Pakistan’s Fading Parsi Community Looks Abroad


September 4, 2015

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Veera Rustomji who has been quoted in the original article writes in:

I am seriously disappointed with the quality of this article; the extremely limited content of this write up and its lack of research is the reason why I gave the interview to AFP in the first place because I had hoped that perhaps the journalist would provide a NEW and interesting insight into Karachi’s Parsis.

I am so, so tired of reading wishy-washy articles on Parsis of Pakistan and how they are emigrating. It is literally the ONLY thing journalists seem to be interested in publishing – while I can fully appreciate the concern and initiative to interview minorities and give them a platform to speak from – which is why I wholeheartedly said yes to the AFP – why not transcribe and use their perspectives to throw light on the diversity of the existing community and write about other problems the Parsis are facing rather than this same old ultimatum ‘dwindling and aging community’ status. I discussed a plethora of interesting topics with the AFP reporter. For instance, despite the Parsi community being wealthy there is minimal investment in the research and documentation of our heritage, culture and history. Or, why there is such a heavy dependency on oral traditions for religious knowledge. Or, the growing number of Zoroastrian organizations all over the world who are successful and thriving. Or how many EXISTING Pakistani Parsis continue to believe that Pakistan is their rightful home. More interesting, how the successful charity, Banu Mandal, run solely by Parsi women, has literally eliminated poverty in Karachi.

Of course every journalist and reporter has an agenda and a certain criteria to fulfill but this article does not tell you anything about Parsis it literally ends as soon as it begins and continues with this exaggerated, romanticized, awful and gloomy tone. There are many ethical issues with this article. Firstly, the article states an incorrect fact; Jadi Rana was NOT a Zoroastrian leader, he is mythological Hindu King of Gujarat whom the newly immigrated Iranian Zoroastrian Priests spoke with in order to live on Jadi Rana’s land near the Nargol coast. Secondly I really disapprove of how this article continuously uses the phrase ‘fire worshipers’ but fails to articulate why this term is so unethical because Zoroastrianism is the first monotheistic religion from which components of Judaism and Islam are adapted from. Neither fire nor water is worshiped by Zoroastrians they are elements of nature through which we communicate our prayers to God. I am not sure as to why the writer and editors have insensitively settled on including “the rotting stench of death emanates from the Tower of Silence” and other unnecessary graphic details of Zoroastrian funerals which creates this exotic pagan portrayal.

The article has refused to include the ecological value and the theory behind the way a Zoroastrian funeral is designed. Yes, there is a stench when the dead body rots, yes the bones are left exposed to the sun, but there is a certain scientific and theological reason as to why these rituals are continued and there are modern economic issues why these rituals are not feasible anymore. The writer has not elaborated on these problems and instead includes overly romanticized conclusions and does not give a holistic sense of the funeral rites. Overall, I am so unimpressed by this superficial report on Karachi’s Parsis – It’s one thing to ask interviewees for their help and spend over an hour with them talking about complex issues and personal thoughts and then just pick up and only use the flashy/weepy sentences and bung it all together.

I was so hopeful that the interviewer would include more thoughtful perspectives that we discussed or at least write about the current positivity the Parsis are responsible for in Karachi rather than dwelling on the past. Not only is it unfair and but it is tacky and selfish journalism to misrepresent people who you have talked to for hours and not include wholesome elaborations especially when discussing minority religious communities.

For more than 1,000 years, Parsis have thrived in South Asia but an ageing population and emigration to the West driven by instability in Pakistan means the tiny community of “fire worshippers” could soon be consigned to the country’s history books.

Article written by Zamir Laghari and published by Agence France-Presse


Pakistani Parsi (Zoroastrian) priests Jehangir Noshik (L) and Jal Dinshaw (R) sitting at their prayer place in Karachi. (AFP)


The ancestors of today’s Parsis in Pakistan — followers of Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest religions — fled Persia over a millennium ago for the safety of the western Indian subcontinent.

Legend has it Parsi leader Jadi Rana made a pledge to the then emperor of India that Zoroastrians, known in the region as Parsis, would not be a burden but would blend in like sugar into milk.


But today they are a fading people across the subcontinent, with many affluent families from India and Pakistan leaving for the West.

The community, which has long been active in business and charity, has been unnerved by the upsurge in Islamist extremist violence. One expert said the loss of the Parsis would be a “huge blow” to Pakistan’s diversity.

Only around 1,500 are left in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, where they have “fire temples”, community centres and final resting places — where the remains of their dead are left in the open to be consumed by vultures according to their tradition.

Parsis are often called “fire worshippers” because their religion considers fire — together with water — as agents of purity and fires are lit as part of religious ceremonies.


They have long been discreet in observing their faith, but some, like 23-year-old art student Veera Rustomji, think they need to do more to preserve their heritage.

“It’s been successful (in) that we have been an unattacked and unharmed community because of our low profile,” she said at her studio at the Indus Valley College.

“But at the same time it backfires because a lot of people focus on how the community is becoming small numerically.”

Business Leaders

Rustomji has traced her family’s past in Hong Kong, where Parsis founded a university, a ferry service and hospitals. It is this link to business as well as charity that Byram Avari, the head of the Avari chain, one of Pakistan’s leading luxury hotel groups, said has allowed the community to build an enduring relationship with Karachi.

“Before partition the ladies maternity home called Lady Duferfin hospital was put up (by) the Parsis, the NED college, now medical college, the Spencer Eye hospital and I cannot tell you how many numerous things have been set up by the Parsis for people of Karachi,” he told AFP.

Parsis believe “in giving back what they had,” he added.

But today young Parsis are leaving in droves.

The past decade has seen Islamist violence soar, with religious minorities often in the extremists’ crosshairs. While Parsis have not been specifically targeted, many feel vulnerable.

‘We Cannot See a Future’


“There is a general instability in the country. Because of this we cannot see a future for our community here right now,” says Kaivan Solan, a 27-year-old training to become a priest.

Izdeyar Setna, 37, a freelance photographer with a slew of international clients, added that Parsis were seeking new lives in countries with larger Parsi communities, such as Canada.

“I think most people are leaving because of a few reasons. One is security. The way things are, people are scared not knowing if things are going to get better,” he said.

“So I think they are trying to get out. Most people are going to Canada, or the USA, wherever it is easy to get the visa.”

In the city’s Parsi neighbourhood, the rotting stench of death emanates from the Tower of Silence, a large circular structure where the bones of the dead are kept in accordance with Zoroastrian practice.

For many these traditions must go on, and the compound provides a sense of belonging.

It is home to dozens of Parsi families but many have now hired armed guards because of attempts to seize their land by a neighbouring Muslim community.

“Losing a community like the Parsis is definitely a huge blow to a tolerant Pakistan, its cultural diversity and economic well-being as Parsis have contributed immensely to the progress of this country,” said Rabia Mehmood, a researcher on religious minorities at the Jinnah Institute think thank.

Not all the threats faced by Parsis are external. They are already facing a low birth rate and their marriage laws are extremely strict, forcing women to leave the community if they “marry out” — though men marrying non-Parsis is tolerated.

“I would love to (marry) if I find the right person, but it’s difficult because the numbers are so small,” Rustomji, the student, said.

Growing up in such a close-knit soceity, familiarity can breed contempt, she said.

“I grew up in Karachi and all the Parsi boys I know since I was 10. It’s just science that I wouldn’t just fall in love with them when I turn 28,” she said, referring to the age by which most Pakistani women get married.

“When Parsi men marry out of the community, they are undeniably accepted more and unquestioned… I find that very hypocritical because Zoroastrianism is a religion that advocates equality for both sexes.