Roj Marespand Mah Amardad, 1379 Yz.
It was a hot and sultry afternoon, that 21st day of April, 1844 as Mr. Mancherji Hormuzdiar Chanddaru left the offices of the popular Parsi periodical ‘Chabuk’ (lit. Whip) near Gunbow Street in the busy Fort area of Bombay. As he walked down passing the well on the main street and entered a small lane, a group of some Parsi boys suddenly emerged and one of them swiftly unsheathed a long knife and dealt a deadly blow to the gentleman. As he fell down bleeding profusely and died, the boys escaped.
The British rule was at its height in those days and police efficiency was a given, not an exception. Pretty soon, a group of 18 Parsis was arrested and produced before the court of the Chief Justice of Bombay, Sir Henry Roamer on 17th July, 1844. Unlike the trials of today which drag on interminably, the proceedings were swift and eight days later, the jury (India had a Jury system in those days) returned the guilty verdict against ten of the eighteen. The remaining were acquitted. On a mercy application by the jury, the Chief Justice exiled 6 of the ten convicts out of Bombay forever, but sentenced the remaining four to be hanged to death for their role in the murder. British justice was swift, efficient and harsh – to set a good example to the common people and to instil a fear of the law in them.
The four Parsis who were sentenced to be hung were Bomanji Hiraji; Burjorji Jamshedji; Limji Edulji and Nusserwan Kavasji. After a few days in the jail as the formalities for carrying out the sentence were being completed, Burjorji Jamshedji called a police official and requested that a magistrate be summoned as he wished to issue a complete confession. In front of the magistrate, Burjorji admitted that he had been the main person responsible for the murder and it was indeed he who had dealt the fatal blow which killed Mancherji. This news spread like wildfire and on 3rd August, 1844 a group of prominent Parsis sent an appeal to the Chief Justice stating that in light of the revised confession of Burjorji, it was necessary to reduce the sentence of the other three, who were mere associates and not truly murderers. Taking a merciful view of the petition, the Chief Justice exiled the three Parsis who were sentenced along with Burjorji out of Bombay, never to be allowed to return, while the death sentence on Burjorji was reaffirmed, to be carried out swiftly at 8 am on 5th August, 1844.
On the evening preceding the hanging, Burjorji requested for a Parsi priest and a ‘Sadu Nahn’ (see How to have a Nahn at home )to be administered to him by the priest. His request was granted and as the priest was brought to the jail, Burjorji sat down and very calmly confessed his sins in front of the priest and His Maker. He recited the Patet Pashemani prayer; chewed the leaves of the pomegranate tree; took three sips of the holy, consecrated Nirang; took his bath and put on fresh clothes and once again recited the Patet. Having made peace with His Maker and his soul, Burjorji went to sleep with a calm and composed mind.
The next morning Burjorji woke up and the prison wardens began the formality of preparing the prisoner for the gallows. Even as he was being prepared, the British, true to their culture tried one last trick. There was a Parsi called Hormusji who, in his infinite wisdom and under the influence of the missionaries who roamed all over British India at that time, had converted to Christianity. This convert was sent to Burjorji’s cell with the cross and the Bible to make an attempt to convert the prisoner and hence ‘ensure his salvation and onward progress to Heaven’ since of course the missionaries (and the British) believed that only one who had accepted Christ could enter the gates of heaven. The composed Burjorji took one look at the convert and listened for just a few seconds to his prattle before shouting at him with some of the choicest Parsi abuses that our community is so famous for and threatened to send the convert to heaven before he himself took to the gallows! Suitably chastised and much frightened, Hormusji beat a hasty retreat!
Soon it was time. It was Burjorji’s last request that the hangman be a Parsi, and that after his death his body should not be touched by any non-Parsi! [The reason for this request is because a non-Parsi touching the body of a Parsi after death causes the body to become ‘Riman’, i.e. ritually unpure and needs additional ceremonies and rituals to remove the Riman effect. This fact is almost forgotten today and the special Riman Nahn has also ceased to be given anywhere.] A Parsi volunteer had therefore been arranged. The wardens escorted Burjorji to the gallows. They say that the last walk to the gallows is the true test of the prisoner’s courage. Many falter at this stage and have to be literally carried or dragged to the stand. But it was not so with Burjorji. He walked with a spring to his steps and proudly ascended the steps and stood on the wooden plank. Before they dropped the black hood over his head, Burjorji deeply bowed his head to all present and offered his last salaams to those Parsis who had gathered to witness the hanging and the officials present. On the signal from the magistrate, the Parsi volunteer pulled the lever and it was all over in the matter of a few seconds.
As per Burjorji’s last wishes, no non-Parsi touched his body and Parsi volunteers took his body down and immediately carried it to the Towers of Silence where all the four days ceremonies were performed for him. In this manner, Burjorji displayed the characteristic Parsi pride and bravery. Till the end he remained true to his faith and community. Although he carried out a heinous crime (it is not clear from the newspaper reports as to the reason for his killing Mancherji), Burjorji confessed to his role and saved the lives of three others. His last days were spent as a true Parsi, his every act in exact consonance with what our traditions and scriptures mandate.
Special thanks to my dear friend Kaizad Keravala for pointing out this incident. A report was carried in the Parsi Avaz newspaper of 10th November 1968 from the original articles in the Bombay Courier newspapers of July-August 1844, quoted in Parsi Prakash volume 1, page 435-6.
May the Ruvan of Burjorji Jamshedji progress from whatever stage of nature it is at present.