This lidded box is decorated with sadeli mosaic work that was most probably undertaken in Surat, north of Bombay. The top is inset with a repoussed silver plaque in Persian style but almost certainly made in Bombay by one of several silver-smithing firms that catered to the local Parsee community. It includes a central figure of the winged Parsee deity Ahura Mazda, and representations of the sacred fire.
By the early twentieth century, there were three main Parsee silver shops in Bombay that specialised in making Parsee-themed ritual items for the local community (Cama, 1998). The plaque is similar to plaques that were commissioned to be attached to the doors leading to a room of particular religious significance in a Parsee fire temple, quite possibly the prayer hall or fire chamber. Stewart (2013, p. 212) shows a serving priest (boyvara) tending the sacred fire in the fire chamber of a fire temple and affixed to the double doors leading to the chamber are a series of plaques similar to the example here atop the box here.
Sadeli work was a technique that became popular in the 19th century in India and was mostly done in Surat near Bombay. Boxes so decorated were imported into England in the 19th century and became known as ‘Bombay boxes.’ The technique involved making up a stick of long thin rods of various long, even thinner rods of materials such as bone, different woods, brass and pewter which were then glued together and then cut transversally to form a repeated pattern. Little tiles were cut and these were then arrayed, mosaic-like over the surface that was to be decorated.
Parsees subscribe to Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest living religions. Darius was crowned king of Persia in 522 BC, and was the first of the Achaemenid kings to be confirmed as a true follower of Zoroaster. Ahura Mazda, proclaimed by Zoroaster as God, was mentioned and celebrated as Creator in many of Darius’ speeches.
Today, probably there are fewer than 125,000 Parsees or Zoroastrians worldwide. Perhaps no more than 80,000 live in Mumbai/Bombay, a city of 14 million people, and no more than 6,000 live in Karachi in Pakistan.
Like the Chinese of Southeast Asia, the Parsees of India and Pakistan are a distinct but exceptionally successful commercial minority. By the nineteenth century, Bombay’s Parsee families dominated the city’s commercial sector, particularly in spinning and dyeing and banking.
Wealth from these activities was put into property so that by 1855, it was estimated that Parsee families owned about half of the island of Bombay. Today, India’s most prominent Parsee family is the Tata Family, founders and owners of India’s most prominent conglomerate the Tata Group.
Well off though they are as a community, the Parsees are dying out. It has been estimated that a thousand Parsees die each year in Mumbai, but only 300- 400 are born. Today, one in five Mumbai Parsees is aged 65 or more. In 1901 the figure was one in fifty. Low birth rates are the main factor. Probably no Parsees remain in Burma today.
Nonetheless, many vestiges of the Parsees’ contribution to commerce in South and East Asia remain. Apart from India’s giant Tata Group, smaller examples can be seen: small change offices in Hong Kong are known locally as ‘schroffs’ after a common Parsee surname, and in Singapore the road that runs alongside that country’s finance ministry is known as Parsi Road.
The box is in fine condition. There are no losses and no repairs; only some minor (but stable) shrinkage at the joins.
Cama, S., ‘Parsi crafts: Gifts from Magi’, UNESCO Power of Creativity Magazine, Vol. 2, August 2008.
Framjee, D., The Parsees: Their History, Manners, Customs and Religion, Asian Education Services, 2006 (first published in 1858.)
Godrej, P.J. & F. Punthakey Mistree, A Zoroastrian Tapestry: Art, Religion & Culture, Mapin Publishing, 2002.
Stewart, S. (ed.), The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination, SOAS, 2013.