Parsi Prize medals: patronage and philanthropy

Medals not only acknowledge excellence but they also offer an insight into the community’s history and priorities
Shailen Bhandare

The prize medals instituted by the Parsi community of Bombay present us with an interesting insight into making of the identity of a colonial elite group in a fast-changing urban space. As such they are firmly contextualized in the urban history of a colonial metropolis, reflecting the reformulation and revivalist movements in the community, and also the community’s engagement with the greater good — both within the community and outside. They are testimonies to the drive for wider social engagement, patronage and philanthropy which Parsis took very seriously while remaining true to the chief tenets of the Zoroastrian religion: Good thoughts, good words and good deeds.
Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy was associated with founding of the city’s first medical college, the Grant Medical College, named after Sir Robert Grant, the Governor of Bombay who took a keen interest in its establishment but died suddenly in 1838. The hospital attached to the medical college that bears Jejeebhoy’s name was funded through a donation of Rs 1,00,000 made by him. He was knighted in 1842 and awarded a baronetcy in 1858, becoming the first Indian to achieve this civil honor. The bust on this medal — which is described as a Grant Medical College Prize Medal — shows Jejeebhoy wearing a typical Parsi turban and an expensive shawl. It was engraved by Benjamin Wyon. On the reverse we see the crest of the Jejeebhoy family, proudly displaying its motto “Industry and Liberality.” It has not yet been possible to ascertain for which particular achievement in the medical school this prize medal was given. But there are records of many other Parsi-endowed medals for specific subjects like surgery, physiology and ophthalmology (Robert Puddester 2002:  Medals of British India with Rarity and valuations: Volume 1 – Commemorative and Historical Medals from 1750 to 1947 London: Spink and Sons).

  1. Gold medal of Zoroastrian Girls’ School Association, 1893 with the bust of Sorabjee Shapoorji Bengalee;

  2. Grant Medical College prize medal in bronze, showing Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, 1st Baronet, 1857;
  3. Silver medal, Bomanjee Dinshaw Petit Challenge Shield for boxing, undated;
  4. The F. D. Master Memorial medal for the Tutorial High School, undated;
  5. The New Bharda High School, sports medal in bronze, undated;
  6. The Ardeshir Irani Memorial medal for Health and Athletic Strength, Behman Physical Culture Home, undated;
  7. The Framjee Nusserwanjee silver educational prize medal, executed by French medallist Mounot, undated;
  8. The Bharda New High School, silver medal of merit, undated;
  9. The Zarathosti Jashan Committee of Bombay, silver medal awarded in recognition for antiquarian explorations
      on the Bahrot Hill, YE1289-90, AD1920;
  10. The Bharda New High School, bronze prize medal, 1915;
  11. The J. J. Parsee Benevolent Institution, silver prize medal in memory of Cursetjee Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy,
         with the crest of the  Jejeebhoy family on reverse, undated;
  12. The Golwala Brothers’ Victoria Swimming Baths, silver medal for
          water polo, made in Birmingham, undated;
  13. The Sir J. J. School, Bilimora – Dhunjibhoy Jinabhoy ‘Zand Prize’ medal, YE1323;
  14. Privately endowed College Essay memorial gold medal, 1928;
  15. The Ave Bhownaggree Memorial silver medal, the Alexandra Native Girls’ Education Institution, undated;
  16. The Sir Pherozeshah Mehta Medal for Mechanical Engineering, V.J.T.I., Bombay, dated 1955-56;
  17. The Zoroastrian Physical Culture and Health League, bronze medal for swimming, 1920;
  18. The Zoroastrian Physical Culture and Health League, bronze medal for boxing, 1920;
  19. The Zoroastrian Physical Culture and Health League, gold medal for running, 1920;
  20. The Zoroastrian Physical Culture and Health League, silver medal for wrestling, 1920;
  21. The Zoroastrian Physical Culture and Health League, bronze medal for running, 1920
  The images of the medals have been taken from the collection of Yasmin Todywalla.
  The author expresses his gratitude to Yasmin and Farokh Todywalla for their assistance
The Ave Bhownuggree Medal of the Alexandra Native Girls’ Education Institution was instituted by Mancherjee Merwanjee Bhownuggree (1851-1933) in memory of his sister Awabai or Ave (1869-1888). The medal was bestowed on students who scored the highest marks in the matriculation examinations of 1890, 1891 and 1892. In 1893, Bhownuggree made a further donation to perpetuate the medal. The bust of Ave on the medal shows close similarities to a marble sculpture by the British sculptor Emanuel Edward Geflowski, which Mancherjee had commissioned with a view to be installed in another of his commemorative projects, a “hall of education” for women, which never came to fruition (John McLeod 2008: Parsis in India and the Diaspora, New York; Routledge). Although McLeod mentions that Mancherjee had “an English mint strike the medal,” Puddester’s research in the Bombay mint archives has suggested that the medal was indeed struck in Bombay. Two versions, silver and bronze, with the latter having an uninscribed reverse, are known. Perhaps the bronze version was struck later when Mancherjee’s original endowment might not have been financially viable to make it in silver.
A medal that combines a multi-faceted 19th century Parsi gentleman from Bombay and the community’s enthusiasm about female education is the Sorabjee Shapoorjee Bengalee medal bearing the name of the “Zoroastrian Girls’ School Association.” The Association (also known as “Parsee Girls’ School Association”) was founded in 1857 with Framjee Nusserwanji Patel as its chairman (Jivanji Jamshedji Modi 1932: K. R. Cama, Bombay: R. J. J. Modi and J. M. Unvala). It owed its formation to an “earlier societal network where students and ex-students of the Elphinstone College taught pro bono each morning for experimental schools for girls” (Tim Allender 2016: Learning Femininity in Colonial India, 1820-1932, Manchester: Manchester University Press).
Bengalee (1831-1893) was a leading light of the community in the late 19th century, associated with a wide spectrum of activities concerned with social work and upliftment in the fields of health, education, religious reformation and labor welfare. In 1885, he gave a generous donation towards completion of a school for girls, named in honor of his mother Bai Bhikhaijee Bengalee (Jesse Palsetia 2001: The Parsis of India: Preservation of Identity in Bombay City, Leiden: Brill). The school was managed under the Zoroastrian Girls’ School Association and the date on the medal, which corresponds to the year of Bengalee’s demise, probably commemorates his affiliation with the Association. His bust on this medal was engraved by the British medallist Allan Wyon. It is not known for which particular prize the medals were awarded, but they were struck at the Bombay mint in three metals — gold, silver and bronze. The bust bears a strong resemblance to his sculptured bust which is now in the Bhikhaiji Bengalee Girls’ School and can be seen on its website (, accessed on 21-12-2016). Puddester wrongly ascribes this medal to a school named “Zoroastrian Girls’ School,” located in Navsari, Gujarat, and otherwise known as Bai Navajbai Tata Zoroastrian Girls’ School, completely ignoring the word “Association” which appears in the legend on the medal.
Parsis fiercely defended their religious identity as distinct from the rest of the Indian population. A major jolt to identity issues, particularly in Bombay, was the arrival of proselytizing Christian missionaries in the 1830s. The colonial government had so far carefully kept religion out of the purview of its direct patronage; however, it succumbed to the pressure of Evangelical and Utilitarian lobbies back home in Britain. Indigenous communities in Bombay were particularly threatened by aggressive proselytizing missionaries who were now free to preach under the government’s aegis. The response elicited by Parsi elites involved opinion building through pamphleteering and journalism, and prompting a deeper soul searching exercise in ascertaining their religious identity.
A reflection of this newfound quest for learning religious texts from their source is seen in prize medals instituted by various Parsi schools for particular benchmarks of proficiency. Unlike the medals described earlier, these are simple — with no particular artist-engraver behind their production. They also employ generic designs, like a figure of Zoroaster, seen on this medal given by the Sir J. J. School of Bilimora. This prize was instituted for “Zand,” or the commentary of Avesta, and it is dated in the Yazdegard Era, which was adopted as the Zoroastrian religious calendar, counting from 632 AD, the year in which the last Sasanian ruler Yazdegird III was crowned. All these features neatly encapsulate appropriation of the past to forge a distinct religious identity for the Parsis which is particularly distinguishing for a small object of a quotidian nature and appearance. We do not know anything more about this prize, except that it was instituted by a Dhunjibhoy Jinabhoy.
Apart from textual and linguistic sources, interest was also sparked, in the early 20th century, in Zoroastrian archeology. A medal dated 1920 AD is given in recognition of “investigations on Bahrot mountain,” by the Bombay Zoroastrian “Jashan Committee,” a body which oversees religious functioning of the community. The medal is replete with visuals that offer a wonderful insight into how the 20th century Parsis imagined their ancient Iranian past. The dominant vignette on the obverse is that of the sacred fire, contained in a traditional metal fire-holder or afarganyu, which had replaced the more traditional altar, or atashdan. On either side, there are symbols taken from the familiar Achemenid tradition — to the left is the winged man or Farohar, the symbolic representation of humankind’s ultimate unity with Ahura Mazda, the supreme Zoroastrian divinity. To the right is the winged anthropomorphic bull, adopted as a symbol of royalty by Achemenid kings from past Mesopotamian cultures. The legends above and below, although inscribed entirely in Gujarati script, are two Avestan slogans — Zarathushtrahe Daenam Yazamaide (We worship Zarathushtra’s religion) and Humata, Hukhta, Huvarashta (Good thoughts, good words, good deeds). Curiously, Humata has been incorrectly transcribed in Gujarati! On the reverse is the vignette of Bahrot mountain, home to a small group of rock-cut caves located among prongs of the Western Ghats east of the town of Sanjan, the earliest Parsi settlement on India’s western coast. The Parsi community of Sanjan is said to have taken the holy fire here after the area was invaded by armies of the Muslim sultan of Delhi in 1297, and kept it alive incognito for the next 12 years (Mary Boyce 1979: 2001: Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, London and New York; Routledge).
No account of Parsi prize medals would be complete without mentioning sports. Funding was obtained in 1888 to establish the Parsi Gymkhana of Bombay and in the decades that followed Parsis took enthusiastically to sports such as swimming, boxing, wrestling and tennis. Though recreation and health were the most appreciated and applauded backdrops for sporting activities, competitive sport events were encouraged as well. Two Parsi brothers, Dadabhoy and Framroze Golwala founded the Victoria Swimming Bath at Backbay. Framroze’s son Khurshed and his wife became Bombay’s first trained swimming and life-guard instructors and introduced a competitive sport like water polo to the Swimming Baths in 1903 (Hormuzji Darukhanawala 1935: Parsis and Sports, and kindred subjects, Bombay: published by the author). The medal shown here presents a vignette of the sport, with an etched inscription on the reverse identifying its sponsors. The hallmarks below the inscription testify that the sterling silver (0.925) medal was made by the silversmiths James Fenton and Company of Birmingham in 1920-21.
The community exhibited a certain appetite for body building, athletics, wrestling or boxing which were more macho than recreational sports like swimming or tennis. In 1920, The Zorastrian (sic) Physical Culture and Health League was founded to encourage these sports in the community. Competitions were held and prizes awarded; the medals struck by the League are in gold, silver and bronze. In order to have a gold medal for sports restricted to those within what was already a small community the League must have had a munificent sponsor behind the enterprise. Although we have little clue as to who this might have been, such acts of generosity were not at all surprising among the Parsis of Bombay.
The choice of visual representation on these medals once again presents an interesting insight into what such activities meant to the Parsis. The emblem of the League is composed of a hugely muscular forearm with bulging biceps, holding flaming fire in the outstretched palm. As the backdrop we see two bull-headed scepters or “Gorz-e Gawsar” which, according to the Avesta are a favorite weapon of Mithra. In modern-day Zoroastrianism, mobeds or priests carry such clubs, referred to as “Gorz-e Mehr” and “Gorz-e Feridun,” as symbols of their continuous battle against the forces of evil (Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol XI, Fasc. 2, pp 165-166). Below the hand, there is the winged Farohar symbol. The vignette on the medal awarded for swimming situates the sport in the urban setting of Bombay, with a backdrop of the skyline of instantly recognized buildings such as the Bombay High Court and the University clock tower, against the Oval Maidan, a prominent sports field created in the late 19th century when the Esplanade surrounding the old British fort of Bombay was dismantled, having outlived its protective purpose. The fact that there was never a swimming pool in this location does not seem to have mattered very much for the designer — he appears to be predisposed more towards familiarity than fact while contextualizing his subject!

Shailendra Bhandare is the Senior Assistant Keeper of South Asian and Oriental Coins and Paper Money collections at the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. He is also a Fellow at St Cross College and a member of the Faculty of Oriental Studies. He has contributed a wide range of articles on the subject of Indian numismatics.


Courtesy : Parsiana – 7 October 2020


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