Parsee families of Calicut

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Some of the prominent families

In the 19th century and until the 21st, there were several Parsi merchant families resident in Calicut. I had written about them briefly some years ago, but it needed some revisions and improvement.  Raghu Karnad covered them briefly in his lovely book, ‘Farthest Field’, but details the Mugaseth’s, to some extent. So, let’s go back and check on some of the families and their contributions to the colorful cultural fabric of Calicut. Marshall in one of his interviews mentions their influx in the early parts of the 19th century and a number close to 200-300 at its peak. However, one could assume that the Persian merchants mentioned in many travelers’ records well before that could have been the Zoroastrians among or with the Gujaratis. Let's take a look at some of them.

The Hirjees (Hirji)

The Hirjees seem to be one of the earliest Parsi settlers (probably 1780-90 based on their recorded visit to Tellicherry)- If you look at my article on Edward Lear’s visit to the heaven of Malabar - Calicut, he mentions - Went out and bought twelve tins of soup and meat at Hirjee's. So that is how they started, a shop selling European import goods and fancy stuff for the British consumption - Hirjees were famous for their aerated waters factory and their ‘recuperative elixir’ soda shop as Logan mentions in Malabar Manual, and they used the water from the Mananchira tank. One of the later Hirjees, Bommi became a statesman, as advisor to the J&K governor. Some like Hirji Visram Sait became money lenders running firms such as Rayasi Amerchand. Fali Hirjee the Osho man hailed from Calicut; his father Pesi Hirjee had substantial property near Chevayur. Pesi moved to Bombay in the 40’s and became a prominent figure there, controlling Tata stocks and owning a football team, a shipyard in Sewri, etc (FH’s story can be read in the book Allah to Zen – by Osho)

We can perhaps conclude that the original trader mentioned by Lear is Maneckji Hirjee. Maneckjee Hirjee, is mentioned as one who rose to become the Prime Minister of the Raja of Coorg (Upon further study, I think it was a Parsi merchant Darabshah Kharshedji or Daraset a.k.a Darashetty and that Maneckji assisted him) before Coorg was annexed by the British. He was apparently murdered by the locals for having assisted the British just before the war with Coorg, and his son, Nowrojee Hirjee, then an infant, who had lost his inheritance by the war, was brought up by the British (pension of Rs 300/ p.m.) and continued trade at Calicut. 

His son Hirjee Noworjee Hirjee, educated at the Christian Brothers' School and the Government School at Calicut, moved to Burma, initially setting up a brokerage and an import/export firm, later studying to become a lawyer in Mandalay. Another Hirjee, perhaps his brother or cousin who helped run the soda water business at Calicut finds mention in Burma chronicles, and his son Mr Maneckji Nowrojee Hirjee having moved to Burma after education at Calicut to become an Advocate, likewise at Mandalay after running a sawmill and contracting.

We can see mentions of a Hirjee Akbar Ally Mayabelli and Co., in trade journals suggesting another prominent timber merchant of Calicut, and also a Nanabhai Hirjee who died in 1916.

The Hirjee in Coorg

I mentioned the Coorg set up by the British some months ago and the connection of Calicut’s Karunakara Menon with it. Interestingly, as mentioned above, Maneckji Hirjee was involved with it,  and S Muthiah mentions it in one of his articles. He surmises that they came on a visit in 1790 and some of them settled in Madras – Quoting Muthiah - Heerjibhai Maneckji Kharas was accompanied by five other Parsis and two priests. It is likely that their decision to settle in Madras was not pre-planned but taken after arrival. They bought a plot in Royapuram, opposite the Catholic Church.

The Lewis Rice Gazetteer mentions however that - Linga Raja sent a deputation to Madras, consisting of Ayya Ponnappa, Muttanna, and Hirji, a Parsi, who had to deliver to the Governor a picture of the late Vira Rajendra. The present was graciously received, the deputation dismissed with suitable gifts, and a letter written to Linga Raja.

The Maneckjis and Mugaseths

D. Maneckji &Co., General Merchants and Commission Agents, Calicut, was founded in 1855 by Dhanjibhai Manecekji Mugaseth, son of Sorabji (Sorabji was born dumb – thus the name Muga Seth). He also worked as the Dubash (translator) for Pierce Leslie Calicut. Later, his elder sons joined him in business, Jehangir D. Mugaseth and Manek. D. Mugaseth. Their firm was the leading export merchant doing extensive business in coir, yarn, ginger, timber, and other local produce. They imported piece goods and hardware from Europe and supplied them wholesale to the merchants of the West Coast. The firm then took up the Wynand Coffee plantations, then the steam launch traffic between Beypore and Calicut until the railway line was opened. As building contractors, the firm undertook the execution of many contracts for the PWD and Military in Malabar and was a fuel supplier for several years to the old Madras Railway Company. As I had written earlier, Dhanjibhoy and later Khobad were involved in setting up the Cosmopolitan club, the first steam-powered sawmill, and even a camel ‘goods’ caravan to Wynad, which did not fare well.

Maneck D. Mugaseth left to serve as the Assistant Manager to the Sivaganga (in Ramnad) Zamindar, where he remained till his death in 1918. The eldest son, Mr. Jahangir D. Mugaseth, started a business of his own in Trichur under the name Mugaseth and Sons. He married Mithibai, the daughter of Muncherji Cowasji Murzban.

The youngest son, Mr. Khodadad. D. Mugaseth, thus became the sole proprietor of the firm. Over time, they dealt with the export of coir yarn, timber, copra, and ginger. Besides the export business, they manufactured fish oil, guano, and coir ropes and held agencies for the Standard Life Insurance Company, the Royal Insurance Company, and the South British Insurance Company.  The Calicut Tile Company and The Calicut Ropery were set up by them. Khobadad opened an ice factory (3rd in India and first in the Madras presidency) at Calicut in 1906, and the distribution of free ice (with Eaton of USA) all day long on inauguration day was well publicized in newspapers.

Khodadad’s son Bobby is featured in Raghu Karnad’s book, as the protagonist and his daughter Subur went on to marry Dr Parthsarathy and Nargis to K Ganapathy (Girish Karnad married their daughter, Saraswathy, Raghu’s mom) as CHF and Jessica explain.

CHF introduced Dr Kobad (Kaekobad) Mugaseth, in a lovely article, and according to Darius Marshall, Dr Kobad Mugaseth was among the most respected medical practitioners of Calicut and his treatment of a choking elephant was a story dutifully recounted to each succeeding generation in Calicut. He traveled to the Andamans to inspect the resettled Moplah settlements there, wrote a memorandum about it, and later received an MBE in 1927.

The Temple at SM Street

The Mugaseth family was involved in purchasing and donating land in SM street for the Parsi Anjuman’s extension and provided ample financial support for the fire temple. Dhanjibhoy Mugaseth acquired the land and donated it to the Anjuman where an Armagh is located. The Parsi graveyard sheltered by trees shows that the earliest tomb dates to 1860, so the entire complex should have been built around the 1855-60 time frame, just after his own arrival. The building is complete with a priest’s room and traveler’s accommodation.

The Burjorjis & Bhumgaras

The Bhumgara’s starting with Meherwanjee Bhumgara were well-established coir traders of Calicut. However, the situation with respect to family life and marrying out of the community, which the Parsees abhorred, was the reason part of this family split away and vanished from Calicut. They were none other than the Burjorjis who later rose to fame in Burma.

Fali Nariman, the great jurist, and Supreme Court advocate talks about his Calicut origins linking to the above. My mother’s family (the Burjorjees) hailed from Burma (now the Union of Myanmar). My father, Sam Nariman, came to Rangoon from Bombay (now Mumbai) in the year 1927 to establish a branch office of New India Assurance Co. Ltd. Here he met and fell in love with my mother, Banoo Burjorjee (16 years younger than him). They married early in 1928, setting up home in Rangoon, where my father was posted as the company’s branch manager. As to how my mother’s ancestors first came to Burma is a story of adventure. Since the early nineteenth century, my great-great-grandfather, from my mother’s side, had settled down with his family in Calicut (Kozhikode) on the west coast of India. Before the year 1865 (when the first Indian Succession Act was passed), Parsi Zoroastrians living in India – like all other religious communities – were not enjoined to be monogamous. But when my mother’s ancestor in Calicut decided to marry again, during the lifetime of his first wife, it was his sons (the Burjorjees of the second generation) who rebelled, and in protest they left home, setting out in a sailing boat, not knowing where they would land. Three months later, after much privation, they found themselves at the mouth of the Irrawaddy. Sailing up the river, they landed in the port of Rangoon. There they made good. Burma was ruled at that time by King Theebaw. The Burjorjee brothers soon ingratiated themselves with the ruler and even got to run the king’s postal service for him!

The ancestor could very well be Edulji Merwanji Bhumgara, the well-established coir trader of Calicut, who later went back to Surat. The two sons, the Burjorjee’s of Burma did very well as advocates. Interestingly, the Burjorjees were the first Parsis to arrive in Burma. The Coverjees came later. The earliest Parsis seem to have arrived during the reign of King Thibaw (1878-85). The Burjorji brothers of Calicut were put in charge of the postal system by Thibaw, the last king of Burma.

With the British annexation in 1885-6, other parsees joined them as rice brokers, bankers, insurance men, and employees of the Singer Manufacturing Company, not to mention doctors, lawyers, and investors in the teak and early oil industries of Burma. Burma was a place where one could rise from rags to riches overnight. Many came as rice surveyors; Burma became the world’s leading rice exporter under British rule.

The Cooverjees

Cooverjee Ardeshir Dalal, ran the Cooverjee Ardeshir Co., a firm of General Merchants and Commission Agents, which was established in 1873 at Calicut. He began his business by importing salt, cotton twist, and grains from Bombay and exported timber and coconuts to Bombay, Gujarat, and Kathiawar. In 1900, Cooverjee started exporting Rosewood and Malabar Timber to Germany and England. Cooverjee Ardeshir was the son of the late Ardeshir Rustomji A. Dalal, a big merchant at Broach, where the former was born in 1853. Having matriculated in the University of Bombay, he apprenticed himself to his uncle, Darashau Rustomji Dalal of Bombay. Cooverjee Ardeshir worked with two of his four sons in this business, Pestonjee Cooverjee and Rusturmjee Cooverjee.

Malabarwalas and Malabari’s

I am not quite sure if Ardesir Merwanjee Malabarwalla was a merchant or a general contractor at Calicut, but his daughter Ruttonbai, who married Rustom Framjee Malabarwalla, a businessman quite famous during the 40’s in Bombay, has Cannanore origins. According to the bio of Ruttonbai who

studied medicine at Grant Medical College, Bombay, she became the first lady doctor of Bombay, which may not be quite factual. The Parsi record states- His second marriage was with his cousin Dr. Ruttonbai Rustomji Malabarwala who was Bombay’s first lady Doctor, first public lecturer and first contributor to the Parsi Journals. Was born in 1857, educated at Convent School at Calicut. She started life in Bombay as English teacher, latterly she was the head assistant Mistress of the Alexandra Girls School. She joined the Medical College in 1891 through the persuasion of late S. S. Bengali. She had a brilliant career at the Medical College and passed her final examination with distinction and credit. She had a lucrative practice at Bombay and amongst the princes.

Clark’s visit to Calicut

Life continued and in 1952, we can read a very interesting case involving them. Thomas D Clark, an American scholar professor, and people’s historian (subject – Kentucky) visited India, ‘an ancient land in the grip of history’ as he put it. He states that his visit to Calicut proved to be the most demanding, a town with distinctive character, a center for shipping legal and illegal products abroad (!). He stayed in a coconut thatched hotel (Beach Hotel?). It was here that he visited a textile factory. (I presume it was the Malabar spinning mills or the Wadia’s Calicut spinning mills). He continues - The audience was nearly all Parsees. The manager was a bright, dark-skinned Hindu who had miraculously survived a horrendous incident in which angry communists captured all the company officials save him and had them thrown into a roaring furnace. The rather arrogant Parsee women took me for a merry intellectual ride over the race problem in the United States. The Hindu manager eventually broke into the discussion and went around asking the women if they would marry a Negro man. They answered unanimously in the negative. The manager then turned to the women and yelled ‘then shut up’. They did.

Parsis in Tellicherry, Trichur, Alleppey, Coimbatore

The Parsee Prakash of 1888 mentions - Since the excursion of Tippu in Malabar in the year 1788, a Parsee by the name of Hirjee arrived between the year 1791 & 1792 at Tellicherry for trading purposes and occupied a piece of land of "Pimole Malá or called at present "Parsee Kunnu." He after a few years residence there, built a Parsee church thereon. The place is situated at about 4 miles interior southeast of Tellicherry. In the year 1797 one Bomanjee visited Tellicherry and caused another fresh church to be built in a place very close to the "Maylam Kunnu" or old Maylam battery at his own cost at about 600 Rs. After the said Bomanjee one Rustomjee had the charge of the church and the burial ground, In the year 1804 one Burjorjee had been in Tellicherry who was great and renowned merchant. Darasha was the last man who had the possession of the last-mentioned church and burial ground.

At Cannanore, the Ali Raja gifted Parsi’s some land – the same Parsee Prakash mentions - Seal of Sultan Alli Rajah of Cannanore, Sunnad granted to the Parsee Community residing at Cannanore. That the Piece of land called "Kottoroolla parambá" situated at Moyathadam village measuring east to west by 135 Carpenters Koles and north to south by 400 Carpenters Koles being the jenam property of Arakel and assessed at Rupees 5 ½ -40 reas in the name of Parsee Merwanjee (Jeejibhoy Khuras,) with the Bungalow situated therein, having been now assigned and relinquished by Merwanjee to you (the Parsee Community) for the burial and other ceremonies of your caste people, do hereby grant you for the same purpose and the Jummeer's or proprietor's share and Negidi (tax) due to Pendaram is hereby remitted to you until you hold and enjoy the said land as above determined.—(29th October 1865)

The Gazetteer adds - As a result of the introduction of the system of grant-in-aid for enlisting private effort in the educational field, the Basel Mission started on March 1, 1856, at Tellicherry the School known as the Basel German Mission English School with 74 students and it is the nucleus of the present Basel Mission Parsi High School, Tellicherry, It may be mentioned that this was the first English School to be opened in North Malabar. In 1858 a philanthropic Parsi gentleman, Kaikosru Darshaw of Mysore, donated a sum of Rs. 1,500 towards the erection of a schoolhouse and in recognition of this the name 'Parsi’ was subsequently added to the name of the school.

Merwanjee Jeejeebhoy joined the British Expedition during the war with Tippu Sultan. After the war, he settled down at Cannanore and traded there, owned many properties, and amassed a large fortune, but later suffered heavy losses. Malabarwala, Rustomji Framji, his son was born at Cannanore, in 1859, did well in business at Bombay, and married the aforesaid Ruttonbai of Calicut, at Bombay.

Pestanji Phirozshah Balsara, the Kadmi high priest, sent Darabshah Kharshedji as his agent to Tellicherry in 1787 to trade with the ruler of Coorg, and on Dadabhai's death in 1799, he traded on his own in the south. Jeejeebhoy Dadabhoy the affluent Bombay businessman and banker is also mentioned as a major investor in many estates, mills, and plantations in Malabar.

There were a few families in Alleppey, Trichur, and neighboring Coimbatore as well and one Mistry Khan Sahib is also mentioned at Cannanore during the late 1870’s. An interesting 1853 British record goes thus - The military and other residents at and about Cannanore are much indebted to Messrs. Bhimjee Dhinjee, Sons, and Co., for the extensive and well-conducted establishment they have opened there. In their stores, almost every variety of article is kept, from a paper of pins to a hogshead of beer, or real mountain dew from the Highlands of Scotland. We had some of Bass's bottled even at that early hour, in fine condition, and much we relished it. The tall genteel-looking Parsee, who performed the office of waiter, handed the glass on his outstretched palm, in a style our English table attendants would find it difficult to come up to.

The Marshalls

It was business that took Darius’ grandfather, Jamshedji, like nearly 300 Parsi families from Gujarat to Kozhikode in the early 20th century (father from Baruch, mother from Karachi). He engaged in the coir and timber trade initially and ventured into others later. It was his son and Darius’ father Feroz who set up the first vehicle spare parts shop in the Malabar region, in Kozhikode in 1920. He also founded Auto Moto, the workshop near Customs Road, which Darius Phiroze took over and managed. Coffee tea, petrol pumps, timer, plywood, coir, and Wynad estates, were all areas the Marshalls ventured into.

Feroz Marshall founded the Rotary Club in Kozhikode. Later, his son Darius founded the Rotary Club of Kozhikode Beach and spearheaded the Rotary Club’s rehabilitation efforts when an earthquake hit Gujarat. Zarir Marshal, Darius’s younger brother did Aeronautical Engg at Madras, joined the DRDO, and retired in Hyderabad. Darius was the managing trustee of Parsi Anjuman Baug till his death. He was known as the ‘car doctor’. For, he could identify problems of any car just from the sound of the engine. The Marshalls were the only remaining Parsi family in Kozhikode, Darius passed away recently. He is survived by his wife Katie Marshall, sons Subin and Farzan, and daughter Nasneen Gasdar

Dalals and Wadias 

There were so many others, I could not track down the Dasturs, and the Wadias but did find some sparse mentions.  Khan Bahadur Kunwarji Ardeshir Dalal with a contract to supply Bhang and Ganja to Bombay for many years and later made their mark in the Malabar trade. Ardeshir Dalal established his firm at Calicut in 1876, dealing mainly in salt and yarn. The hand spinning and weaving industry at Malabar was encouraged (investments?)  by him. He started and continued rosewood export. Sardar Adarjce Mancherjee Dalai and his younger brother, Ratanjee Mancherjee Dalal- shipping manganates, established a branch office in Calicut and Nowroji Nusserwanji Wadia of Bombay Dying opened under his banner a textile mill in Calicut, among many others. Dhanjishaw Ardeshir Bhrucha was an engineer at the Malabar Cotton Mills during 1900-1905.


We can see from English Factory records that there were some Parsee carpenter families in Calicut during 1898, who were petitioned against, by one Mr Bailie. Hodgson the judge and magistrate at Calicut took up the case. The six carpenters were later provided bail security by Mr Thomas Baber and were released. We see in 1899 that a Parsee was murdered, and his store was plundered by some Chirakkal Moplahs who bolted with the stolen rice (Shamanth Pattar reported this, to the EIC Tellicherry).

Anyway, the community slowly dispersed, and moved on to larger cities and towns. Darius mentions in one of his interviews that many Parsee entrepreneurs of the 20th century left Calicut after problems with the communists, who launched Attimari demands.

Many of the Parsi families of Calicut thus left for Burma, and Mumbai or headed back to Gujarat in due course as business incomes declined and land ceilings were imposed. Several of their children were born in Calicut and a few parents died at Calicut, with over 160 burials in the Anjuman. Some died fighting for the country, like Booby Godrej Mugaseth. Many of their offspring are spread over the globe, perhaps this small writeup will help them get an idea of the land which gave their forefathers a foothold in business and life. Without a doubt, they were a bright spot in the history of Calicut.

Parsee Prakash Vol 1 BB Patell
Highlights of Parsi History – P Balsara
Who’s Who in India, Burma, and Ceylon (1939)
Das Kurgland und die evangelische Mission in Kurg - H. Mögling, Hermann Mögling, Theodor Weitbrecht
Memoirs of a Spanner: My story - Air Cmde K Sanjeevan
Before Memory Fades: An Autobiography - Fali S. Nariman
Parsi Lustre On Indian Soil – Darukhanwala
Memoranda Submitted to The Indian Statutory Commission" – Dr Mugaseth
Encyclopedia Of The Madras Presidency And The Adjacent States – VL Sastri 1921
Farthest Field – An Indian Story of the Second World War – Raghu Karnad

Personnel photos – Who’s who & Madras encyclopedia, Parsi Temple photo courtesy Deccan Chronicle Devika Sreekumar