Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

The Pioneering Parsis of Karachi

UPDATE: It has been brought to our attention that the article below was originally authored by Farishta Dinshaw and published on The original article is now available here. We regret the original oversight and error in attributing the author’s name correctly.

The influx of Parsis into Karachi increased after the British takeover. Many of them took the opportunity for trade in the new army cantonment to settle in this part of the world.

Some of them had worked with the British army during the Afghan War and several Parsi surnames – Contractor, Commissariat, Cooper – evolved from association with the British army.

Many of the Parsi families living in Karachi today can trace their ancestry to the first settlers.

Among the first were Khurshedji and Muncherji Golwalla who had gone with the British to Afghanistan as “traveling bakers”.  Cowasjee Variawa, another returnee from Afghanistan, first worked with Dubash Brothers and then started his own stevedoring business.

He succeeded very well in his business ‘Cowasjee & Sons’, which in time, his descendants enlarged into one of the largest and most famous stevedoring houses in the country.  Dosabhai Ghadyali, who came to Karachi in 1850, was the first to introduce the silk trade in Karachi.  Hormasji Pestonji Shroff who migrated in 1852 started a dubash business in Karachi. (The word ‘dubash is derived from two words ‘du’ meaning two and ‘bhasha” meaning language, thus as interpreters).

In the same year Edulji Bejonji Kandawala, the ancestor of Kandawalla automobile traders, arrived.  Jamshedji Rustamji Ghadyali came as the first Parsi watchmaker.  Afterwards he changed his vocation and opened a liquor shop; probably a case of more drinkers and less watch owners, but the surname remains.  Byramji Edulji began his career as a purchase officer in the police force and then became a Police Collector.  He too changed his vocation and started contracting for the commissariat.  Ultimately he established a bar and wine and general store, which ran successfully for many generations.  Since he had been a collector he adopted the surname ‘Collector’ which is still carried on by his family.

Until 1844, the Parsis in Karachi were migrants who had left their homes in other parts of India to try their luck in the new boomtown, but most of them saw it as a temporary surge linked to the fortunes of the British army. Horumusji Dadabhai Ghadialy foresaw the future prospects in Karachi as secured, and built his own house in Saddar and, with it, the foundations of a permanent Parsi community in Karachi. Recently demolished, this house was the oldest privately owned house in Karachi.

As time went by, Parsis recorded several other “firsts”. In1858, the first Parsi doctor, Bejonji Rustamji arrived.  He was a recent graduate of the Grant Medical College, and was appointed at the Government Dispensary.  Dinshaw Maneckji Minwalla, who once served in the Royal artillery and went with it to Punjab in 1849, left it and became a partner with W.E. Chamberlain, a trading company.  In 1859 he purchased a press with its newspaper, SIND KASED, Edulji In 1860 becoming the first Karachi Parsi to do so.  Peshotan Dinshaw Minwalla, who was a clerk at the Post Office, joined M/s Cleveland Peel Solicitors as an article clerk and passed his law exams, becoming the first Parsi solicitor of Karachi.

The three things they thought of doing the earliest were :I) The establishment of the Tower of Silence – 1847 ii) The establishment of the Atash Kadeh – 1848 iii) The establishment of the ‘Balak Shala’ – 1858 The Zoroastrian residents of Karachi, through donations and subscriptions opened, on 23rd May 1859 ‘The Parsi Balak Shala’. Seth Nanabhai Framji Spencer was its Secretary for the first three years.

From 1862, it was managed by two great souls Seth Shapurji Hormusji Soparivala and Seth Pestonji Byramji Kotwal. They both nurtured and watered this sapling for decades and grew it into a mighty tree which today stands on the Haji Abdullah Haroon Road as the ‘Bai Virbaijee Soparivala Parsi High School’.

Parsi girls had been receiving elementary education,

in the ‘Balak Shala’ and Bai Virbaijee Soparivala Parsi High School since 1859.

Gradually more and more Parsi families felt the need of educating their daughters and the number of girl students increased. The necessity of a separate school for Parsi girls became a matter of great importance to the elders of the community. In 1903 Mr. Eduljee Dinshaw sent the first proposal to establish a High School for Parsi girls. Unfortunately, the proposal fell through on account of the sharing of donations with the Boys’ School. Again in 1911 Seth Eduljee Dinshaw sent a generous offer of Rs.50,000/- to establish a separate Girls’ School and once again the project did not materialize on account of legal and practical difficulties.

Finally it was Jamshed Nusserwanjee Mehta, the greatest humanitarian of this sub-continent who, through his acumen, foresight and his powers of persuasion collected three munificent donations which brought about the establishment of The Mama Parsi Girls’ High School in 1918.

The Parsis of Karachi also continued the tradition that has earned the community the description “Parsi thy name is charity”. As the population of Karachi grew, one of the severest problems that came with the growth was water shortage. People who could afford it, had wells dug on their property; others had to walk long distances to fill water in pitchers from community troughs.

On 1 January 1861, Navajbai, widow of Dadabhai Shapurji Kothari had a well dug at Rattan Tallao for the exclusive use of the Parsi community.  Later, in 1869, public spirited Shapurji Soparivala had another well dug near Rattan Tallao for public use and handed it over to the municipality. In 1865, when Karachi suffered floods, with 20 inches of rain falling in six hours, and a cholera epidemic, Parsis once again rose to the occasion distributing clothes, food and medicine to the people of Karachi. One Parsi who stands out for philanthropy bordering on eccentricity was Hormusji Sohrabji Kothari, a prosperous contractor for the army.

He supplied sherry and champagne free to cholera victims.  The incentive was sufficient for some to fake the sickness! One of the leading names in nineteenth century Karachi Parsi history is that of Edulji Dinshaw. He began as a trader; subsequently he invested in real estate and became a major land owner. The Dinshaws are noted for many charitable foundations, but particularly in health care with dispensaries established in 1882, 1887 and 1903 at the time when epidemics were common.

The Eduljee Dinshaw Dispensary that was opened in 1882 still stands in the heart of Saddar. He was also by far the largest donor of the Lady Dufferin Hospital founded in Karachi in 1894 and still a major hospital in the city. His descendants made substantial donations for the development of the Nadirshah Edulji Dinshaw Engineering University in 1924, the oldest engineering institution in Pakistan.

By the end of the 19th century there was a substantial Parsi community in Karachi.

Alexander Baillie, in his book Kurrachee (1890) writes:

The number of Parsis residing in the town by no means represents their importance as factors of trade and commerce of the port. As their name implies they originally came from Pars or Persia, and are said to have settled in India in the seventh century.  They are called “fire worshippers” but I question very much whether that title explains their tenets.  The community is not large throughout the country, and is said not to exceed a quarter of a million, but that body is compact and entirely self-supporting.  There are no Parsi beggars, and there are no Parsi women of bad character.  They are extremely charitable; they not only look after their own poor, but they raise a fund for paying the capitation tax levied on their co-religionists in Persia.  They are clever at languages, and have a wonderous power of collecting information from all parts of the world.  A Parsi in his office at Bombay probably knows more about the current opinions of Muhammadans and Hindus in India and its neighbour countries, then all our commissioners and collectors, put together, and could forecast what is likely to occur with much greater nicety, then our combined intelligence departments.

Of the foreign markets they watch every change; by no means restricting themselves to those of Europe, Asia and Africa; they extend their operations to Australia and United States, to Brazil and even to South American Republics.  Endowed with great quickness of perception, and animated with an insatiable desire to acquire wealth, which, however, they dispense freely, it is charged against them that they strike extremely hard bargains.  Their commercial success is certainly well deserved, for they display an amount of energy and activity, which is seldom exceeded by Europeans.  There are Parsis who have traveled in light marching order round and round the world, searching for new trade outlets.  Their baggage frequently consists of a solitary carpet bag, but it is one that emulates that of the great prestidigitator Houdini, for out of it are produced ordinary wearing apparels, books and maps, photographs and plans, and if ceremony demands its use, a suit for the evening dress is never wanting.

Among those visionaries were the late Sir Kawasji Hormasji Katrak, Jamshed Nusserwanjee, and Khan Bahdur Ardesher Mama, who entailed a protracted correspondence with the authorities to acquire land and worked out its terms and conditions with the Indian government. But it was the good offices of Sir Katrak that enabled the Society to acquire on lease about 96,000 square yards of Government land in 1924 at the yearly rent of Rs.360/-. For this valuable service rendered by Sir Katrak, the colony was named after him, viz. Katrak Parsi Colony.

The number of Parsis in Karachi does not exceed 1000 but among them are to be found many cultivated gentlemen of great wealth and keen intellect, exceedingly charitable and patriotic, in the sense that they are always ready and anxious to develop, and benefit the town in which they reside, and in which their interest are concentrated.

In the twentieth century, the Parsis of Karachi continued to prosper and to include the city in their prosperity, establishing schools and universities, dispensaries and hospitals, restaurants and hotels. And the community also gave rise to one of Karachi’s most distinguished and beloved icons, Jamshed Nusserwanjee Mehta, who has the unique distinction of being elected the Mayor of Karachi for twelve consecutive years and is fondly remembered as the “Maker of Modern Karachi”.

The Parsi Gymkhana was established in 1893 by two Parsi gentlemen eager to encourage sports in their community. Cricket, billiards and other popular games were encouraged in a center was originally built for men. In 1899, women were given the permission to enter the Karachi Parsi Institute and dine there.

Byram Dinshawji Avari is a prominent Pakistani  businessman in Karachi Hotel management.  The Avari Group’s core business in the group owns and operates Avari Hotels which includes 5-star deluxe hotel, the 5-star Avari Towers and the seafront Beach Luxury Hotel in Karachi.

Ardeshir Cowasjee (Urdu: اردشير Ú©Ø§Ùˆïº³ïº ï»°) is a renowned newspaper columnist from Karachi, Sindh in Pakistan. His columns regularly appear in the country’s oldest English language daily newspaper Dawn and are translated to appear in Urdu press.

Ardeshir Cowasjee was born in 1926 at Karachi and hails from the well-known Cowasjee Parsi (Zoroastrian ) family. His father Rustom Fakirjee Cowasjee was a businessman in merchant shipping. Ardeshir attended the Bai Virbaiji Soparivala Parsi High School (BVS) and graduated from DJ Science College, Karachi. Later, he joined his father’s business, the Cowasjee Group, and married Nancy Dinshaw in 1953.

He has two children, Ava (daughter) and Rustom (son).

Ardeshir Cowasjee is affectionately known as AC. He is also very active in various social and philanthropic activities in Pakistan and is regarded as an old ‘guardian’ of the city of Karachi where he regularly battles (with the pen and in court) land grabbers and illegal building projects.

Ardeshir was appointed by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as Managing Director of Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) in 1973 but was jailed for 72 days in 1976 by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto for which no explanation has been given to date; it is said that Prime Minister Bhutto did that to rein Cowasjee because the latter was becoming increasingly vocal about Bhutto’s authoritarian ways. Ardeshir subsequently started writing letters to the editor of Dawn Newspaper, which led him to become a permanent columnist. Since then, his hard-hitting and well-researched columns in Dawn have continuously exposed corruption, nepotism and incompetence in different local, provincial and national governments for the last twenty years.