On April 22, 1847, Parsis from across India assembled in Karachi as the foundation for the city’s first Tower of Silence was laid.
Article by Ammad Ali | Scroll
Photos of long-time Parsi residents of Karachi. | Ammad Ali
On the spring morning of April 22, 1847, when the Siberian migratory birds were singing a fond adieu to Karachi, the city on the edge of the Arabian Sea was welcoming groups of Parsis from across India. It was still six years before India would get its first train, so they all made the journey by cart and boat. They were gathered for the tana ceremony to lay the foundation of the city’s first dakhma or Tower of Silence.
Advertisements about this socio-religious event were published in many newspapers of Bombay including the Jame Jamshed. After the tana ceremony, a jashan thanksgiving ceremony was led by Fareedunji Behramji Jamasp-Asana, who was declared as first dastur or High Priest of the Parsis of Karachi.
This event not only brought together hundreds of Parsis but also consolidated the Parsi settlement of Karachi. It was only three years before, in 1844, that Hormusjee Dadabhoy Ghadially had become the first Parsi to build a home in the city. He had come to the city one year after the British conquered Sindh in 1843. For decades after, the congregation for the tana ceremony remained as the largest gathering of Parsis in Karachi.
By 1849, as the Parsi population began to grow, the Parsis established the city’s first agiary or fire temple, the HJ Behrana Dar-E-Mehr in the Saddar area of the city.
The agiary in Karachi’s Sadar area. Credit: Ammad Ali
There are no records to establish when the first Parsi arrived in Karachi but oral histories suggest that Parsis established businesses in Sindh’s Hyderabad and Sukher cities in the early 19th century. According to the Parsi Prakash community chronicle, Messrs Jehangirji Nusserwanjee Jussawalla and Co. was running business in many cities of Sindh and had presence in Multan and Kabul during in the 1820s supplying goods to the British. A few Parsis had been jewellery traders to the Talpur rulers of Sindh before the British conquest of Sindh.
In the late 1830s, Hormusjee Dadabhoy Ghadially who was a contractor to the English Army arrived in Sindh with his nephew Dinshaw Firozesha Minwalla and later became one of most influential Parsis of Karachi. A self-published book by Dorab J Patel titled Parsis of Kurrachee lists details about Parsi settlement in Karachi.
Hormusjee Dadabhoy Ghadially started the business of purchasing jewellery from the rulers of Sindh and selling it at a good price. He went on to become a leader of the Parsi community of Karachi. After the Battle of Miani and annexation of Sindh, the British are said to have given Hormusjee Ghadially large plots of land in Saddar to distribute them among the Parsi community.
Among the early settlers were Khurshedjee and Muncherjee Golwalla. They had gone with the Britishers to Afghanistan as travelling bankers. In 1848, Byramji Merwanji Kotwal of Ahmedabad became the first Parsi Kotwal (police kagistrate) of Karachi. and in later years Parsis held many important posts in the bureaucracy of Karachi.
Hoshang Kapadia with a cardboard cutout photo of Jinnah. Credit Ammad Ali
Karachi lore maintains that no Parsis from the city migrated to India after Partition, even though their corelitionsts from Lahore, Sukhar, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and other places did..
In the post Partition period, Parsi patriotism in Pakistan was a source of pride, especially since the nation’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, married a Parsi woman – Ruttie Petit.
Jinnah’s death anniversary is still observed every year at Cyrus Minwalla Community Hall of Karachi though at national level in Pakistan this day passes unnoticed and IS not observed as an official public holiday.
There are now fewer than 1,000 Parsis in Pakistan. Prominent among them are the Avari family which owns several luxury hotels.
Over the last few decades, Parsis have moved to Canada, the US and Europe in great numbers. One reason, of course, is the religious discrimination faced by the country’s minorities. Pakistan’s constitution states that only a Muslim can be a president and prime minister of Pakistan.The bar on becoming President of the country, by extension became the basis of an exclusionary culture in which a non-Muslim cannot be a president or state organisations or banks.
But even though few Parsis remain, signs of their presence are still visible in the city. There are schools built by Parsis, hospitals, dispensaries, parks, administrative offices, the Karachi Parsi Institute and other places for social gatherings. There is also the Jehangir Kothari Parade, an elevated sandstone promenade.
There are five Parsi colonies, the Dinshaw B Avari Parsi Colony and Cyrus Minwalla Parsi Colony among them.
The old white-washed dakhma is no longer functional. But another one nearby is now the resting place of Karachi’s Parsis. The two pallbearers are both from India. One of them, Mehrnosh Dumasia, moved to the city from Mumbai in 1989 when he saw a newspaper advertisement for the job.
The HJ Behrana Dar-E-Mehr agiary in Saddar is referred to locally as the Dewanoon ka Mandir or mad persons’ temple. Though the name itself is derogatory, it also seems to describe the state of a city engulfed in ethnic violence and terrorism that prompted its long-time Parsi residents to move away.
Ammad Ali is a freelance journalist, travel writer, historian and translator. He has extensively written on Parsi Zoroastrian heritage of Pakistan.