Historical Snippets Of The Ever-Migrating Parsis

Adil J. Govadia

In the 14th and 15th centuries ACE, Navsari was a thriving nerve center for all Parsi-Zoroastrians in India, considered to be the Dharam-ni-Tekdi (religious seat for Parsi priesthood). Although prosperous, flourishing and politically secure, the Navsari Parsis were unfortunately faced with various calamities, particularly the two vicious famines in 1630-31 and 1718-19; the two plague epidemics of 1684 and 1691 and the destructive floods of 1731-32. In addition, the invasions by the Maratha forces led by Shivaji, from 1664 to 1667, forced many Parsis to flee to other towns and villages in Gujarat, mostly to Surat. Thus, by mid-17th century, Surat became the next largest Parsi settlement, after Navsari.

During the 17th century, one Rustom Manek (1635-1721), was perhaps the foremost Parsi trader from Surat, whose life-history is well researched by Shams-ul-Ulama – Dr. Sir Er. Jivanji J. Mody (1929) and Seth Shapurji Kavasji Hodivala (1931). Rustom Manek was the favourite go-to man of both – the Mughals and the English. They often invited him to broker various business deals and disputes. Given his great sense of business acumen and insight of man-management, he had achieved great fame and fortune across the country. In his lifetime Rustom Manek had acquired large acreage of land in and around Surat, which was later willed to his family, more prominently, Frampura – named after his elder son, Framji; Nanpura – named after his grandson Nanabhoy; and Rustompura – named after himself, which exists even today.

Rustom Manek displayed considerable charity on numerous occasions in building bridges, sinking wells and assisting fellow Parsi weavers and craftsmen in establishing their business. In 1707, he gave refuge to several Parsi weavers from Navsari who had fled the Maratha invasions, and hosted them in his fortified Rustompura area of Surat. These weavers, and many other Parsi groups, seeking sanctuary in Rustompura, enabled Rustom Manek to gain control of textile production, provoking jealousy and suspicion within the rank of the East India Company, which triggered his dismissal from the lucrative broker-ship. He was however reinstated later and continued as a broker for the East India Company, until his death in 1721 (Ref. B. B. Patel’s ‘The First Parsee Patells of Bombay’).

Due to his influential position Rustom Manek received the title of ‘Sett’ which was later adopted as the family surname, and evolved into ‘Sethna’. Consequently, two Parsi families – Sett and Sethna – trace their lineage back to Rustom Manek. Likewise, some other prominent Parsi family names of Suratlike Mody, Dalal and Davar – were also based on their family professions. Those who supplied provisions to the East India Company were called the agents or ‘modis’, while acknowledged brokers were called ‘dalals’; and community judges were addressed as ‘davars’. Thus, came about the Parsi surnames Mody, Dalal and Davar!

Rustom Manek’s three sons inherited their father’s position but soon fell afoul of a colluded conspiracy by rivals leading to their imprisonment. One of them, Navroji Sett (1663-1732), managed to escape aboard a ship to London, where he spent a year arguing his case with the Board Directors of the East India Company. After successfully convincing them of the injustices and prejudices carried out against his family in India, and after obtaining full restitution, Navroji Sett returned to India and settled in erstwhile Bombay as a wealthy and influential elite. The erstwhile Navroji Hill in Bombay (now no longer in existence) was named after Navroji Rustom Manek Sett. In 1725, when the Parsi migration to Bombay was on the rise, it was Navroji Sett who, along with Seth Banaji Limji – founder of Bombay’s very first Dar-e-Mehr, established the Bombay Parsi Panchayat.

Around mid-17th century, once the Portuguese relinquished erstwhile Bombay to East India Company, Surat lost its prominence as a major trading hub, while Bombay became the next best attraction for Parsis. Moreover, since Surat also suffered from natural calamities, like the plague epidemic in 1790-91, a major destructive fire in 1837 and enduring frequent flood disasters, Surat Parsis migrated mainly to Bombay, besides other hinterland dwellings like Karachi, Deccan Hyderabad, Madras, Mysore, Ooty, Nagpur and the Malabar Coast in Kerala. The East India Company readily encouraged Parsi migrants to settle in Bombay and even made available the entire property on Malabar Hill for the founding of their first Dokhma (Tower of Silence) in 1673. With the consecration of the first Dokhma in the Bombay Presidency, several more Parsi families from Gujarat felt encouraged to migrate to Bombay to pursue eminence in various walks of life.

Sometime in 1640, Dorabji Nanabhoy and his son Rustom Dorab (1667-1763), residents of Monasumari near Surat, were perhaps the very first Parsis to migrate to Bombay. In 1668, Dorabji Nanabhoy was appointed a tax-collector (Desai), a profession that continued with his subsequent generations for almost 165 years, till 1884. His son – Rustom Dorab, fought the invading Sidis of Murud-Janjira and drove them out of Bombay, thus earning the title of ‘Jandral’ – a corrupt form of the military rank General. He retained sway over the Bombay islands and was made a ‘Patel’ (Village head) by the English. The Parsis accordingly started occupying important social positions like ‘Patels’ (village heads), ‘Dalals’ (brokers) or ‘Desais’ (tax officers) etc. Rustom Dorab is believed to be the ancestor of the Parsi surname Patel!

The Parsi prominence can be determined from the fact that Sorab Kavasji (1697-1772) was invited to the court of the Mughal Emperor – Muhammad Shah, to repair his favourite clock. Appreciating his professional expertise, Sorab Kavasji was conferred the title of ‘Neksatkhan’ meaning ‘The Lord of auspicious time’. His sons – Burjorji and Pestonji Sorab also served the Mughal court and were honoured with the titles of ‘Bahrmandkhan’ (meaning ‘The Lord of the Fortunate’) and ‘Taleyarkhan’ (meaning ‘The Lord of the Eminent’) respectively. Thus originated the Parsi surnames Neksatkhan and Taleyarkhan.

Another Parsi who served the royal court of Emperor Muhammad Shah from 1741 to 1760 was Kaus Rustam, son of Rustam Shahriyar, the Vada Dastur of Udwada. He was given charge of the Royal library as well as the Royal documents and the Stately seals, because of which he was conferred the title of ‘Mirza Khusrau’ besides being gifted a large jagir (estate) near Surat. He is believed to be the ancestor of the Mirza family of Udwada, from whom the Parsi surname originated.

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