Nobody learns Parsi history in schools, says historian
On just a short stretch of Veer Nariman Road in Fort, beginning at the stained glass enclosure of the Bhikha Behram Well and ending at the v-shaped Eros Cinema with its Art Deco dome, six Parsi gents are memorialized. There are three bronze statues of Sir Hormusjee Cowasjee Adenwalla, the man credited with building much of modern Aden, Indian National Congress president Sir Dinshaw Edulji Wacha and merchant-philanthropist Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy. The well is named after its Parsi founder, who migrated here from Broach (Bharuch) in 1715, and Eros Cinema with its grand marble foyer was built on reclaimed land by the Cambata family. The road itself is named after Khurshed Framji Nariman, a fiery member of the Indian National Congress, who exposed the ‘Backbay Reclamation’ scandal orchestrated by a British engineer.
“It’s amazing how many buildings and statues have a strong Parsi connection,” says Zoroastrian scholar, Khojeste Mistree, who will be conducting a heritage walk at 9am today for anyone interested in learning about the community’s contribution to the city’s built heritage. “The aim is to instill a sense of pride in the community, which seems to always be embroiled in controversy and bickering,” he said. The 2.5-hour walk, organised by Jiyo Parsi – a government scheme meant to arrest the decline of the Parsi population – will begin at the Parsi well and end at the Irani restaurant, Kyani and Co, at Dhobi Talao.
A lot of “mystery and religiosity” has grown around this sweet-water Parsi well, which before the reclamation was close to the sea, says Mistree about the tour’s starting point. That isn’t surprising considering the tale of its origin emphasizes the power of religion. The well was built as an act of thanksgiving by Bhikha Behram after he was captured and released by the Marathas on showing them his religious garments – the sudreh and kusti. “When they established that he was a Parsi, he was let off,” says Mistree. He adds, “During the plague when all the other wells were shut, Bhikha Behram was one of the only wells where the water was drunk and nobody died.”
Mistree, who is the founder of the Zoroastrian Studies institute, has been conducting such walks for 15 years for diplomats, art historians and history buffs. “Nobody studies Parsi history in schools,” he says. During the walk, participants will learn that Flora Fountain was donated by a Parsi, the contractor in charge of building VT station was a Parsi and both Central Bank and HSBC have a Parsi connection. They will also get a chance to hear about institutions like the Parsi ambulance brigade, JN Petit Library and the Bombay Parsi Punchayet building. As for Capitol Cinema, a little-known fact is that many erstwhile film actresses and composers like the Homji sisters (who took on aliases like Saraswati Devi and Chandraprabha) were Parsis. “The community shunned them because they thought it was immoral for any lady to act in a cinema,” says Mistree.