Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Rawalpindi’s Parsi benefactor

During colonial times the Parsi community expanded to every corner of India. These fortune seekers settled in developing towns across the Subcontinent. And they took with them their unique origins, lifestyle and beliefs even as they mixed into the many peoples and cultures of British India. There was a sudden rise in the number of sites which are today considered to be part of a Parsi legacy or heritage.

Article by By Ammad Ali, www.thefridaytimes.com

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Massey Gate Rawalpindi in the 1920s, with the Dhunjibhouy Jain Public library on top – Photo Credits – D.C Mehra and Sons, Rawalpindi

Where they settled, they built their Agiaries (places of worship), Towers of Silence (for their dead) and cemeteries. But after Partition this widespread Parsi heritage began to fade away.

The Parsi community of South Asia is today a small, diminishing community. One of the ways in which the community still retains great recognition is because of its members’ contributions to charitable efforts – which even today keep their names alive

One such person was Commodore Fakirji Dhunjibhouy, a prominent personality of Rawalpindi and Lahore.

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Adil Jussawalla

My quest of three years to find out more about the legacy of Commodore Dhunjibhouy ended when I met Adil Jussawalla. It was surprising that a poet and writer whose work I have read and admired all this while had a certain link to Dhunjibhouy – and I had been unaware of it.

But more on that later.

The Parsi heritage of Rawalpindi cannot be summed up merely in the Parsi cemetery of the city – though it is an important physical remnant of a bygone era, and more than a century and a half old. In Rawalpindi, many people think of this site on Murree Road as the main legacy of Rawalpindi’s Parsi community. This might have to do, at least in part, with the fact that little is today known or documented about the prominent personalities of the Parsi community and their contributions to Rawalpindi. We are talking of individuals like Commodre Dhunjibhouy.

Time flies. Existing heritage is replaced by new architecture and places renamed due to social, political or religious reasons.

And so, if you were to take a stroll around the Hathi (Elephant) Chowk and Babu Mohalla area, it might not immediately be obvious that this part of town was once populated by ‘Bengali Babus’. It was the commercial hub of the cantonment city that developed soon after when Raj extended their rule to the West of the Sutlej (i.e. present-day Punjab) soon after the end of Sikh rule in 1849. Such was the origin of the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

Today many of the locals here know about Massey Gate. A few know about Colonel Massey. And no one knows about Commodore Fakirji Dhunjibhouy and his library at the top of the gate.

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Portrait of Khan Bahadur Commodore Fakirji Dhunjibhouy – Photo Credits – Adil Jussawall

“Where was Massey Gate?”

Answering my question, an old Rawalpindiite raises his finger, pointing towards a corner of a road. He also has a framed old photo of the gate and tells me some hearsay stories about this heritage site of the city. At the exact location where Massey Gate once stood, there are no direct remains of that structure. It has now been half a century or so since it was demolished. Even so, the congested bazaar that stands here still bears some signs of the former Gate. One can find written alongside the names of banks, shops and other such establishments their address – referring to Massey Gate, Saddar, Rawalpindi.

The Gate was erected in the 1880s and named after the first Commissioner of Rawalpindi, Col. Charles Massey. This is not a gate but a veritable chapter of the history of Rawalpindi – and curiously, also a place for bibliophiles and knowledge lovers. For on the top of this Gate was located the Dhunjibhouy Jain Public Library – the city’s oldest and premier public library, established by the businessman whose legacy I have been searching for.

Born in 1845, Dhunjibhouy was a famous trader and philanthropist of Rawalpindi. In search of business opportunities in a flourishing city, like other Parsis, he settled in Rawalpindi. Absorbing the native culture while protecting their faith and devotion to ancient traditions alive – such was the way of the Parsis.

Dhunjibhouy married Begum Avanbai. Two of his sons Hormasji Homi and Rustomji died at very young age. A son and three daughters survived into adulthood. He earned the title of Khan Bahadur and was almost knighted for his loyalty to the British during the Afghan Wars, the Boer War in South Africa and the Boxer Rebellion in China. He invented the Tonga ambulance which helped the British Army in reducing military casualties during its many imperial engagements around the globe.

Tongas were an important aspect of his business empire: he ran a well-equipped tonga-based mail and carrying agency called Dhunjibhouy and Son Co. with his son Sohrab Dhunjibhouy. Thanks to his entrepreneurial and innovative efforts, the journey from Rawalpindi to Srinagar (the capital of Kashmir), a distance of some 200 miles, was made considerably easier. The journey, which earlier took about 14 days, could now be completed in just 24 hours .The majority of European and British visitors to Kashmir opted for easiest route to Kashmir, which passed through the Jhelum valley. The Dhunjibhouy company furnished every information regarding conditions on the road and the weather in general. On the return journey from Srinagar, tongas would be booked beforehand either at Dhunjibhouy Co.’s Srinagar office or by telegraph to the agent at Baramulla

The Khan Bahadur was quite the personality. He had a craze for wearing stylish hats. He was governor of the Hindu Technical Institute in Lahore and also a member of the Murree Municipal Committee for 25 years, and its vice-president for about 12 years .He was an Honorary Magistrate for the district of Rawalpindi, exercising first-class powers for about 9 years. He was also appointed a lifetime honourary member of the Calcutta Light Horse – hence “Commodore”.

He received many awards in addition to thatof Khan Bahadur. He was bestowed the title of a companion of the Order of the Indian Empire, and for his public services he was conferred with the Kaiser-i-Hind First Class gold medal in January 1893.

A popular and wealthy man, he died in 1911. He had expanded his interests and brought land and property in Mumbai. However the bulk of his commitments were in the Murree and Srinagar areas.

As mentioned earlier, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that my friend the poet and journalist Adil Jussawalla has a link to the Khan Bahadur. He is, in fact, a great-grandson of Dhunjibhouy !

Sharing with me more about the life and times of his distinguished ancestor, he tells me:

“Aimai, one of Dhunjibhouy’s daughters, was my grandmother. I tried to trace my family’s roots and wanted to see our home in Lahore. I visited Pakistan very briefly in 1993, when I was well into my middle age, 53 years old. I am 77 now. I never met any of my paternal grandparents or great-grandparents, except for my father’s mother Aimai. She left behind Rawalpindi and Lahore, her husband Merwanji, and all her north Indian heritage, to try and settle in Bombay and later in Poona. She took her four sons, including my father Jehangir, with her. This was in 1914. I regard her as a single mother who courageously faced hardship and adversity to educate and bring up her son in a hard land.”

The Parsi community, though well-known in urban Pakistan, has never been fully appreciated for its contributions.

Isphanyar Minocher Bhandara, former Member of the National Assembly and  President of the Rawalpindi Parsi Anjuman, sums it up: “There are many signs of Parsi heritage in the cities where a sizable Parsi population lived – not only in the form of their community welfare efforts but also cemeteries and Fire Temples. However the Parsi community’s heritage in Pakistan never documented.”

Dhunjibhouy’s illustrious life and contributions make him a jewel of the Parsi community of Rawalpindi. Most of the residents of Rawalpindi are unaware of his efforts to keep the spark of Parsi philanthropy alive.