Nagpur’s Glorious Dar-e-Mehr – A Brief History

Adil J. Govadia

 The grand scale and proportion of a majestic edifice remains unmatched in its magnificence and religious stateliness

Seth Mancherji Bomanji Panthaky, Seth Faramji R. Desai and Seth Jehangirji Bomanji Mistry were the first known Parsis to have travelled by road to the Nagpur vicinity from Navsari, under extremely dangerous and life-threatening conditions. In 1807, they settled on the banks of River Kanhan, just 15 kms from Nagpur, where a contingent of British and Indian Army personnel, along with a Camel Corps, Cavalry, and Artillery, later moved-in from Secunderabad, to establish the Kamptee Cantonment. The newly migrated Parsis started an Army trading depot, called ‘Europe Shop’, and were well-established in their new surroundings.

On 1st January, 1877, Queen Victoria was formally proclaimed Empress of India, which also marked the opening of Seth Jamshedji N. Tata’s pioneering enterprise in Nagpur, called ‘The Empress Mills’. It is because of the said textile mill that Seth Jamshedji N. Tata often visited Nagpur and encouraged several Parsi families in his hometown Navsari to move to Nagpur for employment. Thus, started the eternal affiliation of the Nagpur Parsis, initially with Seth Jamshedji N. Tata himself, and later with his pioneering textile mill that remained a major bread-earner for several Parsi families for over a century. Unknown to many, the history of the Nagpur Parsis and the Tata’s first undertaking – ‘The Empress Mills’ – are everlastingly entwined.

(Note: In 1986-87, Tatas exited from textile business by selling ‘The Empress Mills’ to Maharashtra State Textile Corporation, which eventually shut in down in 2002).

In 1875, much before the Parsis of Nagpur could identify a plot of land for burial purposes, a few burials were already carried out at the foothills of Starky Point, located outside Nagpur. Even a chotra was raised atop the Starky Point hillock, with intentions to consecrate a Dokhma later. But the plans never materialized as some Parsis, led by Seth Sorabji Batliwala, President of the Nagpur Parsi Anjuman, felt that those desirous of Dokhmenishini may transport their dead to Badnera’s Dokhma which was a mere 160 kms away by road. Thus, the planned consecration of Dokhma in Nagpur was abandoned, despite sincere efforts made by the Anjuman and the long-serving scholar – Panthaky Er. Hormuzd M. E. Pavri.

The existing Aaramgah land on Seminary Hills was acquired in 1880, mainly due to the untiring efforts of Seth Jamshedji N. Tata who managed to convince the then Government of the day to gift six acres of land FREE to the Parsi Anjuman for burial use. Soon after, it was decided to appoint a Mobed (priest) to perform all religious rituals and ceremonies like Jashans, Navjotes, four-days death rituals etc. In 1913, however, Khan Bahadur Byramji acquired additional vast acres of land surrounding the original six acres from Raja Bhonsle, on a long lease, which continues to remain under Nagpur Parsi Anjuman, to date.

In 1880, Seth Jamshedji N. Tata and Seth Dorabji Panthaky were appointed Trustees of the already collected funds, and then loosely formed a Parsi Anjuman with sixteen community members as committee affiliates. It was later in 1886, that the Anjuman and its Constitution were formally tabled; the first minutes of the Anjuman meeting along with a report of the Anjuman’s income and expenditure was also formally presented to its members.

In 1888, the Bengal-Nagpur railway newly started its operations to Nagpur, a venture that initiated development of the railways in eastern and central India. More Parsis opted to move to Nagpur, mainly from Gujarat and Mumbai, in search of suitable livelihood, either at ‘The Empress Mills’ or in the newly formed railways. Historically, Tata’s ‘Empress Mills’ not only led an industrial revolution in India, it’s also responsible in the formation of the Nagpur Parsi Anjuman. Thereafter, Nagpur and Kamptee became a much sought-after destination for Parsis from Navsari, Surat and Mumbai – prominent being the families of Dadabhai Zal, Soonawala, Dhunjibhai, Shapurji Buxy, Edulji Bamji and young energetic Sir Bezonji Dadabhoy Mehta – the first Manager of Tata’s first venture – ‘The Empress Mills’.

Seth Nusserwanji Tata, father of Seth Jamshedji Tata, financed the construction of the first Sagdi at the newly acquired Aaramgah, which was later demolished and rebuilt by Khan Bahadur Bahramji P. Behramji, in memory of his wife – Bai Shirinbai, which exists till date as a prayer hall at the Aaramgah. Likewise, Seth Cawasji Colabawala presented an iron hearse to carry the dead body, and relatives of late Seth Edulji Bamji donated certain utensils necessary for the religious rituals.

History Of Nagpur’s Majestic Bai Hirabai M. Mullan Dar-e-Mehr…

As per B B Patel’s ‘Parsi Devalstahno’, published in late 19th century, the construction of the first Dar-e-Mehr building was supervised by Seth Naoroji Pallonji Talati. The Times of India dated 5th November, 1895, reported that, “an interesting ceremony was performed at Nagpore by Dastur Saheb Shums-ul-Ulama Sirdar Khan Bahadur Hoshangji Jamasphji,” when, on 4th November, 1895 (Roz Behram – Mah Ardibehest), the consecrated Fire was enthroned on a large censor, by several Yozdatregar Mobeds (priests) in their flowing white robes with drawn swords and Dhals (shields). Since then, for over 128 years, the consecrated Fire continues to illuminate the community with its divine radiance!

After enthronement of the Fire, Vada Dastur Hoshangji Jamasphji performed a Jashan ceremony which was attended by the entire community in their best traditional attire. Thereafter, Seth Nusserwanji Manekji Mullan, magnanimous benevolence of Rs. 15,000 (given in two installments), helped in building the sanctified edifice, which was formally dedicated to the Nagpur Parsis and handed over to the Nagpur & Kamptee Zoroastrian Anjuman. Shawls were presented to several attending dignitaries, including Vada Dastur Jamasphji, Seth Nusserwanji Manekji Mullan and the first Panthaky – Er. Bejonji Challa. A special resolution was also passed thanking Sir Dinshaw M. Petit, Baronet, for his magnanimous funding.

As ‘The Empress Mills’ flourished, so did the Parsi community of Nagpur. The first structure of the Bai Hirabai Mullan Dar-e-Mihr was constructed on the muddy hillock opposite Jumma Talao (a water body), supervised by Seth Naoroji Talati, Chief Engineer of ‘The Empress Mills’. Unfortunately, an ugly spat broke out in the community when the Parsi engineers working for the railways vehemently opposed the construction site of the Dar-e-Mihr on the muddy mound that was originally approved by the engineers of ‘The Empress Mills’, thereby causing a split in the community. The hostile dispute led the opposing community members to stop their monthly subscription as they threatened to form a new Parsi Anjuman and even build their own Dar-e-Mihr. But thanks to the quick-thinking non-partisan approach of Sir Bezonji Mehta, the dispute was amicably resolved and the Dar-e-Mihr was indeed inaugurated on the muddy hillock site as originally planned.

In time, the advice of Parsi engineers from the railways came true, as the walls of the Dar-e-Mehr started crumbling – the Muktad room caved-in and pillars developed huge cracks. The earth mound, on which the Dar-e-Mihr was constructed, proved to be unstable, resulting in recurrent and excessive repairs and maintenance of the edifice. Within 45 years of constructing the first Dar-e-Mehr building, the Nagpur Anjuman felt forced to demolish it after temporarily relocating the consecrated Fire to the adjacent Billimoria Brothers Parsi Dharamshala. On 9th July, 1940, under the strict supervision of then Panthaky – Er. Meherwanji Edulji Pavri (author’s maternal grandfather), the consecrated Fire was temporarily shifted to a religiously sanctified area of the Parsi Dharamshala, with due diligence and religious tarikats.

The exalted Fire thus remained housed in its temporary abode for almost four years, while a majestic new Agiary building was being constructed at the very site where the old building once stood. The shaky hillock was completely cleared and a new imposing edifice was constructed from ground-level, despite the enduring difficulties of World War II and the resultant scarceness of men, money and material. Indeed, it was a miracle to see a structure of such scale and proportion being erected during the period of unsurmountable financial hardships and dreadful adversities… thanks mainly to the efforts of Seth Sorabji Batliwala and Sir Sorabji Saklatwala for raising required funds from the Tata Trusts; Seth Cawasji B. Parekh and Dr. Naoroji B. Bharucha for meticulously executing plans; Seth Dorabji Cawasji Kamdin, Bai Tehmina Sorabji Gazder and several other Nagpurians for their magnanimous contributions; and to contractor Jamasji Tehmulji & Sons and Seth Jamshedji K. Karkaria (engineer – ‘The Empress Mills’) for completing the construction of the new structure in record time, despite all difficulties.

Above all, it was Seth Jamshedji N. Tata who, besides contributing the largest assistance to the Anjuman funds, was truly responsible for the success of the Nagpur Parsis being gainfully employed in the mills or having established, successful businesses related to textile plant and machinery. Hence, with heartfelt appreciation for Seth Jamshedji N. Tata’s contributions towards the development of the Nagpur Parsis, the entire area around the vicinity of the Dar-e-Mehr, is known as ‘Tata Baug’, wherein the renowned Tata Parsi Girls High School is also located. Undeniably, there is no other Adarian structure which matches the magnificence and religious stateliness of the Nagpur Dar-e-Mehr.

Under the guidance and supervision of the then Panthaky Saheb – Er. Hormuzd M.E. Pavri (author’s maternal uncle), two Yozdatregar Mobeds – Er. Jamshedji Rustomji Pavri and Er. Darius Eruchshah Bagli, were invited to perform all the necessary higher liturgical ceremonies, before shifting the consecrated Fire from its temporary abode to the newly sanctified grand religious structure.

On 24th October, 1943, the exalted Fire was solemnly enthroned once again at its new abode where it continues to radiate in full glory! Er. Hormuzd M. E. Pavri, the then Panthaky Saheb, performed a Jashan ceremony, along with 26 Mobeds, before striking the first Maachi and leading the congregation to a short Humbandagi prayer.

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