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The Persian merchants of Bombay

This is the second of a three-part series. Read the first part here.

It is little known that Mumbai is home to a small Iranian Shia merchant community, whose roots in the city go back almost 200 years. These businessmen, who form a part of the 2,500 Iranian Shias in Mumbai today, have been less visible than their fellowmen – as also the Irani Zoroastrians – who came after them, but enjoy instant recognition as owners of Bombay’s popular Irani cafés.

Sayed Jalal Jalali, left, Managing Trustee, and Ali Namazi, Manager, in the inner courtyard of the Irani Masjid. This mosque is built in the Shirazi-style of south-western Iran, with two minarets at its entrance, no dome, and a splendid rectangular pool of water in its forecourt
Sayed Jalal Jalali, left, Managing Trustee, and Ali Namazi, Manager, in the inner courtyard of the Irani Masjid. This mosque is built in the Shirazi-style of south-western Iran, with two minarets at its entrance, no dome, and a splendid rectangular pool of water in its forecourt

While the café owners were originally from the smaller towns of Yazd and Kerman, the merchant community hailed mainly from port cities like Bushire[1], and urban cultural hubs like Shiraz, Isfahan, and Kashan that were connected to it. The earliest among the Iranian Shias to settle in colonial Bombay, they chose Dongri, in central Bombay, as their base because it was close to the city’s dockyards.

Many of the Bombay families are from Shiraz,[2] a city whose merchants supplied goods, such as carpets woven especially for the export markets; finance; and commercial know-how, to the nearest port of Bushire. Bushire had had a British resident since 1763, who reported directly to the governor in Bombay. The British Residency here, which had a factory or fortified warehouse, facilitated trade mainly between the Presidency of Bombay and Persia.[3]

There are also a few families in Mumbai, whose roots are in Persian merchant settlements in non-Iranian regions of the Gulf, like Basra and Bahrain, whose forefathers too came to Bombay to participate in the trade in the Persian Gulf during the 19th and early 20th centuries, just like the Arab[4][4] and Afghan traders from Kandahar.

Nineteenth-century Bombay was the epoch of the trade in horses, and Arab, Persian and Kandahari merchants were all involved in their large-scale supply to the British Indian army and Bombay’s horse-drawn tramway services.[5]

Horses apart, the Persian merchants’ import manifests included dried fruits, attar (floral oils), Shiraz wine, curios and some articles of luxury, such as books, embroidered slippers and silk shawls.[6] From Bombay to Persia, went rice, ghee, teakwood, spices, sugar, indigo, and textiles, both British and Indian mill-made.

The eponymous Haji Ebrahim Busheri’s rise to prosperity mirrors this narrative. Originally from the port of Bushire, he arrived in the city in the early 1850s as an 18-year-old, say his great-grandchildren, Iqbal Durazi and Shaheen (nee Durazi) Daruwala.[7] He began by trading in dried fruits, then expanded into real estate, owning many buildings in Dongri, where he lived. By 1910, he was wealthy enough to build a palatial family bungalow in Bandra.

The Durazi siblings, Shaheen and Iqbal, with a family heirloom, a century-old samovar, found in most Iranian homes in Bombay for brewing tea through the day for visitors
The Durazi siblings, Shaheen and Iqbal, with a family heirloom, a century-old samovar, found in most Iranian homes in Bombay for brewing tea through the day for visitors

From their paternal side, the Durazis’ are half Iranian and half Bahrainian, taking their surname from Duraz, a town in Bahrain: their paternal grandfather was a pearl diver and trader, and Bombay was the largest pearl market east of the Suez: he too eventually settled in the city.

Some figures point to the feverishness with which trade between Bombay and Persia grew. In 1830, the total trade between the two countries was Rs. 350,000, and by 1859 the annual trade in horses alone had risen to Rs 2,625,000.[8] Consequently, by 1865 the number of Iranians officially registered as residing in Bombay was 1,639.[9]

The city’s commercial prominence led to the establishment of a permanent Persian consulate in Bombay in the early half of the 19th century.[10] And by 1919, the Imperial Bank of Persia had opened one of its few overseas branches in the city.[11]

A major responsibility for the Persian consul then was overseeing Haj pilgrims from Persia, who disembarked first in Bombay before taking a ship to Jeddah. The ships from Bushire and Bandar Abbas carried goods, merchants and Haj pilgrims, but also, unexpectedly enough, mendicants, and Iranian Sufi[12] preachers, many of whom were merchants. The latter two groups were drawn to Bombay by the famed generosity of the wealthy Iranian merchants, and the more recent arrival of their countryman and political refugee, the Ismaili Khoja spiritual head, Aga Khan I and his family in 1848.

Irani Masjid, Bombay’s blue mosque

This mix of Iranian settlers and visitors invariably converged on Imambada Road’s turquoise blue Irani Masjid, which was established in 1860.  Known locally as ‘Mughal Masjid’, community members clarify that the term ‘Mughal’[13] actually refers to the fact of Persian being adopted as the official language of the Mughal court, where  many Persian poets, intellectuals and artists took up residence from the time  of Emperor Akbar’s reign through that of  Jahangir and Shah Jahan.

The donor of this magnificent mosque was Malik al-tujjar Hajj Muhammed Husayn Shirazi, whose title indicates that he held the semi-formal office of leader of the Iranian merchants in the city.[14] It was here, in the vicinity of this mosque, that the Persian merchants of the 19th and early 20th centuries set up a religious, social and educational infrastructure that sustained Shia migrants and visitors. Celebrated Sufi preacher from Isfahan, Safi `Ali Shah, who arrived in Bombay in 1864, recalled that on arrival, he was out on his luck, with no money or contacts in the city, and had to seek accommodation in a small house on the Irani Masjid’s waqf property, one of several rooms either inside or adjoining the Masjid, built specifically for poor itinerant visitors.[15]

Managing Trustee of the Irani Masjid, Sayed Jalal Jalali, and its manager, Ali Namazi, point out that such donors were all merchants, who established  one mosque, a school – the Amin School, which doubles as an imambara  (hall) during Moharram – and an anjuman (community hall), all  in close proximity to the Irani Masjid.[16][16] This is the heart of Shia Mumbai even today, as the name of the road itself is a reference to the four imambaras, located just off it, namely Amin, Sostori, Nemāzī, and Darbār-e-Ḥosaynī.[17][18]

The Iranian community congregates at the Amin Imambara during Moharram when special preachers and mullahs are brought down from Qom[19] to conduct the Majlis sermons in Farsi (Persian). Another Iranian tradition that the early merchants brought to Bombay is the dramatic enactment of the Battle of Karbala and the martyrdom of Imam Husain in 680 A.D., complete with ritual self-flagellation, on the final day of Moharram.

The Iranian Shias and Zoroastrians may have different religions, but they share a language and culture that goes back two millennia and much before the Arab conquest of the pre-Islamic Sassanid Empire in the 7th century AD. For example, the Iranian New Year – Nauruz – on March 21 (the Spring Equinox) is celebrated by both communities, including the Parsis, their predecessors in the Indian subcontinent, for whom it is the spring festival. Their observance of New Year later in the year marks their arrival in the subcontinent.[19]

An admirable facet of the once significant Iranian Shia merchant community is that it engaged with the city at multiple levels, from the rough and tumble of maritime trade to recreating its own religious-social-cultural ecosystem in Dongri and providing for the many Iranian pilgrims, preachers, and mendicants who passed through the city.  Today, very few of these public-spirited families remain in Mumbai as their children have migrated to the West. Bombay must be a distant memory for them, but for their forefathers, it was a gateway to good fortune.

Sifra Lentin is Bombay History Fellow, Gateway House.

This is the second of a three-part series. Read the first part here.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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[1] The modern spelling of ‘Bushire’ is Bushehr.

[2] Interview with Sayed Jalal Jalali, Managing Trustee, and Ali Namazi, Manager, of the Irani Masjid (Imambada Road, Dongri) on 13 June 2019.

[3] Initially, the Resident at Bushire reported to the Agent and Council at Basra through whom the whole of his correspondence with the Governor and Council at Bombay was normally channelled. This arrangement lasted until 1778 after which date the status of Basra was reduced from Agency to Residency, and the Resident at Bushire reported directly to Bombay. Bombay continued to be chiefly responsible for the Resident in Bushire till 1873. <https://www.qdl.qa/en/political-residency-bushire> (Accessed on 13 August 2019)

[4] Arab traders and refugees have a long history of interaction and intermarriage with the local population on the North Konkan Coast, of which the original seven islands of Bombay are a part of. According to the oral tradition among the Konkani Muslims, they are of Arab stock as their ancestors fled to the subcontinent’s west coast in 699 AD. There have been subsequent waves of Arab settlers through the centuries after. Here the reference is to a later wave of traders, who arrived in Bombay around the same time as the Persian and Afghan Kandahar traders.

[5] The tramway system in Bombay began in 1874, when Messrs. Stearn and Kittredge commenced operations with a fleet of trams drawn by six to eight horses. The Tramway Company owned almost 900 horses, who wore long hoods as protection against the sun when on duty. The electrification of the city’s tramways commenced after the incorporation and registration of a new company, named Bombay Electric Supply & Tramway (BEST) Company, in London. The first electric tram cars became operational in May 1907. Even today, the city’s bus service is still operated by BEST, however, the ‘T’ in the acronym stands for ‘Transport’ instead of ‘Tramway’.

[6] Edwardes, S.M., The Gazetteer of Bombay City and Island Vol. 1 (Bombay, Gazetteer Department Government of Maharashtra, reprint 1977), pp 438-39.

[7] Interview with Iqbal Durazi and Shaheen Daruwala on 18 May 2019.

[8] ] M. Mohiuddin and I.K. Poonawala, ‘Bombay: Persian Muslim Communities’, in E. Yarshater (ed.), Encylopaedia Iranica (New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2009). Also, <http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/bombay-persian-communities-of>(Accessed on 30 May 2019)

[9] Bombay Almanac and Directory for 1865 (Bombay: Bombay Gazette Press, 1865), p. 563.

[10] Though an exact year could not be determined, it appears that the Persian consulate in the city was established soon after the diplomatic voyage (albeit an ill-fated one) of a representative of the Qajar ruler Fath `Ali Shāh, Hajji Muhammad Khalil, a resident of Bushire. It was after this round of diplomatic exchanges took place in the early years of the 19th century that a consulate was established in Bombay.

Green, Nile, Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean, 1840-1915 (New Delhi, Cambridge University Press, 2011), p.118.

[11] The Imperial Bank of Persia was a British Overseas Bank that between 1889 and 1928 served as a state bank and bank of currency issue for Persia.

[12] A follower of mystical Islamic beliefs and practices.

[13] The Mughals were of Central Asian origin while Mumbai’s Iranian community  belongs largely to towns and cities across the main land mass of the Iranian Plateau.

[14] Green, Nile, Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean, 1840-1915 (New Delhi, Cambridge University Press, 2011), p 146.

[15] Ibid, p 145

[16] All these institutions are administered through Trusts run by descendants of these merchant families. People spoken to said that it was possible to run these religious and community institutions only because their original donors had the foresight to donate additional properties to these Trusts, the rents from which have kept all these institutions financially viable.

[17] This last named, is a Bohri Imambara located in Bhendi Bazaar, on the western side of the arterial Mohammed Ali Road, while Imambada Road is located on the eastern side of Mohammad Ali Road.

[18] Also, in close proximity to Irani Masjid are Imamia Masjid (Indian Shia) and Zainabia Masjid (Ithna Asheri). This author was informed that Shia mosques are open to all Shias irrespective of their national or regional origin. It is intangibles like the language spoken (e.g. sermons are given in Farsi during the Moharram Majlis held by the Iranians) and cultural norms, which creates a preference to attend prayers at their community mosque and Majlis sermons at their community Imambara.

[19] Iran Culture House, which is headed by the Cultural Attaché of the Consulate General of Iran, helps the community in bringing down special preachers and mullahs from Qom for the 10 days of Moharram.