Parsis: The Builders of Karachi

Parsis/Parsees or Zoroastrians are the followers of an ancient Iranian Religion founded by the Prophet Zoroaster. As the name of this ethno-religious community denotes, Parsis trace their origins to Pars, modern-day Fars in Iran from where they fled in the face of the Arab conquest of Iran in the seventh century A.D.

Compelled to either convert or flee, some groups of Zoroastrians chose to migrate via the Persian Gulf to Gujarat in Western India. Although the exact date is not recorded, Parsi traditions generally accept 636 C.E.[1] as the year of their arrival in India.

By the fifteenth century, the Parsis were well established in Cambay and Surat. Members of the community had been honoured by the Mogul Emperor Akbar[2] and the community as a whole seems to have quietly thrived and grown. The coming of the European traders added to their prosperity as they promptly, and with great success, took on the role of middle-men, interpreters and contractors. When the British East India Company shifted its headquarters to Bombay, the Parsis followed in great numbers.

The annexation of Sind by the British in the nineteenth century saw a substantial flow of Parsis to Karachi and the eventual establishment of a small but extremely influential community, which played an important role in both the intellectual as well as physical development of the city. Although the Parsi population in Karachi never exceeded a hundred thousand, it has in recent years dwindled to a minuscule number. A 2006 survey by K.E. Eduljee sadly puts the number at 1,800[3], but current surveys show that it has diminished even further since then.

Although a substantial amount of literature exists about the religion, its rituals and ceremonies and its long and ancient history, as well as discussions about the large-scale twentieth century Diaspora, the paucity of written information or academic research on the contemporary status of this vital yet declining community in Pakistan is dismaying. My research will focus on the experiences of Parsi community in Karachi, over the years, beginning in the nineteenth century when members of the community first began settling in this city and the changes that have taken place since the Independence from British Rule and Partition of the Indian Subcontinent in 1947. Karachi at the time of Partition was a very pluralistic, heterogeneous city with sizable Hindu, Parsi and Goanese populations; however, the political and social climate in the country has forced the majority of these long settled minorities to migrate to other parts of the world.

Drawing on published written material as well as privately printed books, pamphlets and magazines, Government Gazetteers and records, along with in-depth interviews and conversations with some prominent members of the community in Karachi, I hope to be able to present a cohesive analysis of the Parsi experience, their past, present and future place in the city they built.

Zarathushtrianism or Zoroastrianism, probably the oldest revealed, monotheistic religion in the world, was the dominant religion within the vast Persian Empire for well over a thousand years. The Prophet Zarathushtra, better known by his Greek name Zoroaster, is believed to have lived around 1400 BCE in eastern Iran. He preached that life is essentially a struggle between good and evil and that individuals through the exercise of free will can choose their course of life and destiny.  Elements of this ancient religion can be found in all the later middle-eastern religions that followed including Judaism, Christianity and Islam as well as in the works of Greek and Roman philosophers.

Patronised by the Imperial Persian court, it remained the pre-eminent belief system throughout the long centuries of Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian rule. The Greek conquest of Persia and the defeat of the last Achaemenid Emperor at the hands of Alexander of Macedonia was the first calamity faced by this well-established religion; temples were ruthlessly destroyed along with thousands of sacred texts.  However, under Parthian patronage, the religion was reinvigorated and restored its earlier standing. Eventually, though, it was the seventh-century conquest of the Persian Empire by the Arab that actually proved apocalyptic for the followers of Zarathushtrianism; large-scale conversions to Islam and prejudicial treatment by the Arabs decimated their numbers and left them seriously disadvantaged.[4]

According to traditional Parsi oral narratives and the pre-eminent Qissa-i-Sanjan,[5] the 1599 Chronicle penned by the Navsari Parsi priest Bhaman Kaikobad, the immensity of the oppression imposed on their community by the proselytising and dominant Muslims forced them to flee their homeland and seek refuge in more hospitable surroundings. Some of these refugees ended up in Sanjan, Gujarat on the west coast of India, where they were granted permission to reside and allocated land by the local Raja. Parsi historical writings claim that the Raja’s generosity came with a few caveats which the immigrants were quick to acquiesce to. These required the acceptance of local customs, language and women’s clothing as well as a prohibition on the use of arms and proselytising.[6]

An oft-repeated folk-lore relates how the refuge priest, when granted audience with the Raja, requested a bowl of milk and some sugar, then added the sugar to the milk to indicate how the Parsis would blend in with the locals and at the same time add an element of sweetness and augment the host community. Some version of this tale was related to me by almost every Parsi individual I interviewed in my study of the community in Karachi.

With permission to build their sacred Fire Temple, these early immigrants settled down to life as largely agriculturists and artisans. As their numbers increased over the centuries, augmented perhaps, by further migrants, they gradually migrated to other towns and cities in the area including Surat and Cambay. It was in these cities, in the sixteenth century, that they first encountered the Europeans who had just begun to initiate mercantile trade with India. By the eighteenth century, the Dutch and the English had established factories and successful trading companies up and down the east and west coasts of India.  Surat became an important manufacturing and trading centre of the British East India Company and the Parsis, quick to acquire the English language and European mannerisms, were soon able to make themselves an essential part of the trade nexus.  They found a natural niche for themselves in these commercial ventures as brokers, agents and negotiators between the Europeans and the natives, while at the same time securing their own businesses as ship owners, traders, building contractors and warehouse owners.

In 1661 the British acquired Bombay and in 1687 they transferred the headquarters of the British East India Company to the Island.[7] Enterprising Parsi merchants and entrepreneurs soon followed. Although originally Surat had the largest concentration of Parsis, by the early nineteenth century a considerable number of families had moved to Bombay. By the end of that century, Bombay’s Parsi population had outpaced that in other parts of India.  According to the 1851 census, the Parsi population of Bombay was 110,544;[8] the 68,754 male to the much smaller 41,790 female population indicates the number of men who had moved on their own for business purposes and job opportunities leaving their families behind in their hometowns. Active participants in the established of banks, joint-stock companies, shipbuilding, railways, construction and as substantial ship-owners and landholders, Parsi businessmen contributed substantially to the development and growth of the city of Bombay. Even today names such as Tata, Godrej, Mehta, Wadia, Cowasjee and Dinshaw, to name just a few prominent industrialists and entrepreneurs, continue to endure in the highest echelons of Indian enterprise.

The special relationship that the Parsis developed with the British provided them with the patronage and support to expand their geographic range and under the aegis of the British, they were able to extend their businesses throughout British India and even beyond to other imperial colonies as far as Hong Kong. They played a dominant role in the local municipal government of Bombay and as major philanthropists contributed generously to the establishment of educational institutions, a prime example being the Elphinstone Institution (now College), as well as hospitals and welfare organisations. A number of eminent Parsi businessmen–cum-philanthropists received honours and titles from the British crown and generally benefited from the sponsorship they received from the colonial government.  These included the baronets Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, Sir Cowasjee Jehangir Readymoney, Sir Dinshaw Maneckji Petit, Sir Dorabjee Tata and several others. Involvement in civic work, a sense of civic duty and unmitigated zeal for education and social welfare subsequently became the proud hallmarks of the Parsi identity.[9]

It was in all probability sometime in the early nineteenth century, around the 1820s, that Parsis first began to settle down in Sind and other areas that now constitute Pakistan.[10] According to Parsi records, the first Parsi business establishment in Karachi was the Jassawalla Company, which appears to have carried out trade in Hyderabad, Sukkur, Multan all the way to Jalalabad and Kabul. Parsi traders followed in the footsteps of the British colonial armies as they expanded the borders of the empire into Sind, Baluchistan and Afghanistan. The Anglo-Afghan wars of the nineteenth century attracted a large number of military contractors and suppliers to these newly incorporated areas; invariably many of these were Parsis from Bombay and Surat. Before long Parsi families had settled in the newly developed garrison towns and cantonments of Quetta, Multan, Hyderabad, Lahore, Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Karachi.

With the establishment of Karachi as the headquarters of the Commissioner of Sind, the number of Parsi enterprises in the city increased.  The Parsi population gained a secure footing in the city, and in 1844 the first Parsi owned house was built by Seth Hormusji Dadabhoy Ghadialy.[11]  Seth Hormusji had made a substantial fortune as a British Army contractor during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) and was a leading member of the Parsi Anjuman in Karachi. He built the first Dahkma or Tower of Silence (referred to as the Ghadially Dakhma) where the Parsi dead are left exposed to the birds of prey in accordance with the Zoroastrian belief that the earth should not be contaminated and polluted by the impure, putrefying dead body. He was also responsible for the distribution of residential land to his community for what came to be known as the Parsi Colony of Karachi.

Within a couple of decades, Parsis ended up owing much of the land in Saddar and what today constitutes “old Karachi”. But the premier landowner in Karachi in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was Seth Edulji Dinshaw. Seth Edulji made his fortune as a British Army contractor during the 1878-80 Second Anglo-Afghan War. In Karachi, Seth Edulji invested heavily in real estate, a venture that paid off handsomely and made him the largest and wealthiest landowner in Karachi. Other than being a major philanthropist, Seth Edulji built the Lady Dufferin Hospital in 1898, to date the largest women’s hospital in the Karachi, and several charitable dispensaries-cum-clinics including the Edulji Dinshaw Dispensary. Along with Seth Hormusji Jamshedji Rustomji, the famous Parsi builder, he was a long-time Trustee of the Karachi Port Trust and the Karachi Municipal Corporation and was the first Karachite to be awarded the British Imperial Order of C.I.E [12] in 1889 for his services to the public.[13] The Dinshaw family tradition of charity and philanthropy was continued by his son Nadirshaw Edulji Dinshaw after whom the N.E.D Engineering University in Karachi is named.

The Parsi tradition of giving back to the community was well represented on the educational front. The realisation that education had paved the way to their success motivated a number of wealthy Parsis to contribute generously to the establishment and running of several educational institutes, most of which continue to provide learning and scholarship to young people in the city.

Seth Shapurji Hormusji Soparivala, like many of the other early Parsi migrants to Karachi, also started his business career as a military contractor. The Bai Virbaiji Soparivala Parsi School or B.V.S Parsi School, which opened in 1859, is named after his deceased wife of many years. Initially the school was housed in Seth Soparivala’s own home on Frere Road, which he had donated to the educational institute, later however under the auspices of his sons Seth Khurshedji and Seth Jamshedji the school was shifted to a much larger, custom-built structure on Victoria Road (now Abdullah Haroon Road) where it still stands, a testimonial to the generosity of this family. Although B.V.S was initially a co-ed institution, it was not long before the largely conservative Parsi community voiced the need for a separate girl’s school. The three gentlemen whose largesse made this a reality in 1918 were Seth Navroji  Nusserwanji Pochaji, Khan Bahadur Nusserwanji Rustomji Mehta and  Khan Bahadur Ardershir Hormusji Mama whose magnanimous donation of his spacious new mansion provided the necessary premises for the new school, the still excellent Mama Parsi Girls School on Victoria Road.

“The Builder of Modern Karachi”, Khan Bahadur Jamshed Nusserwanji Rustomji Mehta was born in Karachi in 1886. A successful businessman, he served as an elected member and then President of the Municipal Corporation for twelve years. Khan Bahadur Nusserwanji was elected as the very first Mayor of Karachi and was the man responsible for building the city into a well planned and highly efficiently run cosmopolitan city. The boundless generosity of the Parsi elite cannot be in any way underestimated; the open-handed philanthropy of men such as Sir Jehangir Hormusji Kothari and Sir Kavasji Hormusji Katrak in the early twentieth century is legendary. Along with many other private and public buildings, the finest example of Sir Jehangir Kothari’s largesse was the voluntary demolition his own house in Clifton and the subsequent development of a pavilion, promenade and pier on that property which he gifted to the citizens of Karachi. “The Jehangir Kothari Parade” as it was named by the grateful municipality, was further enhanced by Sir Katrak’s endowment of a bandstand to provide free music for the public.[14] A school for the blind and the city sanatorium also owe their existence to the generosity of this charitable man.

Alexander Baillie writing about the Parsis in Karachi in his 1890 account of the city noted that though, “The number of Parsis in Kurrachee does not exceed 1,000, 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 interests are concentrated.”[15] This Parsi characteristic of philanthropy has its roots in Zoroastrian ethic. Moreover “Parsi charity functioned to foster internal community bonds and acted as a lubricant of good inter-community relations.”[16] This attribute distinguished Parsis as a community that, although small in number, asserted considerable influence within nineteenth and early twentieth-century Indian society.

Undoubtedly the Parsi population has always been statistically minuscule, but the recent discernable decline in numbers, 12 per cent per decade since 1941,[17] has become a major source of consternation and concern within the community. This crucial reality has also created dissent and controversy and much debate amongst its members in both India and Pakistan as well as within the wider international Diaspora. Although migration has been one of the primary factors of population decline in both India and in Pakistan, more so in the latter country since the 1980s, there are a number of other reasons for the decrease as well. Although it is impossible to actually put a date to the start of this practice within the community, Parsis have observed strict endogamy over the past few centuries. In more recent times the taboo against marriages outside the community has relaxed to the extent of accepting the offspring of a Parsi father when the mother is non-Parsi, but not those of a Parsi woman who marries a non-Parsi man. This gender discrimination can go as far as to excommunicate women who marry outside the community, forbidding them from entering the Temple and participating in religious events.  There has been much discussion, dispute and disagreements on the subject of who should be considered a Parsi, whether conversions are acceptable and if children of a non-Parsi father should be accepted within the fold if they chose to follow the Zoroastrian religion.

My research into the Parsi community in Karachi led me to interview a number of Parsi men and women whose ancestral roots had been firmly established in Karachi long before the creation of Pakistan and discuss the sea change that occurred in their community’s life as a result of the Partition of India.

Toxy Cowasjee is a proud sixth-generation member of the prominent Cowasjee shipping family and, as I was told by more than one person, an absolute authority on the Parsi community in Karachi.  Married to her cousin Cyrus Cowasjee, Toxy has lived and worked in Karachi most of her life; her two children also continue to reside in Karachi with their families. She has been affiliated with World Zoroastrian Organisation since 1992 and their Pakistani Representative since 1994; she was the Vice President of the WZO from January 2010 to December 2011 and is currently a Board Member. Since 2002 she has been the Editor of Hamazor (togetherness), the World Zoroastrian Organisation’s quarterly publication. Toxy has to her credit the distinction of being the first elected female president of the 1893-established Karachi Parsi Institute (the Parsi Gymkhana) from 2004 to 2006. For their centenary celebrations in 1993, she compiled a 100-year history of the KPI in a booklet format. In 1968 Toxy joined the Karachi Zarthosti Banu Mandal, the Parsi women’s welfare association, and was elected as their President from 1994 to 2001, “bringing it successfully into the 21st century.” Under her leadership the KZBM put together an A&T (Address and Telephone) directory of all the Parsis in Pakistan which she periodically updates; in 1999, the directory saw an amendment in that expatriates with email addresses were included. In 1995 the KZBM conducted a nationwide census of the Parsis in the country, which was published as a booklet. Since then Toxy has made it her personal task to annually revise and recalibrate the numbers.  In 1995 the total number of community members was recorded as 2,831; today, 20 years later, the number stands at 1,479.  It was Toxy who provided me with the accurate and updated demographics of the Parsis in Pakistan:

City Total population Male Female
Karachi 1408 630 778
Lahore 40 17 23
Rawalpindi/Islamabad 19 7 12
Quetta 10 4 6
Multan 2 1 1

Toxy also provided me with valuable insight into the unique characteristics of the Parsi community in Pakistan. The fact that they are less orthodox than their Indian cousins, she firmly credits to the erstwhile high Priest of Karachi, Dasturji Dr Maneckji Nusserwanji Dhalla who held that post from 1909 till his death in 1956 and whose teachings continue to reverberate within the community.  The liberal openness that defines and distinguishes the Parsi community in Pakistan owes much to the Dastur Dhalla, an extraordinary scholar-cum-priest who rejected extreme, conventional orthodoxy and ritualism in favour of ethics and simplified personal devotion. His favourable stance towards the acceptance of converts within the religious fold laid him open to much criticism and opposition, which he stoutly withstood and countered with his prolific writings and lectures. The esteem and patronage he received early on in life from a number of wealthy admirers, particularly Seth Khurshidji Rustumji Camaji and the Tata family, with added funding from the Karachi Anjuman, enabled him to pursue his academic education in the USA and subsequently obtain a Doctorate from Columbia University in New York City. On his return to India, he was nominated for the post of Dastur or High Priest of Karachi. Every member of the community I spoke to attributes the strength and integrity of the local Parsi congregation to the teachings and guidance of Dasturji Dhalla. His inclusive interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, in their opinion, has created a cohesive and mutually supportive community and one that is receptive to new ideas and change.

The acceptance of new ideas and reformation within religious practices thus became an inherent component of the Karachi Parsi Anjuman. However, in spite of Dasturji’s tolerance, progressive open-mindedness and amenability to change, the controversy about conversion, the acceptance of interfaith marriages, the religious status of children born within unions where the father was a non-Zoroastrian continued, and in fact still impacts the discourse about who is and who is not a Zoroastrian. Eventually, however, the Karachi Anjuman with its intrinsically liberal attitude enacted a radical change; it accorded equal religious rights to inter-married Parsi women:

As long as one of the spouses is a Zoroastrian and still professing the Zoroastrian faith, the children of such unions can be initiated into the religion with the unanimous view of the Karachi Parsi Anjuman Trust Fund (KPATF) board. Further KPATF permits last rites on their properties to all Zoroastrians, even those buried or cremated. (Parsiana of 7th July 2011).

Karachi Parsis, including Toxy Cowasjee, see this as a continuation of Dasturji Dhalla’s enlightened philosophy and teachings which even today continues to permeate the culture and character of the local community.

The disposal of the dead is another contentious issue within the South Asian Parsi Community. According to traditional Zoroastrian philosophy, the dead body is a polluting entity and should not contaminate the earth, therefore, the desirable method of disposing of a dead body is to leave it out in the open for scavengers, birds and animals to pick clean. In ancient Iran, dead bodies were exposed on top of hills, or mounds at a distance from human dwellings. Later Dakhmas or burial towers, commonly referred to as Towers of Silence, were built, within which the dead bodies were left exposed to scavenging vultures and other birds of prey. With the expansion of cities and the subsequent large-scale extinction of vultures in urban areas, this method has come to be viewed with askance by non-Parsis residing close to these structures. Moreover, the infeasibility of using this method of disposal in new host countries where large diasporic Zoroastrian communities now reside has given rise to the acceptance of burial or cremation as realistic and pragmatic alternatives. Orthodox Parsis, however, firmly believe that the age-old traditional methods are the best and most hygienic form of disposing of dead bodies and are reluctant to accept burial or cremation as appropriate options.

The first Dakhma in Karachi was constructed in 1848 by Seth Hormusji Dadabhoy Ghadially. A quarter of a century later, this structure was deemed inadequate, an indication of the rapidly increasing Parsi population in Karachi. As a result, the currently used (larger) Dakhma was built with funding from the Karachi Zarthosti Anjuman and consecrated in 1875.

Like many of the other successful nineteenth-century Parsi businessmen, Seth Hormusji Ghadially from Surat started his career as a British Army contractor during the first Anglo-Afghan War. As with most Parsi names Ghadially derives from the family occupation, in this case as watchmakers. This I learned from his great-grandson and namesake Homi (Watchley) Ghadially, who continues to manage and oversee the extensive family properties in Saddar that Seth Hormusji had acquired as a prosperous merchant and builder. As a scion of one of the early pioneering Parsee families, Watchley’s knowledge about his community and its history is extensive. His wife’s family name Dubash derives from that family’s original profession as stevedores, and like the Cowasjees and Ghadiallys, the Dubash family were amongst the early settlers in Karachi.

Today we tend to perceive Parsis as urbane city dwellers whose ancestors were by and large involved in trade and commerce, large and small, but as Watchley reminded me, the earliest Zoroastrians settlers in India had been farmers and artisans. A number of the early Parsi migrants to Sind were major rural landowners involved in large scale agriculture; the Punthakey family, for instance, owned 3,000 acres of land in Daur near Nawabshah, as did the Golwallas who also owned sugar mills to process their own sugarcane, while the Sethna family owned mango orchards and grew bananas on their agricultural land near Hyderabad.

Watchley shared his knowledge about the early settlement of Parsis in the city and their ownership of prime real estate in the most desirable areas of the city, Saddar and Civil Lines. His great grandfather Seth Hormusji Ghadially had been responsible for the distribution of properties to Parsi newcomers during the early days of their settlement in the city. Now, however, the old Katrak Parsi Colony off Bunder (M.A. Jinnah) Road, named after Sir Kavasji Katrak, with its broad tree-lined streets and gracious homes set within spacious gardens, has suffered because of the large-scale emigration of the younger members of the community. The ageing population has been unable to maintain those extensive properties, and many have been sold off to non-Parsis even though the Anjuman rules prohibit such transactions. Legally only members of the Anjuman, by default Parsis, can purchase a property within the colony, but loopholes and methods of circumventing such laws can always be found.

All of my interviewees were all of the opinion that the reasons for Parsi emigrations were the same as those of other educated young people: lack of opportunities, a dearth of desirable jobs and of course the constant and increasing incidents of violence and terrorism. Although they concurred about their declining numbers in Pakistan, they were of the opinion that with the growth of a more tolerant approach and an acceptance of inter-communal marriages along with the adoption of a liberal conversion policy, the decline could be checked. Like other Parsi families in Karachi, the Ghadially family too has been affected by the constant exodus of young people; for instance, the son, their eldest, and the younger daughter are abroad but the older daughter and her husband have chosen to stay in Karachi. Secure in a comfortable, inherited business, and well established within the community, the Ghadiallys have few initiatives to leave Karachi, for the time being at least.

The Karachi Dar-e-Meher or Zoroastrian Fire Temple, which houses the sacred fire was consecrated in 1849, is the main Parsi house of worship in the city. This along with the smaller Temple in Ghari Kharadar is managed by the Parsi Anjuman.  It is a common misconception that Zoroastrians worship the fire; in actuality, the eternal flame is symbolic of the spiritual flame within us all. Interestingly, Zoroastrians religious rituals appear to have influenced Muslim religious practises in more ways than is commonly recognised, for instance, they too say their prayers or namaz five times a day with their heads covered. The process of becoming a Priest or Dastur is fairly long and complex training involving various stages of training including an initiation period, or Navar during which the initiates are referred to as Ervads (in the subcontinent) or Herbad (in Iran). Next, they are trained as Martabs and it is on the completion of this training that they are considered qualified to practice as priests or Mobeds. At the pinnacle of this hierarchy is the Dastur or High Priest. Traditionally only males and those from the priestly caste were granted the privilege of entering this elite profession. This hereditary, privileged caste does not exist in Iran and is, therefore, an Indian component as are several other Parsi rituals and practices.

Yasmin Dastur is Vice President Administration and Human Resources at the All Pakistan Women’s Association. She has spent the major portion of her life as a member of that organisation, as an unpaid volunteer. Her involvement in APWA stems from her recruitment into that NGO as a teenager by Begum Raana Liaquat Ali Khan. Married to her cousin, Yasmin, as her last name indicates, is a scion of the priestly caste and a proud descendant of the First Dastur Meherji Rana, a renowned and much revered sixteenth-century spiritual leader of the Parsi community in India. Dastur Meherji was invited to attend the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar where he was an honoured participant in the many religious and spiritual discussion that the Emperor instituted. He was later honoured with a gift of tax-free landholding, or Madad-e-Mash, in his native town of Navsari which remain within the family in India. The actual sanad (edict) is housed in a historical family library in Navsari, the First Dastur Meherji Rana library established in 1872 by the Meherji family. This unique depository of knowledge contains valuable manuscripts and writings about the history of Parsis in India and is now being restored and preserved with assistance from UNESCO. Their illustrious lineage aside, Yasmin’s parents were actively involved in a vital cultural enterprise during the 1950s, 60s and early 70s, the Parsi Gujarati Theatre of Karachi. The Parsi Theatre was a dynamic and integral part of intellectual entertainment in the city throughout the early and mid-twentieth century; its unique style of Parsi witticism and use of quirky vernacular and phrases made it popular even with non-Gujarati audiences and its demise left an unfilled vacuum in the social life of the city. But the decreasing number of participants and the change in the cultural and political climate of the city made this sadly inevitable.

The late Jamsheed Kaikobad Ardeshir Marker had a long and varied career; although he started his professional life as an officer cadet with the British Indian Navy, he chose to opt out for Pakistan at the time of partition. For over forty years he represented the State of Pakistan as an Ambassador in ten different countries and is credited with having had the longest ambassadorial career of any diplomat on record.

The Marker family fortunes too were built on military contracts. Following the British Army, they settled down in the newly established garrison town of Quetta and set up their business base in that brand-new city. Ambassador Marker was born in Hyderabad Deccan where members of his maternal family had been at one time eminent financiers of the Nizam and carried titles of Nawabs. Two members of that family were even granted the rare honour of having silver and copper coins minted in their names, the Pestonshah sicca minted in Aurangabad in the late seventeen and eighteen centuries. They were the only members of the Parsis community to have ever achieved this privilege.

Although he spent most of his early years in Quetta, where the Marker family had established a pharmaceutical factory, and at the prestigious Doon School in Dehra Dun, the family visited near relatives in Karachi on a frequent basis. The relationship to the prominent Seth Edulji Dinshaw family was extremely close, in fact, Mr Marker’s first wife, his cousin Diana was the Seth’s granddaughter; after her untimely demise, he married Arnaz Minwalla, a daughter of the hotel-owning Minwalla family.  With all these Karachi connections, the 92[18] year old Ambassador Marker was an ideal interviewee who eloquently elucidated and brought to life the social, economic and political fabric of Karachi life from the early twentieth century to current times with great clarity and insight.

Jamshedji Nusserwanji, the builder of Karachi, he noted, was very public-oriented; although a successful factory owner and business entrepreneur he was basically a progressive congressman and dressed like one as well.  The underlying ethos of those times guided the elite and prominent citizens of the city to come together for the advancement of both municipal and public needs. It was the Dinshaws, the Cowasjees, the Mehtas, the Kotharis along with Ghulam Hussain Hidayatullah, Haji Abdullah Haroon, Ghulam Hoosain Khalikdina, Shivratan Chandraratan Mohatta, Diwan Dayaram Jethmal and many others, all members of an informal “Old Victorian Liberal Association” who worked for building Karachi, the roads and bridges, the water supplies and the newly introduced electric power. These gentlemen meet frequently at the (native) Karachi Club, where they planned and discussed the important issues facing the developing metropolis. Religion and ethnicity did not enter the discourse or influence the execution of ambitious schemes for public benefit.

Clifton in those days was a distance from the city, but wealthy individuals had built a number of spacious stone houses, which were rented out during the summer season. For the public, the Jehangir Kothari Parade and Katrak bandstand were a blessing and a boon during the hot summer months.

The Parsi spirit of charity and sharing, of taking care of the less advantaged underlined all their activities. Providing low-income housing, hospitals, dispensaries and schools were all part of this cultural attitude and continues to this date in spite of their diminishing population.

In all my interviews and informal discussions with members of the Parsis community, one positive piece of information emerged; none of the community members have, so far, faced any kind of discrimination or treat as a result of their non-Muslim identity. It was generally surmised that this was due to 1) the small size of the community, and 2) an overall favourable image that the Parsi community continues to maintain, their lack of corruptibility and their correctly perceived honesty within a largely dysfunctional society, and 3) the fact that they have kept their promise to the Raja of Sanjan and never proselytised.

In conclusion it is obvious that the enterprising character of the Parsi community, their ability to adjust to changing situations, their highly developed survival skills which allowed them to adapt to varying social environments while at the same time maintaining their religious identity, their commitment to their own community and the wider society around them have ensured their existence over the centuries. Culture, however, is never static, it constantly undergoes change and is modified to suit current social and economic requirements; Parsi culture and religious practices too have undergone changes and Indianised to a large extent, borrowing heavily from the local Gujarati traditions in dress codes, eating habits and everyday rituals including marriage ceremonies. The differences between the Iranian Zoroastrians and the Parsis are a clear indication of the different routes both traditions have taken. I was told that a recent study on the DNA of both Parsi men and women revealed that while a large number of Parsi men shared their Y chromosome type with Iranian men, the same did not hold true for Parsi women, denoting their largely non-Iranian, Indian origin. This study then demonstrates that intermarriage between Parsi Men and non-Parsi women was fairly common in the earlier period of Parsi history, and the later practice of strict endogamy was not enforced at that time. This type of reformation and flexibility appears to the subject of vigorous discourse in the Parsi/Zoroastrian arena with the growing recognition and realisation that their very survival now depends on their ability to readjust their stance on issues such as conversion, adoption of non-Parsi children and acceptance of intermarriage for both men and women. Unfortunately, the steep decline in the Parsi population in Pakistan it appears is likely to continue. The Pakistani state ideology actively encourages homogenisation both in religious and cultural terms. Karachi on the eve of partition was a medium-sized, heterogeneous city with a culturally diverse population including a substantial Hindu population and a number of religious minorities such as Catholic Goanese, Anglo-Indian Christians, Parsis and even a small but vibrant Jewish community, all in addition to the Muslims who too constituted an assortment of disparate sects, including Shias, Bohras and Khojas along with the Sunni majority. The ethnic make-up of the Muslims was also fairly heterogeneous, an amalgamation of Sindhi, Gujarat, Memons, Pathan and Baluch. Within this social milieu, the microscopic Parsi community was able to hold its own and play a role that exceeded its numerical representation. Today this metropolis with a population in excess of twenty million is a different and difficult city to negotiate both socially and physically. The insurmountable political, economic and infrastructural problems of this explosive city can prove daunting to people who perceive and possess the means and opportunities to distance themselves from it. And this has proven to be an unfortunate reality. Undoubtedly I came across individual Parsi men and women who had chosen to return to Pakistan, to Karachi in particular, in spite of the inherent uncertainty and safety concerns, but as with most educated youth, irrespective of religion and ethnicity, the exodus continues leaving behind an ageing community, vacant homes and their family names on crumbling buildings, edifices and street signs, poignant remnants and reminders of a bygone era when Parsis built the city of Karachi.

At the end of my conversation with Ambassador Marker, I asked him what future could he foresee for Parsis in the city to which they contributed so much. His response was “what is happening to Karachi is what is happening to Parsis.” In good times or bad, their destinies seem to be intertwined; as the city declines, so do the Parsis.

[1] (Ray 2005)

[2] (Dadrawala n.d.)

[3] (Eduljee n.d.)

[4] (Rivetna 2002) 6-7

[5] (A. Williams 2009)

[6] (Framjee 1858) 14

[7] (Keay 2010)

[8] (Framjee 1858) 53

[9] (Palsetia 2001)

[10] (Punthakey 1996) 12

[11] (Punthakey 1996)

[12] Commander  of the Indian Empire

[13] (Punthakey 1996) 33

[14] (Punthakey 1996) 139

[15] (Ballie 1975) 96

[16] (J. R. Williams 2007) 86

[17] (J. R. Williams 2007) 272-73

[18] At the time of this interview. Ambassador Marker passed away in June 2018 at the age of 95.


Ballie, Alexander F. Kurrachee : Past, Present and Future. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Dadrawala, Noshir. First Dastur Meherji Rana. Private Papers.

Eduljee, K.E. Zoroastrians Heritage : Zoroastrian Demographics.

Framjee, Dosabhoy. The Parsees : Their History, Manners, Customs and Religion. Bombay: Smith, Elder and Co., 1858.

Geertz, Clifford. Interpretations of Culture. New York: Basic Books Inc., 1973.

H.J.Rustomji, Sohrab K.H.Katrak and Behram Sohrab. Karachi During The British Era: Two Histories of a Modern City. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Keay, John. The Honourable Company. Harper Collins Publishers, 2010.

Marker, Kekobad Ardeshir. A Petal from the Rose. Karachi: Rosette Printers, 1985.

Marker, Meherbano Kekobad. Religion and History of the Parsees. Karachi: Rosette Printers, 1997.

Masani, Rustam. Zoroastrianism: The Religion of the Good Life. New Delhi: Indigo Books, 2003.

Mooraj, Hamida Khuhro and Anwer. Karachi: Megacity of Our Times. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Palsetia, Jesse S. The Parsis of India: Preservation of Identity in Bombay City (Brill’s Indological Library, V. 17). Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2001.

Punthakey, Jehangir Framroze. The Karachi Zoroastrian Calendar. Karachi: Nikmat Printers, 1996.

Ray, Dalia. The Parsees of Calcutta. Kolkata: Sujan Publicatins, 2005.

Rivetna, Roshan, ed. The Legacy of Zarathushtra: An Introduction to the Religion, History and Culture of the Zarathushtis (Zoroastrians). Mumbai: A Publication of the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America (FEZANA), 2002.

Surti, Rafique Jairazbhoy and Dadi. Zoroastrian Evolution. Karachi: Paramount Books (Pvt) Ltd., 2014.

Williams, Alan. The Zoroastrian Myth of Migration from Iran and their Settlement in India. Leiden: Brill, 2009.

Williams, John R.Hinnells and Alan, ed. Parsis in India and the Diaspora. London: Routledge, 2007.


Sacred Sites and Devotional Spaces: Hindu Places of Worship in and around Karachi


The Indian Subcontinent is one of the ancient cradles of human civilization. Archaeological sites scattered over the Indo-Gangetic plain provide evidence of a highly developed and advanced culture with links to far-flung areas throughout Central and Western Asia. This Harappa or Indus Valley Civilization, which was well established as early as 3000 BCE, provided the foundation or base from which early Indian or Hindu cultural including religious practices and beliefs arose and developed.

The proto-Hindu religious practices evident in the archaeological remains of pre-historic Harappan cities indicate that certain sacred elements present at that time continue to be relevant and significant in current religious observances. For example, the sacred bull and the pipal tree, the all-important Mother Goddess and the precursor to the god who eventually came to be worshipped as Shiva[1]. The antiquity and lineage of the gods and goddesses who dominate contemporary Hindu religion can thus be clearly traced back to the early days of Indian Civilization. In his The Roots of Ancient India, Fairservis notes that “in the villages Krishna, Rama, Ganesha, Lakshmi, Kali, Parvati, Siva, and a pantheon of local spirits and deities grow out of roots that may be as old at least as the Harappan.”[2]

Hinduism as a term or designation for a particular religious ideology and devotional practices is of recent origin. Interestingly the word Hindu is not of Sanskrit provenance, nor is it found in any of the other native languages of the subcontinent. Its origin, in fact, lies in archaic Persian; in ancient times the Achaemenid Empire bordered and occasionally ruled over the region that now comprises Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the valley and plains of the mighty river Indus, or Sindhu as it was locally called. Due purely to linguistic enunciation, the Persians pronounced Sindhu as Hindu and referred to the people inhabiting the region as Hindus. Thus, the term Hindu was assigned to all the natives of the area, irrespective of their ethnicity, culture, belief system, and religion. The Greeks, in turn, converted Sindhu into Indos and eventually Indus for the river, while Indians came to be the people of ‘India’, that vast, mysterious country that lay to the east of Persia. The Arabs, in turn, called the region Al-Hind or Hindustan the land of the Hindus. This was thus a purely geographic designation and therefore totally secular and free of any religious connotations. Even after the Turkish conquests of India, the term Hindu continued to denote the natives of the land, to differentiate them from newcomers but did not attribute or assign a religious identity to the indigenous community. It was the British who first assigned a religious designation to Hindu in order to differentiate them from the Muslims and create a communal divide based solely on their own rather limited, Eurocentric perceptions of Muslim and Hindu philosophies and worldviews. Even though, “before the nineteenth century, people of South Asia did not consider themselves to belong to a wider religious identity but would rather be members of a tradition or community whose focus was a particular deity or practice”.[3]

With its myriad gods, goddesses, and a pantheon of super-beings, Hinduism is a complex amalgamation of diverse ideas and beliefs, of traditions and customs, of rites and ceremonies, of philosophies both intellectual and esoteric. It has been argued that it is difficult to characterise Hinduism “as a religion in the normal sense since it is not a unitary concept nor a monolithic structure, but that it is rather the totality of the Indian way of life”. [4] Nevertheless, as Wendy Doniger maintains in On Hinduism, that while there might not be a centralised dogma or even a consensus on issues of lifestyle and even faith, certain vital practices and rituals provide commonality and connection, a continuity that transcends time and space. These ceremonial traditions and observances link diverse communities of people who refer to themselves as Hindus today to the past, to the ancient, prehistoric people of north-western India, who, around 1500 BCE compiled and assembled the sacred texts of the Vedas and indeed those who preceded them. [5]

The Trimurti or triad of three Gods along with their female counterparts and their innumerable manifestations and avatars dominate Hindu mythology. The four-headed, four-armed, self-created Brahma is the ultimate creator, the author of the Vedas, and the God of knowledge. However, few temples are devoted solely to his worship. His consort, the female force of creation is the beautiful four-armed Saraswati. The goddess of knowledge, learning and music, music and the arts is often depicted seated on a lotus or her favourite mount the swan, Brahma’s favoured ride as well. Far more popular than her spouse, she has numerous temples devoted to her throughout the Hindu and Buddhist cultural world. The iconic Vishnu, the preserver and protector, is perhaps the most popular and widely worshipped of the triad. Often referred to as the Supreme God, his avatars include the heroic, legendary Rama, the ebullient Krishna, and even for some devotees the universally revered Buddha. In his human form, Vishnu/Rama/Krishna is portrayed as a light-blue-skinned man; as Vishnu he is shown with four arms, each holding a lotus, a conch, a mace, and his powerful weapon of choice, the Sudarshana Chakra. His mount is the dependable eagle Garuda. Vishnu’s equally popular consort is the beauteous Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and prosperity, material as well as spiritual, and physical. Thus, she is also the goddess of fertility and the protector of mothers and children. The embodiment of the perfect woman, her avatars mirror Vishnu’s, thus she is Sita to his Rama and Radha to his Krishna. Always depicted standing or sitting on a lotus, she holds the flower in two of her four hands. Shiva the ultimate destroyer is the most ancient deity in the triad. Also called Mahadev, Shiva is often portrayed as an ascetic or yogi, a pale man draped in tiger skin with a snake around his neck, a crescent moon on his forehead above his third eye and the river Ganga flowing from his hair. As Nataraja, he is the Lord of the Dance and a patron of music. As the embodiment of cosmic power, Shiva/Mahadev is most commonly worshipped in the form of a lingam. His consort Parvati has multifarious identities and manifestations; she is Sati, Durga, Kali, Mata Devi, Shakti, and has numerous other regional forms. The couple is usually shown with their two children Ganesh and Kartikeya and their ever-faithful cow, Nandi. Shiva/Mahadev and Parvati/Shakti both have benevolent and malevolent aspects, he as Bhairava and Rudra and she as Kali and Durga.

In pre-modern times, throughout the subcontinent, the sacred was always omnipresent and pervasive; the underlying belief in the divinity in all things, in natural, often-innate objects and hallowed places could well be ascribed to this philosophy of life. It is therefore not surprising that these aspects of religious tradition continue to form the core essence of Hindu religious practices amongst believers. Sacred places abound in the Hindu tradition; stones and trees, rivers and waterfalls, mountains and cairns, caverns and caves, consecrated over the centuries, special places of pilgrimage and prayer, they display a lineage that goes back in time to the very dawn of human intellectual and philosophical inquiry and development. The ubiquitous shreds of cloth tied to trees, rocks placed in a particular formation, offerings made in flowing water are some of the common practices that transcend religious boundaries and find their root in an indefinable and obscure past that continues to affect the spiritual impulses of the common populace all through South Asia.

Anthropologists and population geneticists calculate that human first arrived in the subcontinent approximately 70,000 years ago, although no fossil remains from that period have so far been found. However, excavations along the banks of the Soan River in the Potwar Plateau in the Punjab have yielded evidence of a substantial Palaeolithic culture. Well-established and archaeologically important Neolithic sites have been located in north-western Baluchistan particularly the pre-Harappan city of Mehrgarh, and further south at Shahi Tump near the Makran coast. While the Indus Valley sites such as Kot -Diji sites in Sind are well known and firmly accounted for in the major archaeological surveys of the area, the lesser-known Mesolithic and Neolithic sites within the close environs of Karachi clearly demonstrate the antiquity of early human habitation in the region.[6] Further study and analysis of these sites might yield additional information about the cultural and religious practices and beliefs of those early inhabitants.

Archaeological excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro offer us some insight into the culture and social organisation of those highly developed and sophisticated civilizations. Perhaps the most important and significant source of this information are the numerous clay seals that have been found at these sites. Although the exact function of these seals has not been determined, they offer penetrating and insightful pictorial images of contemporary life at that time. A common and recurring image is that of a male figure seated in a yogic pose. Mark Kenoyer, perhaps one of the most authoritative Harappan archaeologists, refers to this deity as a “proto-Shiva”, a similar image displays a three-headed figure, another precursor of the later all-powerful deity. The ever-present Pipal tree is another significant feature that often appears alongside the seated figure; occasionally its branches form of an elaborate headdress for the deity. Images of ritualistic sacrifices are also shown as taking place under the sacred pipal, a tree that continues play an important an iconic role in Indian religious imagery. Several centuries later, it was under the shade of the Bodhi or Pipal tree that the Buddha achieved enlightenment. The yogic posture of the seated figure is another frequently portrayed form prevalent throughout Indian cultural history. Kenoyer notes that “the tradition of yoga continues to the present throughout South Asia, and images of the Buddha and various Hindu deities, including Shiva, are often shown in the famous yogic posture called padmasana”.[7]Another feature of the proto-god that has endured over the millennia is the lignum, represented in stone and on the ubiquitous clay tablet.

Archaeologists believe that the many terracotta female figurines with accentuated breast and hips found at various Harappan sites depict mother goddess; these may well have been used in fertility rituals and worshipped as grantors of abundance and plenitude, perhaps even to safeguard expectant mothers. Some statuettes are even shown with a small infant, which supports the idea that these were used for domestic rituals, much as they are still utilised in traditional Hindu households. Combined animal-human figures also appear on several seals, a precursor of the later gods such as Ganesh or the many avatars of Vishnu.

The present metropolis of Karachi is of recent origin, and certainly, no major town or city existed here before the eighteenth century. In 1729, a fortified settlement was constructed by the merchants of Karack Bunder, a port on the Hub River, which had recently been rendered unusable due to heavy silting. This then was the origin of the city of Karachi.[8] However, human habitation in the area can be traced back to early antiquity and several sanctified places of pilgrimage and worship have endured that existed long before recorded history. Many of these sacred places have discarded their ancient animistic provenance and acquired new religious identities, although antecedents of their prior existence continue to persevere under the guise of new creeds.

At the time of the Partition between India and Pakistan, the population of Karachi was 450,000; Hindus comprised 51 per cent of this number and Muslims 42 per cent. In the aftermath of the 1947 cataclysm and the unprecedented displacement of populations that took place the population of Karachi grew prodigiously and by 1951, it stood at an astounding 1.137 million. The 1951 Census shows that Muslims now accounted for  96 per cent of that number, while the Hindu population had dwindled to a mere 2 per cent. [9] This extraordinary change in the demographic makeup of the city’s populace acutely affected the religious institutions and establishments that had administered to the spiritual and cultural needs of the once affluent and powerful Hindu community in Karachi and its environs.

Ancient shrines and sacred places throughout the world often had humble beginnings. A special tree, a natural rock formation, fresh water, or healing springs, could provide a root source for the establishment of a consecrated space to worship. Over the years, many have attained a higher status and subsequently expanded and developed into major holy shrines, temples, churches and mosques. Others have gained in popularity but retained their original, natural form. A number of such sacred places, in and around the city and district of Karachi continue to hold their eminence, not just locally but globally for their devotees.

The Hinglaj Mata Shrine is one of the pre-eminent sanctuaries for the Goddess Shakti/Parvati, the divine female power or energy of the universe, who is also worshipped as the Devi Mata/Mahadevi or Divine Mother. This sacred shrine is located in a cavern at the lower end of the Kirthar Mountains, within the Hingol National Park in the Lasbela district of Southern Baluchistan, approximately 250 kilometres from Karachi. The name Hinglaj is thought to derive from Hingula or cinnabar, the bright red mercury ore used in traditional Indian medicine as an antidote for snakebites. Thus, Hinglaj Devi is a protector against poisons of all sorts as well as a healer, and bathing in the waters near her shrine is considered especially auspicious.

Hinglaj is one of the seats or peetha/pitha of the Goddess and thus an important site of pilgrimage. According to the ancient Hindu Scriptures, the Puranas, the Goddess in her Sati manifestation was the daughter of Raja Daksha, one of Brahma’s sons. Sati married the God Shiva against her father’s wishes and was consequently ostracised by him along with her husband. When Daksha organised a yagna, an important devotional feast, he deliberately neglected to invite Sati and Shiva. Nevertheless, against Shiva’s advice Sati decided to attend the ritual; there, upset, angered, and mortified at the insults heaped upon her husband by her father she jumped into the sacrificial fire. Shiva on hearing about his beloved’s death instantly rushed to the spot and immediately decapitated Daksha. Then gathering Sati’s corpse in his arms and consumed by grief he began his deadly Dance of Destruction or Tandav. This act of Shiva endangered the very existence of the world and Lord Vishnu was enlisted by the other Gods to intervene. Using his special Sudarshana Chakra, Vishnu cut Sati’s body into fifty-two pieces and scattered them in all directions. The spot where a body part landed was consecrated as a Shakti Peetha. The crown of Sati’s head is believed to have fallen at Hinglaj and here she is worshipped as Hinglaj Devi, Hinglaj Mata, or Durga. Hinglaj is an example of one of the earliest form of a sacred place of worship; although referred to as a Mandir; in actuality there is no building or formal structure, nor is there an idol of the Goddess although there are two red-painted stones that represent her and her consort Lord Bhairava, a manifestation of Shiva. Until recent times, there was no full-time priest or custodian, nor were there any manmade structures within the cave; now the floor is tiled, and a wall and grill fence surround the sanctum while painting and small idols adorn the inner section of the cavern. These additions have been constructed over the last decade or two ever since easy access to the site has been facilitated. At the far end of the cave is a low, narrow circuitous tunnel that the faithful crawl through in as an act of devotion. Hinglaj is mentioned in the Ramayana as “the place Lord Rama came in order to gain expiation for having killed Ravana, who was after all a Brahmin and killing a Brahmin is one of the most dreadful of sin.”[10] Furthermore, Rama and Sita on route to Hinglaj are said to have stayed in a grove centred around a sweet water tank. This place was later named Rambagh in honour of the exalted visitor. However, shortly after Partition the name Rambagh was changed to Arambagh.

Incidentally, local Baluch and Katchi Muslims venerate Mata Hinglaj as Nani and the pilgrimage to Nani ki Mandir is called Nani Hajj. In view of the fact that Baluchistan in ancient times was a province of the Persian Empire, it is speculated that the worship of Nani might be a vestige of Sumerian Goddess Inanna, worshipped as Anahita ancient Persia. The annual pilgrimage to Mata Hinglaj takes place during Navratri in October; pilgrims gather in large numbers at the Sri Ratneshawar Mahadev Mandir, situated near the Arabian Sea in Clifton Karachi, a devotional site that also garnered a mention in the Ramayana.[11] In earlier times, the route to Hinglaj was a slow and arduous trek through rough, inhospitable desert terrain, but now the efficient Makran Coastal Highway linking Karachi to Gwadar has made the journey less formidable. En route, the pilgrims go off track for a distance to pay homage to a group of mud volcanoes located approximately 3 Kilometres inland from the Arabian Sea coast. The Chandragup complex includes the largest mud volcano in Asia and is regarded as the habitat of the deity Babhaknath. Of the three volcanoes in this group, the smallest one is dormant, while the highest one gently spews out a constant stream of warm mud; the third volcano has a wide crater in which the bubbling mud forms the active centre. The wide circumference of this volcano provides a broad, even wall on which people can walk, and this is where the pilgrims gather to light their incense and cast their offering of coconuts and specially cooked roti into the hot stew of boiling mud. The priests led the mantra prayers and the pilgrims are instructed to confess their sins. Once the rituals are completed, the pilgrims continue their trek towards the sacred shrine across the Hingol River. A ritual bath is required, for which the pilgrims avail of the waters of the river, before entering the precinct of the Goddess. A large pond nearby is believed to be imbibed with beneficial powers and devotees are encouraged to immerse themselves in the waters to cleanse themselves both physically and spiritually.

The 300-year old Sri Ratneshawar Mahadev Mandir located near the sea in Clifton, Karachi, is dedicated to Lord Shiva in his manifestation as Mahadev. Previously known as the Shiv Takery Temple, it is the largest existing temple devoted to Shiva in Pakistan. Closely linked to the Hinglaj Mandir, this temple is also located inside a natural cave formed by the now receded waters of the nearby sea. According to the custodian of the temple, this sacred site is mentioned in both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana; indeed, it is thought to be the Mahadev Temple visited by Rama and Sita on their pilgrimage of penance to Hinglaj. A large, glass-encased statue of Hanuman bearing Rama and his brother Lakshman on each shoulder greets the visitor in the entry courtyard. Like Hinglaj, the original sanctuary did not contain a manmade idol. The source of worship was and continues to be a naturally formed, egg-shaped stone lingam. During the colonial era, a simple entrance was built in yellow Gizri stone, similar to the nearby buildings constructed around the same time. However, recent modifications begun in the early twenty-first century have greatly altered the natural sacred space that formed the core of the temple. Although the jagged roof of the cavern is still clearly visible, the walls are now hidden behind the wall-to-ceiling glass cases containing larger than life statues of the all the pre-eminent Hindu Gods and Goddesses, while the floor is paved with marble. The actual sanctum is now sealed off from the public by a wall of glass, through which a large image of the seated Mahadev/Shiva can be viewed accompanied by his usual companions including the hooded cobra. The king of snakes also provides a protective umbrella to the lignum in the next room. A sweet water spring with special healing capabilities is an unexpected feature of this sacred site considering its closeness to the sea, a peculiarity it shares with the nearby 1400 old shrine of the Muslim Sufi Abdullah Shah Ghazi. The eternally auspicious and revered pipal tree with pieces of cloth tied to its branches guards the upper entrance to the cave temple. The pipal with its multiple gnarled roots and trunks is an image that instantly recalls the ancient veneration and worship of these trees engraved on the Harappan seals. The presence of water imbibed with healing and beneficial powers both here and at Hinglaj is another shared component of these two sacred spots. The symbolism of sanctified objects and spaces at the Mahadev Mandir, Hinglaj, and Chandragup continues to delineate, define, and determine the very nature of religious practice. Unfortunately, recent, large-scale, heavy construction in the neighbourhood is said to have created cracks in the natural cave structure of the temple though long-term damage is difficult to judge at this time.

The Sheetala Devi Mandir is located deep in the inner city of Karachi in Bhimpura, the old pre-Partition town where once affluent Hindu merchants resided and conducted their businesses. This temple is the abode of Sheetala or Shitala Devi, an ancient Mother Goddess and a benevolent, protective, maternal aspect of Durga/Parvati. Sheetala is the goddess of smallpox and other skin disease and ailments; her name means ‘the cooling one’ and her puja involves the sprinkling of blessed water on the supplicants who come to her for a cure. Mounted on a donkey, she carries a broom for sweeping up the germs, a fan for collecting them, a bowl for holding them and a pot of water for cleansing and purification. Hedged in on all sides by small workshops and stores, the brightly painted, 150-year-old temple with the ubiquitous Pipal tree shading the courtyard, offers a quiet respite for her devotees. An effigy of the Goddess reclines on an elaborate, gilt throne flanked by two peacocks and guarded by a family of lions. As with most other Hindu shrines in Karachi, Sheetala Mata shares her temple with other deities, small statues of Brahma and Saraswati occupy an alcove in another room, while Shiva with Nandi crouched at by feet and the ever-present lignum has a separate space all to himself on the other side of the main temple. The temple is a part of an estate trust that owns a number of commercial and residential properties in the surrounding neighbourhood. However, illegal encroachments and land-grabbing mafias have appropriated much of the trust property over the last couple of decades and deprived the temple of its rightful income.

Hanuman, Rama’s faithful aid, devotee and ally in his battle against the demon king of Lanka, Ravana, appears to find a niche for himself in almost every Hindu temple. The Sri Laxmi Narain Mandir, located on the creek, under the New Jetty Bridge, overlooking the Arabian was constructed in 1943.[12] The site of this temple sets it apart from the other temples in the area since it lends itself to a variety of rituals that involve immersion in the water. At the culmination of the nine-day Navratri Festival dedicated to Durga Devi, the idols of the goddess are immersed in the water, similarly, the clay likeness of Ganesh that are installed in traditional Hindu homes and temples at the start of the Ganesh Chaturthi celebration are immersed to dissolve and return to the elements. Furthermore, yearlong purification rituals require bathing in the flowing water although the waters at the foot of the temple are now distressingly polluted. The last rites of the dead too demand the consecration of the ashes to flowing water. The approach to the temple is through a narrow shabby lane on the left side of the pretentiously named Port Grand. The perennial pipal guards the entrance into a large and open paved courtyard facing the sea. The goddess Lakshmi/Laxmi and her consort Vishnu preside over this temple; they reside in a room to the left of the entry where they share space with their avatars Radha and Krishna, Rama and Sita, other important deities and, of course, the ever-present Hanuman. That deity also has a separate space to himself at the other end of the courtyard where he can be seen carrying Rama and Lakshman on his broad shoulders. Shiva is not forgotten and is also present around the corner with his attendants. Sadly, this once attractive and lively temple has now been squeezed and delegated to a meagre sliver of its former self as encroachments and commercial interests have gnawed away at this highly covetable property on the waterfront.

Everyone’s favourite deity Hanuman is the proud denizen of one of the finest existing temples in Karachi and its environs. Situated in a quiet lane, off a busy, bustling street in Soldier Bazaar, a populous, congested section of the old city, the current Sri Panchmukhi Hanuman Mandir was built in 1927. According to the custodians, however, the original temple was built well over 1500 years ago to house a non-manmade image of Hanuman. The idol, it is said, appeared miraculously from the ground in response (some say) to a Guru’s prayers, other’s say it appeared after Ram and Sita visited the spot on their pilgrimage to Hinglaj, its form untouched and unaltered by human hand. The soil beneath the statue’s feet, I was told, had been recently tested and carbon dating showed it to be from the Mohenjo-Daro era, which would then make it over 2500 years old. The miraculous origin of idol makes the Panchmukhi or five-faced deity unique in all aspects with special powers attributed to him; no prayer or request goes unanswered or unfulfilled. Women are not allowed within ten feet of the Panchmukhi Hanuman, since, I was told, the celibate deity considers all women his mothers, sisters, and daughters, and will not allow them to bow in front of him. Entering through a beautifully carved stone archway, one enters a passageway that has obviously seen better days. The main shrine is a classic yellow stone temple with intricately carved and elegantly scalloped arches; the peaked spire is embellished with elaborate carvings and engraved sculptures of Hanuman. This structure, with its beautifully scalloped portico, houses the deity and sits in the centre of the courtyard. The inner sanctum is approached through the small portico entered through heavy, ornamented silver and brass doors. A deep and raised, covered veranda runs along two sides of the courtyard and offers niches and spaces to accommodate the entire hierarchy of the Hindu pantheon. A cowshed offers lodgings for the sacred cows on one side of the temple. Methodical and meticulous renovation with assistance from the architectural college of NED University, reusing the original yellow stone from the external walls, has unfortunately stalled due to the usual issues of unlawful land -grab and encroachment. This appears to be a constant predicament that regrettably assails all the Hindu temples that remain in the city.

The Sri Swaminarayan Mandir sits hidden in clear sight on one of the busiest streets in Karachi, Bunder Road, or M.A.Jinnah Road as it is now called, one of the main arteries of this teeming, commercial metropolis. A lofty gateway provides access to the large compound or estate that houses several hundred families. An inner road leads to the cramped lanes and dwellings of the inhabitants whose families have occupied these buildings since the temple was erected in 1854. A large cowshed also sits on the side of the temple, an essential element of Hindu religious rituals. Arguably the most beautiful he temple in Karachi it is both aesthetically pleasing and skilfully constructed in the classical style with a handsomely ornamented spire of intricately carved yellow stone. The entrance of the temple opens into a paved courtyard shaded by the sacred pipal tree, its branches displaying the usual pieces of cloth tied by suppliant devotees. A Sikh Gurdwara, currently undergoing renovation and expansion sits in the centre of the courtyard, the Swaminyaran temple on a raised platform is on the left. An enclosed domed portico, with its cool marble checkered floor,  provides ample room for devotees to gather and pray. There are two inner sanctum rooms; ornate and richly gilded doors open to reveal Radha and Krishna in the first niche or room ensconced within an equally elaborate gilded altar enclosed behind a rich gold-painted grill door.  A likeness of Swaminarayan is painted in the other alcove/room, seated behind a highly ornamented, four-poster gilt bed, surrounded by his disciples.  Statues of muscular moustached guardians with gold staffs keep vigilance over the two rooms. In this temple, the ceilings also display rich murals depicting the various deities and their attendants. The Swaminarayan version of Hinduism was a reform movement which took root in the early nineteenth century Gujarat in India and has proven to be one of the most successful and prominent forms of Hinduism worldwide in the twenty-first century. In the words of religious historian Raymond Brady Williams, “Sahanjanand Swami, the founder, who attained the status of the manifestation of the divine as Swaminarayan, has been called the last of the medieval saints and the first of the modern Sadhus of neo-Hinduism.” He goes on to state that “his followers assert that he preserved the best of the beliefs and practices of the past and forged a new form of Hinduism well suited to the modern period.”[13]

The Sri Swaminarayan and the Sri Panchmukhi Hanuman Mandirs both display the typical architectural format of a classical north Indian sikhara or spiral temple. In keeping with this style, the “temple form is composed to evoke the ascent of a mountain or illusion of progressively increasing height. Contributing to this sense of ascent, the sikhara is designed with a curvilinear form that aligns with and curves smoothly up from the base to the pinnacle.”[14]  The Sri Varun Dev Mandir on Manora Island also shares this feature but is currently inaccessible. Changing demographics have taken a heavy toll on the Hindu places of worship in Pakistan, and the architecturally and decoratively exquisite Varun Dev temple is another victim to hostile incursions and illegal encroachments. The current structure was built around 1917-1918 [15] and is unique in that it is not dedicated to one of the Trimurti deities but to Varun, an ancient Vedic God of the ocean although local folklore often links him to Krishna. Devotees claim that an older temple existed here before the current structure, dating from a much earlier time and was an important place of worship for seafaring supplicants seeking protection and guidance from the Lord of the Sea. Now in a severely dilapidated condition, it is seldom used other than by the brave and loyal faithful who continue to gather there on special occasions and festivals.

Although the institutionalised temple, as a place of gathering, of communal or individual prayer and ritual is as significant in Hinduism as in any other religion, sacred sites that are the focus of pilgrimages continue to delineate the core spiritual imperative of the Hindu belief system. Places like Hinjlaj  cavern and Chandragup volcanoes, the now forgotten sweet-water  tank at Rambagh, the cave that appeared from beneath the sea with a naturally formed Shiva lingam at Clifton, are all nodes in an ancient pilgrimage route that centre primarily on earlier, pre-Aryan deities particularly  the formless Mother-Goddess and the supreme Mahadev who dwell in mysterious spaces. By the same token, it is not surprising that the definitive Hindu epic, the Ramayana makes references to these pilgrimage destinations for the penitent Rama, seeking forgiveness for his crime of brahmanicide in the killing of Ravana.

Further studies are essential to obtain factual archaeological/historical insight into the source and age of these sacred places. Scholarship and evidence are sadly lacking, and the rapid speed of commercialisation and change are serious threats that endanger the very existence and viability of these ancient heritage sites. Research and analysis of a number of Sufi shrines could also, perhaps, reveal their deeper, earlier pre-Islamic roots. A preliminary archaeological survey of the area during the colonial era, in the nineteenth century, revealed the existence of a Neolithic settlement in the close vicinity of the shrine of that ambivalent Sufi Saint Mangho Pir, on the outskirts of Karachi, situated next to a hot sulphur spring with curative attributes. It should be noted that the chosen companions of the Saint, crocodiles, figure significantly on Harappan seals and tablets and continue to be worshipped in several parts of India, including Gujarat.[16]The crocodile is also the chosen mount of Varuna, whose ancient temple is on the verge of collapsing on the nearby Manora Island has only recently been rescued and restored.

The deliberate cultural separation of the regions that now constitute Pakistan from their pre-Islamic past is a phenomenon that does humanity great disfavour; a denial of the past creates a false sense of identity or worse a created identity which lacks all memory. Throughout the history of the subcontinent, from ancient through early modern times, the culture of the subcontinent has been a closely woven tapestry based on assimilation and amalgamation; the languages, literature, music and religion have all been formed by this process and by their very nature and form bear witness to this.  Hindu shrines have always drawn Muslim devotees and similarly, Muslim Sufis have attracted hordes of people of different faiths and beliefs; religion as an element of culture has never been exclusive nor have religious boundaries been solid or impregnable.  Political agendas and rigid ideologies create dangerous realities. Neglect or denial of a long-established, multi-dimensional mosaic of culture, tangible or intangible cannot bode well for the moral, social, psychological, political or even economic welfare of an ancient civilisation that has its roots in a rich and definitive past.

[1]  A.L. Basham. A Cultural History of India. New Delhi: Oxford University press, 2009.2.

[2]  Walter A. Fairservis Jr.The Roots of Ancient India: The Archaeology of Early Indian Civilization. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971. 380.

[3]  Gavin D. Flood, ed. The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

[4] J.L. Brockington. The Sacred Thread: Hinduism in Its Continuity and Diversity. Edinburgh: University Press Edinburgh, 1981. 1

[5]  Wendy Doniger. On Hinduism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

[6]  Henry Cousens. The Antiquities of Sind: With Historic Outline. Karachi: Department of Culture, Government of Sind, 1998.

[7] Jonathan Mark Kenoyer,. Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1998.112

[8] Arif Hasan. Understanding Karachi: Planning and Reform for the Future. Karachi: City Press, 1999.15

[9] Ibid. 24

[10]   Diana L. Eck. India: A Sacred Geography. New York: Harmony Books, 2012. 469

[11]  Arif Hasan. Understanding Karachi: Planning and Reform for the Future. Karachi: City Press, 1999. 16.

[12] (Pakistan Hindu Council n.d.)

[13]  Raymond Brady Williams. An Introduction to Swaminarayan Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.2.

[14]  Krupali Krusche, Vinayak Bharne. Rediscovering the Hindu Temple: The Sacred Architecture and Urbanisation of India. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012. 70.

[15] (Pakistan Hindu Council n.d.)

[16] Asko Parpol. The Roots of Hinduism: The Early Aryans and the Indus Civilisation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.


Abbasi, Reema. Historic Temples of Pakistan: A Call to Conscience. Niyogi Books: New Delhi, 2014.

Baillie, Alexander F. Kurrachee: Past, Present and Future. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Basham, A.L. A Cultural History of India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Bhardwaj, Surinder Mohan. Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India: A Study in Cultural Geography. Berkeley: University of California Press, Ltd, 1983.

Biagi, Paolo. “Archaeological Surveys in Lower Sind: Preliminary Results of the 2009 Season.” Journal of Asian Civilizations 33, no. 1 (July 2010): 1- 42.

Boivin, Michel, ed. Sindh through History and Representation. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Brockington, J. L. The Sacred Thread: Hinduism in Its Continuity and Diversity. Edinburgh: University Press Edinburgh, 1981.

Carman, Marie Louise Stig Sorensen and John, ed. Heritage Studies: Methods and Approaches. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.

Cook, Michel Boivin and Matthew A., ed. Interpreting the Sindhi World: Essays on Society and History. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Cousens, Henry. The Antiquities of Sind: With Historic Outline. Karachi: Department of Culture, Government of Sind, 1998.

Doniger, Wendy. On Hinduism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Eck, Diana L. India: A Sacred Geography. New York: Harmony Books, 2012.

Fairservis, Jr., Walter A. The Roots of Ancient India: The Archaeology of Early Indian Civilization. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971.

Flood, Gavin D. An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Flood, Gavin D., ed. The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Harrison, Rodney. Heritage: Critical Approaches. London and New York: Routledge, 2013.

Hasan, Arif. Understanding Karachi: Planning and Reform for the Future. Karachi: City Press, 1999.

Kenoyer, Jonathan Mark. Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Krusche, Vinayak Bharne and Krupali. Rediscovering the Hindu Temple: The Sacred Architecture and Urbanisation of India. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012.

Lari, Yasmeen Lari and Mihail S. The Dual City: Karachi during the Raj. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Mooraj, Hamida Khuhro and Anwer, ed. Megacity of our Time. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Pakistan Hindu Council.

Parpol, Asko. The Roots of Hinduism: The Early Aryans and the Indus Civilisation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Pithawalla, Maneck B. An Introduction to Karachi: It’s Environs and Hinterland. Karachi: The Times Press, 1949.

Siddiqui, Ahmed Husain. Karachi: The Pearl of the Arabian Sea. Karachi: Mohammad Hussain Academy, 1996.

Smyth, J.W., ed. Gazetteer of the Province of Sind: Karachi District. Vol. 1. Bombay: Government Central Press, 1919.

Williams, Raymond Brady. An Introduction to Swaminarayan Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.


makli & balochistan 463
The Chandragup complex


The habitat of the deity Babhaknath
makli & balochistan 512
Coconut and incense offerings
Hinglaj Mata Mandir

makli & balochistan 749



Sri Swaminarayan Mandir


Sheetala Devi Mandir
Sri Panchmukhi Hanuman Mandir