The Life of Bai Jerbai Nusherwanji Wadia

An ordinary lady with an extra-ordinary vision: Bai Jerbai Nusherwanji Wadia (1852-1926)

This is a simple story of an ordinary Zarathushti lady, who possessed an extraordinary vision.. Born in 1852, she was reared in the, then, traditional fashion, into a Zarathushti way of life. She was well tutored in the art of knitting, stitching and sewing and adept at creating fine garments and the decorative borders on strips of canvas for the Sarees of Zarathushti ladies. She could prepare the finest strand of wool on the spindle (for the weaving of the Kusti) with great expertise, too.

Taught at school in the medium of Gujarati, as per the norms of the times, she had the distinction of being offered the services of an English governess, arranged for by her maternal uncle, Rustomji Jamshetji Jeejeebhai. It was acknowledged this arrangement would help cultivate her mind in English literature and her stature in society with English mannerisms. This would, thus, offer her an opportunity to lead a fairly sophisticated social life, well suited to her status and to her share of earning through the entrepreneurial ventures of the family.

Yet, Jerbai had different thoughts. This lady’s heart and mind from early age had been drawn towards a different life led by the less than average Zarathushtis. She had secretly harbored a heartfelt desire to offer an opportunity to those Zarathushtis less privileged than her and had searched for means to the furtherance of their lives.. These were insignificant people (not unlike my own father and his brothers) wanting to migrate from the small villages and country towns of Gujarat to the large impersonal metropolitan city of Bombay (akin to the present exodus to western societies) to improve their future. For those who had no family trade to follow and those who were not on the land, the opportunities of pursuing a worthwhile career in such remote areas of Gujarat were becoming rapidly diluted in the early 1900s.

At the time, there were no major Universities outside Bombay in Gujarat, which catered for recognized postgraduate studies in English.. Besides, the medium of teaching in schools and even in the few Universities of Gujarat, was Gujarati, not readily acceptable commercially or in British circles and in the colonies. There had been an acute hiatus for jobs in the Zarathushti banks and factories and in Government departments and for intellectuals in the professions. The rapid pace of industrialization accelerated these demands. The shortage of Zarathushti labor and honest foremen was naturally followed by a clamor for such vacant positions in Bombay.

In 1907 Bai Jerbai’s husband, Naoroji Nusherwanji Wadia, suddenly died leaving her Rs. 900,000 in his will. She visualized her first opportunity to offer assistance. She was aware that since tenants in Bombay had lived under the constant threat of being evicted from rental apartments at short notice, without a guaranteed security and low cost housing in Bombay, not many families would venture to leave their secure homes in Gujarat.

Jerbai devised a strategy. She arranged for land to be purchased at Lalbaug, specifically for the construction, initially of 8 Chehlis (low cost rental apartment blocks) for these early Zarathushti aspirants from Gujarat.

It has been recorded that she personally supervised the planning of the apartment buildings, a sign, clearly of dedicated intent. She made sure the architectural blueprint incorporated, among other Zarathushti domestic requirements, a Hearth Fire (Chulaa Waati) in the kitchen of each apartment for the proper conduct and maintenance of a continuous house fire. It was, then, traditionally expected of each household that, in the evening when all was said and done, the embers of coal were buried in the Waati or receptacle of ashes for the re-igniting of the fire the following morning.

She placed herself responsible for the allotment of the apartments only to those needy families, who could present a valid reason to justify leaving their time-honored joint family homes in Gujarat. She kept a close eye on the welfare and harmony of the families and the maintenance, hygiene and
timely repairs of the constructions. She herself, after studying the income and family expenditure, fixed the monthly rental at Rs. 9, 10 and 11 depending on the size and location of the apartment. On many occasions, she waived the rental, for a few months, of those who were unable to meet the monthly payment due to unavoidable circumstances.
After this initial success, Jerbai established the Naoriji Nusherwanji Wadia Building Trust Fund in 1917. She named her eldest son, Khurshetji Wadia (later, Sir Cusrow Wadia), Sir Jamshetji Jeejeebhai, Mancherji Pestonji Kharegat and herself as Trustees for the building and maintenance of further Chehlis bringing the total to 32 Chehlis. This housing colony of Chehlis
was named Naoroj Baug in the memory of her husband.

On 19 June 1923, through unfortunate circumstances her youngest son, Rustomji (1876-1923), died, leaving Rs. 2,947,052 in his will. To this amount Jerbai added Rs. 825,000 of her own to make a grand total of Rs. 3.77 Crores to help further her dreams.

At first, she ordered the purchase of 40,500 square yards of land adjacent to Masina Hospital to build a colony of apartment blocks to cater for needy Zarathushti families. The apartments were graded according to the requirements of each family depending upon the number of family members.

She had 2, 3 and 4 bedroom apartments built gradually over a period of many years, as the need arose, to house 168 families. It was named Rustom Baug in the memory of her late son.

In the meantime, there was a smaller piece of land available (about 13,500 square yards) on the opposite side of the Masina Hospital, conveniently situated near the Byculla Railway station and the major bazaar of the district. She reserved a total outlay of Rs. 1.5 Crores, of which the sum of Rs. 670,000 was given collectively by her sons. Here, a colony of 5 large blocks of smaller apartments for 136 families was constructed. But,
she did not survive its completion. She died on 8 May 1926.

The housing colony was named Jer Baug in her memory. She was noted for other very generous donations, each one for the worthy cause of uplifting the underprivileged and the needy among women, too.

Among the horrendous medical problems of the time that took a heavy toll of Zarathushti women, were Consumption (Tuberculosis) and death during childbirth (often, from infection and post-partum hemorrhage). Her other priorities, therefore, remained the provision for adequate health care.

Her generous donations in this respect included the building of or
extensions to several clinics and hospitals. They included: –
1. The extension to the Khandala Charitable Clinic, which was built in 1902 by her late husband.
2. A hostel for Nurses at the Sir Jamshetji Jeejeebhai Hospital in 1903.
3. A charitable Hospital on the grounds of the Bombay Parsi Panchayat at Chowpatty in 1906.
4. An additional block and a new dispensary for the Dr. Bahadurji Sanatorium in Deolali in 1909.
5. A block at the Jehangir Marzban Convalescent Home in Khandala.
6. The building of Dr. Rustom Billimoria T. B. Sanatorium for Zarathushtis.
7. Annual grants of Rs.. 5000 to the Dr. Tehmulji Narimanwalla Obstetrics Hospital plus a donation of Rs. 51,000 in the Endowment Fund giving a 3.5% annual interest to the Hospital.
8. A grant of Rs. 5000 to the Parsi General Hospital.
9. A grant of Rs. 25,000 to the Bandra Shirinbai Cama Convalescent Home.
10. A grant to the Mahableshwar Parsi Gymkhana and the building of a Badminton Court.

Not taking into account the donations she gave from her inherited wealth, the donations from her personal income alone, during her lifetime, exceeded a total of Rs. 800 lakhs.

Jerbai, thus, wielded an enormous influence on the way of life, aspirations and the future of insignificant Zarathushtis. If she had not envisaged that providing security and low cost rental housing in a large city meant offering an opportunity (the first Zarathushti to do so) many insignificant Zarathushtis would have continued to struggle to have and keep a roof over their heads. The Zarathushti fabric in Bombay would not have remained so closed-knit, either.

It is also of importance to note that her dream, which touched the lives of thousands of Zarathushtis, was, through her influence, kept alive by her two sons, Sir Cusrow Wadia (born 1869) and Sir Ness Wadia (born 1873) after she passed away.

Among their many important contributions were the building of housing colonies of Cusrow Baug, Ness Baug and The Bai Jerbai Wadia Hospital for Children. Some philanthropic industrialists, later, realizing the depth of this magical formula followed suit in other major cities of the Subcontinent and also of Iran and in the British Colonies.
I would venture to add that it is possible that some of us would have not been able to attend this Congress if it were not for the womanly intuition, timely vision and active involvement of this previously little known Zarathushti lady.

1. Parsi Prakash: Annual Volumes of 1823 and 1826, Bombay.
2. ‘Parsi Lustre on Indian Soil’: H. D. Darukhanawala, Bombay 1939.
3. FEZANA Journal: Volume IX, No. 4 – Winter 1996.

[Article forwarded to us by Mickie Sorabjee]
  • Delnavaz

    thanks for this article. My folks have always told me about Jerbai Wadia’s philanthropy, but after reading this article, I realized that she has done much more than some of us know. She was definitely not an ordinary person. God bless her noble soul.

  • rustom jamasji

    And according to some bloggers like SIloo, Piloo, Zoroastrians are supposed to be betrayers of India..and reasoning for their logic is that since Some zoroastrians were rich whilst others went abroad we betrayed India!!!

    Ironically the same group thrives at dismantling institutions set up by such stalwarts…institutions like dakhmenishini bear the brunt of such …and even other institutions when the rules laid down by such magnificient people and donors are thrived to be changed to suit individuals…

    Then some feel correcting such misinformation makes one primitive…

    Sadly enough the visions of Jerbai Wadia and others to forsee the continuation of Zoroastrianism by Zoroastrains being able to practise its rituals and trads are being marginalised by the donor’s assets being turned into houses of different faiths, cultures thru ones ignorance of faith, local baba/guru/ intermarriage and lastly to think freedom is a gift to do whatever ones deems right without having the responsibility to carry on and respect the vision of the donors…

  • Fari

    thanks for this wonderful article. Today’s Parsee Panchat Trustees should go through this article and help the needy parsees by builing more baugs…

  • Noshir

    Noshir 16 feb 2010
    Thanks for this wonderful artical.on Jerbai Wadia’s philanthropy.Not many know of her fabulous work she did for our community.

    God Bless her soul….

  • hutokshi hector bhaisa

    Hutokshi 17 February 8.00 am

    Thanks for this wonderful this lady Jerbai Wadia she is really abest that she did so many things for our community.

    The article is really beautiful it should be brought to the notice of some parsees who are really genuinely very rich should donate and help poor and needy people.

    God Bless her soul

  • hutokshi hector bhaisa

    Hutokshi 17 February 8.00 am

    thanks for this wonderful artical on Jerbai Wadias so much charity work she did for our parsi community.

    May god keep eyes open for our parsi community

  • Dear Moderator,
    It is my firm belief not to put up messages for sake of displaying my name. I have not blogged on the current subject as I hold the lady in high esteem for her contribution for welfare of the community.
    Moreover, neither have I posted any message on this topic nor this subject relates to mode of diposal of dead. Yet I find my name being dragged in without any context/relevance by some one individual who believes that his ‘followers’ are in majority but endlessly hurls invectives at Moderates like me though he simultaneousy calls all other Moderates as a ‘coterie’.
    One is unable to fathom his downright nervousness against a ‘minority coterie’ to use his own term, against the might of his ‘established majority’!
    Would you Sir, being the moderator ensure that messages have some relevance on the topic under discussion and that this portal is not misused by chap publicity seekers for few minutes of fame through this portal since no other avenue is available to these ‘geniuses’ to run down others as no other publication would publish ‘fekamfek’ in the name of preserving traditions !

  • Rational but Religious.

    I fully agree with you about the need for relevancy of messages having regard to the topic under discussion.However in the context of your address to the Moderator, I have to state that you must have watched in Movies, the panic disorder that grips Disciples of Devils when they enter a Holy place. Same here with those who cannot cope with realities and so end up in a state of confusion. When they are unable to discuss with reason and logic and unable to come to term with realities,such individuals will take refuge by cursing and name calling. We should consider use of such diatribes against us as compliments as they come from a frustrated set of individuals.
    All indicators of frustrations of an inherent failure.
    Have you ever seen or met a mentally disturbed patient ready to admit his/her ailment and willing to be treated medically? Just give a thought.
    Instead of shedding crocodile tears about inter faith marriages, when this hypocrite lavishes praise on Kotwal, he should also have the moral courage to question him for installing as a High Priest an individual who could not prevent his own children from inter-marrying. Let this hypocrite reply the letter/post that has appeared in Parsi Tari Arsi of Mumbai Samachar of last Sunday. Practice what you preach is a saying unknown to such a SAVIOUR of Religion. To label such an unprincipled perpetual bloggerl as a fundamentalist would be an insult to an upright fundamentalist.
    The word Shameless for such a blogger would be an euphemism.

  • rustom jamasji

    R NR..SHOWS his groups mettle by trying to prove their worth in belittling a man who is renowned for his academic studies since his own children never followed his footsteps…

    Look at RNR ‘s statement about me putting forth Kotwals work done and world recognistion showered on him due to his academics..’ RNR questions Kotwals holding the post of High scholarly priest since he could not prevent his children from Intermarrying?!!!
    RNR, PIloo, Dhongi etc etc…scholarly posts are held due to research, scholarly studies,knowledge and studies put forth…not on intermarrying, not marrying, or has nothing to do with creed, solor or race…

    I guess it still confuses you guys…but im sure after explanation earlier on your groups questioning about the mode of payment done for studies or for travels..Ironicaly the universities that hold such in high esteem themselves have no qualms for such…

    So RNR and the cotorie wud now want to tell Harvard or cambridge or Mainz or other universities including coopenhagen where he is welcomed for his theises in 1966 to dethrown the man from his scholarly status since his children may be intermarried
    Another feeble attempt again to belittle a man not liked by this cotorie …

    Forget academics or the faith part of it,…RNR AZA,Piloo etc would now stoop so low that they deperately take advantages of nitpicking in family matters and take advantage of childrens own doing to malign a man!!…

    I wonder if rnr wud now advise the son to walk with a stick if the father is old…

    Lastly RNR after all in your endavour, your group has claimed that archeological evidence is debris, that Persians didnt have tools, the archelogical and scientific wonder of the quanat system where in refrigeration was first controlled by the Persians was laughable , questioning of cotton during Zarathushtra’s period etc etc..shows your thirst to belittle and malign…

    Ofcourse do write to universities mentioend above and try and coax them that recognition showered on Dr Kotwal by Prof Boyce, Hinells,etc etc should be revoked..and that he is a hypocrate …..after all according to your group, it was due to WAPIZ?!!! that Dr Kotwals theisis got published in 1966 in coopenhagen…

    Then ofcourse Pilo would side by a person who claims that Zoroastrians were betrayers of India and thus called Zoroastrian has being shameless…and when such was contradicted by proof and facts..Piloo tear jerks that his view point which is so devoid of history and allegation arrising from such distortion of history are contradcited…

    Yes RNR even by pyutting to rest such claims that Zoroastrians were betrayers of India, I in a way act like the saviour from distortion of facts and by your group belittling a man’s scholarly studies due to a family problem..shows that you work on lines of distortions, nitpicking and finally dectruction

  • Behram Dhabhar

    I am quoting from the above article :
    “among other Zarathushti domestic requirements, a Hearth Fire (Chulaa Waati) in the kitchen of each apartment for the proper conduct and maintenance of a continuous house fire. It was, then, traditionally expected of each household that, in the evening when all was said and done, the embers of coal were buried in the Waati or receptacle of ashes for the re-igniting of the fire the following morning.”

    How many of us in Bombay have this Chullawati ? The practice of keeping a hearth fire – Dadgah burning continously within the household was a standard practice of our Parsipanu. Even in Navroze Baug I know just one family who keeps this fire alive 24 hrs. Most of us are content with an oil lamp burning 24/7.

    “The extension to the Khandala Charitable Clinic, which was built in 1902 by her late husband.”

    Could someone guide me as to where this clinic is located ?

  • saf

    Rustom, as a saviours of Zarathusti deen…when are you and Kotwal going to Iran to save Ka’baa of Zarathus?

    – Saroush

  • Arun Hardikar

    Shailabala Kamat, retd Head of Physiotherapy wishes to cal on Trust on Tuesday 11am to donate Rs 1. lac. Pl phone me on 99304 96372 tio cordinate appointmen

  • Farsak.Ashli.

    What is the extent of philanthropy of current generation of the late Jaerbai Wadia?
    Flats for charity meant for poor are auctioned for crores. The objective of this charitable minded lady have been thrown to dustbin.