The Nizam of Hyderabad once owed Rs 41 lakh to Seth Viccaji Meherji and Seth Pestonji Meherji, two Parsi brothers who founded Hyderabad’s oldest agiary. With the fire temple turning 175 on July 31, the Old Parsi Fire Temple Trust is set to release a souvenir on the Meherji brothers.
The Seth Viccaji-Seth Pestonji Meherji Fire Temple, Hyderabad. The city today is home to 450 Parsi families. (Express photo by Rahul V Pisharody)
The story of the Parsi Zoroastrian community in Hyderabad coincides with that of the history of the two-centuries-old city of Secunderabad and would be incomplete without the community’s most illustrious brothers Seth Viccaji Meherji and Seth Pestonji Meherji. Such was the saga of the two enterprising youngsters that their name and clout spread from the Konkan to the Deccan.
From taking the cotton trade in the region to unprecedented heights to lending massive loans to the Nizam’s government, and becoming the only Parsi family ever to have their initials engraved on a national coin (here of the Nizam’s), the family’s fortunes took a sudden turn in the next few years, hitting rock bottom.
The sufferings of the two enterprising businessmen are not well-known. (Sourced)
“See, the two brothers, with their sincere hard work rose to the highest possible levels, minting their coinage with initials on it, and overnight it was all lost,” said 73-year-old Captain Kayarmin Ferozshah Pestonji, a fifth-generation descendant of Seth Pestonji. “All the property had to be sold off for the brothers to retire and die as paupers. The only things they did not sell were over a half-dozen agiaries (fire temples) and Dakhmas (tower of silence),” he added.
On July 31, the Seth Viccaji-Seth Pestonji Meherji Fire Temple on MG Road, the oldest agiary of Hyderabad, which was founded by the Meherji brothers, turns 175 years old as per the Zoroastrian calendar. This also is an occasion for the local Parsi community to underline their role and contributions to the erstwhile Dominion of Hyderabad Deccan. To mark the occasion, the Old Parsi Fire Temple Trust will release a souvenir detailing the two pioneers’ lives and journey.
Two godhas (a mystical bull with wings and a human face) have also been recently added on either side of the entrance to the fire temple. According to Captain Pestonji, a former senior flying instructor at Andhra Pradesh Flying Club, these godhas are the guardians against all evils and their wings signify high aspirations while the body of a bull represents strength and the human head symbolises wisdom.
“We need to get that history out, instead of burying it and being lost for generations,” said Zubin Viccajee. L to R: Viccajee, Captain KF Pestonjee and Cyrus J Irani. (Express photo by Rahul V Pisharody)
Hailing from Tarapur village in today’s Maharashtra, the two brothers had started as collectors of land tax and sea customs for the British government in the Konkan villages, Pune, Solapur, Ahmednagar, Khandesh etc and established a trade connection with the Nizam’s government in the early 1800s. Impressed by their dedication and enterprise, the Nizam had handed over the management of his Aurangabad mint to the brothers and permitted them to mint their coins, called the Pestonshahi Sicca.
In 1836, on prime minister Raja Chandoolal’s invitation, the duo opened Pestonji Viccaji banking house in Hyderabad. Between 1832 and 1842, they minted over a crore of coins, Pestonshahi rupee (silver) and Pestonshahi Paisa (copper), that remained legal tender for more than five decades, despite the collapse of the family. “They were decent, honest bankers, unlike today’s ones. So much trust was put in them and they were very successful. The Nizam government went on to borrow more and more money. It went up over Rs 41 lakh. He (the Nizam) could not pay them back and overnight he confiscated everything. The brothers had to take the shirt off their back to pay back people who had invested in their bank,” adds the Captain, who is the president of the Old Parsi Fire Temple Trust – Secunderabad.
Hyderabad today is home to 450 Parsi families. On July 31, all the thousand members of the local community are expected to attend Khushali-nu-Jashan (special prayers on the occasion) led by one of the five high priests of the community, Vada Dasturji Saheb Keki Cawasji Ravji Meherjirana, and be present for a group photograph.
Speaking of the community, Jehangir Bisney, a trustee of Parsi Zoroastrian Anjuman Secunderabad Hyderabad (PZASH), said the community sustains because it is close-knit and is also diminishing in numbers for the same reason. (Sourced)
Forty-four-year-old Zubin Viccajee, a sixth-generation descendant of the family and a member of the trust, added, “Growing up, we used to look forward to meeting the entire community. Now, more than an occasion, it is a landmark of 175 years (of the oldest fire temple). We need to get that history out, instead of burying it and being lost for generations. Today, we know very little about our ancestors. At least now we have prepared some material to show our history to the next generation.”
The senior-most trustee of the Old Parsi Fire Temple Trust, Cyrus Jehangir Irani, added: “The trust has put in a lot of effort to preserve our heritage and ensure the fire temple remains for another 200 years.”
The sufferings of the two enterprising businessmen are not well-known. “But it remains a fact that Hyderabad’s financial situation was in a crisis in the 1840s due to mismanagement by prime minister Raja Chandoolal and the Nizam government owed Rs 40 lakh to the Meherji bank. But for the repayment of such hefty loans by the Nizam, the bank started by the Meherji brothers would have lasted longer,” Md Safiullah, a Hyderabad-based expert on coins, said.
The family was the only Parsi family ever to have their initials engraved on a national coin. (Sourced)
After the second Nizam, Asaf Jah II Nizam Ali Khan, signed the subsidiary alliance with the British East India Company in 1798, Hyderabad state had to pay the maintenance for the Hyderabad Contingent of the Company. “The brothers were given a coin minting contract in lieu of the money owed to them by the Nizam. The money borrowed went down the drain towards the maintenance of the Contingent. The brothers suffered in the 1840s as they fell out of favour with the Nizam and they were asked to return the assigned taluks held by them,” he said, adding that it was only after Salar Jung I took over as the prime minister in 1853 that the state achieved stability and was declared the faithful ally of the British and given many other recognitions.
Apart from the Seth Viccaji-Seth Pestonji Meherji Fire Temple on MG Road, a 102-year-old fire temple, Khan Bahadur Edulji Seth Edulji Sohrabji Chenai Anjuman Dar-e-Meher, is located a stone’s throw away and Bai Maneckji Nusserwanji Chenoy Dar-e-Meher (built in the year 1904) is located at Abids. Ervad Jehangir K Pilcher, the head priest at the oldest fire temple for the last 38 years, said the community had around 1300 members when he joined as a priest in 1984.
Two godhas (a mystical bull with wings and a human face) have also been recently added on either side of the entrance to the fire temple. (Express photo by Rahul V Pisharody)
“There is a colony of Parsis living around each of these three fire temples. We worship the sacred fire (atash) which has been burning since the day it was first lit. So the fire in the sanctum sanctorum here is 175 years old,” he said. Admitting that not many know about Parsi Zoroastrianism beyond the name and identity of a few renowned persons, his son and a second priest for the last 16 years, Ervad Peshdad J Pilcher said, “We want everyone to know that the three pillars of our religion are Humata (good thoughts), Huxata (good words), and Huvarshta (good deeds) and we truly believe and follow them.”
Speaking of the community, Jehangir Bisney, a trustee of Parsi Zoroastrian Anjuman Secunderabad Hyderabad (PZASH), said the community sustains because it is close-knit and is also diminishing in numbers for the same reason. “Just like the declining population figures, the spirit of entrepreneurship, too, is falling. We are not even 55,000 people across India but our contributions are worth mentioning,” he added.