Written by By Peerzada Salman for DAWN.
“If you burn thyself, there will be light every where you go”
MAKE no mistake! No single group of people contributed more to the development and refinement of pre-1947 Karachi than the Parsi community. Be it Jamshed Nusserwanji or Kawasji Hormasji Katrak, be it Jehangir Kothari or Edulji Dinshaw, their unstinted generosity, their passion for making the city architecturally meaningful and their zeal for building worthwhile institutions and infrastructures resulted in turning Karachi into an exemplary town.
Jamshed Nusserwanji was the man behind the first “planned” residential area for the middle class segment of society known as Jamshed Quarters; Kawasji Hormosji Katrak helped establish the to-date scenic Katrak Parsi Colony; and Jahangir Kothari gifted a sizeable piece of land to help the municipality build a promenade these are only a few examples. The metropolis owes a great deal to all of them.
Sadly, in the first decade of the 21st century, Karachi is not a patch upon what its builders made it look like in the 18th and 19th centuries. You only wish if you could turn back the clock.
The Parsi community’s pure attitude to life and treating its munificence with care reflects in every facet of its existence. It’s no surprise that when oneand-a-half-century ago a place of worship for Parsis was constructed, the people who were responsible for it made sure that it remained sacred, unharmed and kept brimming with compassion. To date the H. J. Behrana Parsi Dar-eMeher (fire temple) looks as divinely beautiful as it may have come across at the time of its inception. And this is despite the fact that it stands in an area whose painfully noticeable contemporary traits are patchy roads, smoke-emitting, horn-honking public transport buses and uncouth vendors. Yes, the allusion is to the overly-crowded Saddar region.
Dar-e-Meher looks out over Daudpota Road which was formerly known as Frere Street. Dadi Banaji is the manager of Dar-e-Meher. He has devoted all his life to serving the holy place. He doesn’t think too much of the din and disturbance that unruly traffic outside causes, and keeps working hard to maintain the building clean as a whistle. Cleanliness, for him, is a virtue. So is tenderness for a site where people come to offer prayers.
Jahangir Nausherwan Sidhwa is a priest at Dar-eMeher and has been a regular here for no less than six decades. He’s seen the city change in front of him like a slow cutting of scenes in a movie. He says: “There was a time when these roads outside were empty. Trams used to run and people commuted by them. There was a railway track here. But then things changed and today heavy traffic and ear-splitting noise have turned things topsy-turvy.” Banaji’s son, 31-year-old Danishwar Dadi Banaji also works at Dar-e-Meher. He is an ebullient young chap who knows how to strike up a conversation. He says: “In 1948 there were 7,000 Parsis in Karachi. But then for various reasons people started moving abroad. Today the number has lessened and there are hardly 1,500 Parsis in the city. We try our best to keep our place of worship clean. At the start of Nauroz (Aug 9), devotees fill the hall on the first floor.” Dar-e-Meher has an eclectic facade and if you look at it carefully you’ll notice that it has many Zoroastrian symbolic figures on it. “There’s the Farohar on top, there are animal figures and even the pillars signify something sacred,” says Danishwar Dadi Banaji.
Architecturally speaking, all this goes well with the interior of the structure.
Gujarati and English languages are used in the commemorative plaque on the ground floor. It reads (in English), “Seth Heerjibhoy Jamshedji Behrana had estab lished in the year 1218 YZ (1848 AD) an Atash Adaran in Karachi.This Dar-e-Meher was very old and, therefore, after the death of the Seth, according to his will, his widow Bai Meherbai built this new Dar-eMeher and handed over the same along with several other properties for its upkeep to five trustees. On this day the Atash Adaran Shah was again consecrated and was enthroned in this new building for the use of the Parsi Community” Shanshahi 9th Roj Adar, 8th Mah Ava, 1244 YZ and Kadmi 9th Roj Adar, 9th Mah Adar, 1244 YZ, 27th April, 1875 AD. The first floor has a huge hall on whose walls pictures of distinguished Parsi personalities of Karachi have been put up, including those of Jamshed Nusserwanji Mehta, Khan Sahib Hormusji Khurshedji Mama, Seth Khurshedji Shapurji Soparivala and Edulji Dinshaw. It’s like visiting a galaxy of luminous stars.
Architect Arif Hasan says: “The columns that you see on Dar-e-Meher’s ground floor appear to have been copied or inspired by the Persepolis columns. The parapets on the roof have symbols that are taken from ancient Persian architecture. On the whole it’s a simple and nice building with some symbolic elements. “In life symbols perhaps hold more importance than plainto-understand expressions. To be grateful is a symbolic ges ture as well as an obvious demonstration to someone who’s done you good. And Karachi is eternally grateful to its Parsi community.