Sunday, November 18, 2007

Struggling to keep the sacred flame aliveThe Parsi community

TOP STORIES Struggling to keep the sacred flame alive The Parsi community is known for its enterprise and philanthropy, but it is facing serious demographic problems. Rashmi Talwar recount the contributions of Amritsar-born Parsis, whose unflinching courage, dogged determination and the zeal to excel have earned them laurels in various fieldsParsis — Zoroastrians of Persian origin belonging to the region called Pars — have enriched India educationally, industrially, economically and culturally.
Tehmi Bhandari, the grand old lady of the Parsi community in the city, shares a close rapport with her granddaughter Shirin Tehmina Bhandari. — Photo by Rajiv Sharma
Parsis — Zoroastrians of Persian origin belonging to the region called Pars — have enriched India educationally, industrially, economically and culturally. Jamshedji Tata, the Godrejs, the Wadias, Dr Homi Bhabha, Zubin Mehta, Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw, Admiral Jal Cursetji, Air Marshal Engineer all are from this very distinguished community. Indira Gandhi married into the Parsi community and so did Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s daughter, Dina Wadia, as Sooni Taraporevala has mentioned in her book “The Zoroastrians of India”. But this very dynamic community has become today a “dying community”. The birth rate among the Parsis is very low. In the city, too, very few Parsis are left today. Zoroastrians or the sun worshippers (the Sacred Flame at the Fire Temple holds special significance for them), had fled from Persia (Iran) and arrived in the Holy City in the beginning of the last century. Today, their number has been reduced to such an extent that they are considered a “community that is fast shrinking”. There were a few Parsi families that came to Punjab and even fewer who made the Holy City their permanent home. However, they were still able to create a niche for themselves here as they did in many fields in the rest of India. Field Marshal Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Sam Maneckshaw, the first Field Marshal of India and hero of 1971 Indo-Pak war, and 99-year-old Tehmi Bhandari, are among the last Amritsar-born pure Parsis and they are not keeping good health. Age, too, is not on their side. Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw was born in Amritsar in 1914 to Dr H.F.S. Maneckshaw. Sam Maneckshaw, who had made Delhi his home, did his FA (second year) from Hindu Sabha College (Dr Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister, was also the alumnus of the college). As per the official records, Sam Maneckshaw joined the college on March 3, 1934, and left the institution in January 1935 to join the IMA. Earlier, he had schooling from the local PBN School. Though the date of birth of the Field Marshal is said to be April 3, 1914, the record of Hindu College mentions the date as October 28, 1916, that makes him 89 years old. The city hosted a memorable reception when the Field Marshal visited the historic Ram Bagh here after scripting history in the 1971 war. He also visited the “Sur Babu & Co” in Katra Ahluwalia, the chemist shop once owned by his father, who was a doctor. Octogenarian Om Parkash Sharma, a former assistant manager of “Sur Babu & Co”, who had worked for 25 years with the company, recalled that Dr Maneckshaw was a “man of word”. He said Dr Maneckshaw kept his word and disposed of his palatial bungalow on the Mall for Rs 1 lakh. Recalling the deal, Mr Sharma said that one Gheewala praised the bungalow of Dr Maneckshaw and sought to purchase it at any cost. Not knowing that Gheewala might be having the amount of Rs 1 lakh with him, Dr Maneckshaw offered to sell the bungalow to him. Though Baiji (wife of Dr Maneckshaw) got annoyed following the deal, Dr Maneckshaw told her that he had already given his word to Gheewala and he could not go back on his word. Not surprisingly, Dr Maneckshaw’s son, Field Marshal Maneckshaw, has had a special affection for the city. Once, late G.R. Sethi, a veteran journalist from Amritsar, went to the Army headquarters for a courtesy call without appointment. The staff of the Army Chief refused to entertain him. But on seeing the visiting card of the journalist from Amritsar the Field Marshal immediately came out of the room and accorded him a warm welcome. Another noted Parsi in the city has been Maneckshaw’s childhood friend Tehmi Bogga Bhandari. In a letter written on January 19, 1948, a few months after Partition, Lady Edwina Mountbatten, wife of the first Viceroy, Sir Edward Mountbatten, praised her for her relief work for Partition-ravaged refugees. Later she was invited by the lady to Shimla, says her daughter Rattan. In fact, Tehmi met the challenge of attending to the refugees during Partition in 1947. She stitched clothes for the refugees who arrived in Amritsar and were given shelter at the Govindgarh Fort and other camps. The cloth was provided by the government and the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC). “I worked with nearly 25 tailors at my residence in the cantonment and stitched clothes. I saw ‘kaflas’ of penniless and semi-clad refugees crossing over to Amritsar,” she says. Tehmi is a frail and quiet lady today. She will complete her 100 years in January 2006, and so far she has been abstaining from medicines, says her favourite granddaughter Shirin Tehmina Bhandari. Born in a rich, conservative Parsi family in 1906, Tehmi continues to live in the city, though her children are abroad. She was the second child in a family of five sisters and a brother. Her father, Adeshwar Bogga, was the owner of ice factories in Amritsar and Ludhiana. She had rebelled when it was unheard of a girl not conforming to social norms. She is a woman who has been much ahead of her times. Perhaps, she was the first woman to own and drive a car. She drove it herself for her sojourns to Lahore and back. Her uncle, Rustomjee Mulhaferot, always chaperoned and accompanied her and later bequeathed to her the sprawling mansion at the cantonment as he died issueless. Owning a Lincoln 12-cylinder car in the mid- 1930s, she used to drive in the open car to Lahore. She shopped at Anarkali, went for silent movies, and after coffee at Fallty’s Restaurant, which is still in Lahore, returned to Amritsar before the “forbidden hour”. She was lovingly called “guldasta” by her friends and admirers, among whom were writer Mulk Raj Anand, and Surjit Singh Majithia, who went on to become Deputy Defence Minister of India in 1958. While she was studying for her Masters in English at Khalsa College, Amritsar, she fell in love with a Hindu gentleman Padam Chand Bhandari and married him. He was an executive officer (EO) in the Improvement Trust. She says, “The famous ‘Bhandari Bridge’ was named after my husband in 1954. He had executed the marvellous vision of a multi-lane bridge, a modern concept of a flyover, which connected the walled city areas with the Civil Lines.” Ostracised by many, including family and friends, for a love marriage, and that, too, outside her community, Tehmi had to fend for herself and her family after her husband died when she was just 48. She had three daughters and a son to look after. Undeterred, she rose to the challenge and converted her palatial “red bougainvillea home” into a guesthouse with the help of an engineer D.D. Kaila. She became the first woman in these parts to run a business. To ward off unwanted attention, she took on a tough demeanour. She says she had to use “abusive” language so that she could protect her own self and her children. Four years after losing her first husband, she remarried at a time when remarriage of widows was unheard of. She married D.D. Kaila, an engineer, who provided the transport and conveyance service to her guest house. In 1962 during the Chinese aggression, the flow of tourists lessened and Tehmi’s business suffered. The 1965 Indo-Pak War, too, took its toll. She lost her second husband to a heart attack just before the Indo-Pak War of 1971. Family and friends urged her to move to a safer place, but she preferred to complete her swimming pool. The decade-long terrorism in the 1980s caused loss to her business. She struggled to maintain her guesthouse for more than ten long years. There’s yet another Parsi family in the city. This family of Keccki Kawasji has only one surviving member here, while their only daughter Shirin has migrated to the US. Baktwar Bhuller Khambatta, an international discus and shot put thrower, also a Parsi by birth, has been staying in the city for many years. She is in Amritsar by virtue of her posting here as a senior Railways officer married to Manjit Bhuller, an international hockey player. Interestingly, most of these Parsis can speak fluent Punjabi! Play of elements Strangely, in the city all Parsis have been following the practice of burying the dead, despite their religion forbidding the “defilement” of elements like fire and earth. Burial has been chosen over cremation as the Parsis are considered to be the sun or fire worshippers. Tehmi Bhandari has expressed her desire to be buried in the Parsi cemetery here after being cremated according to the Hindu rites. Her children have promised to carry out her last wish. Mini Bogga, a Parsi who lost her claim to the Parsi community by marrying a Canadian, has pledged to be buried here and has even prepared her gravestone. Survival versus success The 2001 Census reveals that the Parsi community in India collectively stands at 69,601 heads (33949 males and 35652 females) — down from 76,382 in 1991. According to the Delhi Parsi Anjuman, in 2003, the number of the recorded Parsi births in the city was two, while the number of deaths was eight. Worse, only 4.7 per cent Parsis fall in the 0-6 age bracket — to the national average of 15.9. The number of Parsis is reducing every year, it’s a “dying community”. Sooni Taraporevala, a scriptwriter and photographer, writes in her book “Zoroastrians of India: Parsis”, “By the year 2020, India will be with 1,200 million people, while Parsis will number 23,000 or 0.0002 per cent of the population.”


  1. strangely enough, amritsar is full of surprises has loads n loads of history...........
    very well written n a very interesting approach 2 such a humble n profound community.....again a very good input ...keep it up

  2. Thanks Rameesh for your avid support to writers who are often waylaid by odd pressures in life