The Zoroastrians of Rawalpindi

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

The Zoroastrians of Rawalpindi
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.”

At a Parsi Cemetery

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 Not many historical references are available to tell us more about the Rawal Jogis.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.

Later the Persians lost control over the territory. By about 380 BC, the Persian hold on the region had weakened. Many small kingdoms sprang up in Gandhara. In 327 BC, Alexander of Macedon conquered Gandhara as well as the Indian satrapies of the Persian Empire. Alexander, who came to be known as ‘The Great’, defeated Darius III and within five years he had conquered most of the Persian territories including parts of the Gandhara region. Soon thereafter, local ruler Porus was defeated by Alexander. His forces not only trampled many dynasties and thrones, they also vandalised some religions.

Jadi Rana presented the refugees with a vessel full of milk, indicating that there was no place for the exiles. The Zoroastrians, according to the tale, responded by adding a spoonful of sugar to the milk

Zoroastrianism was subject to some atrocities. Many? ??Zoroastrian priests were killed and? religious? texts were destroyed. Much? literature? was lost forever: ?only religious literature recorded in the Gathas (Hymns) survived.

The Seleucids were Hellenic rulers who took power after the death of Alexander. Zoroastrianism became regionally autonomous under the Seleucids. The Parthian Arsacids overthrew the Seleucids and ruled for a much longer period than the Achaemenids, but their rule was less centralised.

The history of Zoroastrians began during the Bronze Age, when the legendary prophet Zarathushtra first revealed and taught “The Good Religion”. In about 1750 BC Zarathushtra brought his message of ethical monotheism to ancient Persia and Central Asia. However the precise date of birth of Zoroastrianism is unknown.

The Achaemenids established the first “universal empire” across linguistic and cultural frontiers, practicing religious tolerance and ethnic pluralism for their subjects. After nearly a century of Hellenic rule under the Seleucids, the Parthians came to power and ruled in ancient Iran for centuries. The Sasanian empire succeeded that of Parthians. During the next four hundred years, the Sasanian kings established Zoroastrianism as the state religion of Iran. This was the ‘golden age’ of Zoroastrianism with as many as thirty million people practicing the faith. The liturgy of the Avesta was collected into a cohesive unit, and new literature in the Pahalvi (Middle Persian) language flourished.

Commodore Dhanji Bhouy Jain Public Library, Rawalpindi, in the 1920s

In 652 CE, the Sasanian empire was defeated by Arab Muslims. In the following era, many of the Zoroastrians embraced Islam. A few shiploads of Zoroastrians ,many of them hailing from the region of Pars, fled to India. These refugees, who would later be known as “Parsi” first began arriving in 936 CE to Sanjan, Gujarat. Thus the coastal area of Gujarat became a centre of the Parsi population in South Asia.

Modern-day Parsis recount a folktale of the Zoroastrian arrival in India. Their ships arrived in Sanjan, Gujarat and were met by a local raja, Jadi Rana. Lacking a common language in which to the address the new arrivals in his realm, Jadi Rana? presented the refugees with a vessel full of milk, with no capacity for any more liquid: indicating that there was no place for the exiles. The Zoroastrians, according to the tale, responded by adding a spoonful of sugar to the milk, demonstrating how they would blend into their new surroundings and the impact they hoped to have on the varied patchwork of peoples in South Asia. They were allowed to settle in India, with some? conditions. First the mobeds or priests of the Zoroastrians were to explain their religion to the raja. Also, at the raja’s request, marriages were to be performed after sunset for discretion. Moreover, the immigrants were asked to speak the local Gujarati language and the women amongst them were to wear sarees.

Isphanyar M. Bhandara

The Qissa-i-Sanjan, a long epic? poem completed in 1599, is an account of the flight of some of the Zoroastrians who were subject to persecution in their conquered Persian homeland following the fall of the Sasanian Empire, and of their early years in India where they found refuge.

Parsis began to establish fire temples called Agiaries in the Indian subcontinent. The absence of intermarriage and a low birthrate kept the community small, but their contributions to the area were considerable and the small religious community enjoyed great economic success?.?

The Gakkhars trace their genealogy from the ancient royal Kayanian dynasty of Persia. Their names starting with “Kai” suggest they were Zoroastrians and converted to Islam in the 13th century. However, today, of course, the Gakkhars are Muslims and claim they came with Mahmud of Ghazni to the region. It was, according to this account, he who bestowed upon them the region of Pothohar.? ?Kai Gohar, alias Gakkhar Shah of Kayan Ispahan, and several other examples are enough to argue that earlier name with “Kai” shows their Persian descent and ancestral Zoroastrian faith. However Farishta writes that the Gakkhars embraced Islam in the 13th century. Gakkhar legends discard this idea: they believe that they came with Mahmud of Ghazni and fought along him in the battle against Raja Jayapala.

The late M.P. Bhandara was a voice for promoting pluralism
and diversity in Pakistan

In any case, centuries passed and the history of the region saw the rise and fall of many dynasties and rulers. Until the mid-19th century there was no Parsi connected with or living in Rawalpindi. All of that changed with the establishment of a British garrison there. With the colonial military presence came Parsis who put down roots in Rawalpindi, ran their businesses and supplied goods to the British Army.

One Such Parsi trader who came to prominence was Commodore Fakirji Dhanji Bhouy. A famous trader and a philanthropist, he later earned the title of Khan Bahadur and Kaisar-i-Hind in 1895. Fakirji Dhanji Bhouy established the first public library of Rawalpindi on Massy gate – the latter being named after the first commissioner of Rawalpindi. The library was funded by the contributions of a Jain trader. This library was the Commodore Dhanji Bhouy Jain Public Library, made possible only by the trio of a Christian, a Parsi and a Jain. Later in the 1960s the Massy gate was razed to the ground for the purpose of widening the road but today locals still write down “Massy gate” – mentioning it in their address more than half a century after its fall.

Mahabir Sambat served as here as a librarian for many years. The library had a rich collection of rare and foreign-published books, from different genres and languages, all properly catalogued.
Dhanji Bhouy started a tonga service between Rawalpindi and Srinagar, reducing the journey from 14 days to 24 hours

Dhanji Bhouy started a tonga service between Rawalpindi and Srinagar. He also launched his tonga ambulance during the First World War. The tonga stand was in the Saddar area of the city. Commodore Fakirji Dhanji Bhouy was a Khan Bahadur who was almost knighted for his loyalty to the British during the Afghan Wars, the Boer War and the Boxer Rebellion. Every 7 to 8 miles, he had provided for a station where the tongas of his service could find a change of horses. In this way he ran a well-equipped tonga-based mail and carrying agency called ‘Dhanji Bhoy & Son’.

This service brought about a drastic change in communication. The journey from Rawalpindi to Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, involved a distance of some 200 miles. Earlier it took about 14 days but could now be completed in a mere 24 hours. This tonga transport service and a pony-drawn ambulance called the “Tonga Ambulance”, as mentioned earlier, also bailed the British out of tight situations during their wars.

The Khan Bahadur had a vivid personality and wore many stylish hats. He was a governor of the Hindu Technical Institute in Lahore and remained a member of the Murree Municipal Committee for nearly 25 years and its vice president for about 12 years. He was honourary magistrate of the district of Rawalpindi, exercising first-class powers for about nine years. In addition to several other positions , he was also appointed a lifetime honourary member of the Calcutta Light Horse.

In addition to being made a Khan Bahadur he was bestowed the title Companion of the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire, and for his public services he was conferred with the Kaisar-i-Hind  first-class gold medal. In short, an immensely wealthy, popular and successful man, he breathed his last in 1911. He had a son and three daughters. He had also expanded his business interests and bought land and property in Mumbai.

After the 1947 Partition, many Zoroastrians moved to Mumbai, the city with the largest population of Parsis in the Indian Subcontinent. The total population of Parsis in Rawalpindi during Partition was around 200.

In Rawalpindi there was a wine factory run by a Sikh. The famous Muree Brewery was founded by an Englishman named Whymper in 1861.

In the 1880s the brewery moved to Rawalpindi. Peshotan Dhanji Bhouy Bhandara bought the company in 1947. Hailing from a Parsi family of Lahore, Peshotan Dhanji Bhouy Bhandara moved to Rawalpindi. After Partition, he was able to carve for his enterprise a big space in the alcoholic beverages industry of the newly independent state. Later after his death in 1961, Minocher Peshotan Bhandara left his education halfway through at Oxford University to take charge of the family business. Born in 1938 to Peshotan and Tehmina Bhandara, a prominent Parsi family of Lahore, he was a commerce graduate from Punjab University and became known as a dynamic M.D. of Muree Brewery who brought in much innovation and led his company to new heights. A multifaceted personality, he was a businessman who was also an art lover. His efforts at promoting art and culture, he opened the Croweaters Gallery in Lahore. He was a member of the National Assembly from 1981 to 1985 and 2002 to 2007 and also a famous columnist in Dawn, known for always “calling a spade a spade”. He was a firm believer in a democratic Pakistan where all citizens are equal regardless of their beliefs, as expressed by Quaid-e-Azam M.A. Jinnah in his address on the 11th of August, 1947, to the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan. Ayesha Jalal most aptly describes him as follows: “M.P. Bhandara had abiding faith in the ideal of a culturally creative, intellectually open, peaceful and prosperous Pakistan.”

During his 2008 visit to China he met with an accident. Soon thereafter, he died at the age of 70.

Talking about the Zoroastrians legacy and contributions in Rawalpindi, President Parsi Anjuman Rawalpindi and Member National Assembly of Pakistan Mr. Isphanyar M. Bhandara says,

“Being a representative of Zoroastrians and Kalash community in the National Assembly of Pakistan, I always stood and raised my voice for the minorities’ rights. If we look at the history of Rawalpindi we will find a pluralistic society based on the values of coexistence and tolerance. Today there are around one dozen Parsis living in Rawalpindi. In recent years, Parsis from the Subcontinent are leaving for North America and Europe. This is not because they feel insecure but for better opportunities and living standards. Parsis contributed a lot to the progress of our country, being a wealthy community active in social work. As the number of Parsis is dwindling, their only sign in Rawalpindi is the Zoroastrian burial ground. It’s sad that the neighbours around the cemetery and land-grabbers are trying to erase this heritage site of Rawalpindi. This would be a huge blow to diversity in the city.”

Today the names of Zoroastrians who once lived in Rawalpindi can be seen on the epitaphs of graves in the Parsi cemetery adjacent to Murree Road. Due to its commercial importance, unfortunately, land-grabbers are active in efforts to occupy it. The engraving on epitaphs is fading. Soon, one day, we might find it erased. But their contributions to this city will always be written with golden words.


History of India Vol. I by Romila Thapar, 1966
Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri - translated by Alexander Rogers
Rawalpindi District Gazetteer, 1893-94 edition
Golden Book of India