maratha Konkan Coast & Karnataka). Parsees were an integral part of Chaul's trading community and it is quite possible that some Parsi traders from Thana moved to Chaul.

Portuguese Occupation of the Thana-Bombay Region. 1534-1737 CE

Map of Portuguese Enclaves and Interests in India c 1630 CE. Note the large letters for Cambay (Khambat) written as Caobaya (also Cambaia). Khambat was India's principal port at that time and may have lent its name to the surrounding region. Bombay is written as Bambaim.
Map of Portuguese Enclaves and Interests in India c 1630 CE. Note the large letters for Cambay (Khambat)
written as Caobaya (also Cambaia). Khambat was India's principal port at that time and may have lent its name
to the surrounding region. Bombay is written as Bambaim.

It was not long after the Muslim occupation of Gujarat that the Portuguese arrived and began to establish fortified enclaves from which they conducted their trade with Europe. The Portuguese enclaves in Gujarat included Diu and Daman, while the enclaves in the Konkan included Thana and Chaul. Thana was part of the enclave of Sashthi (Salsette) and Bombay islands as well as Vasai (also called Bassein, Baçain). Vasai is northwest of Salsette island and some 50 km north of Bombay island.

The Portuguese occupation of the region around Thana and the Bombay islands formally began in the 1530s, when in 1534, Sultan Bahadur Shah of the Gujarat Sultanate entered into the Treaty of Bassein which eventually ceded the seven sparesely populated islands of Bombay along with Thana on island of Salsette and the town of Vasai (Bassein, Baçain) to the Portuguese. Along with Bombay, the Portuguese acquired additional enclaves from the Sultan of Gujarat: Diu in 1535 and Daman in 1539, formally that is, since the Portuguese had occupied Daman since 1531.

Portuguese interest in securing maritime enclaves in India started when on May 20, 1498 Vasco da Gama made port at Kappad in Calicut (now Kozhikode) in the present-day Indian state of Kerala. Vasco da Gama sought to obtain trading rights from the Samoothiri (anglicized as Zamorin), the ruler of Calicut. After receiving da Gama's presentation, the Samoothiri called for his iron pen and with heavy strokes wrote a note to the King of Portugal on a palm leaf. The royal note read: "Vasco da Gama, a gentleman of your household, came to my country, whereat I was pleased. My country is rich in cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper, and precious stones. That which I ask you in exchange is gold, silver, corals, and scarlet cloth." The trade concession was opposed by local Arab traders who had established their trading presence after the Arab invasion of Iran. Almost immediately, the relationship between the Portuguese and the locals deteriorated and thereafter oscillated between cooperation and conflict. The Portuguese left Calicut only to return with greater ambitions that just participating in trade - they would seek to control the trade through naval and military force enabled by the establishment of coastal forts.

Along with the islands of Bombay, the Portuguese occupied and established various coastal forts at enclaves extending from the Persian Gulf and the Arabian coast all the way down the Indian coast. This they did in an effort to control and monopolise maritime trade, primarily the lucrative spice trade, from Asia to Europe. The Portuguese used the coastal forts and ports as bases from which to attack any Spanish, British and other ships that dared to threaten their monopoly. In addition, they seized territory from the local rulers and controlled the trade markets.

It was during the period of Portuguese occupation of the Bombay islands that a Parsi, Dorabji Nanabhoy (Patel) settled in Bombay in 1640.

Portuguese Enclaves. The Aryan Maritime Trade Connection

The Portuguese bases in the Persian Gulf, eastern Arabian coast and the north-western Indian coast were originally trading ports that were part of the Aryan trade routes. These included Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. When the Zoroastrian fled Iran following the Arab invasion of their motherland, some fled from Hormuz to Diu (Div) and later to the vicinity of Daman. Hormuz, Diu and Daman became sites of the Portuguese ring of maritime enclaves and forts. Daman lies some 160 km north of Bombay / Mumbai.

The Zoroastrians' trading expertise which included links that stretched from the east coast of Africa and the south of east coast of Arabia all the way to China, would have been invaluable to the Portuguese (and later the British). The Parsi Zoroastrians would eventually make Bombay their main trading and financial base - a move that contributed to making Bombay the trade and financial hub of India - what the British came to regard as the gateway to India.

Situation of Thana's Parsees After Portuguese Occupation 1530s CE

In 1529, the Portuguese fleet appeared of the Sashthi (Salsette) coast. Lacking a naval fleet and fearful of the destruction the Portuguese could inflicit, the then local ruler submitted and agreed to become a tributary of the Portuguese [Faria de Souza in Kerr, VI. 211]. Not satisfied with just Thana, the Portuguese waged a war from 1530 to 1533 with the goal of seizing the entire island of Sashthi (Salsette) and the township of Bassein (Vasai), then held by Sultan Bahadur Shah of the Gujarat Sultanate, as well. During this period, Thana was pillaged thrice, twice by the Portuguese and once by the Gujarati Muslim rulers [Kerr, VI. 225; Dom Joao de Castro, Primeiro Roteiro da Costa da India, 70, 75]. The Portuguese generals responsible for the pillaging of Thana were Antonio de Saldanha in 1531 and Diogo de Sylveira in 1533 [Da Cunha's Bassein, 133]. The Muslim pillaging and burning of Thana probably took place in 1533, before Bassein (Vasai) and environs were finally handed over to the Portuguese.

Once the Portuguese had consolidated their occupation of Thana by circa 1560, they began to engage in the same violently intolerant practices towards other religions as had the Muslims. The Portuguese occupiers gave the Zoroastrians of Thana an ultimatum of either converting or being put to the sword. According to tradition, the Zoroastrians decided to buy time by stating that they would convert as a group on the following Sunday. The Portuguese consented and the Zoroastrians used the respite to abandon Thana and resettle in Kalyan. The Portuguese destroyed all Hindu, Muslim and Zoroastrian places of worship, using their stones to build churches and other colonial buildings.

Maratha Occupation of Thana. 1737-40 CE

The Hindu Marathas seized control of Thana and Bassein (Vasai) in 1737 and occupied the townships until 1740. During there period of control, the Marathas in turn demolished the Christian churches except the church of St. Francis. While they demolished the churches, they did not however harm the locals who had converted to Christianity. Between the destruction wrought by the Muslims, the Portuguese and the Marathas, little of historic Thana survives today.

The short Maratha control of Thana ended with its occupation by the British.

Thana (Tanah) Fort seen from the Esplanade. Artist: A. van der Heen (1782). Ink and wash
Thana (Tanah) Fort seen from the Esplanade. Artist: A. van der Heen (1782). Ink and wash. Source: British Library
'Tanna Bunder. Shahpoor in the distance' dated Jan. 6th 1851. Artist: Carpenter, William (1818-1899). Watercolour. Source: British Library. ['Shahpoor', a Zoroastrian / Persian name, may refer to a township some 45 km NE of Thana.]
'Tanna Bunder. Shahpoor in the distance' dated Jan. 6th 1851. Artist: Carpenter, William (1818-1899). Watercolour. Source: British Library.
[Bunder means port or harbour. Shahpoor, a Zoroastrian / Persian name, may refer to a township (now called Shahapur) some 45 km NE of Thana.]

Situation of Thana's Parsees After British Occupation. 1774 CE Onwards

Early Train emerging from the Parsik Tunnel near Thana
Early Train emerging from the Parsik Tunnel near Thana

By the 1770s, the British had consolidated their control of the islands of Bombay and in order to further protect their interests in Bombay, the British sought to expand their holdings around the Bombay islands to include Sashthi (Salsette) island. To this end, the British sent to an envoy to the Maratha capital of Poona (Pune) to negotiate the cession of Thana. When the Marathas rejected the envoy's proposals, the British decided to take Thana by force. On the 12th of December 1774, General Robert Gordon led a British force consisting of 600 European and 1200 native troops in an assault on the fort of Thana. The British occupied Thana's fort on December 28, 1774.

After the Zoroastrians had fled from Thana during the Portuguese occupation, there were no recorded Zoroastrians residents in the town until after the British seized control in 1774. Shortly after the British occupation, the Zoroastrians returned to Thana under an agreement with the British, the terms of which provided for a Parsi, Kavasji Rustamji Patel of Bombay to become the Patel (burough chief or burgermeister) of several Salsette and mainland towns and villages that included Charnibunder, Munpesar, Trombay, Muth, Murve, Manori, Vesava, Danda, Bandra, Kalyan and Bhiwandi.

However, by this time Thana had been eclipsed as a trading and commercial centre by Bombay and was no longer a significant trading and silk manufacturing center. The 1881 census records that out of a total population of 14,456 people, there were 11,539 Hindus, 1,398 Musalmans, 1,094 Christians, 260 Parsis, and 165 Jews living in Thana. The chief Hindu castes were the Kunbis and Marathas. In 1880, the Parsees opened the Byramji Jijibhai high school in a roomy double-storied house bought for £850 (Rs. 8,500), and towards which Mr. Byramji Jijibhai had donated £500 (Rs. 5,000). Around 127 students attended the school in 1880-81.

India's first railway, the Great Indian Peninsular Railway, connecting Bombay and Thana came in operation in on April 16, 1853. The 34 km line passeed through a hill in Thana bearing the enigmatic name Parsik, Parsik being the Old Persian form of Parsi.

Resource: The Parsis of India by Jesse S. Palsetia, BRILL, 2001.

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Parsi Settlement. West Coast of India