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Linguistic Descriptions of Parsi Gujarati

To date, virtually nothing has been written in western languages about the Parsi dialect of Gujarati. Apart from its uniqueness as a living language, Parsis for centuries composed original works in Gujarati, and during the nineteenth century, as early adopters of the press, published literally thousands of books, pamphlets, newspapers, and journals. Yet though many of the informants of the early British grammarians of Gujarati were in fact Parsis, and many of the earliest Gujarati dictionaries were likewise edited by Parsis, by the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Parsi dialect of Gujarati was derided for being somehow less pure than the dialect which served as the model for the standardized language, that of the Nāgar Brahmans of Ahmedabad (on this subject, see Riho Isaka's 2002 article "Language and Dominance: The Debates over the Gujarati Language in the Late Nineteenth Century," South Asia 25: 1-19). In this respect, William St. Clair Tisdall's A Simplified Grammar of the Gujarati Language (1892) is remarkable as one of the only early grammars of Gujarati to include readings from Parsi publications. George A. Grierson's Linguistic Survey of India v. IX pt. 2 describes Parsi Gujarati on pp. 392-3 together with a translation of the "Parable of the Prodigal Son" (pdf). The most extensive description yet published is that of S. N. Gajendragadkar's 1974 Parsi-Gujarati: A Descriptive Analysis, which includes a fairly thorough phonemic analysis and short grammatical analysis. Unfortunately the researcher only made use of a very small sample of recorded conversations, which limits the usefulness of the work considerably. Yet the transcribed texts and the glossary at the end of the work are still of value to the student.

Survey Articles

Just as very little has been written describing Parsi Gujarati language, virtually nothing exists surveying Parsi Gujarati literature in western languages. With regard to works on Iranian Studies, Jamshid Cawasji Katrak's 1974 "Gujarati Literature on Iranology," Acta Iranica I, pp. 360-78, fills a gap but is far from exhaustive. My own appendix to Michael Stausberg & Yuhan S.-D. Vevaina's forthcoming Blackwell Companion to the Study of Zoroastrianism will hopefully be a first step in filling this gap, as will this website once it grows.

Parsi Prakāś

The most important reference work for the study of the Parsi community is the Parsi Prakāś (Parsi Luster). The work in its full form comprises ten volumes, the first of which was published in 1888 and which continued until 1973. The first two volumes, covering up to the year 1880, were edited by Khan Bahadur Mr. Bomanjee Byramjee Patel (Bamanji Behrāmji Paṭel). Volumes III - VII, covering until the year 1940, were edited by Rustam Barjorji Paymaster, and the final volumes, covering until the year 1962 were carried out by the Trustees of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet.

The first three volumes of the Parsi Prakash have recently been digitized. The remaining volumes can be found at the Meherjirana Library, the Cama Institute, and the Bombay Parsi Panchayat library.

Pārsi Prakāś is a vast work, running several thousand pages. Though an essential tool for historians of Zoroastrianism, its utility is limited in a few regards. Arranged chronologically, the PP is almost entirely drawn from contemporary newspaper clippings, and as such, its coverage of events is typically quite brief. Many entries are simply long lists of names of individuals who were present at certain events, contributed to certain subscriptions, etc. The editors seem to have judiciously avoided going into the details of controversial issues. Yet, the subjects of the PP are so diverse and the work is so excellently indexed that it serves as a most useful and quick guide to anyone seeking biographical information on a given figure. Especially useful are the obituaries, which are generally short biographies in and of themselves. Moreover, since so many of the newspaper sources of the PP are now extremely difficult if not impossible to access, the editors of the PP have done the scholarly world a tremendous favor by preserving what otherwise might be lost.

  • Read five excerpts from the Pārsi Prakāś in Lesson One of the Parsi Guajrati Reader.
  • Purchase the first three volumes of Pārsi Prakāś on DVD from the Humanities Computing Laboratory, thanks to Dr. Noshir Khambatta and Richard Kunst.
Bomanji Byramji Patel (1849-1908) and Rustamji Barjorji Paymaster (1870-1943), chief compilers of Pārsi Prakāś.

Pārsi Sāhityāno Itihās

Pārsi Sāhityāno Itihās (A History of Parsi Literature, Navsari, 1949), written by "Nośākarī Pilāṃ" (Piloo from Navsari), i.e., Pilāṃ Bhikāji Makāṭi is the most thorough and useful survey of Parsi printed literature in the broadest sense of the term. Though Makāṭi does devote much of her space to fiction, drama, and poetry, with her descriptions of religious tracts, histories, biographies, and scholarly works, the book surveys a large proportion of Parsi written material. Approximately 1200 pages in length, the Itihās is organized chronologically, surveying Parsi literature from the ancient religious books through Old Gujarati and the medieval period to the birth and growth of Parsi Gujarati print, with well-researched descriptions of authors' lives, lists of publications, plot summaries, etc. To the best of my knowledge, the work is unique in scope and deserves to be better known and has helped me navigate the lengthy catalogues of Navsari and Bombay on many an occasion.

Fehrests, Disāpothis and Vaṃśāvalis
Very often, when one reads a manuscript colophon, one comes across a number of names and places. But very often, key pieces are obscured or missing. How should one proceed? Luckily, there are a few resources to help pinpoint individual scribes. In addition to the known Zoroastrian works on colophons, another option is to look in Parsi reference books. Three genres of literature are particularly useful: fehrests, disāpothis, and vaṃśavaḷis. Fehrests are registers of priests who underwent the nāvar and marātib ceremonies. The largest and to date only published is the Fehrest of the Navsāri Vaḍi Dar-e Meher belonging to the Bhagarsāth panthak of Zoroastrian priests (Ervad Māhiyār Navroji Kutār, Navsārini Vaḍi Dar-e Meharmāṃ Thaylā Nāvaroni Fehrest. Muṃbai, 1929). Until the beginning of the 19th century, all Bhagarsāth priests underwent their nāvar and marātib rituals at the Vaḍi Dar-e Meher, and the fehrest, which lists the nāvars and marātibs between the years 1632 and 1929, contains the names and dates of close to 8,000 young priests. These entries often include not only the name of the boy undergoing, but his ancestors, the person paying for the ceremony, the priests performing the ceremony, etc., and are potentially very useful for elucidating a given name.

Just as the Fehrests list the dates on which young athornāns were initiated into the priesthood, Disāpothis list the dates on which members of various families and communities passed away so that the rituals which take place after death could be performed correctly. Most of these documents remain in manuscript form, but a useful example of the Desāi-Dastur family has been published by Dastur Dārābji Sohrābji Meherjirāṇā (Navsārināṃ Moṭā Dastur-Deśāi Khāndānoni Disāpothi, Muṃbai, 1932). More easily available are the vaṃśāvalis or family trees of various priestly and non-priestly lineages. The most extensive of these, that of the Navsari Bhagarsath priests, has been translated into English by Rustamji Jamaspji Dastoor Meherjirana (Genealogy of the Naosari Parsee Priests, Bombay, 1899), but many others have been published in Gujarati. The above image shows the family tree of the Bharucha panthak of Parsi priests (Ardesar Sorābji Dastur Kāmdinnā, Bharucnā Dastur Khāndānnī Vaṃśāvali, Muṃbai, 1878).

Sir Jivanji Jamshedji Modi published fairly extensively on the Fehrests and Disāpothis. His articles are available in PDF format below.
  • "The Historical Importance of the Parsee Fihrests" In Oriental Studies in Honour of Cursetji Erachji Pavry, 1933, pp. 303-304. (pdf)
  • "A Vahi or Register of the Dead of Some of the Parsees of Broach and a Parsee Martyr Mentioned in It." In Anthropological Papers 5, 1934, pp. 1-16 (pdf)
  • "The Disa-Pothi (Family Death-Register) Among the Parsis." In Oriental Conference Papers, Bombay, 1932, pp. 228-251. (pdf)

Pārsi Maratyuk

It has almost become a trope to describe a morbid penchant for reading the obituaries in the Jām-e Jamśed among contemporary Parsis. Yet, as already noted above, obituaries are often one of the most useful sources of biographical information available to us for 19th and early 20th century figures. Bomanjee Byramjee Patel, the indefatigable compiler of the Parsi Prakāś, apparently was quick to realize the value of the obituary, and published three volumes (Pārsi Maratyuk, Muṃbai, 1887-1915) devoted exclusively to obituaries printed in Bombay newspapers beginning in 1799 and continuing until 1890. These volumes, which are basically supplements to Pārsi Prakāś, contain the full obituaries rather than simply extracts. For important figures, several obituaries from the various Bombay papers are given. Like all of Paṭel's works, it is excellently indexed.

Pārsi Dharmasthaḷo

Another of Bomanjee Byramjee Patel's reference volumes must still be mentioned here. In addition to obituaries, Patel also published a volume entirely devoted to Parsi religious buildings and structures (Pārsi Dharmasthaḷo, Muṃbai, 1906). The work collects information related to fire temples, dakhmas, sagḍis, ārāmgāhs, etc., often presenting useful information about the endowments of these structures, the trusts by which they are managed, they way in which they were constructed, and the inscriptions found in the structure (typically in Persian verse). As a source of information about these structures, the work is of great importance for understanding the development of Zoroastrian religious practice alongside burgeoning charitable endowments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Gujarāti Patrakāritvano Itihās

Until his recent passing at the age of 100, Dr. Ratan Rustamji Marshall was considered the doyen of Parsi Gujarati literary history. Marshall's most lasting contribution was his history of Gujarati journalism,
Gujarāti Patrakāritvano Itihās. First published in Surat in 1950 (reprinted with a new preface by Marshall, 2005), Marshall's Itihās outlines the development of the Gujarati newspaper industry from the beginnings to the first issue of the Muṃbai Samācār in 1822 to the developments of the mid-20th century. Marshall explores the connection between developments in the Indian press and Indian nationalism. Thoroughly researched, with references and citations to now virtually impossible-to-locate papers, Marshall's work belongs on the bookshelf of all those who work on the Parsi and Gujarati-speaking communities in the 19th and 20th centuries.
  • For a recent tribute to Marshall's work, see the write-up on Urviś Koṭhāri's Gujarati World blog.