History revisited

The little-known history of how Zoroastrian merchants helped create the old Silk Route

The Zoroastrian-Chinese connection is at least 1,200 years older than we think. Probably even more.

China’s designs to build a massive network of land and sea links connecting four continents have revived popular interest in the old Silk Route, whose success was in small part owed to Zoroastrian merchants carrying goods from China across Central Asia and, often, all the way to Europe.

A recent article in the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post talked about how Zoroastrian merchants had been trading with China in the 12th century – and possibly even earlier. Records of fire temples in Chinese cities along the Silk Route have apparently been found in official records dating back to the 12th century and, from these, historians have pieced together the fact that Chinese emperors had encouraged Zoroastrian merchants to come and trade in the country and, in order to attract them, they allowed them to build their own fire temples to worship in. The ancient Chinese even had their own special name for the Zoroastrian religion: Ao Jiao.

This is fascinating, because the history of enterprising Parsi merchants in the China Seas from the 18th century onwards is well known, but the idea that the Zoroastrian-Chinese connection goes back at least six centuries earlier is less recognised. Unfortunately, the South China Morning Post story doesn’t give much more detail on the subject, so we have to turn to other sources.

Chinese historical texts tell us that the first official contact between China and Po-ssu – the ancient Chinese name for Persia – was as far back as the 2nd century BCE, when the Qin ruler sent an envoy to seek an alliance. But it was during the 5th century CE that regular diplomatic relations were formed between the Sassanid emperors, who led the Zoroastrian revival in Persia, and the Six Dynasties of China. Embassies were exchanged, and this led to a flourishing of trade, overland along the Silk Route.

The most important Chinese commodity was, of course, silk, and Zoroastrian merchants were the middlemen who carried it along the Silk Route across Central Asia. In addition, this westward flow of trade included paper, rice wine, camphor, perfumes and drugs. The eastward flow, meanwhile, comprised Persian carpets, textiles, furniture, leather, pearls and gourmet delicacies, as well as Persian music and dance forms. The exchange of trade thus, as always, led ultimately, to an exchange of ideas.

The ruins of a Chinese watchtower along the Silk Route. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under Creative Commons by 2.0]
The ruins of a Chinese watchtower along the Silk Route. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under Creative Commons by 2.0]

Branded Sassanid products

It was a sophisticated system: Both the Sassanid and Chinese empires realised that they benefited from the trade and cooperated in policing the trade routes to protect caravans from bandits. Private entrepreneurs were organised into merchant companies, and archeological evidence shows that the Sassanid merchants pioneered an ingenious system of branding their products to indicate their quality.

Large quantities of Sassanid Persian coins have been discovered in China – not only along the Silk Route, but in central Chinese cities, thus indicating the extent of Zoroastrian contact. These coins date from the rule of Shapur II (4th century CE) to the last Sassanid emperor, Yazdegird III (7th century CE). In time, the overland Silk Route was supplemented by a sea route via Ceylon, and Persian ships carried cargoes to China and back. There are reports of Persian merchants having settled in ports like Caton and Hanoi, which are supported by discoveries of more Sassanid coins along the southern coast.

In 651 CE, however, Yazdegird III was defeated by the Arabs, and his family sought refuge with the T’ang emperor of China. A community of Zoroastrians accompanied them, and flourished for a century or so. But then in the 9th century CE Emperor Wuzong began his purge of Buddhism and, as a result of his bigotry, Zoroastrianism in China, too, went into decline, until all mention of it in Chinese texts finally disappeared.

However, Zoroastrians from Persia continued to trade with China until at least the 12th century CE, as we can tell from the Chinese records of their fire temples. They may have continued even after that, though it is not certain.

Flash forward to the 1750s

From here we must flash forward six hundred years to the 1750s. By then, of course, a community of Zoroastrians – the Parsis – had settled in India. And when the city of Bombay was founded in the 1680s, the Parsis, with their business acumen and their open worldview, played an important part, becoming brokers and supply agents to the British. Shortly after, in the 18th century, India emerged as the hub of a triangular trade with China and Britain – shipping opium to China, and shipping tea back to Britain – and the Parsis, quite naturally, became a key piece of this trading network.

In 1756, Hirji Jivanji Readymoney was the first Parsi merchant to set sail for China, and he was also the first to set up a trading firm in Canton. He was followed by other pioneering Parsi trading families like the Banajis, Wadias, Camas, Vikajis and Parakhs – but the most remarkable story of them all was, perhaps, that of Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy. As a young trader, Jeejeebhoy was once captured by the French, along with a young Scottish ship’s doctor named William Jardine. The two of them became friends and business partners.

Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Later, Jeejeebhoy set up Sir JJ & Co, and Jardine set up Jardine Matheson, one of Hong Kong’s original hongs (and became the model for Dirk Struan in James Clavell’s novel, Tai Pan). But the association between the two men was lifelong: Jeejeebhoy was appointed as the only Asian director of Jardine Matheson, and his portrait still hangs at the company’s headquarters. Later, when the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank was set up in 1864, two of its founding directors, Pallonjee Framjee and Rustomjee Dhunjeeshaw, were Parsis, and the only reason Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy II was not invited to be a director was probably because he was considered too closely linked with Jardine Matherson.

From Kotewall Road to Ruttonjee Hospital

When the Treaty of Nanking was signed in 1842, ceding Hong Kong to the British, it was significant that it was signed on a ship named the Cornwallis, which was built by Parsi shipbuilders in Bombay. The Parsi community went on to play an important role in the history of Hong Kong. HN Mody, for example, helped set up the Hong Kong Stock Exchange as well as Hong Kong University. Dorabjee Mithaiwala set up the iconic Star Ferry Company between Hong Kong and Kowloon. Other Parsi families like the Ruttonjees, Shroffs, Parekhs and Powrees contributed to the building of Hong Kong in other ways.

Meanwhile, through the 19th century, an entire community of enterprising Parsi traders, clerks and bookkeepers settled in other trading centres across South East Asian, such as Canton, Penang, Singapore, Batavia, Macao and Amoy (some of them taking the name Chinai – or the more anglicised Chinoy – to indicate their China connection). The spirit of this age has been wonderfully captured by Amitav Ghosh in his Ibis Trilogy, which tells the saga of the Parsi merchant Bahram Modi and, after him, his intrepid widow, Shireen.

In Hong Kong today, one can see reminders of this rich Parsi history everywhere: there’s a Mody Road, Kotewall Road, Bisney Road, Parekh House and even an impressive Ruttonjee Hospital. The fact that the latter is called Leuht-deun-jih Hospital, in the Chinese manner, shows how much a part of Hong Kong life the Parsis have become. The ancient Persian Emperor Shapur II, in whose time trade with China first began, would, no doubt, have been suitably impressed.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under Creative Commons by 3.0]
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under Creative Commons by 3.0]
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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.