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 Vohuman.org. 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.

 

  • Siloo Kapadia

    Thank you for such a wonderful and informative post. I too had a few relatives in Karachi. Yes, the Parsees did a lot for Karachi. Too bad that few are left. When I visited Karachi back in 2005 I was totally shocked to see the city the way it was. I was especially shocked to see the Parsee Colony. So many if not most of the gorgeous homes were left empty. Naturally, most of the owners have long since left Pakistan for greener pasteures elsewhere, and few are left to buy those homes. The smart thing to do would be to allow nonParsees to buy those houses. Dismantle the “Parsee Colony” as there are few Parsees left. As it is the whole colony will become a desert if not enough people live there.

    So many of the local Parsees have intermarried with the Muslim population, and have converted and that is the end of that. I doubt that there will be any Parsee population left in 20 years time. As I recall, the crowds that I met were largely older (65-plus) people. They all either had no children, or their children were long gone to North America, UK, Australia or to Singapore or Hong Kong.

    For those Parsees in India who still believe in keeping the ban on converts as well as the spouses and children of intermarried couples, I urge you (if you can) to make a visit to Karachi. There you will see what your community will be like in a very, very short time.

  • Zarina Jal Bulsara

    Sillo Kapadia says that the Parsees in India should allow converts to sustain the population, yet in her comment she also says “many local Parsees intermarried and converted to Islam and that is the end of that” how does she justify that? So, tell me which way should we go? convert and die out, or die with dignity? Also, I would like to know from this reformists the ball park number of practicing Zoroastrians from these intermarried couples? Why do people keep insisting on conversion rather than find a solution to increase the population? How many Zoroastrians landed on the shores of India in the 9th century, does any one know? and when we reached our highest numbers(in population) till the end of 19th century, was it due to conversion or traditionalism?
    Ushta-te

  • Zerxes.Dordi

    The observations of Ms. Kapasdia are very pertinent. We just cannot afford to talk of the past when wthe world is changing fast. Pakistan is considered a failed state and many Parsees have migrated to the West for a better life. In short the decline in Parsee population in Pakistan is due to factors beyond the control of the community i.e. the polotical stability and rising religious fanaticism of radical Islamists.
    In India, the cause of decline in Parsee population is owning to fanaticism from within the community itself. The rabid have money power from a megalomaniac to cretate nuisancew value and irrelevant issues. Similar fate awaits Parsees of India when the lunatic fringe compels the members of the community to migrate because of religious tyrrany

  • Fali Khushroo Madon

    Very glad to have read this Amazing article.
    Nepean Sea Road in Mumbai, INDIA is renamed as Jamshed N. Mehta Road (popularly known as J. Mehta Marg). Mr. J.N. Mehta was elected for 12 consecutive yrs. as Mayor Of Karachi, a proud moment for all Parsees.

  • Pingback: The Pioneering Parsis of Karachi | Parsi Khabar | Pakistan Realtor()

  • Burjor Bharucha

    Its a real shame that the glorious past era of the parsi community seems to come to an end. All efforts on the part of the BPP and other organisations do not seem have the desired results due to various problems viz. housing, high standard of living, changed life styles where couples now deem it necessary to have nuclear families. It seems destiny has a major role to play in this state of affairs and there is not much one could do except to accept the situation and move on.

  • Phiroze

    Wonder why the numbers went down in Karachi even though they accepted all inter-married spouses and children. That argument seems to be flawed

  • Jeannie Antia

    Just ignore the dumb and get married to the one you love!

  • Noshir M. Khambatta

    Thank you Mr. Phil Masters for this informative article. Should you wish to enlarge this article into a small booklet or a comprehensive article for a journal in the future, please format the names as: [Last Name], [First name] [Father’s name], etc. (year of birth – year of death) so that Parsee and Zarathushtrian bibliographers can properly index these names in their authority files. Many thanks.

  • Siloo Kapadia

    @Zarina Jal Bulsara : Deekree, the intermarried in Pakistan mostly left the religion due to the fact that their spouses and children would never be accepted into the Parsi fold. Also there is no dignity in dying out due to stupidity, backward/racist thinking and bias. The original Zoroastrians that fled to South Asia were few in number. They intermarried with the local population and thus formed what is considered the “Parsi community.” However, racially we are so intermingled with the various races in South Asia that we have little if any “Aryan” DNA left, despite what the bawaji bullies repeat in their mantras. But thinking in these terms is akin to Nazi thinking. If once accepts the tenants of the religion, why can’t they be accepted? What does DNA and blood line have to do with it? Why can’t a person love God they same way we do and become one of us? After all, our forefathers came from Persia and intermarried and became part of the South Asian/Indian community. The Indians/Hindus didn’t throw us out. It is a good thing they didn’t have the same racist ideas that so many Parsis have today.

    As for the numbers that are intermarried, you may want to contact ZAGNY as they have an intermarried group. Please see this link for further information.
    http://zagny.org/?s=intermarried

  • Barak Aga

    Phiroze 14 January 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    “Wonder why the numbers went down in Karachi even though they accepted all inter-married spouses and children. That argument seems to be flawed”

    ——————————————————————————
    “So many of the local Parsees have intermarried WITH THE MUSLIM POPULATION, AND HAVE CONVERTED”

    Wonder how folks with a limited understanding of English rush to open their big mouth and put their feet right down to their gullet.

    Wonder how the number of Zoroastrians went from 1 (Zarathustra’s cousin Maidhyoimangha) to 100,000.

    Wonder how only 1 man, Maidhyoimangha (without a woman) was able to produce 100,000 progeny!

    Abiogenetically, wasn’t it?

  • Barak Aga

    To the opponents of “conversion”

    The Iranian peoples (also Iranic peoples) are a historical ethnic-linguistic group, consisting of the speakers of Iranian languages, a major branch of the Indo-European language family, as such forming a branch of Indo-European-speaking peoples.

    Their historical areas of settlement were in Central Asia, on the Iranian plateau and beyond in southern, and southwestern Asia and southeastern Europe.

    Their current distribution is spread across the Iranian plateau, stretching from the Hindu Kush to the Armenian Highlands and central Anatolia and from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf – a region that is sometimes termed Greater Iran

  • Barak Aga

    To those who oppose conversion, stomach this :

    1) Achaemenid Empire – 8.0 million km2 (480 BC)

    44.0% of the worlds population. (49.4 million out of 112.4 million in the 5th century BC/480 BC)

    2) Sassanid Empire, Persia 3.5 million km2 (AD 450)

    37.1% (78.0 million out of 210 million in the 7th century AD

    Wonder when Zarathustra was able to “convert” only 1 person in the world – Maidhyoimangha – how we ended up having 78 million ‘bawajis’.

  • Delnavaz

    Wow what an informative article. The Parsis of Karachi were no different from the Parsis in Bombay or anywhere else in India. They were hardworking, honest & pious. As the article says quote 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 present situation in Pakistan is unfortunately v. grim. I suppose anyone who can leave Pakistan, Parsi or not, would have done so.
    I feel particularly proud of my Parsi heritage after reading Alexander Baillie’s observations about our community in his book Kurrachee.
    thanks for the article.

  • Behram Aga

    There is nothing to wonder why Parsi population in Karachi has declined just like in Gujarat and Bombay. The reason is not far to seek. It is because of the lousy orthodox, their convoluted thinking and humbug. In ancient Iran the Zoroastrians converted others to the Zoroastrian religion, in the present times stupid Parsis are proud to let their children particularly women convert to Islam, Christianity, and other religions.
    As stated Zarthustra had only one disciple but he made strenuous efforts to convert others to Zoroastrian religion and not like the buffoons of today who are out to destroy the community and the religion. They are certainly doing a fine job.
    So keep it up the dhongis are on the right track.

  • Dorab.

    Mr. Behram Aga,
    Sorry to correct you. What you attribute to so called Orhodox is not the Orthodoxy. It is bigotism, racism, dhongidoxism and deformist line of thinking.
    What you state about the conversion by our prophet is TRUE ORTHODOXY and that precisely makes us all ORTHODOX in the genuine sense of the term unlike our ‘majority deformists’.

  • Quratulain Ali Khan

    Hi,

    I am a journalism student at Columbia University. I am interested in doing a story on Parsi families who have moved from Karachi and ar now living in New York. If anyone knows of anyone who I may be able to interview please contact me on qak2001@columbia.edu.

  • The Late Cawas Jehangirji Bardoliwalla:

    Born in Bombay Cawas attended The Sir J.J.P.B Institution and was to be the Highest amongst those who Passed The S.S.C.Examination in 1953.

    Mini Bio:
    Cawas was born in Bombay and attended The Sir J.J.P.B Institution and was to be the highest amongst those who passed The S.S.C.Examination in 1953. He subsequently went on to achieve a 1st Class Honours Degree in Mechanical Engineering from The University of Bombays Technical Instute for Science and Technology. He was awarded a full honorary Scholarship from The ex-students Jubilee fund to further his studies at London’s Imperial College of Science and Technology during which time he worked alongside Professor D.B.Spalding CBE in the field of Heat Transfer and Rocket Combustion from 1958 to 1961 and was later awarded The Prestigious DIC (The Diploma of ‘Membership’ of The Imperial College). He was subsequently inducted as a Chartered Member of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and later went on to be appointed Senior Architect at The World Most illustrious Car Giant Rolls Royce & Bentley Motors UK Ltd. Three months prior to his death he was due for promotion as Head of Aerospace (Civil & Defence) Archtectural Engineering and Design at Rolls Royce’s Aerospace Divisional HQ in Crew. Sadley he passed away due to heart failure in 1978 aged just 44 years. Deeply missed.

    Sincerely,

    Neville Cawas Cyrus Bardoliwalla OBE (Son)

  • Sibte Sajjad

    J.N.Mehta Mayor of Karachi. official postal stamp …this is a wall painting at the roadside cafe, karachi.