Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Bombay and the Parsees


Group of Parsee children in Bombay, India
The Parsees, proudly claiming the title of Behendic, Followers of the True Faith, while their Mohammedan persecutors styled them Guebers, or Infidels, arrived on the west­ern coast of Hindostan about one thousand years ago, fugitives from Moslem rage and fanaticism in their native land of Persia. It was an opportune time, when Buddhism was giving way before Brahminism, which latter religion, fourteen hundred years before, had been almost rooted out of the land by the faith it was in turn displacing, at least, in Hindostan, and was ultimately to destroy. But modern Brahminism was a religion of a very different complexion to that brought from the Bactrian plains by the pure Aryan race, as expounded in their Vedas—those books, perhaps the very oldest in the world--older not only than Ho­mer, but than the events which he sings, com­piled almost as long ago as the Exodus, and many of its hymns written while the Israelites were still in bondage on the banks of the Nile. The Rig-Veda plainly asserts, according to a learned Hindu commentator, that "there are only three deities: Surya (the Sun), in heaven; Indra, in the sky; and Agni (Fire), on the earth." Light, in its various manifestations, was the object of that early worship. Bright-haired and golden-handed, the Sun is the giver of abundance; his ray is called "life-bestow­ing; coming from afar, he is said to remove all sins, and to have power to chase away sickness from the heart, and disease from the body. Golden-haired Agni, however - as light, heat, and fire - called forth the best affections of the Aryan as of the Persian. Indra was a deity of strictly Hindu, or rather Indian origin - a personification of the firmament with its brill­iant, countless stars.

The close affinity between the believers in the Vedas and the exiled fire-worshipers of the Zoroastrean creed is apparent. Both believed that the Sun and Fire were the visible representatives of an incomprehensible Supreme; for Zoroaster taught, as did the Vedas, that the finite mind of man could not grasp the idea of an Infinite, and that the life-giving Sun and all-pervading, all-consuming Fire, were the best types of the Eternal. Thus we read in the Yajur-Veda, translated by Colebrook, the Oriental scholar:

"Fire is That: the Sun is That:
The air, the moon, such too is that pure Brahm....
He prior to whom nothing was born,
And who became all beings."

In all the Vedas the Supreme is spoken of as That, never as He - personal in his phenomenal creatures, impersonal in himself. Such was the essence of the Sun-worship, or rather the worship of light, alike in its orb and its phe­nomena, which the Aryans brought with them from their home-land beyond the mountains, but which was subsequently degraded and de­filed by admixture with the idol-worship of the non-Aryan races, with whom they mingled on the plains and hills of India.

During the many centuries that elapsed between the composition of the Vedas and the arrival of the fu­gitive Persians at Surat, the almost pure Theism of the Vedas had been corrupted into the idolatrous Brah­minism of the present day; and yet the proof exists even now, that in all that time a thin stream of un­adulterated Vedic worship had flow­ed down through the mass of cor­ruption, and at all times there were to be found Brahmins of the Brah­mins, who, instructed in the ancient hymns of the Vedas, and the Code of Menu, believed in the one and followed the commands of the other. The number of such could never have been very large, for to hold the pure Aryan faith it was needful to possess a knowledge of the Aryan tongue, and, for three thousand years, Sanscrit has been a dead lan­guage. It is probable, nay, almost certain, that it was through the in­fluence of some of these learned Brahmins that the Persians (Par-sees) were made welcome in Hindu­stan, as a people abominating idols, and believing in the Sun and in Fire.

Parsee converts to Christianity in Bombay
One only condition was demand­ed as the price of the freest liberty to exercise their own peculiar re­ligion - that they should never slay nor eat the flesh of a cow. The pledge thus given has been most faithfully kept; indeed, in the lapse of centuries, the cow has come to be regarded by the Parsees in a light as sacred as by the Hindus, perhaps even more so. Although the cow is the only sacred animal of the Hin­dus reverenced by the Parsees, for they pay no special regard to the monkey or the other animal divinities of their neighbors, they are the protectors of the whole animal kingdom, dogs and pigeons being their most esteemed proteges. Bombay is the paradise of both the bird and the quadruped. At certain hours of the day, at feeding-time, it is almost impossible to walk or drive through the streets without treading on several of these birds, rendered fearless by long-continued immunity from harm. On the green, as the open space in the center of the fort is par excellence styled, the intensely bright sky is clouded by the countless blue wings swooping down for their food. Statis­ticians have frequently demonstrated the enor­mous waste of human food that occurs daily on this one spot. Enough, they assert, to feed a whole village of human paupers; but the Parsees persist in their whim, for it has nothing to do with their religion, in spite of the pleadings of -political economy. If there be some poet­ical feeling at the bottom of their love for their  pigeons, which, we may say here, are the same species as our own wild-pigeon, there can be no tittle of such sentiment about the dogs that infest the city. Nowhere else in the world can be seen such specimens of the genus canis. The dogs of Pera and Constantinople are sleek thoroughbreds compared with the pygees of Bombay. During daylight they are hidden away in holes and sewers, but an hour after sunset they sally out in search of companion­ship and food, and make night hideous with their yelping and growling. The jackals of Calcutta are sufficiently irritating to susceptible nerves, but their noise is music itself by the side of the Parsees' four-legged friends.

There are very stringent laws in force against interfering with these animals, and one of the most serious riots that ever took place in Bom­bay had its origin in the slaying of one or more dogs by some English sailors. The Parsee population worked themselves up into a furious state of excitement, attacking with sticks and stones every European that showed himself, until the authorities were obliged to call out the military, and an English regiment was marched into the fort, from their barracks on the adjoin­ing island of Coolaba. The riot occurred in the month of May, the hottest season of the year, and several of the soldiers were killed by coup de soled in their short march of a mile and a quarter. The disturbance was eventually quell­ed, but not without further loss of life. This occurred twenty-five years ago, and the dogs have been since unmolested.

The Parsees are in gen­eral a law-abiding race, but there are a considera­ble number of scallawags among them, and a Parsee rowdy is a perfect Eastern prototype of a Bowery boy, and is equally ready for a free fight.

That vivacious travel­er and acute observer, Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke, says of the Parsees: "Tra­ding as they do in every city between Galle and As­trakhan, but everywhere attached to the English rule, they bear to us (the English) the relative posi­tion that the Greeks occu­py toward Russia.”

Pagoda at Malabar Hill near Bombay
This is very exactly true; at the same time it must be observed that the fire-worshipers have the ad­vantage of character for mercantile honesty and fair dealing, as compared with the Greeks of the Russian Empire. No body of men stand higher in mercantile credit than do the Parsee merchants of India. They are sharp, shrewd traders, with a spice of the Down-Easter, but, like the Yan­kee, however close at a bargain, they are scrupulous in fulfilling a contract once entered upon. Much of both the foreign and do­mestic trade of Bombay is controlled by Parsees, whose names may not ap­pear as merchants in the local directory, but who, in the capacity of brokers to British and foreign firms, exercise an almost un­bounded influence over the commerce of the country. Some of these men are extremely wealthy, and live in princely style. They are fond of handsome equipages, and are good judges of horse-flesh. Seldom or never seen in public with their wives, they appear proud of their children, on whom they lavish the most expensive jewelry and dresses. Very little is known of the domestic lives of Parsees or other natives by the English in In­dia, for there is neither communion nor sympathy between the Anglo-Indian and the peo­ple of the country. In business, whether between man and man, or the governed and the governors, they may meet frequently, but there is no society common to both which has any other object than business. The Anglo-In­dian merchant who trusts his most important business arrangements to his native banker or broker, and who for years has seen that trust­ed agent every day of the week at his office, very possibly does not know whether the man has one wife or half a dozen, and is wholly ignorant of the sentiments of that individual upon any other subject than dry-goods, bills of exchange, and kindred matters of mercantile existence.

What of Parsee life is apparent on the sur­face amounts to this: that a well-to-do Par­see, who drives a handsome turn-out in which he may seat his male friends, always keeps an equally handsome carriage for the female mem­bers of his family and their feminine acquaint­ances; that if the male Parsee has his coun­try house, in which to entertain his friends, the wife has her villa for her own special pleasure. When not sufficiently wealthy to have a villa of his own, a Parsee clubs with several others of the same standing in point of wealth, and together they rent a house, to which the mem­bers retire after the labors of the day, and spend hours in social and very noisy intercourse. On certain days these country places are given up to the wives and families of the members, who enjoy themselves in much the same fashion as their lords and masters. When thus occupied, the house and grounds are exempt as Sorosis from male intrusion, excepting always the servants. Parsees, both male and female, are, if current belief on such a subject is worth any thing, heavy feeders, and use the juice of the grape in no stinted measure.

Parsee children are frequently very hand­some - seldom, however, retaining their good looks beyond the years of maturity. The wo­men have for the most part good features, spoiled, in a great many instances, by an ex­tremely sensual mouth and chin. They are all, however, credited with strict virtue of life; at any rate no lapse ever reaches the ear of the outside world; and it is a fact that a Parsee prostitute is as unheard of as a Parsee beggar.

Hill of Kanheri, India
The Parsee is distinguished among Orientals by a peculiarly shaped head-dress of dark spot­ted muslin - the priests alone wearing a white covering to the head. The Parsee is the only known religion in which fasting and celibacy are not considered as meritorious; on the contrary, Zoroaster expressly forbade them. Priests cannot officiate unless they are married. They take an easy, philosophical view of life and death, believing in the resurrection, a final judgment, and a future state of rewards and punishments; but they evidently do not hold that the resurrection is to be made in the ac­tual body which the soul has worn in this life, but in an etherealized form of it, or, as St. Paul says, a "spiritual" body. Their reverence fol­lows the soul and not the flesh; and hence the corpse is disregarded by the survivors, having been abandoned by its own life or spiritual ten­ant. The dead bodies of the Parsees are not consumed by fire, according to the custom of the Hindus, nor interred according to the prac­tice of the Mohammedans, Christians, and Chi­nese. They hold burial, cremation, or the con­fiding of the ashes or corpse to the waters, to be a sacrilege against the elements; and they have cemeteries situated at a distance from any inhabited spot, such as the one on Malabar Hill at Bombay, whither the corpses are conveyed and exposed on iron gratings, where they are soon devoured by vultures, kites, and other car­nivorous birds, that are forever hovering over these "Halls of Silence."

We have no statistics to refer to for the num­ber of converts to Christianity from the ranks of Parsees, but from what we personally know we are constrained to believe that they are very few. Some years ago there was a good deal of excitement in Bombay over the conversion of a somewhat prominent member of the Parsee community. The excitement was not unmix­ed with indignation, when it came to be whis­pered about that the anticipated price of the conversion was a handsome white wife. The missionaries strenuously denied any such bar­gain; but there were some very suspicious cir­cumstances in the case which certainly justified the strong belief in its truth on the part of the non-religious community. The man had al­ready a Parsee wife, whom he put away on ac­count of her idolatry, as he alleged, and who sued him in the Supreme Court for alimony. In deciding the case, the presiding judge took occasion to intimate that, if a second marriage had taken place on any such pretense, the Chris­tian could certainly be prosecuted for bigamy, although a heathen might have as many wives as he pleased. After this "heavy blow and great discouragement" nothing was ever heard of the Parsee convert.

Parsee man of Bombay
Without entering on the vexed question of the evangelization of the peoples of India, it may be said that it is very difficult to convince either Parsecs or Hindus that the religion of the debauched and roistering British sailors and soldiers is very superior to the religion that controls the lives of such men as the late Cur­setjee Cowasjee, of Calcutta, and Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, of Bombay. Few men have ever died leaving behind them a brighter record of humane and charitable deeds than the last-named venerable Parsee, who, for his virtues, public spirit, and patriotism, had the unques­tioned honor of being the first heathen raised to the dignity of an English baronet. Sir Jam­setjee was the head of a mercantile firm largely interested in the China trade, by which he ac­cumulated an immense fortune, and which he spent in works of benevolence and public utili­ty. Among many other works he built and en­dowed two large hospitals, and constructed at his own sole expense a magnificent causeway, uniting the island of Bombay with that of Sal­sette. At the time of the Crimean War he contributed so largely to the fund for the relief of the suffering British soldiery that Queen Victoria conferred on him the title and rank of a knight, and subsequently the higher dig­nity of a baronet, which rank descends to his heirs male. There was in this case a curi­ous difficulty, arising from the Parsee nomen­clature. Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy's eldest son, who would inherit the title, would not, accord­ing to his national custom, be called Jejeebhoy, as the first name, or, as we style it, the given name, of a father is that retained by the son. Thus, the Baronet's eldest son was called Cur­setje Jamsetjee, and his son again might have any other prefix to Cursetjee; so that the pat­ronymic would be entirely lost in the third generation. This would have made endless confusion in the Herald's Office of England, so a clause in the patent of creation conferred the name of Jejeebhoy, as well as the title of baron­et, on the descendants of the first knight.

It has been said that the fugitive Persians first landed in Surat, a sea-port on the Gulf of Catch, where many of their descendants still reside, and where in their principal temple the fire originally brought flaming from Persia has never been extinguished. For more than one thousand years the same dim, mysterious light has flickered up toward the heavens, certainly no unfit emblem of immortality and eternity. But as Bombay has long outstripped Surat in commercial importance, the principal Parsee families have fixed their residence in Bombay, although they all profess to regard Surat as more peculiarly their home. It is perhaps on this account that, wealthy and liberal as many of the Parsees are, no place of worship has ever been built by them in Bombay at all commensurate with the means at their disposal and the ostentatious display of their wealth in other respects. Indeed Bombay is not re­markable for the religious edifice of any creed. There are one or two pagodas on the island possessing considerable architectural beauty, the principal of which is represented in our en­graving ; but travelers in search of the beautiful and the marvelous, although they have to quit the island of Bombay proper, have not far to go to obtain a surfeit of both. The celebrated caves of Elephanta, and the grottoes of Kanheri, not so famous perhaps, but equally interesting, are both within a two hours journey from Bombay Green. Bombay itself is an island situated on the western coast of Hindostan, in the six­teenth parallel of latitude. It is connected southward with the smaller island of Coolaba by a fine stone causeway, and to the larger isl­and of Salsette on the north by a similar structure.  Elephanta is also an island in the spacious and safe harbor which bears the name of the principal city. It is distant seven miles from the fort, and is easily approached by the native boats which ply for hire at the benders, or wharves. A pleasant row of an hour or so will bring the visitor to the beautiful island. Ascending the path leading upward through the narrow valley that separates the two long hills which constitute the island, and keeping to the left along the bend of the hill, suddenly he will find himself in an open space, and be­fore him the entrance to a rock-hewn temple, whose huge columns seem to support the whole mountain that rises above. Brush-wood and wild shrubs crown the brow of the scarped face of the prophyry-like rock; beneath extends the facade of the temple 130 feet long, with its massive pillars and pilasters, leaving three wide openings or vistas, through which the eye seeks to penetrate the gloomy grandeur of the in­terior. The temple fronts the north, so that the sun gives but little help; and though there are two side-fronts identical in form with the main one (but approached by different paths), still the light within is considerably more dim than religious. Lighting a torch, the visitor passes in and onward beneath the flat, far-spreading roof, and between the rows of pillars, whose cushion-like capitals seem pressed down by the weight of the mountain; until, passing gigantic figures sculptured in high relief on the side-walls, he at length reaches the back of the cave, and beholds in a recess a colossal figure, three heads on one bust, representing the god Siva. In other sculptures on the walls appear another four-faced god - said by the Hindu guide, but erroneously, to be Brahma, riding on a swan - the elephant-headed Ganesa, and a company of nymphs or celestial choristers. But the presiding deity is Siva, the god alike of destruction and reproduction, and incidents of his life are sculptured around. In one group he appears in a hermaphrodite form, with one breast, and holding a trident; in an­other he appears as the destroyer, and wearing a necklace of human skulls, with the venomous serpent the cobra, or hooded snake, before him, and brandishing a sword in one of his four hands, while the victim of his wrath lies crushed before him. The symbols appear in one of the side apartments, and serve as still further proof that this great cave temple was the work of a people devoted to the Siva-wor­ship. It is polytheistic Hinduism with Siva in the ascendant.

Elephanta is probably the oldest of the cave temples of India, and so numerous are these that not less than forty distinct groups of them are to be found, comprehending about a thou­sand individual specimens. All these rock structures are connected with one or other of the religions of India - Buddhist, Jain, or Brahminical - but four-fifths of them are not tem­ples, but viharas, or monasteries, for the once numerous priesthood of Buddha. As Gotama, the founder of Buddhism, lived in the sixth century before Christ, few of these cave struc­tures can lay claim to any great antiquity. Those at Kanheri, given in our engravings, are generally credited to the second century of the Christian era.

The grottoes of Kanheri are not so easy of access as the caves of Elephanta. The visitor leaves Bombay by railroad; and, if he has had good advice, he will have made arrangements for ponies, or a palkie-gharrie, to meet him at Bhan­doop, a station seven miles from the caves. Even then the journey is by no means a very pleas­ant one, for the path lies through a dense jungle. After passing through this, precipitous rocks are seen covering the hill-sides; and in these precipices are excavations, for the most part rising in stories above one another, connected by flights of steps cut in the face of the rock. These viharas consist of a central hall, sup­ported by from four to twenty, or even more, pillars, with small cells all around it for the priests, and a sanctuary containing an image of Buddha. Here occurs the curious spectacle of a rock-hewn temple in the exact form of a Christian church, but with two colossal statues of Buddha on either side of the portico.  And it is pleasing to note that Art went with the Buddhist monk into his rock halls, in some of which the fresco paintings on the walls remain fresh as the day they were limned, represent­ing the manners and customs of India fifteen or sixteen hundred years ago. Not at Kanheri, but in some of the older rock halls, not only the walls and roofs, but even the pillars, are wholly covered with stucco, and ornamented with painting. On the walls are extensive compositions of figures and landscapes; on pil­lars, single detached figures, representing either Buddha or Buddhist saints ; while the paintings on the roof are almost invariably architectural frets and scrolls, often of extreme beauty and elegance, rivaling many of those at Pompeii and the Baths of Titus.

No eye regards these pleasant frescos now. This frailest of the arts has here seen a whole religion pass away before it, like a scroll, from the land of its birth. Priests and worshipers have alike departed. Buddha himself is a for­gotten name in India, although once he was adored from the Himalayas to Ceylon. These rock temples have long survived the worship which inspired their constructors, and promise to outlast even Hinduism itself.

Originally published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in December of 1870.
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