Ceylon Parsis on the road to extinction!
Posted on June 28th, 2018

By Tuan M. Zameer Careem Courtesy Ceylon Today

Sri Lanka is home to people belonging to different ethnic groups, who have lived on this island for several centuries. These ethnic groups and their distinct cultures are interwoven into Sri Lankan cultural tapestry and have each made significant contributions to Sri Lanka’s unique cultural diversity.

Howbeit, many ethnic minorities live today in ever dwindling numbers, struggling to ward off extinction.

The Parsi community is one such endogamous ethnic minority whose extinction is virtually inevitable. The Parsis, whose name means ‘Persians’, are believers of Zoroastrianism, which is one of the oldest monotheistic religious traditions in the world, founded by Prophet Zoroaster in ancient Iran, then called Persia around 3,500 years ago.

The Parsis fled Persia in the 7th and 8th centuries to escape religious persecution and made settlements in the Indian subcontinent mainly in Gujerat’s Surat Port and Bombay.

Later during the Colonial era, the Parsis moved to British Ceylon and became an important mercantile community in the Island. Their advent to Ceylon can be traced back to the early 18th century when Parsi immigrants from British India purchased land for commercial and residential purposes in Colombo and owned small plantation estates in the island. During the Colonial era, Parsi men worked as planters in the highlands and as merchants, particularly in the Colombo Fort/ Kotuwa.

The forefathers of this elite minority built and donated several public landmarks, too numerous to enumerate, among which is the famous ‘Khan Clock Tower’ in Pettah, which was built by Bhikhajee and Muchershaw in memory of Framjee Bhikhajee Khan, a member of Ceylon’s Parsi clan.

The Bhikhajee and Khan families also donated wards to the Colombo General Hospital and endowed prizes in economics and medicine at the University of Colombo.

In point of fact, the Hospital for crippled children known as ‘Khan Memorial Hospital’ on Ward place, Colombo was bequeathed to the nation by the Khans in 1939. Sri Lanka’s first cancer hospice was developed by Sohli Captain, a Ceylonese Parsi. Despite their small number, the Parsis have rendered yeoman services to the nation and have without an iota of doubt carved their own niche, making those rare Parsi names household ones in this country.

On the medical front, Dr. Rustam Pestonjee served as Director-in-Charge of the Leprosy Asylum at Hendala, Dr. Khurshed D. Rustomjee worked with the anti-malaria campaign and the Cancer Society, Otolaryngologist Dr Rusie Rustomjee became the first Asian to join the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in the speciality of ear, nose and throat surgery and Dr Jamshed Dadabhoy became Chief Surgeon at the Colombo Eye Hospital.

The community has also produced several advocates, solicitors, barristers and Justices of Peace such as K. D. Choksy, Pestonjee D. Khan, F. Rustomjee, B. K. Billimoria, Norshir and Homi Rustomjee and Queen’s Counsels such as N. K. Choksy, who subsequently served Ceylon as a Justice of the Supreme Court. Dadabhoy Nasserwanji, a Ceylonese Parsi served as the private secretary to the Sultan of Maldives in 1899.

Kairshasp N. Choksy (1933-2015), was a well-known lawyer, who became a member of Parliament, Minister of Constitutional Affairs, and subsequently Minister of Finance.

Notable Educationists

The Parsi community has also produced some notable educationists. Kaikhusroo F Billimoria served as Principal of Dharmaraja College in Kandy for an astounding thirty years from 1902 till 1932. The Cricket Big-Match between Kingswood and Dharmaraja commenced in his time and he is credited to have raised enough funds to purchase the ‘Lake View Estate’ on which the College Hostel was built in 1923.

The College Scout Group began in 1914, under the patronage of  Billimoria and many sports and other extra-curricular activities were encouraged during his time.

His wife, Perin Billimoria established the K F Billimoria Memorial Trust Fund for scholarships at Dharmaraja College in honour of her late husband.

The Parsi’s acts of benevolence are legion. ‘Firdousi’, the family seat of the Rustomjees on Turret road, was used by Royal College as the science laboratory during WWII.

The ‘Framjee House’ of Methodist College (formerly the Kollupitiya Girl’s English School) was the former residence of the illustrious Framjees’s who owned ‘Colombo oil mills’ and a shopping edifice that stood on the adjoining corner of Main Street and China Street in Pettah.

Ruttonshah Rustomjee Bhoory, a well known Ceylonese Parsi commercialist donated classrooms to Wesley College in gratitude for education received. Dosabhoy Marker, a Parsi rice broker built a lecture hall for the Ramakrishna Mission at Wellawatta.

The Parsis have excelled in various fields of sports. Some of the well-known early Parsi schoolboy cricketers were R. Banajee of Royal (1912-14), his brother M. Banajee of S.Thomas’ (1914-15) and P.L. Pestonjee of Wesley College (1914-1915) who was in Ceylon’s first public school cricket team to meet a foreign side, the New South Wales cricketers (1914).

The Parsi Sports Club began as the Parsi Youth’s Sports Club in 1927, and then changed its name to its present form a year later. Since 1947, it has occupied the Parasmani Hall at 11, Palm Gove, Kollupitiya. The site was donated to the community by Framroz Rustomjee, in memory of his deceased son, Ruttonshah Rustomjee Bhoory.

The Parsis also excelled in theatre and performing arts, and had their own theatre companies. The Parsee Ripon Drama company’ that performed Shakespearean and Sinhalese plays in Colombo between the years 1911 and 1912 and the Batiwalla Natak company that performed at Colombo and Kandy in 1918, just to name a few.

Homi Framjee Billimoria, OBE was a renowned architect of Parsee origin who built a large number of official and private bungalows during the bygone colonial era.

Mumtaz Mahal (1928), the former official residence of the speaker of Parliament, Tintagel (1929) the private residence of the Bandaranaike’s on Rosmead place, Colombo 7, the Independence Memorial Hall, Colombo (1948), Kandy Masonic Temple (1951) and Navroz Baug are examples of architectural masterpieces designed by Homi Billimoria.

Acclaimed Lankan architects like Pheroze N. Choksy and Jamshed Nilgaria who served as the president of Sri Lanka Rotary Club also hailed from the Ceylonese Parsi community.

Some of the notable Ceylonese Parsis who have left their mark in Lankan history include,  Perin Captain, President of SL Cancer society, Piloo M. Lakdawalla, Financial Director Central Bank, Mrs. Fredy Jilla, President of Girl Guide Association, Navy officer Homi N. Jilla, Civil Aviation officer Kairshasp N. Jilla, Army physician Minocher N. Jilla and Jimmy Barucha who was a popular broadcaster.

The Dady Hirjee (Muncherjee) was a noted commodities merchant and the first Parsi retailer who owned a shop at King’s street (later Queen’s street) Fort and the company was also responsible for palanquin facilities in British Ceylon. He was also the founding member of the Ceylon Literary Society which was inaugurated in December 1820 and donated the first set of ‘The Encyclopaedia Britannica’. The Ceylon Parsis also established the Bombay Union club in 1915 which had a well-equipped library and a reading room at Prince Street, Pettah.

The two entrepreneurial families

By the 19th century, the community was so well respected that on the formation of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce in 1839, Hormusjee Espandiarjee and Shapoorjie Hirji were the only two non- English members invited thereon.

By 1803, Hormusjee Espandiarjee Khambata (Khambatta) was running a company at Baillie Street, Fort and imported goods from Europe and China using the three ships owned by him. Hormusjee even pioneered the processing of cane sugar for commercial use and sale in Ceylon.

Other initial entrepreneurs were the brothers Dhunjeeshah and Jamshedjee Ruttonjee Captain, whose ships sailed between Colombo, Bombay, and ports of the Malabar Coast in 1805–1812. Cowasjee Eduljee Colombowalla, was an eminent purveyor and landed proprietor who belonged to the Parsi community of Ceylon.

He was the owner of some of the largest commercial coffee plantations, the Wewassa and Debedde Estates that encompassed eight hundred and fifteen acres. He was also the owner of some of the largest ships of the time that sailed to distant lands.

The two entrepreneurial families, Pestonjees and Captains, have excelled in the field of commerce, banking and trade. The famous Abans Company was founded by Aban Pestonjee, daughter of Kaikobad Gandy, a marine engineer who worked for the Colombo Port Authority.

The Parsis, despite the turbulence of history, have preserved their unique culture, traditions, language, rites and rituals for many centuries. They are known for their peculiar surnames, typically derived either from the town or province they hail from or, their family businesses or professions.

They are well known for their cuisine which includes tantalizing delicacies like faluda, kulfi and leganu custard which are of Parsi origin.

In Ceylon, they built their own places of worship known as ‘Navrose Baug’ (‘New Year Garden’), and the ‘Agiari’ or fire temple which is located on Fifth lane, Colpetty. The Parsis have an interesting way of naming their children and is based on the date and time of the child’s birth.

They even have their own initiation ceremony known as Navjote, the ritual through which a Parsi child is inducted into the Zoroastrian religion and begins to wear the Sedreh (sacred shirt) and Kushti (sacred girdle). A unique feature in the Parsi funeral is the employing of a ‘four-eyed dog’ which is allotted some funerary ceremonies analogous to those of humans.

As part of the Parsi ritual known as ‘sagdid’, two markings are drawn above the dog’s eyes (on the forehead) and it is led to the corpse. If the dog turns away from the deceased, it is certain that the person is dead.

The Parsis also believe that the gaze of the dogs’ wards off black magic and evil spirits. In the Zoroastrian tradition, once a body ceases to live, it can immediately be contaminated by demons and made impure and should not be allowed to pass on its impurity to the elements around it, especially the element of fire, which is believed to be holy.

Thus, dakhmas, or Towers of Silence, were built for laying the dead to rest. The first Parsi dakhma or funerary Tower of Silence was built on Bloemendhal Road, Kotahena and the property was deeded to the community in 1826 by Cowasjee Eduljee.

The dakhma at Kotahena was circular, raised white structure on which excarnated bodies of deceased Parsis were exposed to be devoured by vultures and carrion crows or desiccated by the sun.

But within a few years, the Parsi’s practice of excarnation of the dead-faced severe criticism from the residents in Kotehena who opposed the idea of exposing corpses to vultures on top of flat-topped towers.

The Parsis in Ceylon later adopted the practice of inhumation on the same property but after 1861, the dakhma and aramgah (place of repose) at Bloemendhal Road were closed and walled off. Cowasjee Eduljee funded the construction of the wall and the community retained control of the site until 1967 when it was sold.

In 1887, two and a half acres were obtained from crown land in Jawatte, Cinnamon Gardens and the Parsis built their funerary tower, a caretaker’s residence, storage room for biers, ossuaries, well of silence and place of repose. The structures are still standing and the cemetery is still in use.

The total population of Zoroastrian men, women, and children within Sri Lanka numbered approximately 61 in the year 2006. Parsi community in Ceylon is on the brink of extinction, due to intermarriages, migration to foreign lands and mainly because of the fact that they do not accommodate offspring of mixed unions into their community.

As they are a strictly monogamous and endogamous group, there is high Frequency of Factor V Leiden Mutation and other genetic disorders in the community. Alas, there are now only forty five Parsis left in Sri Lanka and as Parsi custom doesn’t allow outsiders to marry in, their future seems DOOMED.

3 Responses to “Ceylon Parsis on the road to extinction!”

  1. Christie Says:

    Thanks for the article.

    Parsis and other Colonial Parasites did not bring any money to their host colonies.

    British looked after them.

    They sucked us off like other Indian Colonial Parasites.

  2. Ancient Sinhalaya Says:

    You never noticed there is another race facing extinction. They are called Sinhalese. Thanks to Fastest Breeding Religion
    followers who multiply and multiply to outnumber the natives. Sounds familiar trick? This dirty, disgusting, sub human
    trick was used to turn old Buddhist iran, afganisthan, pakesthan, bangladesh, maldives, malaysia and indonesia to
    mussies countries within a few hundred years of their arrivals there with the baby machine wives. The dirty trick is being
    used extensively thanks to mussies deshapaluwan who promote, make room for new breeds. Even ancient Buddhist
    Buddhist temples, wild life sanctuaries aren’t safe from fast multipliers.

    Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution destroyed the mythical god concept for good. Then his book, The Tree of Life,
    explained how all the living creatures came to being after millions of years of evolution. Today, all honest people
    in the world believe the Theory to be true. What’s more NASA’s missions showed the earth is the size of grain of sand
    in the vast vast vast vast vast vast universe where distances are measured in light years and no scientist know where the
    edges of it to date. Someone can create such a vast vast vast vast place? All scientific communities do only one thing at
    the god concept. Laugh!

    Buddhism? What scientists discovering today, Lord Buddha explained over 2,500 years ago. Any
    body outside Buddhism accept this truth. Most people are still reluctant since they don’t want to upset their families,
    friends etc. etc and keep believing in untruths. Now fastest breeding religion people want to make Sri Lanka
    another pakesthan, lybia, somalia, bangladesh, syria, iraq etc. etc. We are spoilt for choice?

    We blame mussie deshapaluwan for destroying Sri Lanka by over promoting mussies, making mussies only schools etc.
    to divide the nation. Ass rough, xxxxhim, bada udin of old (did the biggest damage by starting mussie only schools which they use to hide real numbers and fill up to rafters in no time),
    bada udin of new who destroyed Wilpaththu for settling down new breeds, now kabir hashish who has started destroying
    the up country, a sad ali (not enough children to be sad?) etc. etc. mussie deshapalu list goes on and on, One thing is
    certain. One foreigner set, catholic tigers of tamil drealam, got rid of 100,000+ mainly Sinhalese for their separate
    drealam kingdom project while living all over the country comfortably. Now fastest breeding religion mussies are
    taking us towards another blood bath.

    We have to blame
    traitor anti Buddhist, anti Sinhalese, anti Sri Lanka catholic run UNPatriotic_rats who has been dividing Sinhalese
    making minorities and the mussie deshapaluwan who has been promoting mussie multiplication to steal the country.

  3. Nimal Says:

    My mother comes from the Prasi background but from the Artigalle,Kothalawala and Basnayake families and don’t they look familiar and fair skinned and prolific business people?
    This came to light in a strange way.It seem my mother and one of her brothers kept this secret for three or four generations, because their community was hostile to anyone marrying out of their community.
    My mother secretly kept in touch with people like Dr Dada Bhouy and one Captain(as mentioned in the article).When ever they visited our home in Mirihana my father gets upset and we didn’t know the reasons.
    My first girl friend was from Iran and we were both 14 and loved music and dancing like Javing and rock ‘n roll. Her parents felt comfortable with me to allow her daughter to go out with me and my burgher friends.
    when my Iranian girl visited us where I spoke to her in Persian my mother came close to us and tears came to her eyes.We first thought that she is going to lose me to my girl friend in marriage but when she started a few words in broken Persian(Farsi) I was shocked.
    Perhaps the parsi’s may be not aware that they were not originally from Persia, as told by my girlfriend’s parents. True Persians seem to have been decimated by several invasions. I did a DNA test done on me which indicated that we came from Azerbaijan passing only through Persia, Afghanistan then to Pakistan and eventually Zoroastrians ended up in India.
    So called Parsis who were Zoroastrians were from Azerbaijan where my Persian friend said that the name of that country means ‘fire by January’ or land of Fire where the people was frightened by thunder and lightning and they believe it was created by their mythical god Aruna.From there on they worshiped fire.
    Azerbaijan was invaded monguls and Huns that forced them to flee to Iran.They occupied area name Yast,a place close to the Iranian capital. Sadly they were chased once again by the Sunni Arabs led by one Ormar who rode into their temples on horses desecrated their very exclusive fire worshipping temples, usually unwelcomed to non Zoroastrians. After this they mostly migrated to India and Ceylon and even Burma.
    My mother retained a bit of their dying culture where she managed read and write a bit of Palavi,where their letters were not Arabic that is now used Iran but the old true Persian letters that is very much closed to Sanskrit,They use the old Persian script which was known as Palavi. But most of the Parsis used the Gugurati language in their daily communications. It is similar to use of Latin but using Italian as the language in Italy.
    I don’t much care or respect history as there are so many distortions. I only believe what I seen or heard from people who created that part of history.
    As my mum said the colonials did not allow in some urban places in India to allow their dead to be eaten by vultures where it was very apparent on top of towers but allowed them put the remains in a deep well to be digested by crocodiles.
    It was sad that they who were in Ceylon detached themselves from the rest of the non Parsies,just like the Sindis.

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