Bushehr to Bombay; the cultural identity of Iranians in the Indian metropolis
The small community of Iranian migrants retain their cultural roots and connections to their original homeland through faith and fashion.
Dongri, an old Shi'a district, located a short distance inland from the Princess docks of Bombay port in southern Bombay was the center of Iranian traders in the 19th century. An Iranian mosque, now called Moghul Mosque, built in the 1860s, was the center of Iranian traders and migrants from Bushehr, Shiraz, and Yazd. The only surviving Persian Hammam in India is located next to the mosque and the only Shi'a cemetery in Bombay was also created by the Iranis.
If you want to understand the Irani population of Bombay, Dongri is the right place and Muharrum is the right season. Here all the different Shi’a sects converge to commemorate Muharrum —the most important religious/cultural season for the Shi’a.
It's common for South Asians to conflate Shi'a and Iran; here's a quick note on the different Shi'a communities of Bombay and the place of Iranian Shi'a in it. In Bombay, there are three major Shi’a sects and four major social groups; the Ithna Ashari (Hindustani, Khoja, and Irani), Musta'li Ismaili (Bohra), Nizari Ismaili (Khoja).
The Hindustani; after the abolition of Zamindari (landlordism) in India in the 1960s, many Shi’a navabs, zamindars, former bureaucrats, and other elites moved to Bombay from Lucknow. Many of them are of Persian origin remain wealthy and influential.
The Khoja; predominantly Nizari Ismailis (led by the Aga Khan), some are Ithna Ashari, they’re wealthy merchant migrants from Sindh and Gujarat regions.
The Bohra; an ethnically mixed group (Egyptian, Yemeni, Gujarati), they’re one of the wealthiest and most influential groups in Bombay. Since the Bohra follow the Fatimid Egyptian lunar calendar, they commemorate Ashura on a different day from other Shi’a sects.
The Irani Shi'a population is very small, not more than a few thousand but remains very influential among the Shi'a in Bombay. Descendants of wealthy horse traders from Bushehr (Iran's largest export to British India throughout the 19th century were horses) and other migrants from Shiraz and Yazd (known primarily as restaurateurs and hoteliers) they’re the only Persian speakers among the Shi’a of Bombay and are entirely Ithna Ashari (the state religion of Iran).
Although the Hindustani and Irani are Ithna Ashari, they have different Muharrem practices; the Irani avoid extended processions, and on Ashura, the Hindustani Shi’a fast until 7 pm, and the Irani fast until 12 pm.
Most of the wealthy Bushehri merchant families went back to Iran right before and after India’s independence from Britain and the Yazdi has come to dominate the Irani community now. With continued outward migration, the Irani community in Bombay is shrinking fast.