Category Archives: History

The Star Spangled Banner and Z – ships

This is how, when and where the Star Spangled Banner was born on a Made-in-India ship.
Pause for a moment, Friend, as you do need to see that!

Thank you.
Now please see the Loksatta video, below, after you have read this … It talks about the Wadia Shipbuilders of Surat who were invited by the British, to launch ships from Duncan Docks in Bombay, which they did; including the famous HMS Trincomalee which still exists in its pristine condition at Hartlepool, England, as also the same HMS Minden where USA’s national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, was born. 
In addition to that there is the story of INS Vikrant India’s first aircraft carrier and about how the Vikrant memorial was conceived, designed & erected by two Zoroastrians. 
There is a small error in the commentary. 
In the 1971 War, INS Vikant did not participate in any action against Karachi. She was operating in the Bay of Bengal and played an iconic role in the Bangladesh Operations. With her integral Air effort she carried out air attacks on various ships & installations along the erstwhile East Pakistan coast including Chittagong and airfields at Coxs Bazar. INS Vikrant was instrumental in assuring a very effective contra-band control along the coast, preventing any ingress/outgress of the enemy’s war effort. 
Z-Newz member Commodore Medioma Bhada was on board as part of the carrier-borne fighter squadron. The attacks on Karachi harbour and installations were carried out by the missile boats of the Navy based in Bombay in the 1971 war.
We should also be proud of the fact that one of these Missile Boats in action at the Karachi harbour was commanded by our very own Zarthosthi, Late Commander Bahadur Kavina, an awardee of the presiteous Vir Chakra.
Do watch it please. Even if you do not know or speak no Marathi bhasha, you’ll catch the drift.
Three Cheers and a big ‘thank you’ for CMDE Medioma Bhada.
dara acidwalla

Iran in the Bible

For centuries Iran was known as Persia–the greatest empire the world had ever seen. But part of her story is often forgotten. Woven together in the Bible are prophecies and accounts of Persian kings, epic battles, and royal decrees that changed the world. And surprisingly to many, the Bible speaks of Persia as being chosen and favored for God’s grand purposes. In ‘Iran in the Bible,’ this remarkable story is told using ancient Persian texts, archaeological discoveries, and insights from scholars. What’s revealed is that both Persia and the Jewish people played a strategic role in the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham–the promise that through him God would bless the world. Showing how God is directly involved in history, ‘Iran in the Bible’ offers comfort to those living in a world of uncertainty.


Featured Participants: John W. Lee, Ph.D., professor of history, University of California, Santa Barbara; Sasan Tavassoli, Ph.D., doctorate in Islamic studies from the University of Birmingham (United Kingdom); Rev. Mansour Khajehpour; Edwin Yamauchi, Ph.D., professor emeritus of history, Miami University; and Tremper Longman III, Ph.D., professor of Old Testament, Westmont College

Ardeshir Irani – The First Talkie

As Alam Ara released on this day in 1931, Dr. Manash P. Goswami traces the making of this Indian classic.

A dreamer, a lottery winner and an entrepreneur – these were some of the traits of the man who made India’s first talkie – Alam Ara. Ardeshir Irani – a second generation Parsi, whose father had landed in India in the later half of the 19th century from Iran, had been a dreamer since his early years. While starting off with a business of selling musical instruments, Irani nurtured a dream to explore the potential of moving pictures, or films. His dream turned into reality when he won a lottery of Rs. 14,000. It enabled him to take his first step into the film industry as a small-time film distributor, showing films in ‘tent cinema’ with a projector. The first Indian film, Raja Harishchandra (1913), produced by Dadasaheb Phalke, and subsequent films in later years motivated Irani to try his hand in filmmaking. Throughout the 1920s, he directed more than half a dozen silent films that established him as a prominent name in the budding Indian film industry.

Ardeshir Irani

Irani could further sense the huge potential of the film industry when he watched Universal Pictures’ Show Boat – a 40 per cent talkie, in Mumbai’s Excelsior Cinema in 1929. His business insights and visionary ideas pushed him to take a big leap with the experience he had with Show Boat. He planned to produce the first Indian talkie. He was well aware of his lack of experience in following up with this venture. But he still decided to go ahead with the idea.

While tackling confusions and the dearth of resources, Irani also had to improvise on many occasions. The dilemma of choosing the language for the film (Marathi or Gujarati) ended when Irani decided to produce the film in Hindustani (a mixture of Hindi and Urdu). His choice of language came from the business potential of the Hindustani language, as it could reach out to a larger audience.

The choice of story or plot came next. Irani decided to go with a drama – Alam Ara, a popular Parsi stage play by a Bombay dramatist about the love story of a prince and a gypsy girl. Even though the silent films of that period were mythology-based, Irani decided to experiment with a new flavour for his talkie.

(Left) Poster of Alma-Ara. (Right) A collage of stills from Alam Ara

The challenges in introducing sound in the film required much effort and innovative ideas. It may sound unbelievable, or funny too, but the instrumentalists – harmonium and tabla players, hid behind the trees in the scenes that required musical support. The microphones were placed inside the costumes of actors, or within props kept near the actors, so that the dialogue could be recorded. The crew took all caution to hide them from the camera.

The shooting was another Herculean task. The studio decided on Grant Road, Mumbai, as the location. But as trains passed through the area all day and there were no sound-proof rooms, the shooting had to be done during nights only.

Even though most films of the silent era had Anglo-Indian or Jewish actresses as female leads due to their fair skin, a young actress of Indian origin played the lead role in Alam Ara. Irani had to choose Zubeida over Ruby Myers (popularly known as Sulochana), a Baghdadi Jewish girl, as the main actress for the film as none of the Jewish or Anglo-Indian actresses could speak Hindustani, and their accent was also wrong. For the male lead, Irani initially chose Mehboob Khan, but finally settled for a more commercially viable name – Marathi stunt star Master Vithal. For the villain’s role, Prithviraj Kapoor was Irani’s first and last choice.

Ferozshah M. Mistri and B. Irani, the duo behind lyrics and music composition, chose Hindustani language and Urdu dialect. There were seven songs in the film, with the song De de Khuda ke naam par being the most popular one. Interestingly, a watchman of the neighbourhood, Wazir Muhammad Khan, who had a coarse voice, sang this song as Irani felt that Khan’s voice was perfect for a fakir.

As the first film with Hindi songs and the first in the filmi-ghazal style, the music of the film was influenced by the ghazal tradition of Urdu-Parsi theatre. This film also set the record for being the first film to introduce playback singing in India.

Unlike a silent film that took nearly one month to complete, the production of Alam Ara had taken nearly four months. Shooting with much caution and with the hazards of sound recording, the production took up a long time. Moreover, Irani had to keep the making of the first talkie in India a closely guarded secret.

With the release of the film on March 14, 1931, Irani put India on the world map as one of the pioneers in producing talkies. The film, screened at the Majestic Cinema in Bombay, turned out to be a sensation. The advertisements ran with headlines like – ‘All living. Breathing. 100 per cent talking’ in English, and ‘78 murde insaan zinda ho gaye. Unko bolte dekho’ in Hindi. And this built curiosity among the people for Irani’s Alam Ara.

For those who had never seen people talking on the screen, Alam Ara was the talk of the town. The police was called in to control the overcrowded theatre on the day of its release. The tickets, usually priced at four annas, were sold in the black market. The film ran houseful for more than eight weeks. Its popularity encouraged Irani to screen the film in tent theatres in different places, carrying sound and projection equipment. The film got an overwhelming response everywhere.

Looking for information on Hilla Rustomji Faridoonji (1872–1956)

The All India Womens Conference is a 93 year old all women  organisation founded in 1927 by Mrs Margaret Cousins.It is popularly known as AIWC.It has about 500 branches all over the country from Kanyakumari to Kashmir ,with its Head Office in Delhi.AIWC is a Non Governmental Organization which works mainly for the upliftment of women  & children belonging to the lower strata of society.

Our Head Office  located in Sarojin House , 6 Bhagwandas Road , New Delhi has a full fledged Library called the MCM Library. Here we have a record of the past Presidents as well as the Minutes of all the Conferences held as also the work done till date. But information regarding some past Presidents is not upto date & as such we are trying to collect as much information as possible so that the future generations will learn about  our rich legacy & also about these esteemed women who have worked selflessly while they were at the helm of affairs all through out.
So it is in this regard that I would like to have some information about Mrs Hilla Rustomjee Faridoonji who was the 9th President of AIWC  in 1934. Very little is known about her & hence this is to request you to kindly help us in learning about her childhood ,education, family & home. It would be great if I could connect to her kith & kin who will give me this valuable information.
I hereby assure you that this information will be only for the AIWC Records & will not be used for any other purpose whatsoever.
Hilla Rustomji Faridoonji (1872–1956) was an Indian educationist and political activist. She was secretary of the Women’s Education Fund Association.
At the All India Women’s Conference meeting in Madras in 1931-2, Faridoonji proposed the removal of caste distinctions and the abolition of separate schools for different religious sects. In 1935, she served as President of the AIWC, and continued as a patron on the Standing Committee of the Conference. She was a close associate of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and became a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi.
She was one of the first administrators of Lady Irwin College when it opened in 1932. She was its convenor and treasurer and continued to work for the college until her death. In 1954 she opened the college’s postgraduate accommodation in her role as President of the All India Women’s Education Fund Association. The main hall of residence is now known as the Hilla Faridoonji Hall in her memory.
Mrs Rekha A Sali,
Member In Charge Constitution,
New Delhi.

Mithan Lam, A Powerful Advocate for India’s Women

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The barrister Mithan Jamshed Lam

The barrister Mithan Jamshed Lam

True tales of women breaking barriers to forbidden places, and bettering the lives of others, are inspiring. Mithan Jamshed Lam is one of these legendary women. Recently I chatted about this illustrious lady (who passed away in 1981) with another woman who is doing important civil rights work in contemporary India, the Mumbai solicitor Parinaz Madan. In an interesting twist, Parinaz is married to Dinyar Patel, a professor and author of Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism.

I was fortunate enough to meet Parinaz and Dinyar in real life last January at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club in Mumbai. We dined on a delicious biryani and many other dishes as we discussed the history of the city and the freedom movement. They are both Parsis and have been kind enough to also answer my questions about the minutiae of the community’s cultural life. Their assistance was key in creating realistic social situations in my forthcoming novel, The Bombay Prince.

Last year, Parinaz and Dinyar wrote an article for BBC News about Bombay’s first woman barrister, Mithan Ardeshir Tata, known after her marriage as Mithan Jamshed Lam. In 1924, Mithan became the first woman advocate permitted to argue cases at Bombay’s High Court. Mithan’s education, family background, and relentless struggle for women’s rights were influential in the development of my series protagonist, Perveen Mistry.

It was much harder for me to find scholarly material about Mithan than Cornelia Sorabji. In 2016, I bought a reprint of her autobiography, Autumn Leaves, at the K.R. Cama Oriental Institute, a center for Parsi scholarship. The autobiography is dominated by the stories of Mithan’s world travels. I wanted to know specifics about her life in India, so I’ve put some questions to Parinaz about her.

Were Mithan’s parents encouraging of her career choice as a lawyer? Were there any other events in her youth that pushed her toward the field?

Mithan’s autobiography lends the impression that her family had very progressive leanings.

She describes her father Ardeshir as a man of “liberal views” who wholeheartedly backed her academic pursuits. In fact, her father spurred his studious wife Herabai to complete her B.A. degree, by employing a number of tutors for her.

Mithan also seems to have shared a very close and almost sororal bond with her mother, which is not surprising, considering that they were separated by only seventeen years in age!

As a teenager, Mithan was clearly inspired by her mother’s social activism and commitment to securing equal voting rights for women and that likely set the stage for her active participation in the female suffragist movement subsequently. She was all of 21 when she was chosen, alongside her mother, to deliver evidence on the necessity of female suffrage in India to the British Parliament.

Mithan had a stellar academic track record even before studying law: she obtained her B.A. from Elphinstone College, Bombay and was the first woman to be awarded the Cobden Club Medal for securing the highest marks in Economics. She then went on to pursue an M.Sc. degree from the London School of Economics, while her mother was studying for a Social Service course at the same university.

Since Mithan’s childhood and early life were steeped in political and social activism, law may have seemed to be the most natural career choice for her. She probably recognised the potential of a legal career to create lasting and meaningful reform in areas that she deeply cared about, such as women and children rights, and was ably supported by her parents along the way.

Mithan, standing by her mother, Herabai, in 1919

Mithan, standing by her mother, Herabai, in 1919

Cornelia Sorabji is arguably the most renowned female lawyer from colonial India. Her career was divided between private practice in a firm with her brother in Allahabad, and many more years working throughout India as a legal investigator for the Indian Civil Service. She was almost 31 years older than Mithan, but was called to the Bar in Britain (i.e. admitted to practice in courts) after Mithan. Could you explain why that happened? 

Yes, Cornelia was the first woman to study law at Oxford in 1889 (nearly a decade before Mithan was even born). However, she could not be called to the Bar after finishing her law exams because women were prohibited from practicing law in Britain, until the passage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, 1919.

This Act which opened the doors for women to be admitted to the Bar in the United Kingdom was passed only in 1919. Mithan who was fortuitously in London at the time was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in 1920, followed by Cornelia who returned from India to Britain two years later. Mithan became the first woman to be called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in January 1923 when she was 24. Cornelia was actually called to the Bar a few months later than Mithan in June, when she was 55.

Providentially, the Indian government also abolished restrictions on women to practice law in 1923: the same year that Mithan set sail to India after finishing her studies in London. This enabled her to kickstart her legal career as the first female lawyer in the Bombay High Court in 1924. I think she sums all this up quite aptly in her autobiography: “I must have been born under a lucky star, for I always found myself in the right place at the right time.”

What was Mithan’s life like when she started working as a barrister? Did you uncover any stories of success and struggles against discrimination?

Ironically, Mithan bagged her first legal case from a client who wanted to “inflict upon the opponent the humiliation of being defeated by a woman.” She recalls feeling like “a new animal at the zoo” while appearing in court, arousing the curiosity of men who peeped through its doorways to catch a glimpse of this unique species. Understandably, this made her feel extremely “self-conscious”. Such acts of discrimination notwithstanding, newspaper records reveal that Mithan practiced in court for about 15 years from her enrolment as a lawyer in 1924 in India.

Mithan was extremely outspoken on women’s rights. Tell us about some of her work in that area, and the legislation she proposed.

Apart from the female suffrage activities that Mithan is renowned for, she was a staunch advocate for amending marriage, divorce, inheritance and guardianship laws in India to make them fairer to women, often drawing upon international legislation. As a Zoroastrian herself, her legal expertise was sought in reforming the laws for marriage and divorce in the Parsi community.

One of the women’s organisations that she was most prominently associated with was the All-India Women’s Conference. As its President, she propounded a shift of focus from “sewing and cutting classes” for women to their more active participation in industries and emphasised on the need for family planning. She also encouraged women to take a more active role in civic engagement and public works in the country. After the partition of India in 1947, Mithan was tasked with being the Chairperson of a committee constituted for resettling refugee women and children in Bombay.

But her activism was not restricted to only women’s issues. She also spearheaded hunger eradication programs, anti-child labour advocacy and slum improvement projects in India. In 1928, she joined protests with the Bombay Youths League about a proposed school fee hike for secondary education in India. The Bombay Chronicle noted “The ridiculous plea that higher education should be further taxed to find funds for primary education is aptly described by Miss Tata as the policy of robbing Peter to pay Paul.” These protests may have had a hand in the government backing down on the fee hike attempt for colleges and schools eventually.

Mithan married in 1933, probably at age 35. Do you know anything about her husband Jamshed Lam’s feelings about her continued activism and legal activities?

I will let Mithan’s autobiography do the talking for this question. She describes Jamshed, a lawyer himself, as “a wonderful and loving husband” who “was proud of my achievements and helped to advance me in every way….I have been greatly lucky in my menfolk–a liberal father of very advanced views, a loving and generous husband, and a fine son of whom any parent would be very proud.”

How do you describe Mithan’s legacy for women in India? 

Mithan left behind an invaluable legacy for women in the legal profession and beyond. Demolishing patriarchal stereotypes of what a woman can and cannot achieve, particularly in traditionally male-dominated fields, was the cornerstone of her career.

While Mithan was a woman of many firsts, she did not work in silos but mentored scores of other women. Prominent among them was Violet Alva who was a law student at Government Law College, Bombay when Mithan was a professor there. Violet subsequently went on to become the Deputy Home Minister of India and the first female Deputy Chair of the Rajya Sabha (the Upper House of Parliament). Examining the life stories of trailblazing women like Mithan makes us realise that a lot of rights that we, as Indian women, enjoy today, such as the right to vote or work, were achieved on the back of the unwavering efforts of such pioneers.

Parinaz Madan

Parinaz Madan

As a solicitor in Bombay, you work hard as legal advisor at a prominent company, yet you make time for  pro bono work. Tell us about the pro bono organization you work with.  

In addition to the corporate law work I do, I am also a member of iProbonoIt is a global organization which connects lawyers with non-profits and social enterprises in need of pro bono legal assistance. Over the past few years of my association with iProbono, my work has involved advising schools, innovations labs, mental health professionals and organisations working for the underprivileged on a number of education, child rights, disabilities and medical laws in India.

Law is a very potent instrument for social change and I believe that in a developing country like India, especially, there is tremendous scope for lawyers to create systems and establish precedents from the ground up.

You’ve said that India has some of the strongest child abuse laws in the world, but these laws aren’t often exercised properly. Can you give an example of how this could be changed?

In 2019, the Economist Intelligence Unit published a report evaluating the response of sixty countries, across the development spectrum, to the scourge of child abuse. Interestingly, India ranked the highest amongst all the surveyed countries in terms of the strength of its legal framework for protecting children from sexual abuse and exploitation. However, awareness of these laws remains low and their implementation remains challenging, given the high rates of child abuse in the country.

Now, child abuse is a very pervasive and complex problem and its eradication needs resolute engagement from various stakeholders, both government and private. However, one of the ways in which organisations interacting with children (like schools, children’s shelters etc.) can mitigate child abuse is by developing effective child protection policies, as an article I’ve recently written demonstrates. Such policies typically contain a blend of preventive and remedial child protection measures. In the absence of such policies, organisations often deal with child abuse incidents arbitrarily and without regard to the law, causing grave prejudice to the interests of children under their care. Through iProbono, we assist various civil society organisations in drafting and implementing child protection policies, to foster a safe and child-friendly environment.

The pandemic has many people working from home. Do you see this is an opportune time for more persons with disabilities (PWDs) to have a chance to enter the Indian workforce? What are the factors that make it difficult for PWDs to work? Is there a national law in existence for enabling disability inclusion in the workplace?

The employment rates of PWDs in the Indian corporate sector are abysmally low barring, of course, a few outliers. A study published by the Business Standard in 2019 noted that PWDs constitute less than 0.5 per cent of employees in India’s top companies. In India, the Rights of PWDs Act, 2016 is a national-level legislation that requires companies to develop equal opportunity policies and create an accessible environment for their employees, but its implementation remains patchy.

Historically, taboos associated with disabilities and low literacy levels have kept a lot of PWDs out of the workforce. Social isolation and a lack of employment opportunities, posed by the Covid-19 crisis, have hit PWDs further.

But, some disability rights activists see a silver lining to this crisis: the pandemic has impelled companies to adopt remote working policies and technologies which certain groups of PWDs have long demanded as reasonable accommodations. Needless to say, it is imperative that such technologies are designed to be accessible to PWDs, to facilitate their meaningful participation in work.  In a 2020 piece I wrote for Business Standard, I’ve argued that there is a strong legal, business and moral case for disability inclusion in the Indian corporate sector, particularly in the light of the pandemic. I think the ILO’s Director-General summarizes the essence of this fittingly: “A disability-inclusive response means a better response for us all.”

Mithan Lam, A Powerful Advocate for India’s Women

Mankind – Whither Bound

This treatise, by Dasturji M N Dhalla, an eminent scholar, traces the history of mankind and the thought processes prevailing during each era and the path forward for mankind. This scholarly work has been acclaimed to be amongst the best of his writings. We bring this to you with the kind permission of Ms. Coomi Vevaina for the benefit of the community. Download it and read it at leisure for an enjoyable experience.

This is a 567 page book and will take some time to download – please be patient

Click Here to download Mankind – Whither Bound

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


Cyrus the Great and the Birth of the Achaemenid Persian Empire

With this video we start a series of programs and podcasts all dealing with ancient Persia and the beginnings of the Achaemenid Persian Empire of Cyrus II, better known to the world as Cyrus the Great. We’ll first take a quick look at the history of the region around the time when the first Iranian tribes entered the region, followed by the Medes and how they laid the groundwork for the rise of one of history’s greatest rulers, Cyrus the Great, founder of Persian Achaemenid Empire. We’ll also examine a good deal of the primary sources (such as the works of Herodotus, Babylonian chronicles, the Cyrus Cylinder, etc.) that help us to put together a better picture of who Cyrus was. You will not want to miss this episode!

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