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]
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Top picks, best deals and all that you need to know for the Amazon Great Indian Festival

We’ve done the hard work so you can get right to what you want amongst the 40,000+ offers across 4 days.

The Great Indian Festival (21st-24th September) by Amazon is back and it’s more tempting than ever. This edition will cater to everyone, with offers on a range of products from electronics, home appliances, apparel for men and women, personal care, toys, pet products, gourmet foods, gardening accessories and more. With such overwhelming choice of products and a dozen types of offers, it’s not the easiest to find the best deals in time to buy before your find gets sold out. You need a strategy to make sure you avail the best deals. Here’s your guide on how to make the most out of the Great Indian Festival:

Make use of the Amazon trio – Amazon Prime, Amazon Pay and Amazon app

Though the festival officially starts on 21st, Amazon Prime members will have early access starting at 12 noon on 20th September itself, enabling them to grab the best deals first. Sign up for an Amazon Prime account to not miss out on exclusive deals and products. Throughout the festival, Prime members will 30-minute early access to top deals before non-Prime members. At Rs 499/- a year, the Prime membership also brings unlimited Amazon Prime video streaming and quick delivery benefits.

Load your Amazon pay wallet; there’s assured 10% cashback (up to Rs 500). Amazon will also offer incremental cashbacks over and above bank cashbacks on select brands as a part of its Amazon Pay Offers. Shopping from the app would bring to you a whole world of benefits not available to non-app shoppers. App-only deals include flat Rs 1,250 off on hotels on shopping for more than Rs 500, and flat Rs 1,000 off on flights on a roundtrip booking of Rs 5,000 booking from Yatra. Ten lucky shoppers can also win one year of free travel worth Rs 1.5 lakhs.

Plan your shopping

The Great Indian Sale has a wide range of products, offers, flash sales and lightning deals. To make sure you don’t miss out on the best deals, or lose your mind, plan first. Make a list of things you really need or have been putting off buying. If you plan to buy electronics or appliances, do your research on the specs and shortlist the models or features you prefer. Even better, add them to your wishlist so you’re better able to track your preferred products.

Track the deals

There will be lightning deals and golden hour deals throughout the festival period. Keep track to avail the best of them. Golden-hour deals will be active on the Amazon app from 9.00pm-12.00am, while Prime users will have access to exclusive lightning deals. For example, Prime-only flash sales for Redmi 4 will start at 2.00pm and Redmi 4A at 6.00pm on 20th, while Nokia 6 will be available at Rs 1,000 off. There will be BOGO Offers (Buy One Get One free) and Bundle Offers (helping customers convert their TVs to Smart TVs at a fraction of the cost by using Fire TV Stick). Expect exclusive product launches from brands like Xiaomi (Mi Band 2 HRX 32 GB), HP (HP Sprocket Printer) and other launches from Samsung and Apple. The Half-Price Electronics Store (minimum 50% off) and stores offering minimum Rs 15,000 off will allow deal seekers to discover the top discounts.

Big discounts and top picks

The Great Indian Festival is especially a bonanza for those looking to buy electronics and home appliances. Consumers can enjoy a minimum of 25% off on washing machines, 20% off on refrigerators and 20% off on microwaves, besides deals on other appliances. Expect up to 40% off on TVs, along with No-Cost EMI and up to Rs 20,000 off on exchange.

Home Appliances

Our top picks for washing machines are Haier 5.8 Kg Fully Automatic Top Loading at 32% off, and Bosch Fully Automatic Front Loading 6 Kg and 7 Kg, both available at 27% discount. Morphy Richards 20 L Microwave Oven will be available at a discount of 38%.

Our favorite pick on refrigerators is the large-sized Samsung 545 L at 26% off so you can save Rs 22,710.

There are big savings to be made on UV water purifiers as well (up to 35% off), while several 5-star ACs from big brands will be available at greater than 30% discount. Our top pick is the Carrier 1.5 Ton 5-star split AC at 32% off.

Also those looking to upgrade their TV to a smart one can get Rs. 20,000 off by exchanging it for the Sony Bravia 108cm Android TV.

Personal Electronics

There’s good news for Apple fans. The Apple MacBook Air 13.3-inch Laptop 2017 will be available at Rs 55,990, while the iPad will be available at 20% off. Laptops from Lenovo, Dell and HP will be available in the discount range of 20% to 26%. Top deals are Lenovo Tab3 and Yoga Tab at 41% to 38% off. Apple fans wishing to upgrade to the latest in wearable technology can enjoy Rs 8,000 off on the Apple Watch series 2 smartwatch.

If you’re looking for mobile phones, our top deal pick is the LG V20 at Rs 24,999, more than Rs 5000 off from its pre-sale price.

Power banks always come in handy. Check out the Lenovo 13000 mAh power bank at 30% off.

Home printers are a good investment for frequent flyers and those with kids at home. The discounted prices of home printers at the festival means you will never worry about boarding passes and ID documents again. The HP Deskjet basic printer will be available for Rs 1,579 at 40% off and multi-function (printer/ scanner/ Wi-Fi enabled) printers from HP Deskjet and Canon will also available at 33% off.

The sale is a great time to buy Amazon’s native products. Kindle E-readers and Fire TV Stick will be on sale with offers worth Rs 5,000 and Rs 1,000 respectively.

The Amazon Fire Stick
The Amazon Fire Stick

For those of you who have a bottomless collection of movies, music and photos, there is up to 60% off on hard drives and other storage devices. Our top picks are Rs 15,000 and Rs 12,000 off on Seagate Slim 5TB and 4TB hard drives respectively, available from 8.00am to 4.00pm on 21st September.

The sale will see great discounts of up to 60% off on headphones and speakers from the top brands. The 40% off on Bose QC 25 Headphones is our favourite. Top deals are on Logitech speakers with Logitech Z506 Surround Sound 5.1 multimedia Speakers at 60% off and the super compact JBL Go Portable Speaker at 56% off!

Other noteworthy deals

Cameras (up to 55% off) and camera accessories such as tripods, flash lights etc. are available at a good discount. Home surveillance cameras too will be cheaper. These include bullet cameras, dome cameras, simulated cameras, spy cameras and trail and game cameras.

For home medical supplies and equipment, keep an eye on the grooming and personal care section. Weighing scales, blood pressure monitors, glucometers, body fat monitors etc. will be available at a cheaper price.

The sale is also a good time to invest in home and kitchen supplies. Mixer-grinders and juicers could see lightning deals. Don’t ignore essentials like floor mops with wheels, rotating mop replacements, utensils, crockery etc. Tupperware sets, for example, will be more affordable. There are attractive discounts on bags, especially laptop bags, backpacks, diaper bags and luggage carriers.

Interesting finds

While Amazon is extremely convenient for need-based shopping and daily essentials, it is also full of hidden treasures. During the festival, you can find deals on telescopes, polaroid cameras, smoothie makers, gym equipment, gaming consoles and more. So you’ll be able to allow yourself some indulgences!

Small shopping

If you have children, the festival is good time to stock up on gifts for Diwali, Christmas, return gifts etc. On offer are gaming gadgets such as Xbox, dough sets, Touching Tom Cat, Barbies, classic board games such as Life and more. There are also some products that you don’t really need, but kind of do too, such as smartphone and tablet holders, magnetic car mounts for smartphones and mobile charging station wall stands. If you’re looking for enhanced functionality in daily life, do take a look at the Amazon Basics page. On it you’ll find USB cables, kitchen shears, HDMI cables, notebooks, travel cases and other useful things you don’t realise you need.

Check-out process and payment options

Amazon is also offering an entire ecosystem to make shopping more convenient and hassle-free. For the festival duration, Amazon is offering No-Cost EMIs (zero interest EMIs) on consumer durables, appliances and smartphones, plus exchange schemes and easy installation services in 65 cities. HDFC card holders can avail additional 10% cashback on HDFC credit and debit cards. Customers will also get to “Buy Now and Pay in 2018” with HDFC Credit Cards, as the bank offers a 3 Month EMI Holiday during the days of the sale. Use Amazon Pay balance for fast and easy checkouts, quicker refunds and a secured shopping experience.

Sales are fun and with The Great Indian Festival offering big deals on big brands, it definitely calls for at least window shopping. There’s so much more than the above categories, like minimum 50% off on American Tourister luggage! To start the treasure hunt, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Amazon.in and not by the Scroll editorial team.