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 ethnoreligious 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. and their subsequent persecution and the near eradication of their religion at the hands of the conquerors.

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 A.D.[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 landlord 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 H.E. 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 auspicious 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 inherently 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 Jehangirji 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 Jehangirji Kothari’s largesse is his 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 intrinsic 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 essentials. 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 he could 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.



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