From India to Iran, via Bombay and its Parsis, Rabindranath Tagore and a forgotten book


January 18, 2023

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Bombay | Books | Iran | Mumbai

Elements of Indian culture and pre-Islamic Persia that survive in India shape modern Iranian culture, even today.

Article by Adhiraj Parthasarathy & Mohammad Dawood | Scroll


A copy of The Blind Owl by Sadeq Hedayat, Rabindranath Tagore, and an engraving of the Faravahar.   | Courtesy Adhiraj Parthasarthy, Parthsbod K.A. Hakhamaneshian CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

When people think of the connections between India and Iran, they tend to think mostly of the West Asian territory’s impact on India – courtly culture, architecture, the Mughals, the Persian and Urdu language and the Islamic influences on India. But the relationship always flowed both ways: elements of Indian culture and pre-Islamic Persia that survive in India shape modern Iranian culture, even today.

From Pahlavi (Middle Persian) translations in the eighth century of the Panchatantra, that resulted in works like Kalila wa Dimna to Indian Zoroastrians from the 19th century who helped inform the modern Iranian worldview and sense of its own pre-Islamic past to even the earliest of publication of the first Persian newspapers in the early 19th century and the development of Perso-Arabic lithographic printing presses, Indians have helped inform modern Iran in many subtle ways.

A large part of the Indian influence on modern Iran has come not from traditional hubs of Indo-Persian culture such as Delhi or Lucknow, but rather from a distinct and modern Indian city, Bombay, which has loomed large in the modern Iranian imagination.


A page from an illustrated version of Kalila wa Dimna, depicting the story of the lion and the well. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

As the scholar, Nile Green points out in his book Bombay Islam, the earliest Persian lithographic presses emerged from Bombay in 1828 when the Parsi scholar Mulla Feroz bin Mulla Kavus started the printing of books in Bombay using lithography – a technique best suited for printing Perso-Arabic script which did not render well with other printing technologies suitable for Indian or European scripts.

Bombay rapidly emerged as a hub for all sorts of religious tracts that had a direct impact on events in modern Iran.

In the 1930s, Bombay played a significant role in shaping the first ten years of the Pahlavi period (1925-1979). That period witnessed three remarkable events – a state-sponsored official visit by Nobel Laureate and poet Rabindranath Tagore to Iran in 1932 (billed as the visit of a modern sage in the tradition of the famous 14th century Persian poet Hafez Shirazi, and a rediscovery of common, pan-Indo-Iranian heritage by the Shah’s government), the construction of a new building to house the reconsecrated sacred Zorastrian Atash Behram at Yazd in 1934 and the publication of the first edition of Sadeq Hedayat’s Blind Owl in 1936 from Bombay.

The Dancing Peacock

A series that charts the literary tradition and indigenous roots of Indo-Persian as well as its enduring legacy today.

Tagore in Iran

Today, Tagore is little read in Iran, but in his lifetime, world-over he loomed as a larger than life figure. He was seen as a great sage, mystic, and pan-Asianist who spoke a language of spirituality that offered an alternative to the materialism of the industrial age.

His wildly popular travels to far away places like Japan, and Egypt inspired the nascent Pahlavi regime in Iran to invite him on a visit to reiterate its larger nation-building emphasis on ancient Iran and its pre-Islamic Indo-Aryan past.

The visit, just before the reconstruction and inaugural of the tombs of the great Persian writers Ferdowsi, Hafez and Saadi and the Ferdowsi Millenary celebrations in Iran, was a great success. Tagore was extremely influential in Iran of its time, the scholar Afshin Marashi points out.

Iran’s Ettela’t newspaper wrote:

“…Six thousand years ago our fathers were brothers with the Indians and lived together as one nation. Afterwards, these two brothers were separated from one another, and our ancestors came to the Iran of today…. However, during this voyage they brought with them the essence of Indian culture…”

To Iranians, Tagore represented the revival of proto Indo-Iranian civilisation. He was received in Iran as a bearded sage, a modern-day Hafez of sorts. It was an image in which he reveled. “Ages ago, the then ruler of Bengal had invited the poet Hafez to visit Bengal, but he could not make it,” Tagore said. “But I, a poet from Bengal, received an invitation from the ruler of Persia, and in response to that I am now personally amongst you…”

Tagore’s visit during which he endorsed with caution Iran’s modernisation agenda without forgetting its ancient heritage and his condemnation of the clergy in India and Iran resonated widely then.

In his carefully choreographed visit, he was accompanied by several Indians, including Dinshaw Irani, a prominent Bombay Zoroastrian who was in part responsible for the revival of pre-Islamic identity in Iran – a story that dates back even further to the Qajar period of 1794-1925.


Rabindranath Tagore with members of the Iranian Parliament in Tehran. Credit: uploaded by Zereshk, in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Zoroastrian Amelioration Committee

Persia under the Qajar kings was a state in ferment, preoccupied with the Great Game, while dealing with tremendous internal change and political and social developments. While steadily losing power and land to various powers such as Russia and Britain, it also witnessed several social movements attempting to undo the stranglehold of the clergy on the state and its people.

On one hand, new religious movements such as the Babi and the Baha’i faiths began to develop. On the other hand, the process of rediscovering and reimagining a distinct Persian past – independent of Arab and Islamic influences – was popular among intellectuals.

Newly developed commerce and trade links between the Bombay Presidency and the state of Iran led to renewed attention, particularly amongst the affluent Parsi-Zoroastrian community of Bombay towards the persecution of their Iranian co-religionists.

As early as the 1850s, under Sir Dinshaw Maneckji Petit, a Persian Zoroastrian Amelioration Fund was set up to improve the life of Iranian Zorastrians. Under the fund, Indian Parsis like Maneckji Limji Hataria from Surat went on to Iran to revive Zoroastrianism, lobby with the Qajar government to ease restrictions on local Zoroastrians and urge them to migrate to India.

The work of pioneers like Hataria was responsible in large part for the growth of the Irani Zoroastrian community in Bombay. Unlike Parsi Zoroastrians, who had arrived in Gujarat more than 1,000 years before, the Irani Zoroastrians mainly emigrated to India in the 19th century.

The Bombay Parsi Panchayat and early Parsi community leaders helped organise and develop Zoroastrian communities in Iran, particularly around the desert town of Yazd. These developments in Qajar Iran took on momentum after the Constitutional Revolution in 1906-’11 in Iran, and the events after the First World War culminating in the re-consecration of the sacred Atash Behram fire in Yazd in 1934 under the funding of Bombay Parsis.


Indian Parsis Maneckji Limji Hataria and Dinshaw Maneckji Petit. Credit: in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sadeq Hedayat in India

Another connection between India and Iran had its origins in the early 1930s, when a young translator in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Iran was fired from his job in Teheran for translating all the texts assigned to him into irrealis, subjunctive and conditional moods.

These moods are used to denote instances when the underlying reality and truth value of the statements is unknown and ambiguous – for example, “If I were to have loved you, I would have.” When his supervisor asked why he had done so, he replied that he could only think in subjunctive verbs in the afternoon.

Unemployed and unhappy, he took up the invitation of a diplomat-friend posted in Bombay, Shin Partaw, to visit India. He arrived in 1936 and spent a year in the city. During his stint in Bombay, the melancholic young man filled with dark thoughts spent time trying to learn Pahlavi language from Zoroastrians. He soaked in Indian influences that fed into a book that was published in a limited edition of 50 copies later that year.

That young man was Sadeq Hedayat, today acknowledged as the greatest of the modern Persian writers. His style and oeuvre have been compared to that of Kafka, and his novel, The Blind Owl (Buf-e-Kur), published out of Bombay with a stamp that specified that it was not for export to Iran, went on to become the defining text of literary modernism in Persian, heralding the advent of a new turn in Persian writing.


A copy of The Blind Owl, and a colourised image of Sadeq Hedayat. Courtesy Adhiraj Parthasarathy and Mosaffa~commonswiki, in Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sadeq Hedayat’s time in India for him was defining but brief but the result – The Blind Owl – and its impact on Iran’s modern civilisation has percolated through layers. A complex book about a hazy, opium-addicted pen-case painter and his nightmares, it features extensive Indic imagery that are unusual for a Persian book of its time. For instance, there is a bugam dasi (probably a Persianised spelling of bhogam-dasi, or devdasi), jokiyaan-e-hindustan (Indian yogis), nag snakes and references to Eastern philosophy.

Hedayat’s time in Bombay was shaped extensively by his interactions with an Indian Parsi professor of Pahlavi, Bahramgur Anklesaria,a little-known figure who also helped guide Ibrahim Purdavud, the Iranian writer, in translating Zoroastrian texts into modern Persian. Anklesaria taught Hedayat the Pahlavi language. He also guided Dinshaw Irani’s efforts to introduce Tagore to Iran, helping recreate a sense of the Indo-Iranian civilisation that had vanished with the decline of the Islamic connection between the two regions.

Today, in India very few people have read The Blind Owl, even though there have been translations into several Indian languages. But in Iran, he looms large in the imagination as a harbinger of literary change, as a pioneer of narrative fiction and modernism to a millennia-old language and as someone whose dark, surrealism filled imagery served as an anthem for a nation and continues to be widely read, even though it is banned in the Islamic Republic.

Iran today

The Yazd Atash Behram today is visited mostly by tourists. Nobody remembers Tagore’s trip to Iran, and his celebration as a modern-day Hafez. Hedayat’s references to India in The Blind Owl are matters of academic and literary debate. Present-day Iran is a clerical Islamic state – yet, one where samizdat, banned literature and modern translations of Zoroastrian writings, are widely popular and found sold in bazaars outside mosques.

Iranian youth today often wear a faravahar pendant (an image consisting of a Zoroastrian angel that has become a secular, and commonplace symbol of Iranian identity). The pervasiveness of Zoroastrian imagery in modern Iran as a symbol of pride is in significant part due to the contribution of Bombay to Iranian identity.


The Yazd Atash Behram. Credit: Zenith210, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Adhiraj Parthasarathy grew up on Imam Khomeini Road in Hyderabad and studied some Persian. Mohammad Dawood has a PhD in Persian from Jawaharlal Nehru University with an interest in Indo-Persian.

The Dancing Peacock is a series on the enduring existence of Persian in modern India-in film, music, books, religion and culture. Views expressed are personal. Read the other parts here.