The K.R.Cama Oriental Institute Turns 100

Institute houses Madam Cama’s will, and oldest image of Zarathushtra

Today, images of the prophet Zarathushtra with his flowing beard, soft brown eyes, and golden halo, are ubiquitous in fire temples and Parsi homes. But as historian Daniel J Sheffield explains in his paper, ‘Picturing Prophethood’, they are a “recent innovation” dating back to just the 19th century. Earlier, illustrations simply didn’t exist or so Sheffield thought, until in 2009, he stumbled across the 1654 AD Zartusht Namah with an illustration of the prophet’s birth at the KR Cama Oriental Institute opposite Lion Gate. “I was delighted to find a 17th century manuscript,” writes Sheffield, “…which, to the best of my knowledge contains the earliest known images of the prophet Zarathushtra as imagined by a Zoroastrian artist.”

krcama_thumbEstablished in 1916, the KR Cama Institute kicks off its centenary celebrations this month with a series of lectures on an eclectic group of subjects including ‘Carpets of the Orient’, ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson’s fascination with India’, and ‘Philosophizing Persia’. Over the years, the institute has acquired a host of valuable manuscripts such as freedom fighter Madam Cama’s will, various copies of Firdausi’s Shah Namah, a 280-year-old Koran and an Arabic astronomy text from 1663 AD. There’s also the Ahd Namah written on a mix of paper and parchment, which dates back 1,371 years. “It is a charter of rights given by the first Caliph to the Christians and Jews of Syria exempting them from ‘Jizya’, the tax levied on non-Muslims,” explains Chairman Muncherji Cama.

The institute is named after Cama’s accomplished ancestor, Khursetji Rustomji Cama, who was a Zoroastrian scholar, a municipal corporator, a Justice of the Peace, a champion of women’s education, a high-ranking freemason, a numismatist and the founder of the ‘Society for the Promotion of Researches into Zoroastrian Religion’. According to a short biography published by the institute, he was born in Bombay in 1831 and raised by his uncle after his father’s death. He went to Elphinstone School and College but never got a degree simply because Bombay had no university to grant one. But that didn’t stop him from learning eleven languages including German, French, Avesta and Pahlavi. When Bombay University was finally established, he ensured Avestan languages were included in its curriculum.

He worked in his family’s trading business in Calcutta and Canton (now Guangzhou), before co-founding the first Indian firm in England along with Dadabhai Naoroji. He seemed to be involved in every pressing issue of his time – from explaining the aims and objectives of the census to his countrymen to convincing mill workers to take the plague vaccine by getting inoculated in their presence. After he died, the citizens of Bombay, decided to set up an oriental institute in his memory with the help of a large donation from a “liberal minded Hindu citizen”, Damodar Gordhundas Sukhadvala.

The institute was initially located on Hornby Road (now DN Road), before it was moved to its present site. The land was sold to the institute at cost price by the Tata trust, and the current building’s foundation stone was laid on KR Cama’s 105th birth anniversary according to Masonic rites. At the time, the institute boasted “11,205 books, 1,978 journals and 1,865 manuscripts in Avesta, Pahlavi, Iranian, Arabic, Urdu and Turkish”. Today, that number has ballooned to over 30,000 thanks to the absorption of various collections such as the Mulla Feroze Library and the Poure Dawood Collection.

The collection is currently being restored by conservators from INTACH, who check each page’s mineral content, and de-acidify it before wrapping it in Japanese tissue paper. As part of the centenary celebrations, the institute hopes to publish a tri-lingual coffee table book showcasing illustrations from its rare manuscripts. Besides holding regular seminars, funding research and publishing journals, the institute has recently set up a genealogy cell, which compiles information on illustrious Bombay families like the Petits and the Sethnas. While few Mumbaikars have ever visited this institute, it is a hub for foreign scholars. Burzine Waghmar, a senior teaching fellow at SOAS, University of London, terms it “the sole centre in South Asia for Iranian and Persian studies in the full sense of the term.” Prods Oktor Skj198rvo, the Aga Khan Professor of Iranian Emeritus at Harvard University, once attempted to catalogue the vast Avestan and Pahlavi collection. “Reading the manuscripts and identifying texts took time, however, and after three weeks I had only catalogued 42 manuscripts,” he recalls. “When I told Dr Mody (honorary secretary), she commented: so there’s only a thousand to go!”

While cataloguing, Skj198rvo was elated to find a well-known manuscript, whose whereabouts, until then, were unknown. It was the two parts of the ‘Book of a Thousand Judgments’ the only known Sasanian law book.