Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Dr. Irach J S Taraporewala – Zoroastrian Scholar

The below is a profile of the legendary scholar Dr. Irach J S Taraporewala penned by his grandson and namesake Irach Taraporewala. This appeared on the Zoroastrian Heritage page on Facebook

When the administrator of this page asked me to put together a profile of my late grandfather, the Zoroastrian scholar and translator of the Gathas of Zarathushtra, Dr. Irach Jehangir Sorabji Taraporewala, at first I thought that wouldn’t be possible, as I never actually knew or met my grandpa. I was born four months after he passed away, and was in fact named for him. The more I thought about it, though, I realised that I in fact DID know him, through the family legacy, the anecdotes about him I had heard, his own writings and most of all through the love and respect for him from so many that I always felt all around me, growing up, that have persisted over six decades since his passing, and so I DID have the wherewithal to tell his story.

My grandfather was born in 1884 in the then princely state of Hyderabad (Deccan), where his father was in the service of the Nizam of Hyderabad. The Nizams put their trust in Parsis to run and manage their Treasury and the kingdom’s financial matters, and generations of Taraporewalas have served the Nizams there before and since. After completing his schooling in Hyderabad and then receiving a BA degree in English and Sanskrit from Elphinstone College, Bombay in 1903, the young Irach Taraporewala went abroad to England to study at the University of Cambridge and then law to became a full-fledged barrister-at-law in London. He was soon to have returned to India to become a practicing lawyer, but a chance meeting with Professor Christian Bartholomae, Professor of Philology, with a particular interest in Indo-Aryan languages, including Avesta and ancient Iranian studies, while my grandfather was traveling in Europe on vacation, changed the entire course of his life. He left a potentially lucrative career in law behind, and instead moved from England to the University of Würzburg in Germany to work under Prof. Bartholomae for his Ph.D on Avestan texts, which he obtained in 1913.

Dr. Taraporewala returned to India prior to the outbreak of World War I to accept a chaired professorship of Comparative Philolology in the Linguistics department at the University of Calcutta; he had married my grandmother Soona who hailed from Gamdevi, Bombay and they had three boys over the next few years, the youngest of whom was my father. Dr. Taraporewala was a co-founder of the Linguistics Society of India, that he called for to be created at a linguistics conference held in Lahore in 1928. After a tenure at the University of Calcutta, he moved to the Dept. of Linguistics at the Deccan College in Pune in 1940, that soon became the premier institute of linguistics in the nation. A special professorship on Iranian Studies was also especially created for him there. After retiring from Deccan College, he was brought on to serve as the first “Behdin” – non-priestly class principal of the Cama Athornan Institute in Andheri, Bombay, where noted mobeds and religious luminaries such as Dasturji Nowrooz Minocher-Homji trained under his tutelage.

He and Soona also took on the role of caring surrogate parents to all the boys boarding there who were away from their own families while studying to become Zoroastrian priests at the institute. Dr. Taraporewala’s books in linguistics included his well-used and still used textbook, “Elements of the Science of Language”, “Sanskrit Syntax” and also treatises on devotional Gujarati literature and Sanskrit literature such as the Adhyaksha-Pracara and the Kautiliyam-Artha-Shastra. The Parsi poet Ardeshar Khabardar who wrote in Gujarati was a good friend of his. Dr. Taraporewala became quite fluent in many languages including Gujarati, English, German, Urdu, Sanskrit, Persian, Marathi, Bengali and Avesta. After retirement he settled in a home called “the Anchorage” on Vatchagandhi Road in the Gamdevi area of Bombay, the lane behind the agiary there. In his “retirement” he tasked himself with working diligently on completing the meticulous scholarly task of translating the Gathas of Zarathushtra that he had begun years earlier; the divine words of Ahura Mazda Himself passed on to mankind through the hymns of Zarathuhtra.

Dr. Taraporewala had studied the literal translations of the Gathas of Zarathushtra by foreign scholars over decades of his own academic scholarship, but had found they were lacking the depth and spiritualty, and lacked the lyrical poetic character of the original Avesta text that he felt within himself in reading them and understanding the context. He had enjoyed the privilege of learning the techniques of meticulous research scholarship from Dr. Bartholomae in Germany, but scholars like that European mentor lacked the personal spiritual and contextual connection with the Zoroastrian faith that he had within in himself. He felt only a Mazdayasni Zarathushti raised in the faith and practising it could do justice to convey the tenets of the faith and the spirituality of the message of Ahura Mazda embodied in the holy hymns of Zarathushtra. He made it a mission in his remaining years to complete the task of translating the Gathas. While translating the verses he followed the maxim “Read things of the flesh with the eyes of the Spirit, not the things of the Spirit with the eyes of the flesh”. That labour of love and devotion finally led him to publish the “Divine Songs of Zarathushtra” in 1951, his comprhensive treatise on the Gathas, for which he earned his reputation and respect as a great scholar of Zoroastrianism. Throughout this effort, his dear wife Soona, my grandmother, was battling the ravages of cancer, but he persisted, with her blessings and encouragement. On the day he got his print proofs of the manuscript of the book back from his publisher, he went to tell the news to ailing Soona by her hospital bed. She smiled with tears of joy in her eyes and held his hand, so glad that his mission in life was near fruition. She died quietly and peacefully in his presence that day, a few hours later.

For all his erudite scholarship, Dr. Taraporewala was not a stern or taciturn man- quite the contrary. He had dignity and quiet humility, which he taught each of his three sons and his daughters-in-law through example, but he also he had a sharp wit and a sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye. In his final years, he enjoyed the company of his first four grandchildren and there are wonderful family pictures in our albums of him playing affectionately and mischievously with each of them. The family knew him by the affectionate nick-name “Pop” and that is how we still refer to him. His home was visited by religious scholars of all faiths and from many lands with whom he met and held discourses. He was extremely well-read, and built a vast home library of several thousand books on diverse topics over the years. He was a proponent, like his illustrious and spiritual father Jehangir Sorabji before him, of the Theosophy Movement of Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant and he would walk from Gamdevi every week to Sandhurst Road to attend the meetings of the Theosophical Society at the Blavatsky Lodge there.

Dr. Taraporewala was pleased in 1955 to receive an invitation from the University of Tehran in Iran to take up a chaired Professorship in Indo-Iranian Studies, and despite his age, at 71, he jumped at the opportunity, leaving family behind, to move alone to Tehran. Regrettably, his health declined there and he was forced to return to Bombay, where he passed away in January 1956.

Dr. Irach JS Taraporewala – “Pop”, would be extremely gratified to know of the resurgence in the interest of the true message of Zarathushtra and the Gathas that now exists, and is likely smiling down on each of us. He was a man of stature, but to us as family, he was also like any and all of us – in his staged life roles first as a loving son and brother, then as loving husband, father, father-in-law and grandfather, as well as being a mentor, teacher, guide and sage to so many. His was truly an exemplary life well lived, not in terms of acquisition of any great material wealth, but in the wealth of heart and spirit, the unrelenting pursuit of wisdom, and an entirely full life of the propogation of Manashni, Gavashni and Kunashni expected by Ahura Mazda of a true Mazdayasni.

Parsi Khabar adds:

The Divine Songs of Zarathushtra written by Dr. Irach J S Taraporewala was reprinted with full permission of the family by FEZANA. It is available for purchase online on FEZANA’s website and in India at Parsiana