This abandoned building partially hidden away by trees, sits quietly forgotten in a corner in the Fort area of Mumbai. Right opposite The Cathedral & John Connon School, the building with a fading sign-board tells you that this is the Parsi Lying-in hospital. What is its story?
Lying in hospital doesn’t sound like a pleasurable activity. But in the late 19th century, for a pregnant Parsi woman in Bombay (Mumbai), the Parsi Lying-in hospital (PLIH) was actually one of the best places to be.
The Parsis are Zoroastrians who arrived in the India between the 8th and 10th centuries from Persia in present day Iran. Many settled down in the region surrounding present day Mumbai. They are an extremely small community known to be highly educated and progressive. But their numbers are declining at an alarming rate. In 1941 there were more than a 100,000 Parsis. By 2011, there were just 58,000. There are many reasons for this decline – late marriages, postponing childbirth, marrying outside the community and choosing not to marry or have children at all.
But in the late 1800s, the Parsi population was declining for a very different and more serious reason. Young Parsi women were dying giving birth to children. Maternity death and infant mortality rates were extremely high. Giving birth in the good old days was a risky affair for most Indian women. Strange religious customs only added to the challenges that a pregnant woman faced. A Parsi woman was subject to same challenges as everyone else.
Back then, there were no maternity hospitals and most babies were born at home. During labour, a pregnant Parsi woman was confined to a dark stuffy room. Here, she would give birth aided by a medically untrained mid-wife, ill-equipped to handle any complications. For the mother, the ordeal didn’t end with giving birth. Soon after bringing a child into this world, the woman was seen as impure and had to remain in the same stuffy room for 40 days! After this time, she would be bathed in bull urine, a ritual that was said to purify her! Childbirth was a traumatic experience. It is no wonder that young mothers who gave birth in such unhygienic and their new-borns often died.
Thankfully, someone took notice and decided to do something about it. He was a Parsi obstetrician named Temulji Bhicaji Nariman. He, with a group of Parsi businessmen set up one of Bombay’s first maternity hospitals in 1895, known as the Parsi Lying-in hospital.
Why was it called a lying-in hospital? Well, a Parsi woman could lie or stay here for around a month after she gave birth, meaning she could spend those 40 days of impurity in clean comfort. The rooms were well-lit and airy and trained medical staff were always in attendance. The hospital was for all Parsi women. People paid according to their capacity and those who were too poor for even that, received treatment and care for free.
It isn’t surprising then, that the hospital which started as a 50-bed facility made its founder Temulji a beacon of hope for Parsi motherhood. But soon he would become even more. Just a year into the establishment of the hospital, the Bombay Plague Epidemic occurred killing thousands. Temulji jumped into the fray again. In 1914, he was knighted for his selfless service during the plague.
Above: Sir Temulji Nariman [Public Domain]
Sir Temulji Nariman’s hospital did well for several years. Other birthing centres opened up too. Maternity death and infant mortality rates went down but as you know, so did the Parsi community’s birth rate.
In the 1960s, the PLIH closed its doors. Parsi mothers had become few and the few, were increasingly choosing more modern institutions. For many years, the hospital was also caught in the midst of a legal tussle between the Bombay Parsi Panchayat and the Hospital Trust, both having different ideas about what to do with the building. Today, this charming heritage structure in Fort, Mumbai sits idle, awaiting its fate.
Above: The fading signboard outside the PLIH today ©Storytrails
But in its heydays the PLIH gave life to many Parsi infants and their mothers. Among them was the famous freedom fighter Feroze Gandhi who was born here in 1912. His wife Indira Gandhi and elder son Rajeev Gandhi both went on to become the Prime Ministers of India.
The story of Bombay was written by remarkable men and women just like Sir Temulji Nariman. Storytrails is delighted to discover these stories with you in this vibrant city. Come, join us on our very first trail in Mumbai: The Bombay Story.
Main Image: The forgotten Parsi Lying-in hospital ©Storytrails