Zoroastrian Heroes: Kharshedji Rustamji Cama

Kamal Khan  

The name of Kharshedji R. Cama rings from the rafters of establishment Bombay, from his original writings, his Institute, his Memorial Lectures and more. Who then was this universally revered doyen of virtue and learning,

Kharshedji was born on 11 th. Nov. 1831, the eldest child of Rustamji Hormasji and Bai Maneckbai (nee Gazdar). His only sibling, Bhikaiji, was born in 1833. When, in 1839, Kharshedji and Bhikaiji were eight and six respectively, their father Rustamji had a premonition of his own early death, Rustamji provided for his children, by marrying Kharshedji to his cousin Avabai (then aged three years), and Bhikaiji to her cousin Dorabji (then seven years old).

Maneckbai, determined to provide the best education available for her children. Kharshedji was sent to the Elphinstone Institution. He imbibed from there (as from his family and religion) the principles of humanity, liberality, and philanthropy based on the belief that “the secret of worldly happiness lies in constant work for the benefit of others”. He won the West Scholarship for two years, graduating in 1849 at age eighteen.

Immediately after that, he left for Calcutta to serve an apprenticeship in the family firm, providing him with training in business administration and accountancy that was to be invaluable to him all through his life. Less than a year later, he departed for China to another branch of the family firm. Two years later (1852) on turning 21, he was made a partner in that firm, staying in Canton another two years till 1854.

While thus refining his business acumen in far away China, he did not, however, lose sight of his love of learning and erudition, in his hometown. Significantly in 1852, and 1853, he offered anonymously to the Bombay Board of Education, prizes of Re. 150 and Re. 250 respectively, for an Essay Writing Competition. He also made regular financial contributions, since 1849, to the Student Literary and Scientific Society started by Dadabhai N. and others. Influenced by Dadabhai, he was a firm champion of women’s education.

In 1854, Kharshedji aged 22, returned to Bombay, and became one of the first Parsi/Indian Freemasons. A Kadmi himself, he became a member (till1879) of the managing committee of the Kadmi Mulla Firoze Madressa which had a superb Zoroastrian library with gems like the earliest known copy of the Vendidad in its collection, becoming Secretary, 1861-1895, and President 1879-1909.

In 1855 Kharshedji accompanied Dadabhai and a cousin Mancherji Hormusji, who set sail for England to establish the first Indian businesses in London and Liverpool. On the long voyage to England, Kharshedji and Dadabhai discoursed long and hard on their beloved religion, and the difficulties presented in practicing it faithfully, for example, without the key to the scriptural languages of Avesta and Pahlavi.

By 1858 the English businesses failed and Kharshedji resigned from the firm. He then turned to his first love, namely a passion for learning and studying the ancient texts of his beloved religion. A man of independent means, he determined “to live in order to learn”.

Kharshedji improved his command over French and German, and travelled to Europe to study Avesta and Pahlavi under philologists Profs. Mohl and Opert in Paris, and Spiegel at Erlangen in Bavaria. He also attended Prof. Charle's lectures on the religion of Zarathustra, and had contact with other luminaries like Bernouf, Bopp, Haug, and Menant

On his return to Bombay in 1859 Kharshedji (28) began his life-work on the reform and purification of the religion of Zarthustra. He wished to save it from the disintegration and improper use which it had degenerated into, after nearly twelve centuries away from its homeland.

To this end, Kharshedji mounted a four pronged approach, namely:-

1. The introduction of a system of the scientific study of the Avesta and Pahlavi languages, and detailed study of the Zarthosti scriptures. He gathered around him a group of well-known, respected Mobeds. He also championed young mobeds like Dr. Dastur Dhala, eventually the Dastur of Sind, whom he educated in India and America, partly at his own expense. He invited international scholars, like Dr. Haug, to give lectures, and ran essay-writing competitions on the subjects discussed. He tried for many years, eventually succeeding (1894), to introduce papers in Avesta and Pahlavi for the Matriculation Examination.

2. He founded (1864) the Society for the Promotion of Research into Zarthosti religion, namely the Zarthosti Din-ni Khol Karnari Mandali, enlisting the support of the Dasturs, examining the religion, running more essay and study competitions, with handsome prizes, with discussions to follow on doubtful points, and the publication of correct and authoritative translations of the Avesta. He himself presented thirty-three papers altogether, for discussion. European scholars sought his advice on translations of texts and inscriptions. Besides the Mandli, Kharshedji eventually took over the running of the Rahnumai Mazdayasnan Sabha, through it preaching a purer type of Zoroastrianism, to eventually establish the regular performance of the navjote, imparting religious education at home and through the schools with a qualified teacher, the opening of a fund for the latter, the introduction of religious songs, shah-name competitions, books on the religion, supplied free, or at minimal cost, and masterly translations of theKhordeh Avesta

3. Kharshedji originated an entirely new literature in connection with Zoroastrianism. The close affinity of Avesta with classical Sanskrit was recognised in A Brief Zend Grammar (1863) by S. D Bharucha. Kharshedji himself wrote at least twelve books, some originals and others translations from French or German the most important of which was the Zarthosht Name or Life of Zoroaster, going direct to the original sources, and establishing the historical truth of Zarthost's life and teachings. Kharshedji was regarded the highest authority at the time, speaking some six languages, for the creation of such works.

4. To arouse the interest of his fellow Zoroastrians, Kharshedji, commencing in 1864, undertook a tireless programme of lectures in Bombay and all over the Western presidency. Kharshedji revived Dadabhi's Dnyan Prasarak Mandali in 1871 and delivered lectures there. In 1858, on his return form Europe, Kharshedji had become a joint-proprietor of the Gujarati newspaper the Rast Goftar, another venture of Dadabhai's, which he used to further his ideas. These activities continued throughout his life.

Thus Kharshedji was a tour de force, a one-man power-house, driving his ideal of a more enlightened Zarthosti community for more than fifty years, for which he was recognised and honoured in many ways, but especially in the Memorial volume of 1900, coordinated by his friend and 'disciple' J.J.Modi, and presented to him in 1901 on his seventieth birthday, and earning Kharshedji the title Le Dastur Laique (The Lay Dastur) from Professor Dermester.

From 1861 till his death in 1909, Kharshedji's public life included the membership of various committees, Presidentships, and Hon. Secretaryships. He was also Hon. Magistrate, Municipal Councillor, Plague Volunteer, Census Officer, member of the University Senate, counsellor and advisor to many educational institutions, etc. During the last years of his life, “he was Honorary Secretary of five institutions, President of three societies, President of ten educational institutions, and trusty of four important funds, to say nothing of his Masonic activities”.


Edwardes, S. M, CSI, CVO Kharshedji Rustamji Cama 1831-1909 A Memoir, OUP 1923
Godrej, P., & Punthaky-Mistree, F., Eds., Zoroastrian Tapestry, Mapin Publishing 2002.
Hatalkar, V. G. CAMA, KHARSHEDJI RUSTAMJI (1831-1909) in Dictionary of National Biography,
Vol. I. Ed. Sen , S. P. Institute of Historical Studies, Calcutta, 1974

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