Rawalpindi: Parsi places of worship… still exist!

Published: December 1, 2013
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I felt immense joy and relief that a place of worship, which belongs to a minority community of Pakistan, was well managed and looked after. PHOTO: SHIRAZ HASSAN

I was talking to the 70-year-old man, trimming grass at the Parsi place of worship, when he said,

“I have been working here for more than 20 years and during this time none of the elders or children have ever spoken harshly to me. I am their employee and they are always polite to their workers.”

An old gardener tending to the garden at the Parsi place of worship in Rawalpindi. Photo: Shiraz Hassan

I guess the old man noticed my intrigued expression because he continued with a smile,

“One day some community leaders visited while I was having my lunch. I was about to leave it halfway and get up, in order to serve them. They simply asked me to finish my lunch, rest a while and then come serve them food. That is how they always were.”

I have a keen interest in heritage buildings and old architecture, and so a couple of months back when my friend told me about the existence of a Parsi temple located somewhere on Murree Road, Rawalpindi, I knew I had to visit the site.

I began to search for this place. I asked around, spoke to people residing in the area but no one seemed to know of any such place.

I find it sad that most people living in Rawalpindi, and other cities as well, have become too busy in their own lives and do not know much about their own locality; sometimes not even about sights that are right next door. It is no wonder then, that this sheer neglect and indifference is turning our historical landmarks into ruins, right before our eyes.

Eventually, after asking many people and searching the city, I finally managed to find out the exact location of the place and one Sunday morning I set out to see it for myself. As many of you probably know, Murree Road is the commercial hub of Rawalpindi. There is a sprawling jewellery market near the Benazir Bhutto Hospital. Hence, it is difficult to imagine that a historical landmark could exist amidst this entire hubbub.

However, as I soon found out, hidden behind these lavish jewellery shops, there was indeed a Parsi place of worship. I knew that according to Parsi traditions it would be known as a Fire Temple and I was excited to finally have a chance to explore it in detail.

As I got closer to the location, I came across a commercial area and turned into the lane behind it. I had visited several old temples and Gurdwaras before; I expected an old building in ruins, its architecture in shambles, its walls crumbling and the ever-present foul smell of garbage in its grounds.

A well-maintained red brick single-story building housed the Parsi place of worship. Photo: Shiraz Hassan

Much to my pleasant surprise, I found myself face-to-face with a completely different scene. I was standing before a red-bricked single story building which looked clean and well-maintained. The path leading to the building was lined with rows of evergreen and date trees.

It was quite literally a treat for the eye and I was left awestruck.

The path leading to the temple was lined with trees. Photo: Shiraz Hassan

As I looked towards the right side of the building, I saw an old colonial style building and before it there was a gate leading to the Parsi graveyard. The building was surrounded by a lush green lawn and an old man was busy tending to the garden, digging the soil and cutting the grass. It was one of the most peaceful scenes I have ever come across.

The Parsi graveyard, next to the place of worship, was also clean, organised and peaceful. Photo: Shiraz Hassan

The stone plate at the gate of the graveyard read:

“This cemetery, together with the buildings and compound wall, was erected to perpetuate the memory of the late Seth Jahangiriji Framji Jussawala and Seth Jamasji Hormasji Bogha – both of the Rawalpindi Parsi merchants by their respective grandsons, Seth Dorabji Cowasji Jussawala and Seth Nasarwanji Jehangiriji BoghaShahshai in the month of Tir 1367, January 1898.”

The stone plate at the entrance to the graveyard. Photo: Shiraz Hassan

The graveyard also seemed very clean and serene.

I asked the old gardener if the temple was still functional. He nodded his head saying,

“Yes, there are some 30 to 40 Parsi families in Rawalpindi and whenever someone passes away in their community they perform the funeral and religious rituals here.”

I knew that there was a Parsi community in Rawalpindi comprising mostly of merchants, some hundred years ago; but it was indeed news for me that they still lived in Rawalpindi even today.

The gardener also told me that this place belonged to the owner of a famous brewery company and that they often visited in order to pay homage to their elders buried in the graveyard.

I also noticed that the doors to the building were locked and that the premises seemed well taken care of.

Photo: Shiraz Hassan

Walking back, I felt immense joy and relief that a place of worship, which belongs to a minority community of Pakistan, was well managed and looked after.

All I wished for was to see tolerance towards all other religious minorities in Pakistan and prayed that we are able to live together in harmony, peace and prosperity.

shiraz.hassan

Shiraz Hassan

A Rawalpindi based journalist, blogger and photographer who tweets @ShirazHassan

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Gingo

    First it was about the forgotten Jewish cemetery in karachi now this.
    Please let such historical and old heritage buildings remain obscure rather than letting the local fundos seek out their location and vandalize it to satiate their religiosity.Recommend

  • Parvez

    That was an excellent piece of research, writing and pictures.
    I think the figure of 30 or 40 should be people and not families living in ‘Pindi / Islamabad.Recommend

  • Anooop

    Parsis are a great community in India, well respected, hard working. Their ancestors came here for refuge and didn’t they prosper!

    30 to 40 families is remaining is not at all a lot. Even in Mumbai their numbers are decreasing, which is a sad reality.Recommend

  • water bottle

    I am not sure Parsi is the right word.

    The language of Iran is Parsi. The people call themselves Farsi. Though they are Zorostrians and have got nothing to do with the Parsi language, though they migrated to India to escape the persecution by Muslims.Recommend

  • goggi (Lahore)

    Homage to Ahura Mazda, the most sacred deity of the pre-islamic Zoroastrian religion and whose followers in Pakistan and India are called Parsis.

    In the Zoroastrian doctrine is Ahura Mazda , the God of the world and not only a god of the Aryans. Ahura Mazda is the representative of wisdom, reason, truth, light, enlightenment and an orderly life. He is the source of life and the highest level of Being-development. Ahura Mazda has no mood swings, he is not bloodthirsty, as many gods before and after him! He is incorruptible, requires no gifts and no sacrifices. He unwillingly hears people complaining, looks unwillingly tears and that people are afraid of him. Many gods ruled over people just because they INSTILLED FEAR in them. Ahura Mazda does not need atrocities as tools for their conversions. Instead he is serious, thoughtful and not a BOASTER!

    My special thoughts for an encounter with a very friendly, good-looking and fine boy in Bahrain, Swat. We were a group of boys and girls of the 9th class from Cathedral high School, Lahore, staying in a vacant school premises(with no toilets!). And he came with another group of school boys from from Karachi. We both spontaneously became friends. Under his shirt he showed me a black thread tied around his waist. As I looked curiously at that, he told me, that he is a Parsi from which I had never heard before. In the darkness and quietness of night, we sat on our sleeping bags and he told me hours-long from his fantastic religion……..e.g. why is fire sacred for Parsis and always burn in their Temples……because out of the four elements of life, Fire is the purest………………………………………!Recommend

  • ashok

    Excellent informative piece on the Parsi fire temple and its history. Parsi fire temples are called Agyaris in India, where a flame is permanently kept lit by the priests. Parsis are fire worshipers hence the name Agyari meaning abode of fire. Parsis are declining rapidly is India too, which is a real tragedy. Great Parsis like Tatas, Godrejs, Soli Sorabjee, Faroukh Engineer, Cyrus Mistry, Homi Wadia, Neville Wadia, Russi Surti, Polly Umrigar
    etc and many others have been and are greatly respected. They are national assets wherever they reside.Recommend

  • water bottle

    I guess I got confused between Farsi and Parsi.Recommend

  • Rama

    Parsis do not bury their dead nor do they burn them The Elements of fire,water ,air and earth are sacred and so they dispose of their dead through their special places known as towers of silence where carrion bird eat them up.the fact that they are buried in Rawalpindi means they have no facilities to practice their faith and so bury the dead which is against their religion.Also their place of worship are never locked as the fire is sacred and the flames are tended all the time.Maybe they do not have any priests to do so any longer They are a rapidly diminishing community.For their numbers like the Jewish their contributions are immense.They predate the Semitic religions and some are of the view that many Semitic religions have borrowed from them.Recommend

  • Quratulain fatima

    Its a good article , the cause of survival of this is the presence of some influential parsi family in area else it would have been met with the fate of the shamshanghaat , that has lost much of its area to the jeweller market.Recommend

  • Azmat

    Ghiraz, well written and lovely photographed article.Parsis are a well to do, peace loving and courteous community o f Pakistan.They are good honest traders and great philanthropists.They, their places of worship and their cemeteries need protection.Recommend

  • Brig (R) Waheed Uz Zaman Tariq

    I respect Zorastrians and more than a decade ago, I visited them in Karachi. Their priest was worried about the fate of their well preserved library and other treasures. Their number is declining. After the harsh treatment of Turkish Muslim (most probably the Gahzanvids) after 4 centuries of the beginning of Islam, their exodus started from Iran and present day Afghanistan. They had influence in Gujrat province of India as it was ruled by Persians in pre Sialamic days and they had many connections there. They brought their so called holy fire and made temples. Akbar the Greta met them there and took their priest Hormozji with sacred fire to his court. According to their book Vendidad, the point where the might Indus River joins the ocean, is a resting place for their Archangel “Sarush Yezd”. They though Karachi was the land of Angels and came from Bombay and Gujrat in 19 th century. The wine business was not liked by the Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Zorastrians became the contractors of wine for British troops and small groups of them settled at Peshawer, Lahore, Sialkot , Quetta and Rawalpindi. Murree Brewry was established in those days. They had a well knit community with their temples and clergy. They gathered a lot of money and spent in early days of Paksiatn for the national development. They had been law abiding and decently behaved people. Their existence is threatened in Pakistan, due to the prevailing situation. We must not allow the colur of the nation of Paksiatn to become faint and let us preserve their heritage and offer respect yo them as an honour able minority.Recommend

  • Supriya Arcot

    Great . Now please dig out and write such a positive article about Hindus too in Pak .Recommend

  • Kublai

    What is wrong with you? You went and disclosed the location of this
    beautiful,serene, elegant, peaceful place. So now it can be targeted
    by these mass murdering Taliban thugs.Recommend

  • 123xyz

    parsi place of worship is there……….just not parsis.Recommend

  • Parvez

    How could you miss out on the lead singer of ‘ Queens ‘…….. Freddie Mercury actual name Farookh Bulsara, who in my view stands above Maestro Zubin Mehta.Recommend

  • TheAverageMoe

    Parsi are the richest minority group in Pakistan, in fact the parsis make more money than the average Pakistani Muslim, some of the most successful businessmen in Pakistan are ParsisRecommend

  • gp65

    ““Yes, there are some 30 to 40 Parsi families in Rawalpindi and whenever someone passes away in their community they perform the funeral and religious rituals here.”

    Parsi population is dwindling everywhere which is a great pity.
    A little off track but cannot help taking this opportunity to praise the Parsi community in India. They have made great contributions despite the very small numbers. From top industrialists like Tata, Godrej and Wadia to top jurists like Palkhiwala and the recent CJ of supreme court Justice Sarosh Kapadia to freedom fighters like Dadabhai Naoroji (First President of Indian National Congress), Pheroze Shah Mehta the gentle, upright and philanthropic Parsis have added a great deal to India. Last but definitely not the least – no one from Mumbai can forget our former sherriff Nana Chudasama – who captured what was on people’s mind on the chowpatty billboard for 40 years in 140 letters or less (the first tweeter?)Recommend

  • jaygor

    You imply that Parsis have several deities when you say that Ahura Mazda (or Ohramzad) is the “most sacred deity”. He is the only deity. Fact is that the concept of wahadat- oneness of God comes from Zoraster and creeps into Judaism through Prophet Daniel who became aware of these concepts during Babylonian captivity.. Even the concepts of angels, demons, creation , shaitan (ahriman in Zorastrian beliefs), day of judgement creeps into Judaic religions through Zorastrianism.Recommend

  • http://www.netspeedtest.pk/ Speed Test

    Its Nice to see these traditional places still exists in Pakistan..Recommend

  • gp65

    That just speaks to how many giants this numerically tiny community has produced. One is spoilt for choice. If you notice, he has not mentioned Zubin Mehta either (neither had I in a similar post listing Parsi luminaries).

    Of course Freddie Mercury was wonderful but a completely different genre from Zubin – so no comparisons are meaningful.Recommend

  • gp65

    Actually he has covered Hindu and Sikh temples in earlier blogs.Recommend

  • ashok

    Yes Freddy Mercury was a great singer and entertainer. There are many other notable Parsis I may have missed out. Boman Irani, Persis Khambatta, Homi Bhabha are some that I can readily remember.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Both music…..but in my view Freddie stands tall as he was a creative genius…..while Maestro Zubin is celebrated for his brilliant performances of others works. I love listening to both.Recommend

  • Parvez

    I may be clobbered for this but as we are remembering names….what about Sam Manekshaw (army chief) , Jal Cursetji (navy chief), Fali Major and Aspi Engineer (air force chiefs).
    Does speak well for such a small community.Recommend

  • parso

    bery happy to hear this and the pictures and writting is amaizng and worth appreciating… feel proud to be a parsoRecommend

  • Cyrus Bulsara

    Shiraz Hussain, very nice article. My mother was from the Rawalpindi area and migrated to India before partition. Could you please do me a big favor and go back there and check if any of the graves, have a Meherji Frenchman or similar name, buried there?

    He was my maternal Grandfather. You can reply to me at [email protected]

    Thanks in advance.

    Cy Bulsara. Texas, USA.Recommend

  • gp65

    No question about the talent and contribution of Parsis. But hope you would also agree that the fact that a Parsi could become army chief, navy chief, Airforce chief and CJ of India speaks well of its inclusive ethos.Recommend

  • Parvez

    The point being made was not that they could ( this is understood by all ) but that they had to ability to… :-)Recommend

  • Sohrab

    Thanks for your kind words about the burial ground of Zoroastrians (Parsis in the Indian subcontinent). The Parsis not only respect life but also are very particular about non-life/their environment and that is what you see at the graveyard. I do not think there ever was an Agiary (place of worship) there.
    Sadly what you do not know and have not therefore reported is that the burial ground is under litigation because all the jewelry shops you see in front of the burial ground on Murree road, were a part of the property and has been taken over by illegal land grabbing. The community, which is very small, is fighting tooth and nail to keep what is left.
    Sadly after the radicalization of the society in the 70s and 80s, most Parsis have left or advise their kids not to come back after higher education abroad. It can only be considered a loss to a society which understands diversity.
    Somebody has mentioned about Parsis not burying the dead is right as historically they would be exposed to birds/vultures on what are referred as Towers of Silence (Dokhmas); as the last act of charity to the world. But because of urbanization, it is difficult to maintain Dokhmas and except for Karachi, all other cities in Pakistan, including Lahore, Quetta, Peshawar, Rawalpindi have always had graveyards.Recommend

  • goggi (Lahore)

    Parsi language is commonly referred to as Farsi, the reason being that, after the Arab invasion of Persia, because many alphabets like “P” are absent in the Arabic language, Parsi became Farsi. Pakistan is written and pronounced from the Arabs as Bakistan or Portugal as Burtaghal!Recommend

  • Sunsar

    I am touched by the kind and concerned tone of this discussion; and pleasantly surprised by the understanding shown, by some, of the ancient religion of Prophet Zarathushtra, dating around 1200 years before Christ. It is the first monotheistic religion, i.e. believing in the one God, Ahura Mazda, creator of all that is good in this world, who is the embodiment of Wisdom, Truth and Goodness. Human beings face a free choice to either be His hamkaars in the struggle to restore the world to perfection – or to take sides with the forces of destruction.

    Zarathushtra was a poet-philosopher, astronomer and priest and his words are contained in the Gathas, which are in complex verse form, in an archaic ‘Avestan’ language.

    There is some confusion here between the Persian language, ‘Farsi’, and the ethnic group, ‘Parsi’. Though once upon a time, Parsis spoke Farsi!

    Farsi is a language spoken mainly in Iran. Parsis (from Pars) are the people who left Iran (Pars) about a thousand years ago, to escape persecution, and gained refuge in Gujarat, India. This is why their mother-tongue, now, is Gujarati but it is a distinct Parsi dialect of Gujarati.

    Immediately after partition, there were some 7,000 Parsis in Pakistan, mainly in Karachi. (The first Mayor of Karachi was a Parsi, Jamshed Nusserwanji. He turned down the offer of a knighthood from the British.) Now there are about a 1000 Parsis left. Despite what is written here, there are only about 3 families that could be considered to be running a significant business. The rest are professionals: teachers, doctors, lawyers, administrators, artists, accountants, etc.

    A final plea: though the article by Shiraz Hassan is charming and well-meant, he is risking the safety of others by highlighting a minority place of worship. I sincerely hope that he does not make any further ‘discoveries’ as this may only serve to make already vulnerable groups more vulnerable. Stick to ruins and relics – no lives will be jeopardised in that case.Recommend

  • Parvez

    I have my doubts about Nana Chudasama being a Parsi………….the name just does not ring right. Also his father was Mansingh Chudasama and that certainly is not a Parsi name.Recommend