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Beyond Compare: Parsi Pioneers of Karachi [i]


















Gandhi’s description of Parsis[ii] as beyond contempt in number, but beyond compare in contribution is more than fitting for the Parsis of Karachi. Today, their number is 2,012, but Parsis still dominate the social landscape of the city. The community can boast top schools, leading hotels, prominent doctors, educators, bankers and businessman. But more than that, they can lay claim to a rich historical connection to the city they call home.


In his book Parsis of Kurrachee: Story of a city and it’s Parsi pioneers (Informal Religious Meetings Trust Fund, no date) Dorab J. Patel  traces the history of Karachi, a settlement in the province of Sindh, Pakistan on the coast of the Arabian Sea, known through time by various names such as Crochey, Caranjee, Kurrachee. This overview of the Parsis’ role in metamorphing a small, walled town known for its dates into the City of Lights is extracted largely from Patel’s book. Although the Parsis of Karachi are responsible for many of the heritage buildings and landmarks of Karachi, including the Bandstand at Clifton, this article focuses on the people who set the foundations of the community.

Parsis – Zarathushtrians to be precise – have an ancient association with Sindh, as old as the Avesta itself.  The Vendidad opens with the enumeration of the sixteen good places created by Ahura Mazda. These include Hapta Hindu (the land of seven rivers).  In Sanskrit the name is Sapta Sindu, and the life-force of the desert province of Sindh is the river Indus and its tributaries. The Achaemenian king Darius sent an Ionian Admiral, Seylex, to sail down the river Indus to the Indian Ocean (circa 516-512 B.C.), later using the information to conquer the residents of the Indus valley.  The Sassanian king Shahpur also extended his empire up to Indus and there was regular trade by sea with settlements on the coast of Sindh. Macoudy, in 916 A.D. stated that there were Majucys (Zarathushtrians) living in Sindh who paid respect to fire.  In 1184, a Mobed named Mahiyar went from a town named Uccha in Sindh to Sistan, to get information about religious matters.  And Christensen, the famous European Islamist, cites a Persian work written in the sixteenth century by a Sindhi Parsi named Maurzban.

Although Karachi was a thriving commercial community under the rule of the Talpurs, the Amirs of Sindh, it was relatively unknown till the British colonists put it on the map. In the early1800s, the British were at war in Afghanistan and they needed a defensible port to bring in troops and supplies. Karachi caught their eye because of its natural harbour. The other reason the British wanted Sindh was for the famed wealth of the Amirs of Sind. In 1842, Sir Charles Napier was sent to meet them with a treaty, but with such harsh terms that the Amirs of Sind could not possibly accept it.  On 15 February 1843, the British Residency was attacked by insurgents. Napier used this as a cause for war, defeated the Amirs’ troops and annexed Sindh. At the time of annexation in 1843, the round tower of Hyderabad Fort contained sterling 20 million –13 million in coins and the remaining in jewels.

On a divergent, but interesting note, there is a story that after Charles Napier defeated the Amirs, he sent a telegram to the Governor-general, Lord Ellenborough, with just one word  “Peccavī”, Latin for “I have sinned” as a pun for “I have Sind”. Of course, since the first telegraph system was built that year in Washington, D.C., this story is fictional.  It evolved from the caption of a cartoon in Punch magazine which represented the opinions of many contemporary Britishers about the questionable justification for the annexation.

To get back to the story of the pioneering Parsis, the influx of Parsis into Karachi increased after the British takeover. Many of them took the opportunity for trade in the new army cantonment to settle in this part of the world. Some of them had worked with the British army during the Afghan War and several Parsi surnames – Contractor, Commissariat, Cooper – evolved from association with the British army.

Many of the Parsi families living in Karachi today can trace their ancestry to the first settlers. Among the first were Khurshedji and Muncherji Golwalla who had gone with the British to Afghanistan as “traveling bakers”.  Cowasjee Variawa, another returnee from Afghanistan, first worked with Dubash Brothers and then started his own stevedoring business.  He succeeded very well in his business ‘Cowasjee & Sons’, which in time, his descendants enlarged into one of the largest and most famous stevedoring houses in the country.  Dosabhai Ghadyali, who came to Karachi in 1850, was the first to introduce the silk trade in Karachi.  Hormasji Pestonji Shroff who migrated in 1852 started a dubash business in Karachi. (The word ‘dubash is derived from two words ‘du’ meaning two and ‘bhasha” meaning language, thus as interpreters).  In the same year Edulji Bejonji Kandawala, the ancestor of Kandawalla automobile traders, arrived.  Jamshedji Rustamji Ghadyali came as the first Parsi watchmaker.  Afterwards he changed his vocation and opened a liquor shop; probably a case of more drinkers and less watch owners, but the surname remains.  Byramji Edulji began his career as a purchase officer in the police force and then became a Police Collector.  He too changed his vocation and started contracting for the commissariat.  Ultimately he established a bar and wine and general store, which ran successfully for many generations.  Since he had been a collector he adopted the surname ‘Collector’ which is still carried on by his family.

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

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

The Parsis of Karachi also continued the tradition that has earned the community the description “Parsi thy name is charity”. As the population of Karachi grew, one of the severest problems that came with the growth was water shortage. People who could afford it, had wells dug on their property; others had to walk long distances to fill water in pitchers from community troughs.  On 1 January 1861, Navajbai, widow of Dadabhai Shapurji Kothari had a well dug at Rattan Tallao for the exclusive use of the Parsi community.  Later, in 1869, public spirited Shapurji Soparivala had another well dug near Rattan Tallao for public use and handed it over to the municipality. In 1865, when Karachi suffered floods, with 20 inches of rain falling in six hours, and a cholera epidemic, Parsis once again rose to the occasion distributing clothes, food and medicine to the people of Karachi. One Parsi who stands out for philanthropy bordering on eccentricity was Hormusji Sohrabji Kothari, a prosperous contractor for the army. He supplied sherry and champagne free to cholera victims.  The incentive was sufficient for some to fake the sickness! One of the leading names in nineteenth century Karachi Parsi history is
that of Edulji Dinshaw. He began as a trader; subsequently he invested in real estate and became a major land owner. The Dinshaws are noted for many charitable foundations, but particularly in health care with dispensaries established in 1882, 1887 and 1903 at the time when epidemics were common. The Eduljee Dinshaw Dispensary that was opened in 1882 still stands in the heart of Saddar. He was also by far the largest donor of the Lady Dufferin Hospital founded in Karachi in 1894 and still a major hospital in the city. His descendants made substantial donations for the development of the Nadirshah Edulji Dinshaw Engineering University in 1924, the oldest engineering institution in Pakistan.

By the end of the 19th century there was a substantial Parsi community in Karachi. Alexander Baillie, in his book Kurrachee (1890) writes:

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


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


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

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

[i] This article specifically written for www.vohuman.org was posted on June 21, 2005.

[ii] Parsi is the name given to the Zoroastrians of Indian subcontinent who are the descendent of the early refugees from Iran to India in the aftermath of the 6th century C.E. Jihidist invasion of Iran by Arabs. After the 20th century division of India between Hindu India, and Moslem Pakistan, a small number of Parsis stayed in Pakistan and played an essential role in the building of that national.