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Parsi Zoroastrian Settlement of the Central-Western Indian Coast
In medieval times, the Zoroastrian Parsi inhabitants of Indian sun-continent were primarily located in what we know as the coast of Gujarat today. They had fled 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,
settling in coastal port towns from Khambat (Cambay) in northern Gujarat to Chaul near Revdanda (also spelt Revadanda) in the northern Maratha Konkan coast.
The Maratha Konkan coast lay south of the Gujarat coast. The town of Thana and the neighbouring islands of Bombay / Mumbai lay at the north end of the Konkan coast.
|Gujarat & Konkan (India) towns where Parsees initially settled. Image credit: Base map courtesy Microsoft Encarta.|
The Bombay Gazetteer IX, part II. p. 185ff notes that "Parsees were one of the chief class of traders." The Parsi Zoroastrians would have been long aware of all the trading ports along the Indian coast and trading families likely had branches in those trading centres that offered them opportunity perhaps even before their mass migration to India.
The Parsi Zoroastrian's home base, however, remained the kingdom of Gujarat - until that is - the British took possession of the island archipelago of Bombay from the previous Portuguese occupiers.
After the British take-over, Bombay, which is part of the northern Maratha Konkan coast, became home to the largest concentration of Zoroastrians in the world - Zoroastrians who helped transform Bombay into India's principal port and financial centre. The manner is which the Parsi Zoroastrians shifted their population base from the Gujarat coast to the Konkan coast was dictated by the political environment encountered by the Zoroastrians from the 8th to 16th centuries.
Political Environment Encountered by the Parsees After Their Migration to Western India
History 8-17 Cent. CE
To provide some context to the political environment in which the Zoroastrians lived between the eight to sixteenth centuries CE, we note that in medieval times, there was no country called India. Hind was a Persian name given to the region through which the river Hindu (Sindhu) i.e. Indus flowed.
Hindu Rule of Gujarat 8-13 Cent. CE
The region we now know as Gujarat was ruled by independent Hindu kings who at intermittent periods would become vassals of other more powerful kings. The boundaries of the kingdoms were very fluid as well.
In the early centuries after their migration from Iran, the Zoroastrians plied their trade in relative peace under the rule of Gujarati and Maratha Hindu kings. They became prosperous and in turn contributed to the prosperity of their adopted land. This era of relative peace and religious freedom that lasted from the 8th to the 13th century would come to an end with the spread of Muslim rule from the north into Gujarat and then into the Konkan and Maratha lands.
Silhara Hindu Rule of Konkan-Maratha Lands 8-14 Cent. CE
South of Gujarat lat the Maratha lands that included the Maratha coast called the Konkan. 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.
The end of the Silhara dynasty would come c. 1343 at the hands of the Delhi Muslim Sultanate's Mubarik Khilji (r. 1316-1320).
Islamic Rule, Delhi Sultanate 13-15 Cent. CE
The environment of relative peace and prosperity for the Parsi community under Hindu rule would change with the coming of Islamic rulers to the Gujarat and the Konkan coast.
The Zoroastrians who had fled the onslaught of the Islamic invaders of Iran, had to face their old nemesis once again when Islamic rulers invaded the Indo-Gangetic plain in the last quarter of the thirteenth century. The Parsees must have learnt of these developments with much trepidation, particularly when the Muslim sultans of Delhi began to make incursions further south.
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. This time the Zoroastrians did not flee. Fiercely loyal to the local Hindu rulers, they lent their support in resisting the Muslim invasions at great loss to themselves. The Muslim armies, however, destroyed the wealthy port of Khambat (Cambay) where a significant numbers of Parsees had settled, and the Muslim armies pillaged other Gujarati towns and cities as well.
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.
By the fourteenth century CE, Muslim rule in India had extended right up to the borders of the Maratha kingdom, then still under Hindu rule. The Parsi Zoroastrians who were primarily traders would have looked for an alternative centre to their trading ports in Gujarat which had come under Muslim rule. As an example of Muslim hatred towards Zoroastrians, 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.)
Towards the late 14th century CE, the Muslim Sultanate started to break up after internal dissensions and the 1398 capture and sacking of Delhi by Turko-Mongol Timur Leng. Timur, sometimes called Tamerlane, came from the Kesh in Samarkand region of Central Asia. Timur, was the great great grandfather of Babur who found establish Mughal rule in India. Where possible, Hindus reasserted their independence and in places established local Hindu kingdoms. In Gujarat, however, the Sultanate's Muslim governor would seize the opportunity to assert his independence.
What was left of the Delhi Sultanate came to an end with the invasion of Babur, descendant of Timur. By that time, the Delhi sultanate had already relinquished control of Gujarat to the Gujarat Sultanate, and control of the Maratha lands to the Deccan Sultanate. The last of the Delhi Sultanate's kings, Ibrahim Lodi, was greatly disliked by his court and subjects. Two of his nobles, Alam Khan and Daulat Khan, the governor of Punjab, sent an invitation to Babur, then ruler of Kabul to take over the Delhi Sultanate. Babur accepted the invitation and marched towards Delhi with his army. Ibrahim gathered his own army and the two forces met in battle in the plains of Panipat in April 1526. In the ensuing battle, Ibrahim Lodi was killed and his forces were defeated. Babur went on to occupy Delhi and Agra thereby establishing Mughal rule in India. His son and grandson, Humayun and Akbar, would seek to regain the lands lost by the Delhi Sultanate - and more.
For the Zoroastrians of India and Iran living under Muslim rule, the transition period between one ruling group and another was often the most hazardous of times. Local authorities were often far more oppressive and cruel that a ruling emperor.
Islamic Rule, Deccan's Bahmani Sultanate 14-16 Cent. CE
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 Deccan, Delhi and Gujarat Sultanates.
Islamic Rule, Gujarat Sultanate 15-16 Cent. CE
Zafar Khan who had been appointed as governor of Gujarat by Nasir-ud-Din Muhammad bin Tughluq IV of the Delhi Sultanate in 1391 CE, took advantage of the weakened Delhi Sultanate by establishing his an independent Sultanate of Gujarat and his own dynasty, the Muzaffarid dynasty in 1407. The rule of the Gujarat Sultanate extended to the northern Konkan that included Salsette (Sashthi) Island, Thana and Bassein - territory were most of the Zoroastrians of India lived.
The Gujarat Sultanate reached its zenith during the rule of Mahmud Shah I Begada (r. 1458-1511).
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.
|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.
Portuguese Incursions & Enclaves 16 Cent. CE
During of Mahmud Shah I Begada of the Gujarat Sultanate, 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 would later built a fortress on the banks of the Tapti River in 1540.
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).
In 1560, the Portuguese imported the practices of the Inquisition (begun in 1536) to India, forcibly converting of the local Koli population in Mahim, Worli, and Bassein to Christianity. They demolished temples, mosques and fire-temples and built several churches in their stead. Converts were given special privileges while those who did not convert were persecuted. While some Zoroastrians managed to do business with the Portuguese as they had with the Muslim overlords, the Portuguese were just as intolerant and the entire Zoroastrian population of Thana had to flee the town when they were given an ultimatum to either convert to Catholic Christianity or be put to the sword. (Also see Situation of Thana's Parsees After Portuguese Occupation 1530s CE in our Konkan-Thana page).
Mughal Rule 16 Cent. CE
As we had mentioned earlier, it was during the reign of Bahadur Shah (r. 1526-37) 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. Humayun briefly occupied parts of Gujarat from 1535 to 1536.
Humayun's son, Akbar (1542-1605) marched towards Gujarat, the governance of which was then in a state of disarray following the death of the Gujarat Sultanate's Bahadur Shah. In 1572, Akbar marched to Ahmadabad, which capitulated without offering resistance. He then took Surat following a siege.
Maratha Occupation 16-17 Cent. CE
The Marathas were a group of warriors who became a recognized force and leaders under the rule of Shivaji who battled with Adilshah of the Deccan Sultanate as well as the Mughals under Aurangzeb. Shivaji founded an independent Hindu Maratha kingdom in 1674 with Raigad (in the heights of the central Konkan, on the border between the Konkan coastal region and the Deccan plateau) as its capital. The base of Maratha rule was the western Deccan plateau.
Under Shivaji's successors, the Marathas seized control of Thana and Bassein (Vasai) in 1737 and occupied the townships until 1740.
By 1760, the Marathas had extended some form of control right up to Delhi. However, there hold on power beyond the Deccan plateau and the Konkans was somewhat tenuous.
British Interests 17 Cent. CE
|Foreign Enclaves in India 1650 - 1700 CE|
The British established themselves in India with the formation of the predecessor company to the East India Company in 1600 CE.
At the time of the company's formation, Northern India was ruled by the Muslim Mughal dynasty. In 1608, a William Hawkins was dispatched by the Company to ask the Mughal Emperor Jahangir for permission to set up a trading post or 'factory' in Mughal India. Hawkins was not successful - perhaps because his status was not senior enough for the Mughal emperor. As a result, in 1615, King James I dispatched a royal ambassador, Sir Thomas Roe, to the Mughal court and this time the Company obtained permission to set up a base in Surat. Permission was granted.
However, the local governor of Gujarat threw up obstacles for the British. in 1660, in order to resolve a conflict between the British factory and the local Muslim Nawab of Surat, a Zoroastrian-Parsi Rustam Maneck accompanied the President of the British factory to the Imperial Mogul Court of Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707 CE) and through his efforts obtained an imperial decree forbidding any impediments to the establishment of the British factory in Surat, and as well, forbidding the molestation of the British in any way. The emperor went further by making a free grant of land on which to build the factory and allowing the importation of British goods free of duty. As a result, Surat became the headquarters of the Company's interests in India.
At around the same time that the English Company secured its foothold in Surat, on 11 May 1661, via a marriage treaty between Charles II of England and Catherine of Braganza, daughter of King John IV of Portugal, the Portuguese enclave of Bombay was given in dowry to the English king and thereby became a possession of the English (later British) Empire. In 1668, the British Crown rented the islands to the English India Company for 10 pounds a year. It would not be long before the Company would move their headquarters to Bombay.
Zoroastrian Situation 14-17 Cent. CE
As we can see from the quick overview of west-central Indian history, the Parsi-Zoroastrians who had lived in relative peace (with the occasional problem) under Hindu rule from the time of the migration to the west-central coast of India in the 8th century CE until the start of Muslim rule in the 13 century CE. Then, various areas in the central-west came under Muslim rule, Muslim rule from which they had originally fled from in Iran.
When the English established themselves on the west coast, their good relations with the Parsees were for the main part a welcome development for the Parsees. Under English and then British administration, the Parsees played a pivotal role in the development of Bombay. The development and success of Bombay as a prosperous financial and mercantile centre in turn led to British rule of India.
It is little recognized that had not the British displaced Muslim rule of India, and had not the British consolidated the disparate kingdoms of India into a unity, India may not look the same as it does today.
One can never say with certainty, but while the Marathas appear to have developed a hold over Central India, the Muslims still had a strong presence in the north, east and even the south of India. Growth momentum was on their side and perhaps India would have gradually become another Islamic nation or group of nations. As it is, within five hundred years, Muslim conversion of the local population resulted in the Indian sub-continent becoming home to the largest Muslim population on earth. In this scenario, the one thing we can say with surety, is that the Parsees' rise as a people under a rule from which they had fled, as well as Bombay's development as India's principal mercantile and financial centre would not have come to pass. Given that the Parsees of Bombay came to the timely aid of Iranian Zoroastrians, the extent of aid that the Parsees would have been able to provide their coreligionists in Iran is questionable.