Rawalpindi: Parsi places of worship... still exist!

I expected an old building in ruins surrounded by garbage, but was pleasantly surprised by its clean serenity.

Shiraz Hassan December 01, 2013
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 A Rawalpindi based journalist, blogger and photographer who tweets @ShirazHassan
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Sunsar | 10 years ago | Reply 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.
Sohrab | 10 years ago | Reply 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.
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