From Persia to Bangalore


March 22, 2010

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Heritage | History

Dinshaw Cawasji, President of The Bangalore Parsee Zoroastrian Anjuman narrates the history of Parsees; how they took refuge in a small coastal town in Gujarat after agreeing to several conditions laid down by the then Maharaja of Sanjan.

By Sudha Narasimhachar , 18 Mar 2010

In the mid-eighties when I used to travel on Bellary Road from Bangalore to Vijayapura, a small town about 50 kms away from Bangalore, many things were different. There used to be a huge Circle called Mekhri Circle and the metro almost ended there. There were a few residential localities like Sultanpalya, Gangenahalli and Dollars Colony along the Bellary Road but these were not congested like today and the highway to Bellary/Hyderabad began at Mekhri Circle. There were very few concrete buildings along the highway like the Kirloskar Factory, AMCO Batteries, Larsen & Turbo and a few petrol pumps.

One building which caught my attention on Bellary Road then was the Parsee Tower of Silence. A small building surrounded by a lot of greenery and mystery! Mystery because I knew very little about the Parsee community and one little information that I knew was that they let the mortal remains of the dead to be consumed by nature.

"Bangalore has really grown a lot. We felt the Tower of Silence was on the outskirts of the city and we had to drive a long way to reach it. But today, it seems much closer as compared to so many residential localities which have cropped up miles away from the city", says 46-year-old Dinshaw Cawasji, the President of The Bangalore Parsee Zoroastrian Anjuman .

The Anjuman also administers and takes care of their place of worship the Fire Temple, the Parsee Tower of Silence, The Lady Jehangir Kothari Memorial Hall, and other properties. Dinshaw was born in Mumbai but has been in Bangalore since 1965. I met him at Anjuman’s office in the campus of the Parsee Fire Temple which is just behind Indian Express Building on Queen’s Road. This is quietly tucked behind lush greenery and though I had crossed this junction hundreds of times, I had never noticed it.

"I am named after my grandfather Seth Dinshaw Cawasji, who was very instrumental in getting the Parsee Agiary (the fire temple) established. He, along with business pioneers like Sri Venkataswami and Sri Guruswami of the Deccan Herald group began  arrack contract business, which our family carried on successfully until the mid 1990s", recollects Dinshaw. Dinshaw was born in Mumbai but has been in Bangalore since 1965.

Dinshaw narrates the history of the Parsees. Historically, Parsees are from erstwhile Persia (now Iran) and took refuge in India when they faced persecution. They first landed in Gujarat, where the local Maharaja let them settle on after taking an assurance of various conditions the primary being, they should live in harmony with the local community. Dinshaw married in 1991 and has a daughter, Ushta, who is 13 years old and studies in the Sophia’s school.

"I did my schooling in the Bishop Cotton’s and graduated from St Olaf College in Minnesota, USA in English and Education. I came back and joined my father’s arrack business and later got into the finance business", he says. From 1984 to 1992, Cawasji also actively participated in managing a school. The Bai Dhunmai Cawasji High School and sanatorium were both founded by his grandfather Late Seth D Cawajsi in Khandala. Thus he traveled a lot to and from Khandala.

Dinshaw lost a lot in his finance business due to recession and right now he spends most of his time assisting in the affairs of the Anjuman. Has he learnt Kannada? "Not really, though I did learn to read and write Kannada as a third language in school, since I am able to manage all my affairs in English my Hindi and spoken Kannada have not improved." Parsees generally speak Gujarati. "Very few Parsees are vegetarians. We eat a lot of rich food and hence are prone to cardio diseases." However, Dinshaw himself is a non-smoker and teetotaler. Right now he is busy developing his property in Richmond Town into a seventeen-floor residential complex.

"Our population has remained 1.25 lakhs for the last one century. However, the average age of the Bangalore community has been on constant rise and nearly 80 per cent of the Parsees are senior citizens, many of them in the age group of 70 years and above", says Dinshaw. In fact, Avastagen, a local medical research company, has a special research group working on the diseases that are commonly prevalent among the Parsees. As per their religion, inter-religious weddings are not permitted. Hence the community as such is keen in in-community weddings to preserve their community, culture, and religion.

The Atashbaram temples in Mumbai and Gujarat are their important or sacred pilgrim centers, while the holiest of the temples is at Udvada, situated about 200 km. from Mumbai. On a person’s demise a four-day prayer ritual is conducted. Thereafter, a prayer is conducted on the 10th day and once in a month for one year. Anniversary prayers are held at least for the first ten years from the date of death if the family so desires.

Dinshaw’s father Kali D Cawasji passed away in 2002 and his mother lives alone on Alexandra Street, Bangalore, very close to Dinshaw’s residence and his only sister lives in Mumbai. There are around 350-400 families consisting of around 700 members in Bangalore and only about 15-20 Parsees in Mysore. Of them around 200 are members of The Bangalore Parsee Zoroastrian Anjuman and attend the community festivals and ceremonies conducted at the Fire temple. In the last five years, quite a few Parsi youth have migrated to Bangalore from Mumbai as IT professionals and to other service industries. "We [the Anjuman] are now engaged in making a new directory of The Bangalore Parsee Zoroastrians", says Dinshaw.

What does Dinshaw feel about this city after living here for nearly five decades? He finds Bangaloreans very friendly and hospitable. However, he says there is one small irritant. "We just have a small irritant here in front of our Agiary (the Fire temple). The bus stop is situated right in front of our Temple and this being a very busy bus route, all the time buses are parked in front of our gates or a big crowd of people waiting for buses block our way. As it is so close to our Temple the noise and pollution makes it very difficult for our priests to perform their ceremonies. Passengers smoke and throw their cigarette butts into out temple property which is very offensive to us since we revere our holy fire". He says that they have been requesting the authorities to shift this bus stop somewhere else but in vain. "Unfortunately this is the only Agiary in Bangalore and it has become very difficult for pedestrians and vehicles to even enter our Temple", he adds.

He states that the infra-structure development has not kept pace with the sporadic growth of the city and hence there are many problems like the unending traffic jams and increasing pollution. Cost of living too has gone up astronomically. He cites examples from the book, The Bangalore Parsis, written by the community’s High Priest, Late Dasturji Nadirshah P. Unvalla. The book was published by Unvalla, a couple of years ago for the use of the community members. Some interesting excerpts from the book are given below just to show how much things have changed in Bangalore since the pre-independence era.

The idea of constructing a Dokhma or the Parsi Tower of Silence in Bangalore was conceived in 1937, as the Parsi population rose to 300. Seth Dinshaw Cawasji, the grandfather of today’s President of Anjuman Dinshaw Cawasji too was in the committee formed for the purpose.

The book contains a whole chapter of how the beautiful granite Dokhma was constructed very meticulously following all ritualistic traditions connected with it. There is mention of various rituals like Tano Purvani Kriya, Jashan ceremony, consecration ceremony consisting of Yazashne and Vendidad, etc, that were conducted before, during and after completion of the construction.

The Tower of Silence was thrown open for use on 23rd March 1940. The Dokhma is situated on a huge piece of land which originally measured 14.5 acres in 1938 but recently 31,000 sq. ft. of land was recently acquired for road widening project by the NHAI. In those days this area was totally uninhabited and one Nadershah Dorabji Guzdar boldly lived in a farm house on the site with his family of wife and two sons for a year to take care of the construction of the Dokhma.

Now the most interesting quote from the book:

"In 1938 there was no public transport in Bangalore, not even a taxi. It was a ‘horse and carriage’ age so it was difficult for the contractor Mr. Guzdar to make trips to and from the city. The Dokhma Committee resolved to purchase a second-hand car from the Manager of the Mysore Bank at Rs.450/-. It was the Hupmobile (an American car), a 1932 model (today one can’t buy a second-hand cycle for this amount). A driver was engaged at a monthly salary of Rs.20/-. … Here, I would like to inform the present generation as well as future generations that, at that time, the price of petrol was 12 Annas per gallon not litre. … after the construction, the car was sold for Rs.150/- … The price of a bag of cement was Rs.2.50 … and cement was transported by bullock cart, 20 bags at a time at Rs.20/- per cart load … Labour at that time was Re.1 per day …" ?

Sudha Narasimhachar

18 Mar 2010

Sudha Narasimhachar is an ex-banker and freelance writer.

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