A Proud Parsee – Karan Billimoria

British-Indian peer Lord Bilimoria is a Zoroastrian Parsee, a minority religion with its roots in ancient Persia. He tells Global how his cultural background has influenced his life and his work

Lord Karan Bilimoria has several identities – he was born in India, is now a British citizen, he is a peer in the House of Lords and a Zoroastrian Parsee, belonging to a community that fled to India to escape persecution in Iran several hundred years ago.

Despite his successes in business and politics, it is his religion that often arouses people’s curiosity. Bilimoria is very proud of his roots. When we met in London, he told me: “As someone who is British and Indian, being a Zoroastrian Parsee is a very important part of who I am. We are one of the smallest communities in the world, yet – per capita of achievement – we are probably one of the most successful communities in the world.”

Bilimoria points out that despite their small number, Parsees have achieved international acclaim in almost every field. Among the best known are the conductor Zubin Mehta, Ratan Tata (who turned the Tata Group into a global business), former cricketer Farokh Engineer and the Indian war hero Field Marshal Manekshaw. Parsees excel in the arts too – not many people realise that Freddie Mercury was a Parsee. Bilimoria himself is best known for starting the Cobra beer company, but his first entrepreneurial venture involved supplying Indian-made polo sticks to British outlets, including the exclusive department store Harrods.

He attributes the community’s success to the way Parsees are raised. “You are brought up in this principled way. You see the charitable work that’s being done, the way Parsees not only look after each other but put back into the wider community,” he says. “You just have to go to Bombay, where my father’s family are from, and see the number of Parsee charitable buildings and communities, hospitals, schools – you can’t help but notice it and it’s been done over the generations.”

When they left Persia after its Islamisation more than 1,000 years ago, Zoroastrians went in several different directions in an effort to protect their religion and culture. The ones who went to India became known as Parsees, but there are other large Zoroastrian communities on the border of present-day Iran and Afghanistan. Initially the Parsee community had a very low profile. But under the British, around the 18th century, Parsees began to come to prominence, were given the opportunity to flourish and became involved in several different trades. They took on Indian customs and traditions – Parsee women wear saris, the food is Indian (but with a Persian flavour) and they speak Gujarati, but their prayers are written in the old Persian script.

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