This dark red-purple silk vest known as a jhabla, worn by a Parsi (also spelt Parsee) of Gujarat in Western India, is embroidered in cream, yellow and green thread on both sides. Ostensibly Chinese in style, it is a locally-made copy of a Chinese embroidered item. Parsi embroideries were very popular among the Parsi community of India during the nineteenth century. (See Shah, S., & T. Vatsal, 2010, p. 130, for a similar example attributed to early 19th century Gujarat.)
Such smock-like garments were made from a single piece of silk or satin cloth, usually embroidered with Chinese designs in white or cream silk thread. They were stitched on the side with an opening at the neck which is gathered with a ribbon or in the later pieces the area around the neck is embroidered to define the area as in the piece you have shown. They were worn over loose Chinese pyjamas which were embroidered at the hem and known as an ijar. Typically, they were worn by Parsi children on ceremonial occasions such as before the initiation ceremony.
Embroidered garments imported from Canton became popular with the Parsis of Gujarat in the nineteenth century. Many Parsi merchants had agencies and trading houses in Hong Kong and Shanghai as they did elsewhere in Asia, so it was a relatively simple matter for the Parsi community to access Chinese embroidered items for the market back home. The popularity of these Chinese-made textiles became such that the Parsi community began to embroider their own silk garments in the Chinese style. The town of Surat in western India, which had a significant Parsi population, was also home to a long- established embroidery industry, and so Surat became the centre of Parsi embroidery in the ‘Chinese’ style (Shah & Vatsal, 2010, p. 114).
Local tastes and idiosyncracies crept in as a consequence of local production. The quirky motifs shown on the jhabla here are typical of those used on locally – made jhablas, Parsi saris (garas) and so on.
The phoenix-like birds that one would expect to see on a Chinese textile here take on more of the appearance of a cockerel or long-tailed rooster for example. Also, pairs of feeding roosters are depicted. For the Parsis, roosters are associated with good beginnings and most probably the sun and solar symbols, given that roosters crow as the sun rises.
The Parsis, who follow the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, first came to India from Persia in the 8th or tenth century, fleeing religious persecution. Today, probably there are about 125,000 Parsis or Zoroastrians worldwide. About 70,000 live in Mumbai/Bombay, a city of 14 million people. Another 1,700 live in Karachi in Pakistan. The Parsis of India and Pakistan are a distinct but exceptionally successful commercial minority. By the nineteenth century, Bombay’s Parsi 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 Parsi families owned about half of the island of Bombay. Today, India’s most prominent Parsi family is the Tata Family, founders and owners of India’s most prominent conglomerate the Tata Group. Despite their wealth, India’s Parsi community is hugely respected and admired in India because of the community’s humility and charitable works which extend way beyond serving members of their own community.
Well-off though they are as a community, the Parsis are dying out. It has been estimated that a thousand Parsis die each year in Mumbai, but only 300- 400 are born. Today, one in five Mumbai Parsis is aged 65 or more. In 1901 the figure was one in fifty. Low birth rates are the main factor. Probably no Parsis remain in Burma today.
The vest here provides a good example of Parsi stitching and embroidery. However, the silk base itself has deteriorated with time. There are significant holes in the front and further deterioration on the reverse. No attempts have been made to repair of close these; the jhabla is in its original condition. But the embroidered borders are all intact.
Shah, S., & T. Vatsal, Peonies & Pagodas: Embroidered Parsi Textiles – The Tapi Collection, Garden Silk Mills, 2010.
Stewart, S. (ed.), The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination, SOAS, 2013.