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Who are the Parsis?
Sohrab Kavasji Hormuzdyar Katrak

Book Review

Ardeshir B. Damania

S.K.H. Katrak, 1965, 
Pakistan Herald Press, Karachi.

Historical Background
About The Author
The Book
The Daughters of Iran

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Historical Background

The Parsis in India, after a hard struggle for several centuries, experienced a turn in their fortunes after the arrival of the British and the establishment of the Raj. The migration of the Parsis from rural Gujrat to Bombay began in earnest in the 18th century and several “sethias” made enormous fortunes as a result of trade and/or concessions (sole selling agencies) bestowed them by the British for their loyalty. The Parsis were, by and large, oblivious of the great hardships and persecution that their co-religionists in Iran were facing in daily life. Although Zoroastrians continued to trickle in from Iran during this period, referred to as “Iranis” (to distinguish them from the Parsis), little was known of the plight of those co-religionists remaining behind in Iran. The latter were in fact enduring untold hardships due to religious persecution under the dictatorship of the shahs and the religious tyranny unleashed by the fanatics. The review of this book gives first-hand accounts of the plight and hardship of less than 8,000 Zarathushties who held on to the teachings of Zarathushtra and did not convert to Islam even when by doing so they would have bettered their lives immeasurably.

About The Author

Sohrab Kavasji Hormuzdyar Katrak was born in 1892 and educated in Karachi, India in a leading (athornan) Zarathushti priestly family.  His grand father had earned the title of “Khan Bhadur” from the British colonial government that administered the Indian Subcontinent.  King George V of England knighted his father Kavasji.   In addition to being a leading businessman in Karachi, Sohrab Katrak also served his city as a mayor, and advised Ayub Khan during the presidency of the latter in the context of independent Pakistan.  In recognition for his services to Pakistan, the government bestowed upon him their “SITARE-E KHIDMAT” civilian award of distinction.

The Katrak family was active in philanthropy. The Katrak Parsi Colony of Karachi started by them was the forerunner of the current Parsi Colony of Karachi where most Parsi residences of Pakistan can be found.  A public lecture hall bearing their name was also a donation from the family.  A street in Karachi named after them is a testimony to the extent of their community involvement.  

Besides, his governmental and civilian active life, Sohrab Katrak was very interested in matters relating to his community and religion.  He authored three books two of which “Message Eternal” and “Who are the Parsis” contained information he had gathered on various aspects of his religion and heritage.  Mr. Katak died in 1972 in Karachi, Pakistan.  The review of his third book “Who Are the Parsis”, currently out of print, is in celebration of his life of dedication and giving in accordance with Zarathushtra’s vision of service to humanity.

The Book

Katrak wrote an excellent book on the history of the Parsis in India. This book was published in Karachi, Pakistan, at the author’s own expense and very few copies were received in India. I managed to obtain a photocopy through by friend Pesi Amaria in Quetta. Katrak’s book has been written in relatively modern times and gives a good account of the Parsi migration from Iran to India and the establishment of the holy fire at Udvada. The epic voyage undertaken by the brave band of Zoroastrians to migrate to India about 900 years ago, did not end after they were granted refuge by King Jadi Rana at or near Sanjan. Their heroic struggle to survive by tilling the land and various battles they fought with the armies sent by sultans of Delhi is discussed by Katrak. The movement of the holy Iranshah fire to protect it against invaders from Sanjan to the Bahrot caves and for a time even to Navsari is also mentioned. However, I have chosen here to quote an incident described by Katrak which illustrates the extent of risks Iranian Zoroastrians took to come to India to protect their children and families from fanatics and common criminals.

The Daughters of Iran

The following dramatic incident mentioned in Katrak’s book alerted the Bombay Parsis to the true plight of the few remaining Zoroastrians in Iran: "In 1795 there was another attack by the Afghans [the first one was around 1788] on the city of Kerman in which several thousand Zoroastrians were slain or enslaved. About that time there lived in Kerman two well-to-do and respected Zoroastrian merchants, Yazdaiyar and Adarbad who to save their lives, their self-respect and their religion, fled the city in disguise and came to Yazd. Here the son of Yazdaiyar, Kaikushru, was married to Gulnar, the daughter of Adarbad. They had five daughters. The second girl from this union, Gulestan, was so extraordinarily beautiful, the enemies of Zoroastrians had planned to carry her away forcibly and convert her to Islam. The father, Kaikushru, having come to know of this, contrived after very considerable trouble and risk to his daughter's life and his own, to bring her in disguise to Bombay. There these two, father and daughter without a home or friends and unacquainted with the language, were waiting near Cawasji Patel Street in the Bombay Fort in extreme grief, worry, and anxiety. A Parsi gentleman, Edulji Dorabji Laskari, on seeing them in that condition, took them to his own house out of sheer pity, and kept them there in comfort.”

“Then Kaikushru, leaving the daughter Gulestan behind with Laskari and his family, went back to Iran and gradually brought the rest of his family to the safety of Bombay. Here these five beautiful daughters of Iran were married in various distinguished Parsi families, such as Pande, Cama, Meher Homji, and Petit." (Gulestan, the girl who came first, was married to Sir Dinshaw Petit and was subsequently known as Lady Sakerbai, after whom the institution for sick animals at Parel in Bombay is named).

Thus the Parsis of India came to know finally of the real sufferings of their co-religionists in Yazd and Kerman. The clamor to do something to alleviate this situation mounted, with the Bombay Parsis making representations to the British crown to use their diplomatic influence for this purpose. The British, who were favorably disposed towards the Parsis in India, relented. Thereupon, in 1852, the Parsis of Bombay founded the Society for the Amelioration of the Conditions of the Zoroastrians in Iran, otherwise known as the Amelioration Society. Maneckji Hoshang Limji Hataria (whose name mentioned even today evokes great respect, emotion and reverence amongst the Zoroastrians in Iran) was subsequently chosen to be its first envoy and dispatched to Iran by the Society and ordered to report back on the status of their co-religionist in Iran. The Society could not have chosen a better person for this task. Hataria returned to India but only once, made his report to the Society, and soon left again for Iran and never returned to India. Hataria’s work in Iran is now a legend. His biography was serialized in Parsiana a few years ago. All Zoroastrians should read it as an epic in extraordinary courage and perseverance.

It was incidents and sporadic reports of the type described above that prompted scholars in Europe and America to inquire into the plight of Zoroastrians still living in Iran, who steadfastly held on to their faith in the face of heavy odds. Towards the turn of the last century a few Western scholars, concerned enough about the fate of the Zoroastrians and their ancient religion, traveled to Iran to record what they saw and heard first-hand. What they saw makes very interesting reading even hundred years later. Among these scholarly adventurers were two whose travelogues are well documented: Edward Granville Browne (1862-1926) and Abraham Valentine Williams Jackson (1862-1937). Browne was a professor in Persian at Cambridge University, and Jackson was a professor of Indo-Iranian languages at Columbia University.  The books by E.G. Browne and A.V.W. Jackson will be reviewed by Dr. Ardeshir B. Damania in future on this web-site.