Having a sense of abhorring towards the noble act of walking has always been prevalent among the lazy populace. Among them I am no different. But whenever I get a chance to savor aa stroll in the streets of old Saddar area in Karachi, my love for walking elevates as I get to see and often observe (in caseof having the liberty of time), the old colonial buildings left by the British.
From the gothic designed churches of St Patrick ‘s, St Andrew’s, and the Central Brooks Memorial churches to the grand Empress market, the Denso Hall, and many other that come in between my occasional journey on foot in the historic district.
I love to get lost in the architecture and the stories of these edifices. Even the schools such as St. Joseph and DJ Science college seem to incite me in getting lost in time -in its history with all the architecture and the sandstone material.
However, there seems to be one particular building that always grab my eyeballs more often.
A white painted edifice reminiscing the days of old colonial past. Tucked in between the Dawood Pota Street opposite the Bori Bazar in Saddar. The building is always painted with cream border walls and pearl white on the main structure..
The quality of the color always made me think as if it must be painted every month. In that street, the building is easily identifiable due to the striking difference it poses with the rest of the rustic neighborhood surrounding it.
On the entry it says “HJ Behrana Parsi Dar-E-Meher”. The building sits quite in the otherwise busy and bustling market circled around. A cast of curiosity is always present in my heart and mind as I walk through this particular building. It’s a treat to watch it and an even a greater joy in researching about it.
Turns out it is a major worshipping place for the Parsi community of Karachi, a group this city owes too much to.
The Parsis are behind some of the architecture and economic endeavors of the city. Their efforts were principle in once building up this port city into a posh community envied vastly by everyone in the sub-continent.
Today, the Parsis own businesses such as the Avari towers, the Beach Luxury Hotel, the prestigious Mama Parsi School, and many more.
The famous NED University of Engineering and Technology, a university I only dreamed of but never got an admission in, was established by a Parsi named Nadir Esterji Dinshaw (NED) as one of the pioneer engineering institutes of the Indian sub-continent.
I know some people who effuses whenever they spot a car owned by a Parsi individual for they are sure the vehicle would be intact and of good condition.
Today, the community in Karachi is known for the incredible amount of credibility and a graceful standard of living. – Not to mention the care they imply on their belongings is impeccable.
Back in my old juvenile days, I had discovered another gem of history. A quite reclusive society of lavish old bungalows and villas: The Parsi Colony. When I visited the place the first time, I couldn’t get my eyes off the colonial residencies.
These houses are hundreds of years old and today are remnants of a beautiful time, long gone but never forgotten.
Parsis immigration to Karachi dates back to 1847. While the Muslims and the Hindus were busy in their resilience against the British, the Parsis were capitalizing the opportunity and becoming useful for the crown by establishing myriads of businesses and trades.
But the first Parsi to establish a permanent residence in Karachi was in 1844. He was Mr. Hormusjee Dadabhoy Ghadially. A ceremony of putting the stone for the first Tower of Silence (Parsi burial place) was laid that year followed by multiple Parsi families immigrating into the city.
The Parsi building that stands strong (that same HJ Behrana Dar E Meher) was founded in 1849. It was the first ever temple to be set up in Karachi. Mr. Hormusjee those years would become one of the most influential personalities in the city. He started out in the jewelry businessman.
Elite British as well as affluent locals were patronizing his stores. He would later end up with massive network of connections and a strong leader for the Karachi Parsis.
After some time, the Talpur rulers, who were then in control of Sindh clashed with the British in the historic battle of Miani. The royal Sindhi rulers faced defeat and the entire Sindh came under direct control of the British Empire.
Mr. .Hormusjee by that time had become a prominent figure of the Karachi Parsi community with connections far and wide to Bombay. When the British took over, they recognized Mr. Hormusjee ‘s influence in the city.
The Parsis, unlike Muslims and Hindus, weren’t as deviant as they could have possibly been perceived under the British sight.
The Parsi community were determined traders and businessmen and somewhat had less interests with engagement in rebellions and revolts against the British, which was increasingly being observed throughout the Indian sub-continent. Maybe that’s why the British weren’t as harsh with the Parsis.
They were good traders with activities important for the running of the city. The British soon granted Mr. Hormusjee a number of plots of land for the purpose of distribution.
The first Parsi police magistrate of Karachi also belonged to the Parsi community. His name was Byramji Merwanji Kotwal and there were many others from the same community that started taking up prominent positions in the government and administration of the Quaid’s city.
Because of the Parsis, Karachi had a number of infrastructures built which was aimed at improving social development of the overall city. A number of community halls, parks, hospitals, and schools and even hotels were constructed. Some of the most notable today would be the N.E.D University of Engineering and Technology along with the prestigious Mama Parsi and BVS schools.
Jamshed Nusserwanjee Mehta, the first mayor of modern Karachi has a lot to do with this. Even though his stint as the mayor is characterized as being short (1334-1934), the contribution he made in that time alone was commendable and resulted in the establishment of many old building we come across today in the Saddar area.
Just before the 1947 partition, Karachi had become a small but refined locality where the elites used to visit and in pursuit of solace and enjoyment.
Quaid-E-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah himself had married a Parsi woman. Her name was Rattanbai Petit, the daughter of an influencer Parsi gentleman Sir Dinshaw Petit.
Dina Jinnah was their daughter who later married into the famous Parsi Wadia family of India. Her great grandchildren hold prominent positions today in the bustling business industry of India.
Today, the Parsis are in scarce. They have left abroad along with many other Pakistanis in pursuit of a stable lifestyle and growing opportunities. Yet the city they are gradually leaving behind still bores witnesses of their once enduring legacy.
Only a handful of colonies for Parsis live today in Karachi, mostly in the old Saddar area- a district once established with the immense contribution of the Mayor Jamshedji Mehta, (the mayor). These societies are in a form of a comforting enclave surrounded by the city’s difficult to manage hustle and bustle.
One simply can’t ignore the walls and the security surrounding these residencies. I’ve personally have been inside one Parsi society (Parsi Gate) and that too in my old adolescent days. It’s as if just a week ago. I got to see beautiful houses dating back to pre-partition era or maybe even more. It was like a ride back in time.
Today’s limited number of Parsis in Karachi are well known in businesses. They’ve been a major source of inspiration for many Pakistani figures and have helmed some of the most prestigious companies of the country.
The Tower of Silence (Dakma) plays an important role in the Parsi community. It is the site of their funeral and has been abandoned in the city due to the absence of vultures. The same challenge is being observed in Bombay where the community is struggling to preserve their norms and customs.
Today when I look back, I feel hopeless in observing the dwindling diversity of the city among which is the exodus of the Parsi community is an important fraction.
That Dar-E-Asram still remains in that busy street, proud as it can be, for I believe the building is aware that soon it will be manifesting a long-lost legacy of a community that was steeped in its daily lives, until one day they realized that they have created this modern city of Karachi from the ground, once so beautiful, and now, so much ignored.
Signing off for today. Until next time.
Captures Karachi, the Parsis and their contribution to the growth and development of Karachi beautifully.
Well written article.