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Parsis’ Origin Story: Folklore To Fact

Parsis’ Origin Story: Folklore To Fact

Never has a community so small given so much. But, then, the Parsis were great industrialists and legendary philanthropists, two signature traits that together helped make Bombay what it is. Which is why it is hard to think of some of Bombay’s first families, like the Tatas, Godrejs and Wadias, and even the community as a whole, as descendants of foreign refugees who washed up on the west coast of India 1,200 years ago.

Yet that is exactly what happened, and offering a fascinating account of their arrival is an epic poem, Kisseh-i-Sanjan. Interestingly, while the poem was considered folklore for centuries, recent archaeological evidence has thrown new light on it.

Navsari, Gujarat

Kisseh-i-Sanjan or the ‘Story of Sanjan’ was written by Dastur Bahman Kaikobad Sanjana, a Parsi priest from Navsari in Gujarat, in 1599-1600 CE. He was a descendant of the original priests who tended the sacred Zoroastrian fire called the ‘Iranshah’ brought by the refugees from Iran. There also exists a later poem called the Kisseh-i-Zarathustrian-i-Hindustan but that is merely a copy of the Kisseh-i-Sanjan with a few additions for later years in Navsari.

A portrait of the Sassanian ruler Yazdegerd from Iran | Wikimedia Commons

The Kisseh begins with the defeat of Yazdegerd, the last Sassanian ruler of Iran, at the hands of the Arab armies in the Battle of Nehavand in 641 CE. It tells the story of a small but defiant group of Zoroastrian refugees, who first fled to the hills of Khorasan (a territory that now lies in North-Eastern Iran, Southern Turkmenistan and Northern Afghanistan), to hide among Sassanian princes, who were still holding out against the Arab invaders. The story then jumps forward a hundred years, to the final subjugation of the Zoroastrian princelings, when the refugees (or their descendants) move to the port of Hormuz (in present-day Iran), where they stay for 30 years.

The route followed by the Parsis

The group then leaves for India and lands on the desolate island of Diu, an island just off the Gujarat coast, where they stay for 19 years until they are granted asylum by a local ruler in Western India, called ‘Jadi Rana’. The refugees leave Diu and encounter a massive storm. They promise to build a fire temple in praise of the arch-angel Behram if they are saved, and suddenly the storm abates. They make safe landfall and establish a town which they name ‘Sanjan’ in memory of the town in which they lived in Khorasan. This is believed to be a town named ‘Sindan’ near Mazandaran in Northern Iran.

A plaque at Sanjan Stambh - a memorial column which commemorates the arrival of Zoroastrians

The Parsis, known for their fiery integrity, keep their promise and build a fire temple called an ‘Atash Bahram’ in Sanjan. They name the fire the ‘Iranshah’ in memory of their lost motherland. They also promise to abide by local customs and adopt the local language and dress if they are allowed to practice their faith. The ‘Rana’, or local ruler, also asks them not to bear arms and they agree.

The Parsis flourish here for the next 300 years, after which they begin to spread north and south of Sanjan. But their peace is shattered when Sanjan is invaded by the Muslim general Alf Khan on the orders of Sultan Mahmud (probably Mahmud Alauddin Khilji in 1297-98 CE).

Caves of Bahrot

The Parsis are exhorted to take up arms by the local ruler and they keep the enemy at bay on the first day. Alas, on the second day, the valiant heroes fall in battle and Sanjan is razed, but not before giving the women and children a chance to escape with the priests and the Iranshah into the mountains of Bahrot. Here, they hide for 12 years before venturing down to the jungle town of Bansda. Fourteen years later, the Parsis of Navsari, which has become the premier seat of the Parsis after the fall of Sanjan, come and take the priests and the fire to Navsari.

The Kisseh ends here but the story continues. The Iranshah stays in Navsari till 1741/42 CE, when disputes between the Sanjana priests (original priestly families from Sanjan who had tended to the Iranshah) and the local Navsari priests escalate to a point where the Sanjana priests move the Iranshah to the small seaside town of Udwada. The Iranshah is established here and continues to burn in the same place even today, 280 years after it left Navsari and roughly 1,380 years after it was lit.

Udwada Atash Behram Fire Temple

The Iranshah is the most important religious icon of the Zoroastrian community and both Parsis (descendants of the original refugees) and Iranis (Zoroastrian refugees who came to India in the 19th century) worship it at Udwada. No initiation or wedding ceremony is complete without a pilgrimage to this most holy of fire temples in India.

Sassanian Islamic Turquoise Glazed Ware found at Sanjan | Author

In lieu of any direct source, the Kisseh has always been the best starting point to explore the history of the Zoroastrians in India. Many historians looked at it with some scepticism until the Sanjan Excavations of 2002-2004. Excavations at the site of Sanjan confirmed that it was a Zoroastrian settlement, the large number of West Asian ceramics, West Asian glass and numismatic evidence found here confirming links with Iran. The earliest levels at the site date to the 8th century CE, dovetailing with the dates arrived at in the Kisseh. The settlement appears to have been destroyed in the 13th century CE, once again matching the data gleaned from the Kisseh.

In addition, there are five copper plates that were found in Chinchani village near Dahanu in Palghar district, on the extreme north Konkan coast in Maharashtra. These plates indirectly mention the Zoroastrians and the port of Sanjan in the period between the 10th and the 13th centuries CE. This is further corroborated by the writings of numerous Arab travellers and geographers like Al Biladuri, Ibn Haukal, Al Ishtakari and Al Masudi, whose accounts date to between the 9th and 12th centuries CE and deal mostly with political organisation, transit times, and goods bought and sold at various ports on the west coast of India. They regularly mention Sanjan and the materials being shipped from this port to the Persian Gulf.

Thus, what was once considered a historical source of dubious accuracy has turned out to be a rather accurate source. Today, the Zoroastrians of India look at the Kisseh as a true account of their history and the struggles of their ancestors.

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