The twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad are not particularly known for their religious diversity, or in fact diversity of any kind. The majority of their population consists of government workers and bureaucrats, or people merely in the city to work. A little-known fact is that prior to Partition, Rawalpindi was home to several significantly sized minorities of Hindus, Sikhs and Parsis. The older parts of Rawalpindi are brimming with gurdwaras andtemples (most of them now either defunct or converted to houses), which speak of the multicultural past of the city.
Parsis are one of the lesser-known communities of Rawalpindi, so it was surprising to find that a Parsi cemetery exists near the busiest road in the city. Tucked behind the bustling jewelry market on Murree Road, the cemetery is the only known religious site of the dwindling Parsi population of Rawalpindi, which numbers about fifty families in all as of now.
Traditionally, Parsis consider the elements of water, air, fire, and earth to be sacred. They believe that corpses are impure because their putrefaction pollutes these elements. Hence, they refrain from burning or burying their dead at land or sea. Instead, they prefer to leave dead bodies in an open area where they are consumed by scavenger birds, as the last act of charity, and as a way of purifying the remains. For this purpose, Parsis have special ‘Towers of Silence’, high structures on which the corpses are placed and are quickly fed upon by birds and insects, while the bones are dried and disintegrated by the sun. However, due to rapid urbanization, as well as a diminishing population of vultures, erecting and maintaining such structures is next to impossible in most cities. Although Karachi does have two such towers, Rawalpindi’s sizably smaller Parsi populationhas resorted to burying their loved ones in a cemetery.
It comes as a surprise that amidst the ostentatious jewelry shops and the sea of people crowding the Murree Road area, one finds an old Zoroastrian cemetery. This structure stands as a symbol of the city’s heritage, a reminder of an era gone by to current and future generations. However, so far it has not received any attention or recognition from the central, state or regional government bodies. Built in 1989 by a Parsi merchant family, this single-story building has quite a colonial edge to it. The entire building is plastered with red mortar. The rather well maintained and clean red-bricked structure contains an open courtyard and continuous verandahs that consist of pointed arches and surround the building from three sides. There are also a large number of white wooden doors and windows.
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