July 31, 2022, marked the glorious 175th Salgreh of Hydreabad’s oldest fire-temple – the Seth Viccaji-Seth Pestonji Meherji Agiary. Founded by the illustrious brothers – Seth Viccaji Meherji and Seth Pestonji Meherji, the Agiary Trust organised an outstanding and grand function to commemorate this auspicious occasion, which was attended by our community’s leading luminaries. Arnaz Bisney shares a report and provides an insightful account of the Agiary’s magnificent history.
Seth Viccaji Meherji and his borther, Seth Pestonji Meherji, hailed from a Parsi family, native to the Tarapore village, Maharashtra. They relocated to Hyderabad and left behind a rich legacy, as its most renowned merchant princes and philanthropists among the community.
The brothers initially built a smaller Fire Temple (Dadgah) for the use of local Zoroastrians residing. Six years later, their strong faith led them to building the splendid and divine ‘The Seth Viccaji – Seth Pestonji Meherji Parsi Fire Temple’, the oldest in South India (located at 128 Mahatma Gandhi Road, Secunderabad), opposite The Khan Bahadur Edulji Sohrabji Chenai Anjuman Dar-e-Meher, the youngest Agiary of the twin cities.
The brothers purchased the bungalow and the surrounding land adjacent to the Fire Temple, owned by Col. Haffkine, and donated it towards the maintenance of the Agiary. The Atash Adaran (holy fire) was enthroned and consecrated on 12th September, 1847, (Roj Behram, Mah Aspandad – 1216 YZ). The marble plaques within, contain Persian couplets by Khan Bahadur Dastur Nosherwanji Jamshedji Jamaspasa and Rai Girdhari Prasad, elucidating the day and date of this Fire Temple. Frames of the Agiary’s donors adorn the Jashan-hall.
From humble beginnings, the brothers went on to become the sole farmers of large provinces including North and South Konkan, Pune, Sholapur, Ahmednagar and part of Khandesh. In 1825-26, their enterprising nature beat the odds stacked against them and they started importing Berar cotton to Bombay by bullock carts, as an experiment, which tasted great success. Their next step was manufacturing cotton screws and presses at Khangam and other cotton districts. Within ten years, the import of cotton from Berar increased from 500 bullock cart loads to 200,000 bullock cartloads. As pioneers of the cotton trade between the Nizam’s dominion and the Bombay Presidency, they also constructed cart roads and built bridges for speedy and safe transportation of merchandise.
In 1830, Hyderabad’s PM – Raja Chandulal, sent them a special invite to open banking firms in Hyderabad. Within two years, the firm ‘Pestonji Viccaji’ became the state’s principal banking house, loaning money to the government. To pay off the large sum, the Nizam mortgaged to them revenue of the Berars and Aurangabad. Such was the height of their prosperity and influence, that they retained in their service a small armed force; even the Mint at Aurangabad was entrusted to them. They even had their initials engraved on national coins – a silver coin was struck at the Aurangabad Mint, bearing the initial letters of Viccaji’s younger brother – Pestonji Meherji, and widely known after him as the ‘Pestonshahi Sicca’ of the Nizam Government. The sons and grandsons of Seth Viccaji and Seth Pestonji worked closely with the Nizams and held high offices in the erstwhile Hyderabad state and around.
The Pestonshahi Sicca is one of the most beautiful coins ever struck, in terms of design and metal-purity. The right to strike their own coins had, for a long time, been the exclusive, valued privilege of the Nizams, which was extended to Seth Pestonji Meherji, who obtained a license from Diwan Chandulal to strike coins in Aurangabad, during the rule of Nizam IV, Nasir-ud-Daula. The coins carried the Nizam’s initials, i.e. the Persian alphabet Noon (N) for Nasir-ud-Daula. Later, the coins had initials of the Meherji brothers. No other family was ever permitted by the State to have its own initials or marks engraved on national coins. Pestonji Meherji introduced the popular mark, ‘resplendent sun’, on the coins he minted. The location of this mark on the coin as well as the number of rays of the sun varied.
Over a crore of Pestonshahi Siccas in various denominations, in silver and copper, were struck at the mint in Aurangabad between 1832 and 1842. They were legal tender until the beginning of the 20th century. Only a few original coins remain now and are highly valued. Four of them are on display at the British Museum in London.
The Old Parsi Fire Temple Trust, Secunderabad, looks after this Agiary and is headed by its President – Capt. Kayarmin F Pestonji, alongside Trustees – Cyrus J Irani, Zubin F Viccajee, Kaizad K Pestonji. Mobeds Er. Jehangir Pilcher, Er. Bomi B Karanjia, Er. Peshdad Pilcher; and Chasniwalas – Kersi Dutiya and Farokh Irani, currently serve the Agiary with devotion.
The Agiary recently witnessed a remarkable facelift, ahead of the 175th Anniversary celebrations, with the addition of two Lamassus on both sides, symbolizing strength and high aspirations. A wheelchair ramp has been added alongside the welcoming entrance staircase. The Agiary’s interiors have been repainted with aesthetic light shades. All frames of the Agiary’s donors have been artfully refurbished. An elaborate souvenir, running 24 pages, enlightening the reader on the past and present of the Agiary was also released by the Trust. Bust figurines of Zoroaster, donated by Gusti Noria and family, were distributed to community members from all over.
The 175th salgreh celebrations were celebrated across two days – 30th and 31st July, 2022, and was attended by dignitaries, friends, relatives of the Pestonjis and Viccajees. It commenced with a heritage walk on 30th July 2022, led by journalist and history enthusiast, Yunus Lasania, followed by a visit to the present Govt. ENT Hospital (Koti), originally the Pestonshahi Kothi, a mansion styled with European architecture. Next, a visit to the British Residency, in the premises of the Women’s College, was organised. The trip ended with a visit to the Bai Maneckbai Nusserwanji Chenoy Dar-e-Meher, Hyderabad. The guests were served ‘Parsi choi’ with melt-in-the-mouth Osmania biscuits. The Pestonji and Viccajee family hosted a lavish dinner the same evening at the Parsi Dharamsala, Secunderabad.
Next morning saw community members throning to the Agiary for the Khushali nu Jashan, led by Vada Dasturji Keki Cawasji Ravji Meherjirana, along with six other Mobeds of the three Agiaries of the twin cities. After the prayers was the awaited moment of the group photo for which everyone assembled, aiming to replicate the earlier photo taken during the 150th Anniversary celebrations, which had around 600 Parsis in it! Everyone then proceeded to the Parsi Dharamshala for an open house brunch.
The evening function was held at La Palais Royal, Secunderabad, a splendid structure formerly known as Ibrahim Mahal, built by P N Chenoy. The host, Mehernawaz Aria, conducted the program which commenced with the national anthem, followed by a prayer by Vada Dasturji and a welcome address by Capt. Kayarmin F Pestonji, President, Old Parsi Fire Temple Trust. The audience then witnessed excellent speeches by the dignitaries, including Chief Guest – Justice Shahrukh J Kathawalla (Retd.) Judge, Bombay High Court; Air Chief Marshal Fali H Major (Retd.) PVSM, AVSM, SC, VM, ADC; Major General Cyrus A Pithawalla (Retd.) AC, VSM; Er. Dr. Keki E Turel (Neurosurgeon); Dinshaw Tamboly (Chairman, WZO); Kersi K Deboo (Vice Chairperson of National Commision of Minorities); Bachi Karkaria (senior journalist, TOI); Piruz A Khambatta (Chairman and MD, Rasna Pvt. Ltd.); and Er. Adv. Zerick Dastur.
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