Matheran Memory: History of Parsis in India

The long shadows of the evening and morning is not the only time when trees of Matheran provide shade to the seeking souls. The abundance of trees, their tall stature and ever-branching canopy casts spell binding shades even in noon and afternoon. The absence of vehicular traffic means no hindrance of any kind to the eye and ear and no holding of hands for kids. That sets Matheran as a perfect place to take never-ending walks without any time or destination restrictions, even with kids.

Bungalow in Matheran

Matheran was discovered by Hugh Malet in 1850 and it was thus mainly a British town; only 16 out of its first 64 applicants for property were non Europeans. Thirty years on and by the 1880, many Indian businessman, specially Parsis bought holiday homes in Matheran. The town became majorly Parsi; Europeans owned as few as just 14 out of 190 private houses in Matheran. It further attracted many more Parsis from Bombay but today only a few reside here.

As we wander along wherever the road takes us, letting ourselves walk under the shade of big trees, we stumble upon gem after gem of old bungalows. Some are completely left to the elements to be devoured, others in the hand of caretakers in the semi-ruined state, many locked out but looking better and then the smartest of the lot have been converted to the hotels and resorts.

A bungalow with twin stairs, Matheran

The twin staircase leading to a door, now enforced by rusty metal sheet, stop our wandering feet. Children climb to these steps happily to explore the past. I immediately go in a brooding state. I imagine a young Parsi couple, the wife in an exquisite Gara Saree and the husband in a white kurta and skull-cap, climbing up this staircase in a joyful teasing manner to reach the house. They exchange appreciative glances at each other. They have been preparing for the Navroz festival for many days. They have been praying for their departed ones in the Agiarys, the fire temples. Yesterday has been observed as the day of repentance, reflecting on their thoughts, words and deeds in the past year to begin the new year fresh. The house has been cleaned and now decorated with rose and jasmine garlands adorning the house and rangoli at the entrance. Get-together with friends and family is a very important part of the celebration and guests start arriving on their horses and Baggis, the couple greets them by sprinkling rose-water and rice and lead them to the dining hall.

Bungalow in Matheran

Inside, the aroma of food being cooked on the occasion of Navroz fills the house. Sev, Dhansak and other rice and meat dishes are laid out on the table. Dishes like the Khichdi and Dhansak are typically Indian preparations with lentils and rice but have been given a meaty twist to make it their own. The flavor of the dishes has been achieved with minimal usage of spices to make it akin to Caucasian cuisine but there is no missing of the strong Indian influence.

Gates of another Bungalow, Matheran

Navroj, otherwise spelled as Nowruz, is the name of the Iranian New Year, also known as the Persian New Year. Nowruz marks the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. It usually occurs on March 21 or the previous/following day, depending on where it is observed.

Although having Iranian and religious Zoroastrian origins, it has been celebrated for over 3,000 years in Western Asia, Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Black Sea Basin and the Balkans. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran was the only country that officially observed the ceremonies of Nowruz. When the Caucasian and Central Asian countries gained independence from the Soviets, they also declared Nowruz as a national holiday. It is a secular holiday for most celebrants that is enjoyed by people of several different faiths, but till date it remains a holy day for Zoroastrians.

Another abandoned Bungalow, Matheran

Walking along the festivities of Nuwroz, my mind wanders to the farthest past of Iran when Zoroastrianism was the prevailing religion. In 549 BC, Cyrus the great established the second dynasty in Iran after defeating the Medes dynasty. As Cyrus expanded his territory, Zoroastrianism reached to the learned ears of Greek historians like Herodotus and Aristotle.

Mary Boyce in her book “Zoroastrians, Their Religious Beliefs and Practices” writes that
“Although there are no inscriptions left from the time of Cyrus about his religion, the fire-altars found at Pasargadae, as well as the fact that he called his daughter Atossa, name of the queen of Vishtaspa (Zoroaster’s royal patron), suggests that he indeed may have been a Zoroastrian….However, it is clear that by the time of Darius the Great (549 BC– 485/486 BC), the empire was clearly in favour of Zoroastrianism.
Darius declares in one of his inscriptions that:
“A great God is Ahuramazda, who created this earth, who created yonder sky, who created man, who created happiness for man, who made Darius king, one king over many, one lord over many.”

The Sassanid dynasty (224-651 AD) was the first Persian empire which declared Zoroastrianism as the state religion and promoted the religion more than ever. It is believed that Avesta, the Zoroastrian sacred text, was first compiled during this time.

Nowruz was celebrated with great fervor during Achaemenid empire. There is a detailed account by Xenophon of a Nowruz celebration taking place in Persepolis. It was an important day during the time of the Achaemenids, where kings from different nations under the Achaemenid Empire used to bring gifts to the King of Kings of Iran.

A British Bungalow, Matheran

The Muslim conquered Persia in 651 AD ending the Sassanian empire. This led to the continuous persecution of Zoroastrians in Iran and the religion suffered a huge decline. However Nuwroz survived in the Iranian society even after its conversion to Islam and it continues to be celebrated till this day.

Many Zoroastrian fled from Iran to escape this persecution and arrived at Sanjan, Gujrat in India at either 716 AD or 936 AD where they were given shelter by the Hindu king Jadi Rana. The “Qissa-i Sanjan” is the only book that tells about their voyage and early days in India in great detail. From there, they gradually spread to many parts of Gujarat.

Another Bungalow, Matheran

Dorabji Nanabhoy is considered to be the first Parsi to move to Bombay in 1640, where he worked as a manager for Portuguese. As the British took control of Bombay with the establishment of the East India Company, many Parsis migrated to Bombay for the good business opportunities. There they earned handsomely and when Matheran was growing, they bought properties in Matheran.

Tiles at the entrance welcoming the guests, Matheran

As we move ahead, house after house takes us more and more into the time that was. A small yet elegant house, now the Panchayat House of Bombay Parsis, has intricate mosaic arrangements in the verandah, welcoming people into the house. Its wrought iron window allows us a peep into the past.

A beautiful Bungalow, Matheran

The mother is hurrying her son and daughter for Nahan, the sacred bath, to get ready for their Navjot, the initiation ceremony. She has readied the mixture of coconut, pomegranate, raisins and almonds to be showered on children.


The Navjote, or initiation into the religion, has to take place now that her children are above seven years of age. It is the first time that her children will wear the “armour of the religion”: the Sudrah (shirt) and Kusti, which they will wear every day for the rest of their life.
The Sudrah (shirt) is made of white Muslin cotton, white being a symbol of spotlessness and purity to remind the wearer that his/her deeds must be as pure and spotless as the sacred shirt they are wearing. The Sudrah is made up of two pieces of cloth sewn together on the sides; the two parts, the back and the front symbolic of the past and future, both related to each other through the present. In the front, over the chest is a small pocket called the pocket of righteousness. It is the symbolic collection place for the wearer’s good words, good thoughts and good deeds.

The Kusti, the sacred cord is made of seventy-two threads of lambswool. It will be entwined thrice around the waist of her children, again symbolically reminding the wearer of the holy triad of good words, thoughts and deeds. Once they will wear the Kushti, the untying and retying will always be accompanied by the Kusti prayers, facing the direction of a source of light: the sun, the moon or a lamp. Along with the Sudrah, the Kusti is the ‘badge’ of all believers, male or female, rich or poor, priest or layman.

I imagine them walking out into the woods to reach a place where the ceremony will be conducted by the priest in presence of sacred fire.

Yet another inviting house, Matheran

The huge grounds of Bungalows must have been once the playground for children, squealing in hide and seek, and shouting to scare the monkeys away. Every track leads to some stunning view-point, where many lovers must have felt the beating of heart in unison.

Many marriages must have been held in these expanses with elaborate customs and rituals. The white colour of the bride and grooms costume must have looked elegant and pure in these luxurious greens. I wonder how many mango trees, treated as a symbol of fertility, must have been planted in Matheran, following the “Mandav-Saro” ritual of their wedding ceremonies. The trees must have sown the seeds for many other trees, but the Parsi population did not increase as wished for.

Another Bungalow, is completely taken over by the monkey population and the elements, about to collapse and die anytime. The dead in the Parsi community are taken to the tower of silence, where vultures devour them and the remaining parts are slid into a chamber filled with charcoal, thereby returning everything to the elements again. But this death of these glorious Bungalows in Matheran is uncalled for.


Next day, when we venture out for various view points, we meet some Parsi elders, wearing spotless white kurta -pyajama and the Parsi skull-cap.

Parsi Elders walking hands-in-hand, Matheran

This community has made India their homeland in true sense and has immensely contributed to the enrichment and progress of the country.

I wish that their past will be preserved, for it is the past for all of us.

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