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ANCIENT IRANIAN RELIGIONS: ZOROASTRAIN

The Life and Times of Manekji Limji Hataria

The Fight for Zoroastrian Civil Rights in Iran


  

By: Dr. Rashna Writer

Contemporary Zoroastrians: An Unstructured Nation,

(University Press of America, Lanham MD 1994), pp. 41-47

 

 

Manikchi-limji-hataria.jpg (98601 bytes)

   Zoroastrian scholar and civil activist Manekji Limji Hataria (1813-1819)

(Click to enlarge)

 

There can be no doubt of the severe hardships suffered by the Zoroastrians of Iran from the inception of Islamic rule in that country. Even though there was the most limited contact between the Zoroastrians of Iran and India (the exchange of treatises between 1478 and 1768; and Dastur Jamasp-i Vilayati of Kerman’s visit to Surat in 1720), once the Parsis began to flourish in British India they turned their attention to their kinsmen in Iran. One particular event which served as catalyst was the marriage of the beautiful Iranian Zoroastrian lady, Gulistan, to the Parsi, Framji Bhikaji Panday.

 

Gulistan’s reminiscences of the suffering of her people in Iran , inspired her husband Framji to aid `with body, mind and money’ those Zoroastrians who came to Bombay from Iran , and it is said that he earned the title `the father of the Irani Parsis’. Their eldest son Burjor, started a fund to assist Irani Zoroastrian refugees, and in 1854 another son, Mehrwan, started a fund for such assistance which came in turn to be referred to as the Society for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Zoroastrians in Persia (henceforth Amelioration Society). Manekji Limji Hataria was the first and the most outstanding emissary the Amelioration Society sent to Persia in 1854 to assess and report back to Bombay on the condition of the Persian Zoroastrians. This event opened another chapter in Zoroastrian history, one which testifies to the determination of these peoples to overcome odds through mutual assistance, with those better off within the community coming to the help of their less fortunate kinsmen.

 

Manekji laboured on behalf of the Iranian Zoroastrians until his death in 1890. He notified the Amelioration Society in Bombay of the Zoroastrian population of Iran in 1854: Yazd and its surroundings had a total of 6,658; Kerman had 450, and in Tehran there were 50 Zoroastrians. A few families in Shiraz were noted. The severe reduction in numbers of Zoroastrians in Kerman was traced to the Afghan invasion of 1719.

 

Manekji applied himself to the religious and socio-political needs of his Persian kinsmen. Their conditions of misery and poverty must have astonished him, coming as he did from the affluent Indian stronghold of Zoroastrianism in Bombay . He undertook the repair of the Atash Bahram building in Yazd in 1855; in 1857 the Atash Bahram at Kerman was rebuilt, through the agency of Hataria and the `…help of the charitable gift of those endowed with liberality, the community of the Zoroastrians of India, who are of the race of the ancient Persians of Iran, by the agency and efforts of the behdin of lauded conduct, Manekji, son of the late blessed Limji Hushang Hataria of India, by race a Persian’. In addition, hataria had repaired the village adurans at Qanat-ghesan near Kerman , and Khorramshah outside Yazd . He also had new dakhmas built at Yazd and Kerman and at Sharifabad by 1864, and in 1865, a small dakhma at Qanat –ghesan. The upholding of religious traditions was thereby boosted by these efforts which were funded by the Amelioration Society of Bombay.

 

Social impediments upon the Zoroastrian community received Manekji’s attentions too. In addition to negotiations with the ambassadors of Britain , France and Russia to bring pressure to bear on the Qajar Court for the improvement of the community’s socio-economic conditions, Hataria continued a dialogue with the religious authorities, stressing the Islamic concept of justice in the hope of softening attitudes towards the beleaguered Zoroastrians. Thus, how could the Muslims justify their disrespect of Zoroastrian temples and dakhmas, their insolent and demeaning behaviour toward the Zoroastrian, which was itself often encouraged by leaders of the Muslim community in the town or village? Manekji condemned the continuing practice of the abduction of Zoroastrian girls who were then forcibly converted and married to Muslim men and thus lost forever to their families. Not unexpectedly, there was no reversal of policy on any of the several instances of persecution brought to the attention of the clerics. They held to the position that Islamic laws were not being infringed by the Muslim community.

 

Manekji Limji Hataria is immortalised in modern Zoroastrian history as the prime instigator for the removal of the hated jizya or poll tax. All `unbelievers’ of non-Muslims were required to pay it. Hataria discerned at an early stage that it was payment of the jizya which was the single most severe restriction put upon the Zoroastrian population of Iran , which had in turn become the instrument of their oppression. The capitation tax on the community was 667 tomans levied annually, according to imperial orders. The tax collectors would add an amount, arbitrarily, for their commission, and the subsequent final demand placed upon the poverty-stricken Zoroastrians would often be in the region of 2,000 tomans. Karaka informs us that some one thousand adult Zoroastrians had been assessed for the payment of the tax. Of these:

200 were able to bear the burden without difficulty, 400 paid it with great inconvenience, while the rest were unable to do so at all, even at the point of the sword. …Upon the annual collection of the tax the scenes presented at the homes of those unable to pay it were terrible to witness. Some, to save themselves from torture, and as the last resource, gave up their religion and embraced the faith of Mohammed, when they were relieved from the payment of the tax. Others, who would not violate their conscience, abandoned their homes to escape the exactions of the tax-gatherer. These determined individuals, even when they escaped, had always to leave their wives and children behind them. Ground down by poverty, it is not strange that they were unable to pay the smallest tax.

 

While negotiating for the removal of the jizya, over a period of 25 years, the managers of the Amelioration Society in Bombay contributed Rs.109,564 in assistance towards payment of the poll-tax for the poorest of the Iranian Zoroastrians.

 

It is not surprising therefore, that Hataria’s main preoccupation in his illustrious career in Iran was to achieve the complete abolition of the jizya for the Zoroastrian community. This proved to be no easy undertaking. The negotiations for the lifting of the tax lasted from 1857 to 1882 when, in the autumn of that year, it was finally abolished. Hataria and the influential Parsi backers of the Amelioration Society in Bombay brought their influence to bear on the British who, in turn, were prepared to urge the Shah to review the case for the Zoroastrians in his land. Hataria was duly presented to the ruler of Iran under the auspices of the British Ambassador in Tehran , Major-General Sir Henry Rawlinson, when the subject was introduced. An immediate reduction in amount of tax payable was achieved, namely, the sum of 100 tomans, for a total claim for that year of 920 tomans, the joint annual contribution of Yazd and Kerman . When `His Persian Majesty’ visited England in 1873, a deputation of Parsis, led by Dadabhai Naoroji and supported by Sir Henry Rawlinson and Mr E.B. Eastwick, MP, approached him with a petition to abolish the jizya `by way of a propitiatory offering designed to ward off evil from his most royal person’.

 

The Parsis continued to press their case to Tehran , through the good offices of the British Government. Karaka set out the grievances brought to the notice of the Shah were:

…that the Persian Zoroastrians were liable to forcible conversion; that property belonging to a Zoroastrian family was confiscated wholesale for the use and benefit of individual proselytes, notwithstanding the existence of prior claims of lawful heirs; that property newly purchased was liable to be taxed for the benefit of the mullahs to the extent of a fifth of its value; that new houses were forbidden to be erected and old ones to be repaired; that persons of the Zoroastrian persuasion were not allowed the use of new or white clothes; that they were prevented from riding on horseback; and that such of them as were engaged in trade were subjected to extortionate demands under pretence of enforcing government custom dues…

 

Finally, on 27 September 1882, the royal firman decreeing the immediate abolition of the jizya was received by the Amelioration Society in Bombay . It read:

…The Zoroastrians, residing at Yazd and Kerman, who are the descendants of the ancient population and nobles of Persia, and whose peace and comfort it is our Royal desire now to render more complete than heretofore.

Therefore, by the issue of this Royal firman, we order and command that the same taxes, assessments, revenues, and all other Government imposts, trading dues etc. which are taken from our Mahommedan subjects residing in the towns and villages of Yazd and Kerman, shall be taken in like manner from the Zoroastrians who also reside there, and nothing more nor less…

The present and future Governors of these provinces are to consider the claim for the payment of this tribute as now surrendered forever.

 

This then was Manekji Limji Hataria’s single greatest achievement. Having paid the jizya for over a millennia, the removal of this unequal tax on the Zoroastrians meant that they could now, theoretically, join in the wealth creation of their land for the first time since the seventh century.

 

Although it had made abolition of the jizya a prime objective, the Amelioration Society had worked simultaneously on other fronts to improve the lot of their co-religionists in Iran . From 1857, schools began to be established for the education of Zoroastrian children. An annual contribution of Rs. 600 went towards maintaining schools in 11 villages in the Yazd and Kerman provinces. Further funds from individual Parsis, for example, Rs. 500 per annum from the trustees of the Nasarvanji Mancherji Cama fund, an undisclosed amount from Palanji Patel, etc. resulted in the opening of a boarding school in 1866.

 

The reason for opening a Zoroastrian boarding-school in Tehran was that `the fierce bigotry of the Mullahs’ prevented similar institutions being opened in Yazd and Kerman ’. It waas thought that the population of Tehran was more tolerant of the Zoroastrians, and the city mullahs less powerful than those in the provinces. While the initial student intake was small, `every one of the boys educated there has contributed largely to the welfare of the community in later years’. The education received by the youth was to help their economic advancement in the years to come. Indeed, in those early decades of Zoroastrian education, sons of poor parents, having acquired a basic knowledge of `reading, writing and arithmetic’, were able to help change the living conditions of their families.

 

It was the emphasis on education with which the Amelioration society, under Hataria’s stewardship, was to `ameliorate’ in the true sense of the term, the condition of Iran ’s Zoroastrians. Education had been for bidden them and the vast majority were consequently illiterate. Hataria’s accomplishment therefore, in establishing boys’ schools in both Yazd and Kerman by 1857 – only three years after his arrival in Iran – was no mean achievement, in the face of considerable resentment among local Muslims who considered it an irrelevance to educate the gabr. By 1882, there were 12 Zoroastrian schools in Iran : in Tehran , Kerman , Yazd and its villages. Two of the first teachers in Tehran were Parsis, who had come at Hataria’s behest to assist their Iranian co-religionists. The education was a modern secular one, and some of the pupils taught by Parsi teachers in the Tehran school returned to Yazd and Kerman to teach there in their turn. Schools continued to be set up in the Zoroastrian villages so that, by the first decade of the twentieth century, universal literacy among Zoroastrian men had been achieved.

 

Arbab Keikhosrow Jehanyan started a school for 100 girls in Yazd , having set aside a substantial amount in trust for its maintenance. Thereafter, a school was opened in Kerman , and yet another in Tehran . Indeed, the Muslims of Tehran appeared impressed by the education provided for Zoroastrian girls in the capital: and among the higher echelons of their society there was an eagerness to allow their daughters to attend the Zoroastrian girls’ school. In fact, by 1930, the Tehran girls’ school had an intake of 152 girls, of whom 101 were Zoroastrians. The Zoroastrian students received a free education, while the Muslim girls were required to pay fees ranging from Rs.3 to Rs.12 per month. As Ardeshir Reporter informs us, it was the Zoroastrians of Tehran who contributed a `voluntary tax’ which went towards the maintenance of their school.

 

The Amelioration society was equally aware of the danger of abduction of young Zoroastrian women by Muslims, and therefore, set aside an amount of money whereby orphan girls of marriageable age were `settled in life’. In this manner, upwards of 100 girls were given in marriage to Zoroastrian men, with the Society bearing the expenditure for the marriages.

 

Yet another of Hataria’s achievements was the `opening-up’ of Tehran to Zoroastrians. When he arrived in Iran in 1854, the number of Zoroastrians in the capital was 50. Others came for seasonal work. In addition to building the school, Manekji also built a dakhma in Tehran , and established a guest-house or mehman-khaneh so that `behdins who come there in flight from other places may stay there to work’. The gradual change in attitudes of the Muslims of Tehran towards the Zoroastrians meant that, over time, larger numbers moved from the provinces to the main city.

 

Manekji Limji Hataria’s mission in Iran had been a remarkable achievement by any standard. To a casual observer it would appear as thought this great and tireless man had single-handedly achieved the removal of obstacles from the life or Iranian Zoroastrians. In large measure this is in fact true. Nevertheless, influential Parsis in India and Britain had persisted in pressurizing the Iranian authorities on behalf of their co-religionists, and individual Parsis too had continued to contribute to the Amelioration Society in assisting its work among Persian Zoroastrians. The close co-operation between the more affluent Indian Zoroastrians and their depressed Iranian brethren is a remarkable chapter in the immensely long history of the Zoroastrians.

 

 

Notes:

 

Boyce, Mary, “The Fire-Temples of Kerman ”, Acta Orientalia XXX (1966).

Ibid,  “Manekji Limji Hataria in Iran ”, in K.R. Cama Oriental Institute Golden Jubilee Volume, ( Bombay 1969).

Hataria, M.L., Ishar-i siyahat-i Iran , ( Bombay 1865) in Gujarati.

Karaka, D. F., History of the Parsis, vol. I  (Macmillan & Co., London 1884).

Reporter, Ardeshir, “The Educational Movement Among The Zoroastrians of Iran ”, Iran League Quarterly, April-July 1930, vol. I, Nos. 1-2.

 

 

Glossary

atash aduran        sacred fire of the second grade

atash bahram       sacred fire of the highest grade

behdin                 `(of the) good religion’, i.e. a Zoroastrian

dakhma                place of exposure for the dead, a `tower of silence’

jizya                     head tax on non-Muslims

 

 

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