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Good Deeds: Parsi trusts from ‘the womb to the tomb’


Parsis (Indian Zoroastrians), a small traditionally endogamous group, are well known in India for their philanthropic giving. The Parsis of Mumbai are beneficiaries of hundreds of Parsi public charitable trusts today, and this article will show how trusts, as particular forms of giving, establish perpetual communal obligation connecting the past and present. It will show how the circulation of personal assets through customary inheritance within a family is replaced by the trust with the circulation of communal obligations in perpetuity. While this mechanism of giving has a marked endurance, what has changed is what constitutes ‘the good’ within these deeds. Moving away from traditional philanthropic practices of subsidizing education, medical care, and welfare to the poor, the focus of giving has shifted to the pursuit of communal reproduction, both biological and social.

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*1 Denotes that the person's name was changed to protect their confidentiality. Other persons named in the text have explicitly given consent or are public figures.

2 This article will use Bombay to refer to the city before 1995 when its name was officially changed to Mumbai.

3 Cantera, A., ‘Ethics’, in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism, ed. Stausberg, M. and Vevaina, Y. (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2015), pp. 315332 ; Hinnells, J., ‘The Flowering of Zoroastrian Benevolence’, in Papers in Honour of Professor Mary Boyce (Leiden: Brill, 1985), p. 26 . For a comprehensive analysis of various aspects of historical and contemporary concepts and issues in Zoroastrianism see Stausberg, M. and Vevaina, Y. (eds), The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2015).

4 Y. Vevaina, ‘Theologies and Hermeneutics’, in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism, pp. 211–234.

5 Macuch, M., ‘Charitable Foundations in the Sasanian Period’, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. 5 (New York: Biblioteca Persica, 1991), pp. 380382 . For more on the Sasanian law of property and inheritance see Macuch, M., ‘Inheritance. i. Sasanian Period’, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. 13 (New York: Biblioteca Persica, 2005), pp. 125131 , and Jany, J., ‘The Idea of Trust in Zoroastrian Law’, The Journal of Legal History 25/3 (2004), pp. 269286.

6 For more on the historical inheritance of the Zoroastrian foundation in the Islamic waqf, see Macuch, M., ‘Die sasanidische fromme Stiftung und der islamische waqf: Eine Gegenüberstellung’, Islamische Stiftungen zwischen juristischer Norm und sozialer Praxis, ed. Meier, A., Pahlitzsch, J. and Reinfandt, L. (Berlin: Oldenbourg, 2009), pp. 1938.

7 Macuch, ‘Charitable Foundations’.

8 Cereti, C., An Eighteenth Century Account of Parsi History: The Qesse-Ye-Zartostian-E Hindustan (Naples, Instituto Universitario Orientale Dipartimento di Studi Asiatici, 1991).

9 Sharafi, M., Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia: Parsi Legal Culture, 1772–1947 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

10 White, D., ‘From Crisis to Community Definition: The Dynamics of Eighteenth-Century Parsi Philanthropy’, Modern Asian Studies 25/2 (1991), p. 314.

11 Ibid., p. 318.

12 See also Palsetia, J., The Parsis of India: Preservation of Identity in Bombay City (Leiden: Brill, 2001).

13 Amongst these are Hinnells, ‘The Flowering of Zoroastrian Benevolence’; Palsetia, The Parsis of India; White, D., ‘From Crisis to Community Definition’; and R. Writer, ‘Charity as a Means of Zoroastrian Self-Preservation, Iranian Studies 49/1 (2016), pp. 117136.

14 Letter to Chipman Gray, John (15 November 1903), in The Letters of Frederic William Maitland, ed. Fifoot, C. H. S. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), no. 366.

15 Trusts are analogous to other forms like the Islamic waqf and Hindu endowment, a distinction being in the latter two, the ‘owner’ of the asset is God or a deity, respectively. Within legal systems that derive from the Roman law tradition, the trust-like device is the fidei commisum, see Helmholz, R. and Zimmermann, R., Itinera Fiduciae: Trust and Treuhand in Historical Perspective (Berlin, Duncker & Humblot, 1998) for an overview. Jany, ‘The Idea of Trust in Zoroastrian Law’, provides a comparison of the Zoroastrian trust and the fidei. Furthermore, besides religious endowments there are various other organizational forms of charitable giving, for instance non-governmental organizations. For more on the latter see Bornstein, E., Disquieting Gifts: Humanitarianism in New Delhi (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012).

16 Kozlowski, G., Muslim Endowments and Society in British India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 1.

17 Qadir, A., Waqf: Islamic Law of Charitable Trust (Delhi: Global Vision, 2004), p. 147 . See Singh, A., ‘Zamindars, Inheritance Law and the Spread of the Waqf in the United Provinces at the Turn of the Twentieth Century’, The Indian Economic and Social History Review 52/4 (2015), pp. 501532 , for an analysis of the effects of strict inheritance law on landholding estates and the use of waqf to counteract these effects.

18 Moumtaz, N., ‘Modernizing Charity, Remaking Islamic Law’ (PhD Dissertation, The City University of New York, New York, 2012).

19 Cohn, B., Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

20 Beverly, E., ‘Property, Authority and Personal Law: Waqf in Colonial South Asia’, South Asia Research 31/2 (2011), p. 174.

21 Singh, A., ‘Forum Shopping in the Middle East and South Asia: It's impact on women and the evolution of inheritance codes’, Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law 46/3 (2014), pp. 289319.

22 Children of intermarried Parsi women have varied status within the community in Mumbai, as to whether they are counted as Parsi and what benefits they may claim as such. This has been the source of several intense disputes, which have been taken to court. Sharafi, Law and Identity, deftly details the legal and social aspects of these before independence. Since 2009, a further case has been underway after an intermarried Parsi woman sued her local trust claiming gender discrimination after they denied her access to sacred space. The case is currently being reviewed by the Indian Supreme Court. L. Vevaina, ‘She's Come Undone: Parsi Women's Property and Propriety Under the Law’, Political and Legal Anthropology Review 41/1 (2018), forthcoming.

23 Friedman, L., Dead Hands: A Social History of Wills, Trusts, and Inheritance Law (Stanford: Stanford Law Books, 2009), p. 118.

24 Riles, A., Collateral Knowledge: Legal Reasoning in the Global Financial Markets (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), p. 50.

25 Rajaratnam, S., Natarajan, M., and Thangaraj, C.P., Law and Procedure on Charitable Trusts and Religious Institutions, 10th Edition (Mumbai: Snow White Publications, 2010).

26 The settlor of a trust no longer pays taxes on those assets, as he or she is completely divested of them.

27 See Friedman, Dead Hands, pp. 125–139, for more on the rule against perpetuities.

28 Sociologist Andrew Sayer defines the moral as that which ‘concerns lay norms (informal and formal), conventions, values, dispositions and commitments regarding what is just and what constitutes good behavior in relation to others, and implies certain broader conceptions of the good or well-being’. Quoted in Browne, K. E. and Milgram, B. L., Economics and Morality: Anthropological Approaches (Lanham: Altamira, 2008), p. 2.

29 Birla, R., Stages of Capital: Law, Culture, and Market Governance in Late Colonial India (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).

30 Ibid., pp. 103–139.

31 Ibid., p. 78.

32 Ibid., p. 99. G. Kozlowski relates that the underlying premise of such court decisions was that Muslims ought to follow their own scriptures, which were clear on the division of inheritance (Muslim Endowments and Society, p. 5). See also Qadir, A., Waqf, p. 148, Beverly, ‘Property, Authority and Personal Law’; A. Singer, Constructing Ottoman Beneficence: An Imperial Soup Kitchen in Jerusalem (Albany: SUNY Press, 2002); and Singh, ‘Zamindars’, 2015.

33 R. Birla, Stages of Capital, p. 107.

34 M. Sharafi, Law and Identity, p. 9.

35 Wadia, R., ‘Bombay Parsi Merchants in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’, in Parsis in India and the Diaspora, ed. Hinnells, J. R. and Williams, A. (London: Routledge, 2008), p. 130.

36 Chopra, P., A Joint Enterprise: Indian Elites and the Making of British Bombay (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

37 Dossal, M., Theater of Conflict, City of Hope: Mumbai 1660 to Present Times (Mumbai: Oxford University Press, 2010), Section I. ‘Land into Private Property’.

38 Bhabha, H. K., ‘The Sethias and Soft Power’, Across Oceans and Flowing Silks, ed. Godrej, Pheroza, Mistree, F. P. and Seshadri, S. (Mumbai: Spenta Multimedia, 2013), p. 13.

39 Setalvad, A. M., Law of Trusts and Charities (Delhi: Universal Law Publishing, 2009), p. 243.

40 While the common orthography in English is panchayat, I reproduce the spelling usage of the institution itself.

41 A very fruitful avenue of future research on charities would be to follow in the line of scholars like Matthew Hull who have analysed the constellation of authority and practice of South Asian bureaucracies, their paper forms, and the effects of professionalization. See Hull, M. S., Government of Paper: The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).

42 See Palsetia, The Parsis of India; Dobbin, C. E., ‘The Parsi Panchayat in Bombay City in the Nineteenth Century’, Modern Asian Studies 4/2 (1970), pp. 149164 ; Desai, S. F., History of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, 1860–1960 (Bombay: Trustees of the Parsi Punchayet Funds and Properties, 1977).

43 Palsetia, The Parsis of India, p. 66.

44 Desai, History of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, p. 129.

45 For more on this case and its ramifications see M. Sharafi, ‘Judging Conversion to Zoroastrianism: Behind the Scenes of the Parsi Panchayat Case (1908)’, Parsis in India and the Diaspora, pp. 159–180.

46 The 1908 case Petit v. Jeejeebhoy and Kanga v. The Funds and Properties of the BPP (Bombay High Court, Appeal 256 of 2010) are just two examples of cases brought to court to interpret and delimit the functioning of the trust.

47 See M. Sharafi, Law and Identity, for a fascinating and thorough analysis of legislation and case law in the colonial period and their relationship to the formation of Parsi communal identity.

48 In states with a Charity Commissioner, all public charitable trusts are required to register their deeds, file annual audit reports, and get special permissions if any changes to their structure or their holdings occur.

49 During my fieldwork there were two Parsi trust cases being reviewed by the Indian Supreme Court. Kanga v. BPP was settled through mediation, and Gupta v. Pardiwala (Gujarat High Court, Special Civil Application 449 of 2010) is still pending review.

50 Birla, Stages of Capital, p. 105.

51 Cusrow Baug, Ness Baug, Rustom Baug, Jer Baug, Nowroze Baug, with 1545 flats in total.

52 Trust Settlement—The Nowrosjee Nusserwanjee Wadia Trust Buildings for Parsees. 16 August 1916, p. 3.

53 Trust Settlement—The Rustomji Nowrosjee Wadia Trust Building for Parsees. 10 November 1921, p. 5.

54 The Nowrosjee Nusserwanjee Wadia Trust Buildings for Parsees. 16 August 1916, p. 16.

55 Sir Ness's son, Neville Wadia, was given a Navjote and ‘converted’ back to Zoroastrianism (not without controversy) late in his life. He was married to Dinah Wadia, the daughter of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and spearheaded the success of The Bombay Dyeing Corporation, one of India's largest textile concerns until his death in 1996. See Hinnells, J. R., The Zoroastrian Diaspora: Religion and Migration: Religion and Migration Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 129135

56 Ibid., p. 66.

57 Directory of Public Trusts: Greater Bombay and Bombay Suburban District, Section-C, Parsi, Charity Commissioner Maharashtra.

58 This is common use of the word ‘cosmopolitan’ at least in Mumbai, meaning for all communities. For example, a residential building, which houses all communities is known as a ‘cosmopolitan’ building. Trust managers I interviewed used this distinction to describe the intended beneficiaries of their trusts.

59 For example, the various schools and colleges endowed by Sir. Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, C. J. Readymoney's large endowment to Bombay University, and various Tata scholarship funds. See the appendices in Hinnells, ‘Flowering of Zoroastrian Benevolence’, for the numerous listings.

60 Luhrmann, T., The Good Parsi: The Fate of a Colonial Elite in a Postcolonial Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).

61 A. F. P. ‘The Parsi Crisis’, Newsweek Pakistan, 26 December 2013,, [accessed, 20 December 2017].

62 M. Nair, ‘Dire Demographics of Parsi-Zoroastrians’, DNA Daily News and Analysis, 23 May 2012,, [accessed, 20 December 2017].

63 B. Karkaria, ‘Why is India's Wealthy Parsi Community Vanishing?’, BBC News, 9 January 2016,, [accessed 20 December 2017].

64 Axelrod, P., ‘Cultural and Historical Factors in the Population Decline of the Parsis of India’, Population Studies 44/3 (1990), p. 404.

65 See Hinnells, Zoroastrian Diaspora, for a comprehensive overview of various diaspora communities across the world.

66 The effect of intermarriage for Parsi women's communal membership is varied in the diaspora and even in India today. The community in Mumbai remains the strictest or most orthodox in their exclusion of intermarried women and their children.

67 Patel, J. R. (ed.), Parsiana (Bombay: Parsiana Publications).

68 Ibid., last page of each issue.

69 Hinnells, Zoroastrian Diaspora, p. 54.

70 Roitman, J., Anti-Crisis (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), p. 17.

71 White, ‘From Crisis to Community Definition’.

72 Marzban Hathiram quoted in V. C. Sekhar, ‘No Room for Unwanted Neighbors’, Times of India (Mumbai edition), 25 April 2005.

73 N. Bharucha, ‘3125 new flats for Parsis on the anvil’, Times of India (Mumbai edition), 29 July 2009.

74 For more analysis of the trust's new real estate development projects, see Vevaina, L., ‘Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good (trust) Deeds: Parsis, Risk, and Real Estate in Mumbai’, in Handbook of Religion and the Asian City: Aspiration and Urbanization in the Twenty-First Century, ed. van der Veer, P. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), pp. 152167.

75 This redistribution of attention and funds did not go without controversy, and several suits brought forth by self-defined ‘watch-dog’ groups took the BPP to court over what they claimed were mismanagement of charitable funds.

76 The opaque criteria as well as the high value of these flats make corruption allegations almost endemic to the system of allotment. A formal investigation was underway in 2014 as Rupees 210,000 were uncovered in the cupboard of the BPP CEO who had recently died. Allegations also circulate frequently in the Parsi press and conversation about individual trustees, and how much they have to gain from favourable flat allotments.

77 Bornstein, Disquieting Gifts, p. 63. See also Parry, J., ‘The “Crisis of Corruption” and “The Idea of India”’, in Morals of Legitimacy: Between Agency and System, ed. Pardo, I. (New York: Berghahn), pp. 2757.

78 Birla, Stages of Capital; Singh, ‘Zamindars’ and ‘Forum Shopping’; Beverly, ‘Property, Authority and Personal Law’; Sharafi, Law and Identity; Kozlowski, Muslim Endowments and Society, and Basu, S., She Comes to Take Her Rights: Indian Women, Property and Propriety, SUNY Press, 1999 .

79 A. Singh, ‘The Divergence of the Economic Fortunes of Hindus and Muslims in British India: A Comparative Institutional Analysis’ (PhD Dissertation, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 2008).

I would like to thank Sumathi Ramaswamy and Filippo Osella not only for considering my work for this special issue but also for their insightful critiques and suggestions. I would also like to thank Erica Bornstein, Peter van der Veer, and my colleagues at the Max-Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity for their comments and critiques. I thank my various interlocutors in Mumbai for their time and patience with my never-ending questions. Tim Rosenkranz deserves special thanks for his close readings, advice, and support.

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