Ammad Ali traces the history of an influential community from antiquity up to the colonial Raj and the contemporary era

Note: The words ‘Parsi’ and ‘Zoroastrian’ are often mixed up. ‘Parsi’ is associated more with a geographical identity or anyone who has ancestral roots in Persia, especially those who later migrated to India, while the word ‘Zoroastrian’ refers more to a religious identity.

It was a lustrous Sunday spring morning on the 26th of April 1607. The Palas flowers were in full bloom, flaming orange colourred petals dancing in the gusts of wind to welcome Shahanshah-i-Hindustan to Pothohar. Mughal emperor Nur-ud-din Jahangir, on his return to Kashmir, made his way through the Gakkhars’ country (Pothohar). Regarding his stay somewhere near Rawalpindi, he narrates in his memoirs, the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri:

“On Sunday, the 9th of Muharram, I halted beyond Rawalpindi. This place was founded by a Hindu named ‘Rawal’ and ‘Pindi’ in the Gakkhar tongue [Pothohari Language] means a village.”

Rawal or Rawal Jogis were the earliest settlers and their village, named Rawalan, was exactly at the same place where today the Rawal Dam is located. Not many historical references are available to tell us more about the Rawal Jogis. Where did they come from? How is it that they vanished without a trace? All they have left behind is a conundrum – the existence of this city.

After the annexation of Punjab and its incorporation into British rule, the present cantonment was first occupied by troops of the 53rd Shropshire Regiment of Foot in 1849. Later, Lord Dalhousie declared   Rawalpindi a permanent station of the troops during his visit to Punjab in 1851. Rawalpindi, by virtue of its geography, was ideally positioned to provide commanding access to the North West. Soon after the establishment of the cantonment, a town had grown into a city: a new thriving centre for traders who came from different parts of India and employees and craftsmen, providing relatively equal and bright opportunities for all. People from very different cultural and linguistic backgrounds made Rawalpindi their home. The life of the city turned over a new leaf: locals for the first time heard English and Gujarati being spoken. They were introduced to Framji ,Dhanji and Behramji: ‘Parsi’ surnames that they never dealt with earlier. Christians, Jains, Bohras ,Buddhists, Jews and Parsis settled in Rawalpindi. The canvas of the city became colorful and a more pluralistic society emerged.

The Zoroastrians might have been new to Rawalpindi, but they have a long history in the Pothohar region, dating back to antiquity

The Zoroastrians (often called Parsis) might have been new to Rawalpindi, but they have a long history associated with the Pothohar region, dating back to antiquity, when Gandhara was a province of the great Persian empire. The legacy of those times still exists near Rawalpindi: for instance in the Jandial Zoroastrian Fire Temple, a 1st century BC structure built in the Scytho-Parthian period. This is believed to be the temple described by Philostratus in his travelogue The Life of Apollonius of Tyana. The temple is a specimen of classical Hellenic architecture. This temple remained active well into the 6th century AD, until the invasion by the White Huns (Hepthalites).

Rawalpindi and Pothohar thus had close connections with ancient Persian civilisation, being politically a part of the Achaemenid Empire. Greek historian Herodotus mentions Gandhara as the twentieth satrapy (province), counted amongst the most populous and developed in the Achaemenid empire. In the years 486-465 BC, the capital of Gandhara was the famous city of Takshashila, or Taxila.

An epitaph at the Parsi Cemetery

Cyrus the Great, though Zoroastrian in origin, was secular in affairs of state. He himself ruled according to his beliefs, and made no attempt to impose Zoroastrianism on the people of his subject territories. He consolidated the Iranian peoples into a single state that stretched from the north of present-day Turkey to the western banks of the Indus River, which is today located in parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. Both Gandhara and Kamboja soon came to be included in this state, which was governed by the Achaemenid Dynasty during the reign of Cyrus the Great. They were integrated into the seventh satrapy of the upper Indus in the Achaemenid Empire. These were the easternmost satrapies. Zoroastrianism from Persia made its impact on the Mahayana sect of Buddhism in this region.

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