Bharuch: A Prime Parsi Settlement Since The 10th Century

The history of the Broach or Bharuch Parsis, though an established nerve-center since their early settlement, remains obscure due to insufficient data available. The first known Parsi perhaps arrived in 1142 ACE, though some sources support the theory of a consecrated Dar-e-Mehr and a Dokhma existing in Bharuch since the 10th century. In 1309, Seth Pestonji, however, replaced the old Dokhma with a new structure. The fact that Bharuch today has four Parsi Dar-e-Mehrs is indicative of the community’s prominent pre-existence there!

Behram Mobed, the younger brother of Zarthosht Mobed, was one of the early priests to settle in Bharuch. From the 16th century, the townships of Bharuch and Ankleshwar were the epicenters for translation and elucidation of Zoroastrian scriptures, where over two dozen Persian manuscripts were decoded and deciphered, by learned scholars and copy-writers like Ardeshir Mobed Jiva. It was from here that the first Parsi, named Nariman Hosang, journeyed to Persia to publish the foremost of the nine Rivayats from the city.

Agriculture and cotton-farming was the main Parsi occupation in Bharuch, making them prosperous, second only to those in Bombay. In 1665, Seth Khursedji Ponchaji Panday from Bharuch, was given the contract to supply labour and material for the Fort in Bombay. In early 19th century, Seth B S. Ginwalla, a local resident, set up a ginning factory and also served as a Commissioner of Broach Municipality. From 1837, for almost 18 years, Dastur P A Kamdin was a first-class monṣef (Sub-civil judge), succeeded by his brother, Seth Dinshaw Kamdin, in 1864. Seth Mancharshah D. Vakil of Bharuch was a leading advocate, a Trustee of Bharuch Parsi Panchayat and a delegate of the Surat Matrimonial Court.

In 1725, Seth Bhikhaji Behramji Panday, a Parsi merchant and Trustee of Bombay Parsi Panchayat, whose ancestors had migrated in 1665, from Bharuch to Bombay, constructed the celebrated Bhikha-Behram Well in South Bombay, as a token of gratitude to the Divine for ensuring his exoneration from charges of spying, levelled against him a decade earlier, by the Marathas. The well’s popularity even today is its persistent source of pure, sweet water, which is rather incredible, as the ground-water in the area is salty, owing to its close proximity to the Arabian Sea. The site, intended to quench the thirst of all humanity, irrespective of caste or religion, gradually turned into a sacred place of Parsi worship, now declared a heritage site by the Maharashtra Government.

In 1831, Seth Fardunji Kohiyar established a reading room and a scientific society and in 1865, Seth C N Cama funded a Zoroastrian girls’ school. In 1884, another school was established in Bharuch by Seth Jamshedji Nusserwanji Petit, who unfortunately died in 1888, at the young age of 32 years.

In late 17th century, a Bharuch Parsi – Cama Homa (not to be confused with patron-Saint Homaji Jamshed in whose memory Homaji-ni-baj is offered) had a financial disagreement with non-Parsi business partner, leading to a bitter quarrel. In anger, Cama Homa called him a kaafir (non-believer), making the Muslim partner drag him to the Nawab’s court. As punishment, the Nawab gave Cama Homa a choice – either embrace Islam or choose death. Cama refused to convert and was hanged to death on 8th December, 1702 (Mah Ardibehesht-Roz Amardad), thus becoming a martyr. His sacrifice had a profound impact on the Parsi community of Gujarat, providing a renewed stimulus of faith and pride in the tenets of Zoroastrian religion.

Besides the Cama Homa incident, Bharuch witnessed other unpleasant conflicts that pitted the Parsi and Muslim communities in a state of rebellious insurgency. In May 1857, just five days after the beginning of the first War of Independence in Meerut (or India’s first rebellion against British rule), a Parsi named Bejonji Sheriarji Bharucha was wrongly accused of desecrating a mosque, which led rioters to enter and vandalize the consecrated fire of the Dastur Kamdin Dar-e-Mehr in Bharuch. Intoxicated with religious fanaticism, the rioters lynched Seth Bejonji Bharucha and dragged his dead body through several lanes towards the town of Vejalpore. They also mercilessly murdered the Head Priest – Er. Ardeshir Kamdin, attacked the ancient Shapurji Narielwala Dar-e-Mehr that was consecrated in 1783, grievously injuring its Panthaky Er. Meherwanji Muncherji Kamdin.

These heinous crimes were committed in the presence of the English Magistrate and the Collector, who remained mute spectators. This led the Bharuch Parsis to petition the Chief of Police of the Bombay Presidency and the Governor’s Council to establish a commission for investigation. Later, Sessions Judge – A K Forbes sentenced 39 of 61 rioters arrested, while two were hanged for the killing of Seth Bejonji Bharucha and Panthaky Er. Ardeshir Kamdin (Ref: Khasumate Gujarat, August 1858, compiled by Er. Kaikhushru Pestonji Vakil).

Notwithstanding such rare blemishes of supposed public unrest, the pioneering Parsis of yore generally led their lives humbly and with purity of heart that shone through their hard work, benevolence and generosity. Despite the corrupting influences of Western culture, they attuned themselves to Ahura Mazda, meticulously following their religion, thus preserving Parsism. In fact, they have survived the vicissitudes of time and fortune, by adding lustrous sheen to their collective existence!

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