From India to Persia – Parsi Development Aid and the Rise of Persia’s Zoroastrian Community (1853-1925)

Zoroastrianism became the state religion of Persia during the Sasanian Empire (224-651). But at least since the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550-330 BCE) and up to the Arab conquest of Persia in 651, Zoroastrianism constituted the religion of the majority of the Persian population. At least from the 10th century onwards, the Zoroastrians or Zartoshtian had begun migrating to north-western India. The Zoroastrian priests of India and Persia were in some contact since the 15th century, but more intense relationships emerged during British rule. In India, Parsis were the first modern capitalist class and industrial entrepreneurs. They were one of the first advocates of “westernization” and among the wealthiest and most educated Indians in the 19th century. In contrast, by the mid-19th century, Persian Zoroastrians were living in abject poverty and as a marginalized minority. It was by no accident that in 1853, some Parsis of Bombay established “The Society for the Betterment of the Living Conditions of Zoroastrians”.
On the basis of so far untapped primary sources, the following research questions will be touched upon: What was the legal position and social status of Persian Zoroastrians compared to their Muslim country-people? What did the economic activities of Zoroastrians consist of? What was the population size of Zoroastrians living in Persia and what kind of occupations did they follow? What kind of commercial activities did they pursue and what do we learn about the merchant community in general and individual Zoroastrian merchants in particular? What were the consequences of Zoroastrian flows of migration on the socio-economic structure of Persia between 1853 and 1925? Why did Indian Parsi interests in Persia suddenly flower in the 1850s? What are the reasons behind the second revival of Parsi interest in Persia in the 1920s? And how did the Parsis legitimize their initiatives? Who were the “Parsi enthusiasts” of the 1920s traveling to Persia or supporting the cause of Persian Zoroastrians from abroad? What kind of institutions did the Indian Parsis help to work, develop and sponsor? How did the Persian Zoroastrians benefit from these activities? Did Parsi patronage also have any wider impact on the late 19th and early 20th century socio-economic structure of Persian society?

Kaveh Yazdani
International Institute of Social History