First Dastoor Meherjirana Library: The Oxford of Gujarat

#1 Oct 21st, 2017, 09:48
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Dec 2008
In the land of awesomeness
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The reading room of the First Dastoor Meherjirana Library in Navsari. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

I never saw such a fine collection in a small town, and it does honour to the generosity of the donors and to the zeal for instruction of the Parsi population at Navsari. This visit will remain one of the best remembrances of my short occasion in the Parsi mofussil.

This inscription, the first entry in the guestbook of Navsari’s 145-year-old First Dastoor Meherjirana Library, scrawled in the lithe, oblique hand of James Darmesteter, a French Orientalist, translator and scholar of Iranian philology and Zoroastrianism, dates back to January 1887. The son of a Jewish bookbinder, Darmesteter was elected chair of Iranian languages at the Collège de France in Paris in 1885. He travelled to India the next year to trace the origins of a few Pashto ballads. His 11-month-long itinerary included excursions to the Punjab, Peshawar and Abbottabad and brief halts in Bombay (now Mumbai) and Navsari. An article he wrote on Bombay’s oldest French library, Le Cercle Littéraire Bibliothèque Dinshaw Petit, located on Forbes Street (today V.B. Gandhi Marg in the Kala Ghoda precinct), published in Les Journal des Débats in November 1891, testifies to his visit to this thrumming commercial centre of colonial India. But what drew Darmesteter to Navsari, a sleepy town in Gujarat surrounded by chikoo plantations, about 250km from Bombay?

Centre of learning

I first came to Navsari in 2015, looking for a house that had belonged to my paternal great-grandfather. The nationwide construction boom is visible here too as the town steadfastly embraces change—pastel-hued, one-storeyed houses with spacious otlas (porches) are now transforming into modest apartment blocks; grocery shops are making way for ritzy showrooms. When I went back in August this year, I made sure to stroll through the town, taking in the details—dense gulkand ice cream at the Yazdan Cold Drink House, the swathe of green that is Tata Baug, and the striking façade of the library on an arterial street.

It is believed that Parsi migrants settled in Navsari in the 12th century, some 400 years after their arrival on the shores of Sanjan. It is also believed that Navsari has the oldest existing fire temple outside of Iran, the Vadi Dar-e-Meher, consecrated between 1140-60—the exact date is contentious. It is revered as the most important centre of priestly learning in India, especially for those ceremonies that ordain priesthood. Navsari is so important to Parsis as a centre of learning, with the Vadi Dar-e-Meher being a key centre for initiation into priesthood, that in his Gujarati book Tawarikh-e-Navsari (1897), historian and sociologist Sorabji Mancherji Desai compares it to Oxford University.

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