Introduction to article in National Geographic, December 1905


Click on the image to view the full article

This 1905 article by an American diplomat, William Thomas Fee, for the National Geographic magazine, is entitled ‘Parsis and the Towers of Silence at Bombay’. While it gives one of the most sympathetic and carefully researched descriptions, by a western commentator, of the Parsi method of disposal of the dead, the article is much more than that. It provides a potted history of the Parsis in India, their historical background, religious tenets and social customs. Though written from the perspective of a western man brought up in Victorian times and therefore somewhat patronising in tone and substance, the article gives a fairly accurate and intriguing account of some of the customs and manners of the Parsis as observed in the 19th century and, perhaps, earlier. Of course, much has changed since then, and many readers will be fascinated by the elaborate marriage ceremony described and, perhaps, horrified by the reference to child marriages, zananas and purdah nashini. However, these were the customs in those days. My father, born in 1903, used to speak of the times when Parsi women went into purdah such as when travelling or when there were non-Parsi men or strangers around. This is what he had learnt from his grandparents. In a traditional, male dominated society, these would be essential measures to ensure the women’s safety and maintain family dignity when interacting with other communities. We do not know, from this article, the extent to which pardah was observed and whether zananas were only the preserve of the relatively well-off. Similarly, it would be interesting to know more about the custom of child marriages. The reader should note, at the outset, that this is not the same as what we currently understand as the problem of ‘child brides’, where young girls are married off (or sold) to old or much older men and sent off to live with them. The child marriages mentioned in the article were contracted between children of roughly similar age, and the girl left for her in-laws’ home only after reaching the age of 15 or 16 years. The children would have grown up knowing one another as marriages were arranged between families who associated with one another. I remember being told by our father’s aunt, my great-aunt Khorshed masi, that our great-great grandmother and great-great grandfather were ‘married’ before they were born! This, I recall, caused much astonishment and amusement when the story was told. Some sort of ceremony had been performed, while the babies were still in the womb, with the understanding that if they were of the opposite sex, they would become, eventually, man and wife. This is tantamount to a solemn pledge made by the two families. My grandmother always wore a mathabanu, similar to a hejab, even at home. She usually dressed in an ijar or ankle length loose pyjama and a badyan or hip-length, long-sleeved blouse. This was reminiscent of a Persian woman’s outfit. When leaving the home, women of her time draped a sari, in Gujarati style, over the ijar and badyan, in keeping with Indian custom. On the subject of women, the article does not mention women’s quarantine during menses. This was practiced by many families right up to the 1950s and 60s. Our neighbours, opposite, would not countenance a visit by any woman during her menses. Parsis adapted well into Indian society by adopting some of the local customs. Later, they copied western trends, sometimes slavishly. Therefore, it is amusing to read the comment, of a historian in ancient Greece, that the ancient Persians were ‘most distinguished by their readiness in imitating foreign manners and customs.’ Old habits die hard, it seems. Apart from the odd error in the article such as that Parsis refer to the UK as ‘home’, the article is a well-observed description of 19th century Parsi life.   Soonu Engineer

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.