As the sun is about to set, a group of pale tall men in spotless white can be found on the beach, the sacred Zorastrian belt knotted around their waists. They stand at the edge, bend down and immerse both their hands into the water, which they then raise to their forehead, touching it briefly. Thereafter, they untie their sacred belts which they lift briefly to their brows, only to retie them. Then they turn their faces towards the setting sun and utter just three words: Humata, Hakhata, Havershta.
These three words belong to a four thousand year old language. When the sun finally sinks into the sea and its last rays disappear from the horizon, these pale faced men in white gowns turn towards the east three times, three times towards the south and three times towards the west. This they follow by dipping their hands in the sea again, touching their foreheads as they recite sacred texts under their breath. After the completion of the ritual, they disappear into the streets of the throbbing city, which is Bombay.
These men are the descendants of Parsis who originated from Iran four thousand years ago when Iran was called Paras. They were known as fire worshippers because the fire that burns in their temples is never allowed to go out because they beleive fire to be sacred. The Parsis also believe that the earth and water are sacred. That is why they do not burn their dead because that would amount to soiling the purity of fire. Nor do they dispose of them by consigning them to water because that would degrade its sacred character. They do not bury their dead either because that, they believe, would introduce impurity into the earth. Consequently, they place their dead either on top of a hill where their flesh is consumed by birds of prey or they place them in what are called towers of silence.
At some point in history, the Parsis moved from Iran to India, but they do not appear to have made any effort to spread their faith. It is said that since the Parsis were not idolaters, they might have been afraid that if Hindus converted to their religion, they might bring with them idolatrous practices. Parsis rarely marry outside their community, preferring to keep their race pure. Most of the Parsis of India lived in Bombay and were among the most prosperous of the city’s residents. The first multinational Indian company was Parsi-owned. They were also into banking, manufacturing, aviation and shipping. The Parsis were the first in India to start playing cricket. They used to enter a Parsi team in the famous Bombay Pentangular tournament. Greatly respectful of their religion and their traditions, older members of the community would generally dress in the traditional way: a round black cap, a long coat and pyjamas of a certain cut. Parsi women wore their saris in their own distinct way, quite different from the way the garment is generally worn.
At the time of independence, there were a quite a few Parsi families living in Lahore, one I knew of, in Laxmi Mansion, where Saadat Hasan Manto came from Bombay to spend his last days. It was and is a small residential enclave just off the Mall between Hall Road and Beadon Road. Members of this particular Parsi family I often saw when on the Mall on their evening walk. I am talking of the early days of Pakistan when the roads of Lahore were quiet and placid and free of the noise and pollution of traffic that is their hallmark today. The young men of this family were always immaculately dressed and there was an amazing similarity in their looks. The Parsi ladies would keep their heads covered with the loose end of their saris. What I always noticed about them, in both men and women, was their dignity. You never heard them talking or laughing loudly. They had great poise and they would take their evening walk with measured steps, smiling shyly and talking to one another but in voices so low that even if you were walking right behind them, you did not hear a thing.
Ozir Zuby, the painter and sculptor, married a Parsi lady who was a very good artist. That was the only instance, at least in Lahore, of a Parsi marrying a non-Parsi. The liquor business in Lahore was a Parsi monopoly. On McLeod Road stood the Gandhi Wine Shop, owned by a Parsi gentleman, who was a man of principal and would absolutely refuse to sell liquor to anyone unless the person had a government permit. I remember trying all kinds of tricks to make him change his mind or make an exception, but it was just like running into a wall. There were other liquor shops in the city, all Parsi-owned. There was Edulji in Commercial Building. Then there was the English Wine Shop in Regal and the French Wine Shop next to the Shah Din Building. There was also a Parsi-owned wine shop in Temple Road towards its Mall end. There was another such outlet in Lahore Cantonment not far from Globe Cinema.
They are all gone – as is the Globe Cinema – but no one who drinks can go dry in the city of Lahore. The business has gone underground, like so much else in Pakistan. There also used to be a doctor on McLeod Road by the name of Dr Barucha. He was a child specialist and if there is such a thing as a healing touch, then he had it because a dose or two of one of his mixtures and the child would be up and running. There was also a wonderful Parsi laundry near Lahore Hotel run by an old gentleman who would sit behind his wooden counter and keep scribbling in an old register. Next to his laundry was a bookshop that only sold English books. All those shops have vanished and all those people are gone.
The Plaza Cinema, where we would go to watch Hollywood movies, had a Parsi gatekeeper who supervised the entry to the second class. He was a quiet man of sixty or sixty-five in strict Parsi attire who wore thick glasses and who always kept smiling. I would sometimes see him walking on the footpath that runs along the Lahore Zoo. In Nila Gumbad there used to be a Parsi Bank in an old two-storey building. The sign outside showed an evenly balanced pair of scales held by a woman who resembled a figure from mythology. I have not been in that area for some time but I am sure the bank no longer exists. The Parsis of Lahore, like its Anglo-Indians, were like an ornament that the city wore. Their disappearance has left it poorer in more ways than one.
A Hamid, the distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, writes a column every week based on his memories of old Lahore. Translated from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan
Original article here