Zoroastrians must keep the fire ablaze

Published: November 29, 2014
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The Kothari Parade in Clifton, Karachi, was built in 1919 and donated to the citizens of Karachi by Seth Jehangir Hormasji Kothari. PHOTO: THE KARACHIWALLA

The Kothari Parade in Clifton, Karachi, was built in 1919 and donated to the citizens of Karachi by Seth Jehangir Hormasji Kothari. PHOTO: THE KARACHIWALLA

The annual inter-colony volleyball tournament is held at the Cyrus Minwalla Colony in Karachi. PHOTO: ARIYA PATEL The Eduljee Dinshaw charitable dispensary in Saddar, Karachi, was built in 1882. PHOTO: BILAL HASSAN The Kothari Parade in Clifton, Karachi, was built in 1919 and donated to the citizens of Karachi by Seth Jehangir Hormasji Kothari. PHOTO: THE KARACHIWALLA The Karachi Parsi Institute was established in 1893 to encourage sports in the community. PHOTO: CYRUS PETIGARA

Funerals are the only constant for Zoroastrians in Pakistan. For a community of less than 1,800 — last recorded in 2006 in a research conducted by KE Eduljee — the announcement comes faithfully almost once every month. The timings are noted in chalk on a designated blackboard — one in almost every colony — and those who read it first pass on the information to others. The news of birth, on the other hand, comes with an element of surprise.

At the 10th World Zoroastrian Congress held in Mumbai in 2013, it was announced that the global population of Zoroastrians was less than 140,000, one-third of whom are aged above 60.

India, home to the largest Parsi population (Zoroastrians who fled to Iran in the seventh century AD after Muslims rose to power) has witnessed a decline from 114,000 Parsis in 1941 to 69,001 in 2001, according to their last fully published census.

Following this trend, the 2013 birth-and-death ratio among Indian Parsis was 735 deaths compared to an abysmal 174 births. While the decline in population has not been documented in Pakistan, evidence of shrinking numbers is indisputable.

The Saddar area in Karachi, which was once dotted with tea shops, bakeries and restaurants run by Zoroastrians, is now a shadow of the legacy many have left behind.

Even Parsi stalwarts, including the likes of Karachi’s first mayor Jamshed Nusserwanji Rustomji Mehta and the widely revered Ardeshir Cowasjee, who were once visible on the societal forefront, participating in politics and making notable contributions to cultural discourse, have gradually faded away.

To prevent the decline of possibly the world’s smallest religious community, in 1999 Unesco initiated the PARZOR (Parsi-Zoroastrian) project in India. This was to create awareness regarding dwindling numbers and to revive interest for the cause within the community, country and globally. The project has since become a catalyst for change with its biggest success being the launch of the Jiyo Parsi scheme in 2013.

An initiative of the Indian government, backed by the PARZOR Foundation and Bombay Parsi Panchayat, the programme primarily targets the community’s married couples, encouraging them to procreate, and provides financial support for fertility treatment, if needed. For families with an annual income of INR1,000,000 and below, the government has assured 100% financial assistance, which is slashed to half for families whose income falls within the bracket of INR1,500,000 to INR2,000,000. In total, a sum of INR100 million will be spent over a period of four years.

With India’s Parsi population expected to drop to 20,000 by 2020, this scheme might be the only road to recovery. Backed by seven-year research conducted by the PARZOR Foundation and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences — which identified late marriages, a growing number of unwed Parsis and low fertility as the primary causes of decline — it launched its tongue-in-cheek print campaign this month.

Although the ads which prod single men and women with messages such as ‘it’s time you broke up with your mother’ and urges couples to ‘be responsible, don’t use a condom tonight’, have been met with mixed response, the scheme has already proven successful with the delivery of a pair of twins and two baby girls. Over the course of six years, it is expected to facilitate an additional 200 births.

While the Indian government has taken a step to pay their debt to the Indian Parsis, the Pakistan government — still struggling to give its minorities their basic rights — has entirely sidelined the Zoroastrian population. The extent of neglect is visible from the exclusion of Zoroastrians from demographic studies conducted by the National Institute of Population Studies in Islamabad. The only time the community suddenly crosses the mind is when it’s time to vote or participate in a dharna.

So far, no attempt has been made to preserve Zoroastrian culture by either engaging in sustainable research and documentation or initiating a scheme like Jiyo Parsi.

While the community has always extended a hand for support and been a shoulder to lean on, be it through opening the doors of Karachi’s Mama Parsi Girls’ High School and Bai Virbaijee Soparivala Parsi High School for all, to donating Jahangir Park and Kothari Parade Clifton and establishing the charitable Eduljee Dinshaw Dispensary, it has now become the victim of a one-way relationship.

Grappling with the threat of imminent extinction, the community has been forced to consider unorthodox solutions. In a desperate attempt to bring about instant change there have even been talks of reversing the non-proselytising rule in Karachi.

Each successive year, the Papeti mela held at Beach Luxury, Karachi, is a stark reminder of the waning community. The Karachi Parsi Institute which hosted annual sports events, including swimming galas, cricket, football and badminton tournaments and a special ‘hungama’ event for Navroze, where teams of four would compete against each other in a series of races, now struggles with a shortage of participants. The community has long moved past the stage of denial and many say that it is now time the government and Zarthostis collaborate to put two and two together and come up with a formula to revive the population in Pakistan.

But this is easier said than done since many in the community are not in favour of such drastic steps. They prefer to stay away from the limelight — even if that means slowly fading away with time.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 29th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (18)

  • Ahmad
    Nov 29, 2014 - 4:40PM

    Good informative article..

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  • karachiite
    Nov 29, 2014 - 5:34PM

    Excellent people, so nice to talk to and so loving and caring, my dadi always use to say that before partition parses made up a major population of Karachi, other community were Bohris and Christians in sizable numbers and how they lived peacefully each celebrating their own occasions.

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  • Babloo
    Nov 29, 2014 - 7:14PM

    Thanks for not trying to hide that Zorastarianism, which was the majority and peaceful and non-militaristic religion in Persia, was exterminated by Islamist Arabic invasion and the few people who survived, mostly went and survived among the Hindus of India. The most prestigious business house in India, the TATAS is owned by Zorastarian family.

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  • Sunil
    Nov 29, 2014 - 10:21PM

    @Babloo: Not too different to what they did to Indians but we fought back. Also Pakistani’s have to face the fact that they are of Indian origins and what there faith was, history of the Islamic invasion. Knowing the truth and facing it will change things and hopefully bring peace in the region.

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  • Imran
    Nov 29, 2014 - 10:34PM

    Population is not their only worry, decreasing no. of vultures from Mumbai and Karachi’s skies is also the matter of concern for the Parsi community.

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  • Karachi wala for life
    Nov 29, 2014 - 10:37PM

    Fading away from the limelight will make the community more vulnerable as they will be subjected to judgement based on lack of knowledge in the ever so changing, extremist demography of the city due to influx of people from the outside & demonization by clergy.
    the best example of this is the Ahmadiyya Community, which has been demonized beyond belief.
    Zoroastrians are thought of as fire worshippers, which is absolutely incorrect, as it is the most ancient Monotheistic religion on the record with surviving followers.
    So, its up to younger generation to make connections to the people at large, like there forefathers.
    Shout out to my Zoro friends, teachers & family friends!

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  • Ahmed
    Nov 30, 2014 - 12:15AM

    There are other reasons for the decline of Parsees in Pakistan that has been completely omitted by the writer. The single most biggest reason Parsees are leaving Pakistan for any other country is the lack of “security”. When you have no idea if you are going to come home alive, or if your home going to be robbed by armed men or if your wife and children are at home safe. When there is no sense of security why stay in Pakistan?

    The second reason is rights for the minorities like Parsees. Court cases where homes have been taken over illegally from this community are sitting in the courts for the last 25 years. So no due justice is given to minorities in general. Parsees are being robbed weekly and they don’t even file an FIR because its usually the police that are behind such crimes.

    Third reason is the lack of infrastructure. When you have no electricity, water, gas and just general despair – even those young families that want to live in Pakistan are packing their bags and leaving. Being a highly educated society with 100% literacy rate – other countries are welcoming them with open arms.

    Fourth reason is the current religious fanaticism that has engulfed the entire country. There are more fundamentalists who have no knowledge of the history of this community where for them religion comes first and to them everyone else is a Qafir. This is an entire new worry for the minorities where Hindu temples are burned down and women forced to marry Muslims in Sind.

    Its not numbers that matter. The first available census figures of 1872, show that there were only 777 Parsis in Karachi. But they were all quality men and women that the country of Pakistan in 2014, has not given anything back to them, where they can feel secure to live and raise their families in a prosperous Pakistan.

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  • Faryal
    Nov 30, 2014 - 12:37AM

    @Imran: pathetic response. If u cant say anything nice, dont say anything at all.

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  • Stranger
    Dec 2, 2014 - 5:40PM

    @Imran:
    Err Imran : The more the population, the more the dead, the more the vultures ….. So they are all intertwined.

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  • Pakistani
    Dec 2, 2014 - 6:24PM

    Very proud of Pakistani Parsis.

    Extremely grateful for the different communities in Pakistan (sikhs, hindus, kalash, christians).

    They enrich our beautiful country and have made strong contributions to society

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  • bahadur khan
    Dec 2, 2014 - 7:38PM

    The contributions of parsi community towards economic, legal , 1971 war, global presence of India is immense. In india rasna sweet drink is their contribution. In pakistan mureee beer is their contribution. The parsi panchayat in India has given generous grants to increase population. I hope similar support is there in Pakistan. NAD Engineering College Karachi, Bapsi Sidhwa, Ardeshir Cowasjee, Avari Hotels, is the highlights of Pakistan Parsi achievements.

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  • bahadur khan
    Dec 2, 2014 - 7:42PM

    @Karachi wala for life: You are welcome to emigrate to India or any other country, if things become worse . It s Sanjan 2. Indian govt should give residence permit,

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  • Yo2Da2
    Dec 2, 2014 - 9:11PM

    @Ahmed: Maybe your last point is especially germane. Their ancient ancestors were driven from their homeland by fanatical Islamist Arabic armies and they sought refuge in non-Muslim India, home to other ancient religion non-Abrahamic religions. For their small numbers in South Asia, they have contributed far more than any other religious and ethnic group! They are like Jews (who number only 15,000,000 worldwide) – only recently they have started to marry outside their religion to survive.

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  • Razi
    Dec 2, 2014 - 10:48PM

    @sunil and babloo

    What about the Aryan invasion of India, peaceful members of the Hindu community? Or do you want to be in denial?

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  • mohed
    Dec 3, 2014 - 12:23AM

    @Razi. Spot on. Its Hindus who are in denial when they totally forget Aryan and vedic invasion. And there have been many rounds of invasions by people.

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  • Parvez
    Dec 3, 2014 - 1:36AM

    The Zoroastrians especially from Pakistan tend to do quite well for themselves wherever they go…….simply because they are 100% literate and fairly well educated and that’s a major feather in their cap.

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  • Vijay K
    Dec 3, 2014 - 5:47AM

    India was blessed the day Parsis landed on our shores and took refuge here. What a great people and what an immense contribution to our country they have made. (By the way, Field Marshal Mankeshaw, the liberator of Bangladesh, was a Parsi and I feel proud to personally know General Pithawala, who is from my school)

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  • vinsin
    Dec 3, 2014 - 1:56PM

    @Razi:
    There is no theory of invasion, only one that exist talks about migration as of now. By the way it is called indo-aryan migration. Migration didn’t result in force conversion or movement of indigenous people. For thousands of years Kalash, Dardi, Nuristan people stayed but arabs pagans got wiped out.

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