The Navsari years

The sleepy town in Gujarat where Jamsetji Tata was born, and spent the initial 13 years of his life, always remained close to the Tata Founder’s heart, and he returned to it as often as he could

The 850 year-old Vadi-Dar-E-Meher, where Jamsetji was ordained as a Parsi priest
Nestled in the coastal lowland along the Purna river in the western Indian state of Gujarat is Navsari, the birthplace of Jamsetji Tata, Founder of the Tata group. It was here, in this picturesque land of sugarcane fields, chikoo (sapodilla) plantations and mango trees, that one of India’s greatest pioneers and industrialists was born, on March 3, 1839, to Nusserwanji and Jeevanbai Tata.

Jamsetji’s family came from a long line of Parsi priests and they lived in Mota Falia’s Dastur Vad, an area where families of the Parsi clergy generally stayed. Jamsetji and his four younger sisters — Ratanbai, Maneckbai, Virbai and Jerbai — grew up in this strongly religious environment, wholeheartedly embracing the tenets and practices of the Zoroastrian faith.

Ervad (a term of address for Parsi priests) Homi Kotwal, a 79-year-old, has been looking after the holy fires in the Parsi temples of Vadi-Dar-E-Meher and the Navsari Atash Behram for the last 50 years. He proudly preserves two old books: the Athornan Vansavali, which records the family trees of several families from Navsari, including the Tatas, and a register of Navars — the first stage of initiation into the Parsi priesthood — ordained from 1633 to 1928. He points out Jamsetji’s name in the register and says that it was his great, great, granduncle, Ervad Burjorji Kotwal, who performed the Navar ceremony that initiated the young Tata into priesthood. Jamsetji was following in the footsteps of some 25 generations of the Tata family.

Who would have imagined then that this particular Parsi priest was destined to one day be acknowledged as one of the ‘nine jewels of Navsari’? Who would have believed he would lay the foundations of a business house which today has more than 100 companies with operations spread across the globe? It was here, in Navsari, that the seeds of Jamsetji’s greatness were sown; it was here that his remarkable story began.

The Navsari of today bears little resemblance to what it was when Jamsetji grew up here, but he lives on in the memories of oldtimers, and the history of the town is intimately interwoven with that of the Parsi community he belonged to. In building the qualities of head and heart that were to stand by him both as a priest and as a businessman, Jamsetji drew upon a rich Parsi heritage that has moulded life in Navsari for more than 850 years.

Homi Kotwal, whose great, great granduncle, Ervad Burjorji Kotwal, initiated Jamsetji into the Parsi priesthood, holding the register — open to the page (inset) — which has the Tata Founder’s name in it
The Parsi influence
The Parsis, who first landed in India in a town in Gujarat known as Sanjan, moved to Navsari around AD 1141 to promote their trade. The town was known by several different names, including Nagvardhan, Nagshahi, Nag Mandal, Nagsarika and, for a while, as Parsipuri (a place where Parsis resided in large numbers). Evidently, the Parsi influence was instrumental in the naming of Navsari. One interpretation has it that the place came to be known so because ‘Nav’ means ‘new’ and it had the same climate as a place in Iran called ‘Sari’.

When the population of Parsis began to increase in Navsari, the need was felt for more priests to perform religious ceremonies. The community enlisted the services of a person called Hom Bahmanyar, whose descendants came to be known as Bhagarias, or sharers. Nusserwanji and his family belonged to this group of Bhagaria priests.

The Bhagaria priests of Navsari were one of the five groups (panths) of Parsi Zoroastrian priests in the region, each of which had clearly demarcated territories in which they could perform religious ceremonies and earn their money. Dinshaw Edulji Wacha, a prominent politician and a contemporary of Jamsetji, throws light on the environment and influences that may have affected his industrialist friend in his book, The life and life work of JN Tata.

According to him, there was a keen rivalry amongst the priestly cadre in Navsari and the environment was quite acrimonious. Many of them held strong views and “doggedness and perseverance in fact were the two principal traits of the controversial clergy at Navsari,” Mr Wacha wrote. Underlying the controversies was the priests’ fervent wish to protect their faith.

Mr Wacha went on to explain: “Brought up in his boyhood in a community possessing such traits, it is perfectly intelligible what influence heredity and environments must have exerted on Jamsetji Tata, who all through his life was preeminently distinguished for this great force of character and perseverance.”

Controversies aside, Navsari was an important place for Parsis, and their religion, culture and society thrived here. For nearly 800 years, the town enjoyed the status of being the religious headquarters of Parsi Zoroastrians and their priestly families. The holy fire, first consecrated in Sanjan, was later kept alight in Navsari for nearly 300 years. The fire was then moved to Udvada, where it currently resides.

The Navsari Atash Behram (fire temple) with a fire sculpture and the Asho Farohar (winged guardian angel) on the façade
The first Atash Behram — a Parsi temple where the fire is of the ‘highest grade’ — in India, other than the one in Udvada, was established in Navsari in 1765. The town’s Vadi-Dar-E-Meher (where the Atash Dadgah, or lesser grade of fire, is housed and mainly used to train Parsi priests and initiate them into the priestly ranks) is more than 850 years old, and is the oldest of its kind in India.

Among the other well-known Parsis who hailed from Navsari, two names stand out: Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy (1783-1859), the first knight and baronet of India, and Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), the first Indian to be elected to the British Parliament.

Not much is known of the early years and life of Jamsetji in Navsari. In those days, formal education was nonexistent, and the only form of teaching was through verbal instruction in the Zoroastrian faith, the tenets of which had a strong influence on Jamsetji’s life. His mother, Jeevanbai, played a crucial role in the development of his character, it is said, setting a fine example for the growing boy and instilling in him a strong dose of moral values, contemplation, devotion to duty and love for learning. The Parsi priests also taught him some basic reading, writing and mathematics.

Moving to Bombay
Jamsetji’s formal education began at age 13, when his father called him to Bombay and he joined a local school. At age 14 he gained admission to the Elphinstone Institute and graduated from there as a ‘green scholar’ in 1858.

Although Jamsetji lived most of his life outside Navsari, he always had a soft spot for his native land. Even during the illness of his last few days, he often chatted about his estate in Navsari. Jamsetji was fond of horticulture and did not hesitate to spend money on this hobby, experimenting at his estates in Matheran, Navsari, Ootacamund, Panchgani and Bangalore.

Jamsetji Tata Marg, the road behind the sprawling Tata Baug, the private estate where Jamsetji created a botanical garden
In Navsari he created a miniature botanical garden, for which Jamsetji imported shrubs and plants from places far and wide, including some exotic species. According to Frank Harris, his biographer, he also had several wild animals here and part of the estate was made into a public park for others to enjoy. Today, Tata Baug, as it is called, stands as testimony of his love for nature.

Marzban Giara, author, publisher and a student and researcher of Parsi history, whose family hails from Navsari, nostalgically remembers his mother telling him about the ditty that she used to sing along with her friends when they were young: ‘Chalo chhokra wadi jaiye / Tata seth ni wadiye’ (come on children, let’s visit the garden of the wealthy Tata).

Jamsetji was known for his generosity and hospitality. A rich man not given to display of his wealth, he was like a benevolent patriarch and many family members looked to him for advice and to resolve conflicts. Fondly called Bapooji, a pet name given to him by one of his younger sisters, Jamsetji’s home in Bombay, Esplanade House, was open to all his family members, including distant relatives, and he enjoyed meeting them and catching up on all the news.

Chalo Navsari’ was his standard invitation to family and friends in Bombay, and he welcomed them to his hometown. December was usually the month when Jamsetji went to Navsari, and while his wife and her companions stayed in the house built by his father, he and the male guests stayed at the house in the park.

Jamsetji was an early riser and he would be seen in his garden before 6am every day. During his Christmas break there, ‘Navsari week’ was celebrated in town, with schoolchildren often putting up a gala show and receiving prizes. Older folk were given presents and there was much merrymaking.

The Tata Founder loved his country and was a great patriot, but Navsari always remained close to his heart. During his lifetime and afterwards, he and other members of his extended family gave much to the town, by way of generous acts of philanthropy, some of which still remind us that the roots of the house of Tata remain embedded in Navsari.

Philanthropic contributions of the Tata family in Navsari

1878
One of the wells (dokhma) in the Parsi Tower of Silence in Navsari was erected by Jamsetji’s father, Nusserwanji Ratanji Darabji Tata, in memory of his mother Cooverbai.




 


1880

The DK Tata Boys School, founded on May 1, 1880, was set up using the funds donated by Sorabji Kawasji Tata from the estate of his late brother Dadabhai Kawasji Tata (JRD Tata’s grandfather).



 


1883

The NR Tata Family Trust was the first trust set up by Nusserwanji (about 15 months before his death). The trust supports the Nusserwanji Tata Zend Madressa and the Bai Navajbai Tata Zoroastrian Girl’s School.



 


1908

Kaikhushroo Edulji Bamji Khush-rhu building was built by Jamsetji’s sister Ratanbai in memory of her son. It was earlier known as the Tata ‘hunarshala’ or institute which gave vocational training to the youth of Navsari.



 


1978

The JN Tata Memorial Centre was inaugurated by the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai on March 21, 1978.




 


2009

The Sir Dorabji Tata Trust gave a grant of Rs9 million for building an annexe for the First Dastur Meherjirana Library.




 


2011

A grant of Rs20 million was given by the Navajbai Ratan Tata Trust to the Navsari Atash Behram and the Vadi Dar-E-Meher Trust Fund.