Zoroastrian Heroes: Jivanji Jamshedji Modi


[B.A; PH.D; CIE; LL.D; Litteris et Artibus (Sweden); Officier D’Academie, Officier DeL’InstructionPublique, Chevalier De Legion d’Honneur (France); Officier Croix De Merit (Hungary); Campbell Medalist B.B. Royal Asiatic Society. (1854-1933) ]

There is a happy interconnectedness in our story so far. A contemporary of our two former heroes, Dadabhai Navroji (1825-1917) and Madame Bhikaiji Cama (1861-1936), Sir Jivanji Modi shared with them their unassuming simplicity in their personal lives, contrasted with high ideals in their public lives, and their passion for truth, justice and the welfare of their communities. Bhikaiji had helped Dadabhai with his political campaigning in England during the early 1900s. Dadabhai when in Mumbai, visited Jivanji at his home in Andheri and the two men in their advanced years, visiting other friends in Khandala, went for drives in a horse drawn carriage sharing long discussions on matters of science, law, religion and politics.

Jivanji was a “straightforward... innocent man (but also) an all rounder, a genius” who loved books, nature and scientific endeavour (Giara 2001). Hence his life was star-studded with titles, awards, honours and medals. Jivanji was born on October 26 th 1854 into a priestly family. His father Ervad Jamshedji Modi was the first Mobed-Punthaky / Priest-Manager of the new Seth Jejeebhoy Dadabhoy Colaba Agiary in 1836. Thus Jivanji grew up in a religious atmosphere, being initiated a Navar at age eleven (1865), ordained a Navar at age seventeen (1871), becoming a Martab (1876) at age twenty-two (Giara 2001). On his father’s death, in 1871 Jivanji stepped into his father’s shoes as Mobed-Punthaky of the Colaba Agiary at age seventeen. He served in this capacity till 1910, totaling more than forty years of service, probably as Punthaki only, in his later years.

Jivanji’s non-religious education and life, kept pace with his priestly vocation. He completed primary education in 1863, and like Dadabhai was married at age eleven (1865), the same year as he was initiated a Navar. Jivanji joined Elphinstone High School in 1868, matriculating in 1871, inspite of having lost his father five days before the examination. Jivanji entered the University of Bombay, and in 1875 won the Natural Science Scholarship at Elphinstone College, graduating a Bachelor of Arts in 1876, the same year as he became a Martab.

In 1881, Jivanji went on to study law and jurisprudence at the University of Bombay, but dropped his interest in the law, soon after that. Many years later, in 1930, the University of Bombay, his old Alma Mater, conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws in recognition of his erudition, especially in Zarthustrian law.

As a young man, however, turning from the law, in 1882, Jivanji joined the Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy Avesta-Pahlavi Madressa and came under the influence of Khursetji Rustamji Cama who encouraged Jivanji to take up Zarthustrian and Iranian studies in earnest. This then became his mission in life, joining and serving religious Mandalis, studying deeply, writing prolifically, traveling widely to Europe and Asia for his research, and delivering the fruits of his studies in public lectures attended by the learned and august. He was appointed ‘Lady Avabai Fellow’ at the Sir J.J. Madressa, and elected a member of Bombay’s Anthropological Society in 1886, serving as its secretary for nearly thirty years. A year later (1887), he was appointed a fellow of the University of Bombay. From 1888 to 1891 various elections to office, appointments, conference presentations etc. culminated in the then (British) Government of India conferring on him the title of Shams-ul-Ulama in 1893. Much later, in 1914, the University of Heidelberg, rewarded Jivanji’s efforts in Zarathustrian and Iranian studies by conferring on him an honorary Doctor of Philosophy. (Giara 2001; Godrej-Mistree eds. 2002).

While Ervad-Punthaki at Colaba, and student-savant at the University of Bombay and the J.J. Madressa, he served also as Secretary of the Bombay Parsi Panchayat for 37 years (1893 –1930), cycling or walking to work from Colaba to the Fort Area of Bombay, to the offices of the Panchayat, or the Royal Asiatic Library, or the Cama Institute, or the University Library.

A terrible ‘bubonic’ plague afflicted the residents of Bombay in 1896. Jivanji (alongside his mentor and friend Khursetjee Cama) worked as a volunteer, at great risk to his personal health, with the victims, tirelessly comforting, counselling and educating in matters of hygiene. As secretary of the Bombay Parsi Panchayat, he agitated for and got constructed the Parsi Fever Hospital, with several separate buildings to segregate infectious disease victims. His efforts were acknowledged by the Parsi Panchayat which gifted him a splendid silver vase, now on display at the Cama Institute.

Jivanji was a founder of the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute (appropriately named after his mentor and friend), and served there as Secretary, Chairman and Editor of its journal. Jivanji was honoured by having some rooms at the Institute and elsewhere, named after him. Jivanji served as secretary-treasurer and President of several Mundalis and Madressas. In 1920, guided by the suggestion of Miss Mennant (Giara 2001), Jivanji Modi was instrumental in having a Memorial Column a Stambh erected at Sanjan, to commemorate the Sanjan landing of Zarthustis on Indian soil.

Jivanji’s most notable contribution to Oriental scholarship was that he wrote and read before the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic society, 127 learned papers on Zarathustrian, Iranian and related anthropological / archeological subjects. He was one of the earliest Indian anthropologists and while his Zarthustrian scholarship is world-renowned, his anthropological prowess is yet to be recognised (Godrej-Mistree eds 2002). Moreover, Jivanji wrote 70 books, mostly in Gujerati, many in English, and some in French, plus innumerable essays, articles, and research papers on a very wide variety of subjects, touching on history, geography, anthropology, meteorology, wine, natural history etc.

Over 45 years from 1888-1933 he gave 350 public lectures. Jivanji traveled extensively right into his senior years in the service of his anthropological researches, and his public speaking commitments. When awarding him the honorary LL.D. the Governor of Bombay and Chancellor of the University of Bombay, Sir Ernest Hotson referred to Jivanji as his own particular friend and “.. world famous as a scholar of Sanskrit, Persian and Avesta ...unquestionably the greatest living authority on the ancient history and customs of the Parsis...(with) ..so many marks of recognition ..and honour” .

Despite all these adulations Jivanji’s humility about his own efforts is embodied in his quote from Sir Isaac Newton ‘I .. have been only like a boy playing on the sea shore, diverting myself in .. finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell, ... while the great ocean of truth lay unobserved before me.” Jivanji then relates similar sentiments in a story about Buzorg Meher the Prime Minister of Shah Noshirwan. When taunted by his wife about saying he ‘did not know’ about something and whether the Shah paid him so handsomely for ‘not knowing’, Buzorg Meher replied that were the Shah to pay him for what he did not know, “the treasure of his entire kingdom would not suffice”.

Jivanji continued his indefatigable researches, journeying to far flung places, and the honours continued to shower on him, including the Chevalier De Legion d’Honneur from the French Government, and the Officier Croix De Merit, from the Government of Hungary, both in 1925. One year before his death at age seventy-eight, he was made a member of London Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.


  • Giara, M. J., Shams-Ul-Ulama Dr. Sir Ervad Jivanji Jamshedji Modi Kt., C.I.E., B.A., Ph.D., LL.D. Din Publications 2001.
  • Godrej, P., & Punthaki-Mistree, F., Editors., Zoroastrian Tapestry, Mappin Publishing 2002.

:: back | home | top ::