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Surat - a Background
Surat is a coastal city and is today, the commercial capital of the Indian state of Gujarat. The city is located 230 km south of state capital of Gandhinagar and 250 km north of Mumbai. The Tapi / Tapti River runs past the city which is some 25 km from the river's mouth at the Arabian Sea. A moat surrounds the old city which is distinguished by its narrow streets and quaint houses. Surat is famed as the textile capital of India and the diamond capital of the world - for 92% of the world's diamonds are cut and polished in Surat.
Zoroastrian refugees fleeing the Islamic Arab invasion of their homeland and had settled along the coast of Gujarat sometime in the 8th century CE. Once the Zoroastrian migrants from Iran to the coast of Gujarat had settled down in their new homes, they began to fan out along the north-west coast of India, and Surat was one of their destinations.
|Gujarat & Konkan (India) towns where Parsees initially settled. Image credit: Base map courtesy Microsoft Encarta.|
Surat - Earlier History & Muslim Conquest
In 1206, Muslim rule was established in Delhi and the new Sultanate quickly began to spread its influence and control. In 1297, the Muslim Sultan Allaudin Khilji launched a campaign under the command of Altaf Khan to conquer and subjugate Gujarat then ruled by King Karan Vaghela, (a possible descendant of King Jadav Rana). The Muslim armies destroyed the wealthy port of Khambat (Cambay), took control of Surat and pillaged the other towns and cities. The Zoroastrians population of Surat and Gujarat who had five centuries earlier fled Muslim rule of Iran, would now once again come under Muslim domination.
Towards the late 14th century CE, the Muslim Sultanate started to break up after being being defeated by Timur Leng. Where possible, Hindus reasserted their independence and in places established local Hindu kingdoms.
Zafar Khan was appointed as governor of Gujarat by Nasir-ud-Din Muhammad bin Tughluq IV of the Delhi Sultanate in 1391 CE. In 1407, He declared himself independent and the Gujarat Sultanate was born. The sultanate reached its zenith during the rule of Mahmud Shah I Begada (r. 1458-1511). During his reign, the Portuguese wrested Diu from the Gujarat sultanate after the Battle of Diu in 1509.
In 1512 and 1530 Surat was burned and plundered by the Portuguese who built a fortress on the banks of the Tapti River in 1540.
Bahadur Shah took over the Gujarat Sultanate in 1526 and reigned until 1537. It was during his reign that the Gujarat Sultanate came under pressure from both the expanding Mughal Empire under emperors Babur (d. 1530) and Humayun (r. 1530-1540), as well as the Portuguese.
|Murder of Sultan Bahadur by Portuguese in 1537 of Diu.|
Akbar-Nama (end of 16th century).
Image credit: Wikipedia
|Mughal Emperor Akbar's 1572 triumphant entry into Surat.|
Watercolour on Paper. Artist: Navrang Hada. Image credit: Exotic India
On December 23, 1534 Bahadur Shah was compelled to sign the Treaty of Bassein [on Salsette (Sashthi) Island and beside the Bombay islands. Also see our page on Konkan-Thana] with the Portuguese on board the galleon St. Mattheus. According on the terms of the agreement, the Portuguese Empire gained control of the city of Bassein, as well as its territories, islands, and seas. Bahadur Shah concluded a further treaty and alliance with the Portuguese in order to help resist Mughal incursions onto Gujarat, but the unfortunate sultan was murdered by the Portuguese on February, 1537 during discussions a Portuguese ship anchored off the coast of Diu in Gujarat, and the Portuguese unceremoniously dumped his body into the Arabian Sea (see image to the left).
The Mughal emperor Akbar (1542-1605) marched towards Gujarat, the governance of which was then in a state of disarray following the death of Bahadur Shah. The province had briefly been occupied by Akbar's father Humayun from 1535 to 1536. In 1572, Akbar marched to Ahmadabad, which capitulated without offering resistance. He then took Surat following a siege (see image to the right).
During the rule of the Mughal emperor Akbar, Surat had become a prosperous place by the end of the 16th century (that is the last quarter of the 1500s). Under his governance system, Surat was not just a city, but a sarkar, a district consisting of 31 mahals / parganas (mahals and parganas were similar to boroughs based on a city, town or village). One of the mahals was Navsari. The sarkar of Surat was administered by a nawab, a nobleman of the Muslim court.
|Growth of Surat from 1494-1910 CE|
In the latter half of the 1600s, Bombay had still not reached prominence it held in later years. At that period in history Surat (population 200,000) was the chief trading port of Gujarat, the status it inherited with the decline of Khambat (Cambay) caused by heavy silting at the head of the Gulf of Khambat at the close of the fifteenth century, and also after the destruction of Diu by the Muscat Arabs in 1670.
By the 1600s, a significant number of Parsees had moved from Khambat (Cambay) and Bharuch (Broach) to Surat making it the capital of the Zoroastrian community in India. Navsari in turn, had become the Zoroastrian's religious and ecclesiastical capital. Navsari was prosperous in its own right and the Zoroastrian population in both places played a significant role in the building of that prosperity - based to a large extent on trading and commerce. It is this feature that attracted European attention towards Surat.
The English and Dutch established trading 'factories' in Surat. The rise of Surat as Gujarat's, indeed India's, chief trading port with Europe as well as the Arab lands took place despite frequent raids by Shivaji's Maratha armies robbing the city of much of its wealth. The establishment of a British (English) trading post in Surat during the 1660s contributed greatly to the rise in Surat's status of the chief port on the west-coast of India. And a Zoroastrian-Parsi Rustom Maneck (also spelt Rastam Manak 1635-1721) played a pivotal role in this development.
|Panoramic view of Surat 1672. An extensively plagiarized engraving|
variously attributed to Dutch Philip Baldaeus (original?), Johan Nieuhof and Jacob Koppmayer from Wagner's 'Delineatio provinciarum Pannoniae et Imperii Turcici', Augsburg, 1687
Note key: 1. Castle, 2. Head Pagoda? (Temple, Church, Mosque?) 3. Dutch Factory (Logie: trading post / warehouse / processing plant), 4. Wharf
|'Surat on the Banks of the Tappee' 1760s. Another extensively plagiarized engraving. This version in James Forbes' (1749-1819) Oriental Memoirs. Engraving Date: 1813.|
Forbes noted, 'This engraving represents this celebrated city in the most interesting point of view, from the English Factory to the Dutch bunder, taken
on the opposite side of the river. In the centre is the Castle, with the British and Mogul colours on the towers; the more distant flag surmounts the Portuguese Factory.'
Towards the end of the 17th century, Surat would start to loose it claim to being the capital of the Zoroastrian community in India. At that time, the British had just taken over and consolidated their hold of the islands of Bombay. And the British soon moved to expand their control to the outlying regions around Bombay as well. The Parsees were happy to move out from under Muslim yoke in Surat to the less oppressive environment of Bombay. A further incentive for the migration of Parsees to Bombay was a famine that desolated Gujarat. In the next two centuries following the 17th century CE, a large number of Parsees (and a significant number of recent Zoroastrian refugees from Iran as well) would move to Bombay and help Bombay, in they same manner as they had helped Surat, become the commercial and trading capital of India.
The size of the Zoroastrian population of Surat at its peak can be judged by the stated population of 20,000 Zoroastrian families in the beginning of the 19th century (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Part 18 by James Hastings quoting Forbes i.110) - by which time a large number of its residents had already moved to Bombay (also see our page on Demographics). In a further hundred years, that figure would drop to a tenth or less. Given the number of neighbourhoods in Surat that still bear Zoroastrian names, Surat's Zoroastrian population at its peak would have been similar to what the population in Bombay would grow to be - perhaps 60,000 to 100,000 souls.
For reasons relating to a dispute between the priests of Navsari and the Sanjana priests who had possession of the Iran-Shah fire, the most sacred of the Parsi temporal fires, Navsari too would relinquish its claim to being the religious capital of the Zoroastrians of India in favour of Udvada, a small town about halfway between Navsari and Bombay.
It would appear that Surat (and Navsari's) golden age from a Zoroastrian perspective was the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries of the Common Era.
The Zoroastrian Parsees of Surat - Traders
Connections with the Gujarati Based Vania
Jamsetjee Bomanjee Wadia (1756-1821), Surat's Framji Maneckji's cousin,
Wearing a white robe, embroidered pashmina shawl and pagri turban.
(The shawl, often a gift of the East India Company, may be an addition by the artist.)
A famed ship builder, Jamsetjee holds a drawing of the 74 gun ship 'Minden',
Launched at Bombay in 1810, the half-built ship can be seen through the window.
The Minden was the first man-of-war to be built for the Royal Navy outside of England.
Jamsetjee would go on to build 14 ships for the Royal Navy.
Oil painting attributed to J. Dorman, c. 1830. Image credit: Collections Online
When Anquetil du Perron visited and stayed amongst the Parsees of Surat in 1759 CE, he found the Parsees intermingled with the 'Banians', that is the Banias or Vanias of Gujarat [the Indian leader (Mohandas) Mahatma Gandhi belonged to the Gujarati Bania caste]. The Vanias were a part of the Hindu Vaishya caste of traders, business-people engaged in commerce and finance, jewellery-makers and agricultural land owners. The term Vania, however, is usually applied to the more wealthy of the caste. The word Vania is derived from 'Vaniji', which means 'trader' in Sanskrit. The titles used by the Vanias of Gujarat such as Modi, Shah, Shroff, Parikh, Chokshi, Seth and Gandhi, including Vania itself - were all adopted as last names by the Parsees. The professions of the Vania were also professions in which the Parsi immigrants to Gujarat were already engaged and to which they added an strong ethical dimension which set them apart.
The reputation of the Vanias, especially the Banias from other provinces, is not always flattering. Given that the Gujarati Vanias were welcoming hosts to the Parsi Zoroastrians when the latter most needed a new home free from oppression, Parsees must remain eternally grateful, and it would be unbecoming for us to detail the reasons for the varying reputation of the Banias. It is sufficient for us to say here, that the Parsees held honesty, trustworthiness, keeping their word, generosity, helping the needy, and a community spirit as high, essential values that were not superseded by the desire to succeed in their enterprise. Wealth followed as a natural outcome.
Parsi Clothing Adopted From Their Gujarati Vania Hosts
Anquetil du Perron not only found the Parsees intermingled with the Vania, he also found they wearing the same clothing as the latter. To his eye, he found that the only garments that distinguished the Parsees from the Vania were the inner garment, the sudrah with its kusti, as well as the penon (padam), the mouth veil (however, the Parsees would have made subtle changes to the local garments - differences not evident to the Western eye). At that time, the padam was worn by not just by the priests as is done today, but the laity as well. The laity wore the padam on occasions such as praying and eating meals - a practice they have now discontinued. James Hastings in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Part 18 noted that in the early 20th century, the Parsee men were still faithful to the Vania dress by wearing the angarakha tunic, but nevertheless replacing the Hindu dhoti with trousers and Indian curved shoes with European shoes. The men further distinguished themselves from Gujarati Vanias by wearing a turban called a pagri over a skull cap.
Hastings further states that the men's ceremonial clothing included the jama, a double-breasted tunic or coat as well as a waistband called a pichori which made them look 'very becoming and distinguished looking'.
The women, according to Hastings, wore the Banian (Vania) sari and covered their head with a thin white cloth called a mathabana tied behind the chignon (the knot of hair worn at the nape of the neck). Both women and men kept their heads covered day and night in keeping with tradition.
While the Zoroastrian community of Surat and in particular, and Gujarat in general, willingly adopted all the outward customs of their host community, they nevertheless steadfastly and jealously preserved their heritage, values and principles. The garments closest to their hearts were the value-laden sudreh and kusti, invisible to most except to themselves. Their homes too had a very special Parsi feel.
Nanabhai Punjibhai (d. 1667)
and the Modi Family - Early Parsi Family of Surat
One of the early Parsees of Surat about whom we have some information was Nanabhai Punjibhai (the traditional Parsi-Zoroastrian system of naming was the person's name followed by the father's name), a resident of Surat in the 1600s. Nanabhai was a community leader, a davar / dawar*, and one of his services to the community for which he is remembered, was the building of a dakhma, a tower of silence, in Surat. [*Davar from Middle Persian Pahlavi dato-bar meaning bearer of justice.]
|The City of Surat, from a Dutch engraving reproduced in John Ogilby's Asia, London 1673. Image credit: The British Library|
|England's Glory [the Battle of Swally, Surat, India.] "A Fight for three Days between two English East-India-Ships,|
& four Portugueze-Gallions & 24 Frigats. in the Mouth of the River leading to Surat, in which the Portuguezes were beaten.
Done Accor. to Act of Parliament. Printed for Willm. Rayner & Sold at C. Danvars in ye Old Baily." [London, c.1739.]
Between the 29th and 30th of November 1612, the naval Battle of Suvali (Swally) took place off the coast of Suvali,
near the city of Surat, Gujarat, India; this relatively small naval battle resulted in a victory for four
English East India Company galleons over a Portuguese fleet. This battle is historically important as it marked the beginning
of the end of Portugal's commercial monopoly over India, and the beginning of the ascent of the English East India Company's
presence in India. The etching was prepared as part of the patriotic series depicting British naval achievements,
'England's Glory'. It was published to promote a war with Spain agenda, and to undermine Prime Minister Robert Walpole's
policy of avoiding military conflict. Etching by William Rayner (1699 - 1761).
Nanabhai's family and descendants came to be known as the Parsi Modis of Surat. Modi (also spelt Mody) means supplier of provisions or the owner of a granary. Initially, the name was used as a title given to Nanabhai's family on account of the assistance and provisions they provided the English during their struggles with the Portuguese, Dutch and Muslims. When the British introduced the concept of family names, Nanabhai's descendants assumed Modi as their last name.
Nanabhai passed away in 1667 and the mantle of leadership of the Surat Parsi community was taken up by his heirs. The position of leadership was not nominal - the Modis were the recognized community leaders / headmen, or davars, and community representatives at the court of the Nawab of Surat, a position continued subsequently with the city's British administrators.
Office of Davar - Community Leader
While we do not know if this is true of the Surat Modis, davars were often legally entrusted with the ability to dispense common law justice and resolve civil disputes. They were given plenary jurisdiction over local community councils and members. Though the davar's powers diminished significantly during British rule, the British initially vested the Bombay Parsi Panchayat with many of the davar's powers. Regrettably, after a variety of challenges and accusations of favouritism, the powers of the davar and panchayats were reduced to informal roles and that of charitable institutions respectively.
The davar normally held open court in his premises and there was no limit to the number of community members who could attend an open hearing. The davar often consulted other senior members of the community (forming thereby a panchayat / panchayet or council, but nevertheless retaining plenary powers), before passing judgement that could include any punishment other than capital punishment. The range of punishment included confinement, fines or restitution, excommunication, banishment and exclusion from ceremonies. As there were no Zoroastrian community jails, incarceration was in the nasa-khana, or bier-room guarded by nasa-salars or corpse-bearers.
Zoroastrians seldom went outside this community system to seek justice. The system together with a strong community ethic was so effective that crime within the Zoroastrian community was the lowest among any other Indian community. The Zoroastrians also lived in quasi-gated neighbourhoods that excluded outsiders from entering.
Bhimji Kuvarji Modi
and His 1710-11 CE Petition to the Nawab of Surat
Muslim Attitudes Towards Zoroastrians
When less influence Zoroastrian Parsees were press-ganged by hostile and discriminatory Muslim officials into labour gangs for digging ditches and graves for Muslims, a descendant of Nanabhai Punjibhai, Bhimji Kuvarji Modi successfully petitioned Nawab Hyder Ali Khan to issue a farman (decree) exempting Parsees from this form of forced servitude to the Muslims.
As a result of the same petition, Bhimji was also successful in having the Nawab reverse the confiscation by Muslim magistrates called kazis of dues collected by the Zoroastrians for marriages. The dues were for the amelioration of disadvantaged poor Zoroastrians. The Nawab's 1710-11 farman prohibited the appropriation of the dues by the kazis so that they could be used for the intended purpose. It also prohibited interference by Muslim officials in religious and community affairs that were not connected with the execution of their office.
The Nawab's farman contained these words: "...the mutasudis (clerks), talukdars (district officers) and other Mussalmans regard the Parsees poorly, and by reason of religious hostility and in an arbitrary manner, force them to serve...".
As a further example of Muslim hatred towards Zoroastrians in Surat, we learn from Sir Streynsham Master's 1672 account (as quoted by Rustom Paymaster in Early History of Parsees in India) that the Parsees that the Parsees "had a church in Surat; but the tumultuous rabble of zealot moors destroyed and took it from them... ." (Also see our page on the Destruction of Sanjan.)
Western Accounts of the Zoroastrian-Parsees of Surat
Thevenot (1666) describes the goods in the markets of Surat as "all kinds of Indian cotton goods, all the wares of Europe and China; diamonds, rubies, pearls and all kinds of precious stones; musk, amber, myrrh, incense, manna, sal ammoniac, quicksilver, lac, indigo, and the red dye ruinas, and all kinds of Indian and other eastern drugs." The chief articles of export were agates, carnelians, desks, cabinets, and boxes neatly polished and embellished, silks, velvets, taffetas, satins and cotton cloth. Next to the manufacture of cloth, one of the most important industries was ship building.
Ogilby in his Atlas V. (1670) p. 218-19, notes, "They (Parsees) live like the natives, free and undisturbed, and drive what trade they please. They are very ingenious, and for the most part maintain themselves with tilling and buying and selling all sorts of fruits, tapping wine out of palm trees. Some also trade and are exchangers of money, keep shops, and exercise all manner of handicrafts... ."
According to Ovington in a Voyage to Surat (1689), Zoroastrian-Parsees played a significant role in the textile and ship-building industries. "In their callings, they (Parsees) are very industrious and diligent, and careful to train up their children to art and labour. They are the principal men at the loom in all the country, and most of all the silks, and stuffs at Surat are made at their hands." Mention is made of a "very comely ship of over one thousand tons being built on the river at Surat; and the ship-carpenters are said to be able to take any model of an English ship in all the curiosity of its building as exactly as if they had been its first contrivers."
As to the ordinary profits of trade, Ovington tells that in the trade between Surat and China, profits of one hundred percent were to be made and that by simply sending out silver and bringing back gold, a profit of twenty-five percent might be cleared.
According to Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, the Parsees were the first traders of India (or for that matter from elsewhere) "to venture to Burma and China and to open branches and firms there.
Captain A. Hamilton who visited Surat in 1716 CE notes in A New Account of the East Indies, "The Parsees are numerous around Surat and the adjacent countries... . They are good carpenters or ship-builders exquisite in the weaver's trade and embroidery, which may be seen in the rich atlasses, bathaddaars and jamewaars made by them, as well as fine Broach and Navsari bastas (or baftas, dyed cotton cloth) that come from their manufactures. They work well in ivory and agate, and are excellent cabinet-makers.
Captain Little is quoted in A Narrative of the Operations of Captain Little's Detachment by Lieut. E. Moore (1794) as stating, "They (Parsees) also owned a major number of ships in port, and in India it was the Parsees who were the first to build ships up to 1,000 tons without any aid from European ship-builders (see portrait of Jamsetjee Bomanjee Wadia, famed ship-builder above). Captain Little notes that the Parsees were the favourites of Dame Fortune, but he points out that they were deservedly so, because they were of an extremely charitable turn of mind. Even destitute Europeans received help of money and food from Parsees."
In general, the Portuguese, British, Dutch and French trading and banking houses all came to employ Parsees as their chief brokers and managers (see Dosabhai Karaka's History of the Parsis).