Maneckji Limiji Hataria – Saviour Of Zoroastrians In Iran

Parsi and Irani Zoroastrians are ethnically of Persian (Iranian) origin. Parsis who came to India about 300 years after the fall of the Sasanian Empire (around 10th Century AD) trace their ancestry back to the province of Khorasan, known in ancient times as Parthia. While Parsis appear to have moved to India, our Irani Zoroastrians (mostly settled in the desert provinces of Yazd and Kerman in South Central Iran) continued to stay on in Iran, despite severe persecution by Arabs, Turks, Mongols and other marauding invaders, over several centuries after the Parsis had settled in India.

There are no major differences between the religious doctrines, beliefs and practices of Parsis and Irani Zoroastrians. In fact, in India, it is a settled law that the term ‘Parsi’ includes Irani Zoroastrians (68 Bombay Law Reporter, Pg. 794: Jamshed A. Irani V/s Banu J Irani).

The condition of Zoroastrians who stayed back in Iran had always been miserable. In 1511, they wrote to the Parsis in Navsari, that since the reign of Kaiomars (the first legendary king of the pre-historic Peshdad Dynasty), they had not endured such sufferings, even under the execrable rule of Zohak, Afrasiab, Tur and Alexander!

One of the harshest concomitant circumstances of the conquest of Iran by the Arabs was the Jizia tax. Muslims were the only community exempted from this religious tax – all the other ‘infidel inhabitants’ of the Kingdom – Armenians, Jews and Zoroastrians – were subject to it. However, among minorities, the Zoroastrians were the worst hit. Jizia was a tax ‘non-believers’ had to pay in order to practice their own religion.

The Quran and Hadiths mention Jiz0ia without specifying its rate or amount. However, scholars largely agree that early Arab rulers adapted existing systems of taxation and tribute that were established under previous rulers of the conquered lands, such as those of the Byzantine and Sasanian empires.

Writes Prof. Edward G. Browne in his book titled: ‘A Year Amongst the Persians’ (the year being 1887-88). “Up to 1895, no Parsi was allowed to carry an umbrella. Up to 1895, there was a strong prohibition upon eye-glasses and spectacles; up to 1885 they were prevented from wearing rings; their girdles had to be made of rough canvas, but after 1885, any white material was permitted. Up to 1896, the Parsis were obliged to twist their turbans instead of folding them. Up to 1898, only brown, grey and yellow were allowed for body garments but after that, all colours were permitted, except blue, black, bright red or green. There was also a prohibition against white stockings and up to about 1880, the Parsis had to wear a special kind of peculiarly hideous shoe with a broad, turned-up toe. Up to 1885, they had to wear a torn cap, up to about 1880, they had to wear tight knickers, self-coloured, instead of trousers. Up to 1891, all Zoroastrians had to walk in town and even in the desert; they had to dismount if they met a Mussalman of any rank whatsoever.”

Browne writes about an incident in 1860 where a Zoroastrian man of seventy years went to the bazaar in white trousers of rough canvas. According to Browne’s account, “they (the Mussalmans) hit him about a good deal, took off his trousers and sent him home with them under his arms.”

Fortunately, around the end of the fifteenth century, ties, so long broken between the Zoroastrians of Iran and those settled in India, were happily renewed. In a letter to the Parsis of India dated September 1, 1486, Nariman Hoshang wrote from Sharifabad, declaring that all the Irani Zoroastrians had been wanting for centuries, to know if any of their co-religionists still existed on the other side of the world!

Parsis settled in India were shocked to learn that while they prospered in the land of their adoption, their poor Irani brethren in the spiritual Motherland, suffered. A ‘Society for the Amelioration of the Conditions of the Zoroastrians in Persia’ was founded and the valiant Maneckji Limji Hataria was dispatched as an agent of the Society.

Maneckji was bold and courageous and of strong build. He was an excellent diplomat and was driven by a genuine passion to uplift the deplorable condition of his co-religionists in Iran. In Iran, Maneckji was on good terms with the Ambassador of Britain, France and the USA and they held him in high regard as a learned and wise man. Sir Henry Rawlinson, the British Ambassador (who also deciphered the cuneiform inscription of Darius the Great at Behistun) was of immense help to Maneckji in his endeavours.

In 1854, Hataria reported the number of Zoroastrians in Yazd to be around 6,658 while 450 lived in and around Kerman. Only 50 Zoroastrians lived in Tehran and few in Shiraz. At about the same time, the Parsis in Bombay numbered 1,10,544. Hataria struggled against oppression of every sort and in the year 1882, he succeeded in getting the hated Jizia tax abolished. The efforts for abolition of this tax lasted twenty-five years from the middle of 1857 until nearly the close of 1882.

Hataria At The Royal Court

Hataria had to patiently wait for three years, before he succeeded through the offices of Rawlinson, in obtaining his first audience with Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar (the then Shah of Iran) on 15th May, 1860. He presented to the Shah the petition signed by the Akabars or the leaders of the Parsi community of Bombay, which was wrapped in brocade and encased in a silver casket.

Hataria later narrated to Rawlinson some of the questions that the King asked him. One of the questions was: “Are followers of your faith worshippers of fire?” Hataria had replied: “No, Your Majesty! We consider Atash (fire) as the Kebla, in the same way that the followers of Islam consider Kaaba in Mecca as the Kebla.”

The king was taken aback by this answer and asked: “You mean to say that you do not consider fire as God?” and to which Hataria replied: “No Your Majesty. One must know God through his creations. Water, fire, sun, and moon are all created by God. Through them, we worship the Creator Himself.”

The king tested him further and asked: “Do you not worship fire?” and Hataria said: “No Your Majesty. We stand in front of the Fire or the Sun and offer prayers to the Creator of the fire and the sun”.

The Shah went on to ask, “Why do you pray standing in front of the fire or the sun?” Hataria replied: “These are noorani (lustrous) creations of the Creator and we consider each lustrous ray to be a ray from the Divine Creator. Hence, we consider it best to offer prayers in front of these manifestations of the Creator.”

The Shah then asked: “Do you follow Roza (fast)? To which Hataria said: “No Your Majesty. We do not remain hungry during the day and eat well after sunset as do the followers of Islam. But, we have directions to eat a few morsels less and give the food so saved to the poor.”

In this first audience with Nasir al-Din Shah, Hataria created an excellent impression and the tax was reduced by one hundred Toman. Later, with persistent effort, the dreaded jizya tax was completely abolished for Zoroastrians after more than two decades.

Even today, a bronze bust of this saviour of the Zoroastrians in Iran can be found at the Atash Bahram in Yazd.

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