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A small-town wonder

Dinyar Patel
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The Meherjirana Library in Gujarat is one of the most important centres in the world for the study of Zoroastrianism and Parsi history. Dinyar Patel takes a peek into its illustrious past and what it stands for today.

“I never saw such a fine collection in a small town,” declared the French orientalist James Darmesteter after surveying the First Dastoor Meherjirana Library in Navsari, Gujarat, in 1887. Nearly 140 years after it first opened its doors, the Meherjirana Library remains one of the most important centres in the world for the study of Zoroastrianism and Parsi history. And it continues to draw visitors from far and wide. Earlier this month, from January 12-15, the library hosted about a hundred people — including scholars from the US, Great Britain, Germany, and Japan — for a special conference to celebrate some very important changes here.

Unlike many other institutions in India, the Meherjirana Library has eagerly embraced a programme of modernisation and document conservation. In recent years, it has received funding and support from various trusts and organisations, including UNESCO, INTACH, and the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, something that has in turn helped rekindle global academic interest in its collections. It has cooperated with a team from the University of Salamanca in Spain to digitise some of its most important Zoroastrian manuscripts. The conference built upon these international networks by bringing together both veteran researchers at the library, such as Dasturji Firoze M. Kotwal, the most learned scholar-priest in the Parsi community, and first-time visitors to Navsari like the novelist Amitav Ghosh.

For the Parsi community, Navsari has long been a bastion of religious knowledge and training, a town known reverentially as the dharamni tekri (“summit of the religion”). According to tradition, one 16{+t}{+h}century Parsi priest, Meherji Rana, so greatly impressed Akbar that the Mughal emperor invited him back to his court in Fatehpur Sikri. From him sprang a priestly line (currently in its 17{+t}{+h}generation) that both produced and collected a vast trove of knowledge on Zoroastrianism and other religions — a collection that was finally put into a formal library in 1874. The oldest manuscript in this collection dates from 1323 AD; there are also several Mughal sanads and firmans .

Many of these treasures were on display at the conference. Reza Huseini, an Afghan national and MA candidate in history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, pored over firmans from Akbar’s court, pointing out a note written by the vizier Abu’l Fazl. “It is so exciting to hold in my own hands actual documents from the Mughal era,” he commented. “These firmans show that the Parsis enjoyed special relations with the Mughals from the time of Akbar down through Aurangzeb.”

The conference also provided scholars an opportunity to survey the rich Parsi heritage of Navsari that exists beyond the library’s walls. “Navsari was a revelation,” stated Amitav Ghosh, who visited the birthplace of the industrialist Jamsetji N. Tata and the family house of Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, the 19{+t}{+h}century opium baron and philanthropist. “It was amazing to see how this small town has played such an important part in the life of Indian Parsis — and how, through them, it became a crucible also of trade and industry.” On the conference’s last evening, attendees were invited into the ancestral homes of several local Parsis, where they examined family heirlooms and portraits and listened to family stories.

One of the conference’s chief goals was to promote such interaction between scholars and the Navsari community. “A number of famous scholars have been through the Meherjirana Library and generations of scholarship have been produced as a result,” commented Dan Sheffield, a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton and one of the conference’s organisers. “However, very little awareness of that scholarship exists in Navsari.” Sheffield first thought of ways to bridge this gap while spending five months at the library in 2008 for his dissertation research.

An equally important challenge — something openly acknowledged by library officials, visiting scholars, and Navsari residents alike — is sustaining future restoration work and facility improvement. Many manuscripts and rare volumes are still badly damaged and are awaiting conservation. There is still no constant climate control at the library, something rendered even more difficult by Navsari’s spotty power supply. Monique Vajifdar, a paper conservator based in South Africa, stressed that the Meherjirana Library needed to build up its own in-house talent for conservation and repair rather than relying on outside or foreign expertise. “The library is at a crossroads, with wonderful resources which we have to preserve for the future,” she remarked. “What has been achieved here is truly remarkable but there is a long way to go.”

Dinyar Patel is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Harvard University.

Meherjirana Library website:http://www.meherjiranalibrary.com/


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