On the spring morning of April 22, 1847, when Siberian migratory birds were singing a fond adieu to Karachi, the city on the edge of the Arabian Sea was welcoming groups of Parsis from across India. It was still six years before India would get its first train, so they all made the journey by cart and boat. They were gathered for the tana ceremony to lay the foundation of the city’s first dakhma or Tower of Silence.

Advertisements about this socio-religious event were published in many newspapers in Bombay, including the Jame Jamshed. After the tana ceremony, a jashan thanksgiving ceremony was led by Fareedunji Behramji Jamasp-Asana, who was declared as first dastur or High Priest of the Parsis of Karachi.

This event not only brought together hundreds of Parsis but also consolidated the Parsi settlement of Karachi. It was only three years before, in 1844, that Hormusjee Dadabhoy Ghadially had become the first Parsi to build a home in the city. He had come to the city a year after the British conquered Sindh in 1843. For decades after, the congregation for the tana ceremony remained the largest gathering of Parsis in Karachi.

By 1849, as the Parsi population began to grow, the Parsis established the city’s first agiary or fire temple, the HJ Behrana Dar-E-Mehr in the Saddar area of the city.

The agiary in Karachi's Sadar area. Credit: Ammad Ali

There are no records to establish when the first Parsi arrived in Karachi but oral histories suggest that Parsis established businesses in Sindh’s Hyderabad and Sukher cities in the early 19th century. According to the Parsi Prakash community chronicle, Messrs Jehangirji Nusserwanjee Jussawalla and Co. was running business in several cities of Sindh and had presence in Multan and Kabul in the 1820s supplying goods to the British. A few Parsis had been jewellery traders to the Talpur rulers of Sindh before the British conquest of the region.

In the late 1830s, Hormusjee Dadabhoy Ghadially who was a contractor to the British army, arrived in Sindh with his nephew Dinshaw Firozesha Minwalla and later became one of most influential Parsis in Karachi. A self-published book by Dorab J Patel titled Parsis of Kurrachee lists details about the Parsi settlement of the city.

Ghadially started a business purchasing jewellery from the rulers of Sindh and selling it at a good price. He went on to become a leader of the Parsi community of Karachi. After the Battle of Miani and annexation of Sindh, the British are said to have given Ghadially large plots of land in Saddar to distribute among the Parsi community.

Among other early settlers were Khurshedjee and Muncherjee Golwalla. They had accompanied the British to Afghanistan as travelling bankers. In 1848, Byramji Merwanji Kotwal of Ahmedabad became the first Parsi Kotwal (police magistrate) of Karachi. and in later years Parsis held many important posts in the city bureaucracy.

Hoshang Kapadia with a cardboard cutout photo of Jinnah. Credit Ammad Ali

Karachi lore maintains that no Parsis from the city migrated to India after Partition, even though their corelitionsts from Lahore, Sukhar, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and other places did.

In the post Partition period, Parsi patriotism in Pakistan was a source of pride, especially since the nation’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, married a Parsi woman – Ruttie Petit.

Jinnah’s death anniversary is still observed every year in the Cyrus Minwalla Community Hall in the city, though at the national level in Pakistan this day passes unnoticed and is not observed as an official holiday.

Today, there are fewer than 1,000 Parsis in Pakistan. Prominent among them is the Avari family, which owns several luxury hotels.

Over the last few decades, Pakistani Parsis have moved to Canada, the US and Europe in great numbers. One reason, of course, is the religious discrimination faced by the country’s minorities. Pakistan’s constitution states that only a Muslim can be a president and prime minister of Pakistan. The bar on becoming president of the country, by extension, became the basis of an exclusionary culture in which a non-Muslim cannot be a president of a state organisation or a bank.

But even though few Parsis remain, signs of their presence are still visible in the city. There are schools built by Parsis, hospitals, dispensaries, parks, administrative offices, the Karachi Parsi Institute and other places for social gatherings. There is also the Jehangir Kothari Parade, an elevated sandstone promenade.

There are five Parsi colonies, the Dinshaw B Avari Parsi Colony and Cyrus Minwalla Parsi Colony among them.

The old white-washed dakhma is no longer functional. But another one nearby is now the resting place of Karachi’s Parsis. The two pallbearers are both from India. One of them, Mehrnosh Dumasia, moved to the city from Mumbai in 1989 when he saw a newspaper advertisement for the job.

The HJ Behrana Dar-E-Mehr agiary in Saddar is referred to locally as the Dewanoon ka Mandir or mad persons’ temple. Though the name itself is derogatory, it also seems to describe the state of a city engulfed in ethnic violence and terrorism that prompted its long-time Parsi residents to move away.

Ammad Ali is a freelance journalist, travel writer, historian and translator. He has extensively written on Parsi Zoroastrian heritage of Pakistan.