How a photograph of a decked-up Parsi woman found its way to the Pope’s palace

Dosebai Cowasjee Jessawalla was one of the first women in India to receive a British education. She recounts her travels and adventures in ‘Story of My Life’


Every room or landing was guarded by two soldiers, and after passing through six orseven we reached a magnificent hall where I was told to sit down. This room and the furniture it contained were all of uniform colour—bright red—and the guards who patrolled here were dressed even to their boots in the same flaming hue.

Presently the priest returned, and requested me to kneel down on receiving the Pope’s benediction and to kiss the fingers of his hand which he would extend to me instead of his foot. He then brought me to another hall painted and furnished entirely in milk-white colour; here I saw a venerable person of angelic appearance coming towards us at a slow measured pace. At sight of this thrice holy man we dropped on our knees and made humble obeisance which he graciously acknowledged. At that moment I felt such ecstatic joy as could not be described—what I suppose one would experience in converse with a prophet or being of another world.

The Holy Father had the majesty and winning mildness of aspect which we attribute to angels, surely beloved of God must he be to be exalted so high above his fellow-men! He wore white robes and had a white cap upon his head. His dress exactly resembled that which we Parsees prepare on a death anniversary for our departed, and for the first time I saw it on the person of a living man. The Pope wore no flowing beard to enhance the majesty of his well-proportioned form.

In a clear melodious voice he poured his benedictions upon me and my son, after which he condescended to converse with me.

Our conversation was carried on by the Cardinal interpreting for us, and the following is the substance of it. After placing his blessed hand on my head he said: “May you live long and be firm in your faith whereby all your best aspirations will be fulfilled.” I humbly requested him to transfer the first part of his blessing—the long life—to my son who was with me and whom he had mistaken for my husband. Taking out my watch and showing him the beautifully enamelled portraits of my dear husband and daughter on its lids I besought him to bless them with long life and vouchsafe to me the blessing of closing my eyes while these—my all-in-all—should be in the full enjoyment of health and happiness. With a smile beaming on his heavenly countenance he blessed me in these words: “May God fulfil your best wishes and may you reap manifold advantages from your long and arduous travels when you shall have reached your own shores in peace and safety.”

“Pray hand me your card,” he said, “that I may remember you in my prayers and invoke the assistance of God on your every laudable undertaking.” He continued: “You must assuredly have been much pleased with the beautiful churches of St Peter and St Paul,” whereupon I respectfully informed him of my having seen both these celebrated buildings of which the imposing appearance would ever live fresh in my memory and the few days spent in Rome would rank amongst the happiest of my life. He then asked me to stay for a month when his Cardinal would introduce me to the reigning Sovereign of Italy. Gratifying as this gracious proposal was, I had to decline it as my stay in the Eternal City could not be prolonged.

“The great honour you have done me,” I supplicatingly said, “by this interview has made such a deep and grave impression on my mind, akin to what we mortals feel when holding discourse with an angel that I am under a debt of the greatest gratitude to Your Holiness. Believing you to be an emissary of God, I invoke your blessing on me.”

On hearing this, the Holy man said: “God always helps the righteous. My heartfelt benedictions be ever on your head.” I further informed His Holiness that I had at first only intended to stay but two days in that imperial city, but having been favoured by an interview with such an exalted, estimable and worthy potentate as His Holiness I had resolved to stay a few days longer, though all my luggage having been sent off to Brindisi, I had taken the liberty to appear in his august and holy presence in my ordinary garb.

“Is there then any other sort of dress in use among you than what I see?” Hereupon I produced my photograph and explained to him that though the fashion of the dress always remains the same, we wear a more elaborate and costly dress on festive occasions or when paying a visit. I then asked if His Holiness would be pleased to keep the photograph in his majestic palace and he, with much pleasure, ordered his Cardinal to take the picture, as the Pope never accepts anything but through one of his Cardinals. Our conversation lasted for about an hour, then I took my leave enriched by his many benedictions.

How a photograph of a decked-up Parsi woman found its way to the Pope’s palace


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