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The Parsis of Sri Lanka

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Very few people today have heard of the Parsi community in Sri Lanka, because there are only about 60 in all including men, women and children. Although small in number, the contributions to our nation by this intriguing community throughout the years, have left an indelible mark in the history of Sri Lanka. They have produced eminent citizens, including a Government Minister, a Judge of the Supreme Court, barons of business and industry, high ranking military officials, media and educational personalities and philanthropists, among others.

Prominent Parsi families in Sri Lanka today are the Captain’s, Choksys, Khans, Billimorias, Pestonjees and Jillas. Their ancestors were originally from Persia, who later migrated to Gujarat in India. The Parsis are a very religious community who follow the Zoroastrian faith which is basically a monotheistic one, centred on the belief in the One True God whom they call Ahura Mazda or ‘Wise Lord’ in the Gathas of Prophet Zarathustra and his Great Maga Brotherhood.

The Parsis have made invaluable contributions to the economy and development of Sri Lanka. The Captains are a Parsi family who have long settled in this country. Sohli Captain owned Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills and his son Rusi went into corporate investments. The Captains are well-known for their services to humanity. Sohli Captain developed Sri Lanka’s first Cancer Hospital, and his sister Perin Captain has contributed immensely to the Child’s Protection Society.

Another long established Parsi family in Sri Lanka were the Billimorias who established the Britannia Bakery in 1900. Homi Billimoria, a renowned architect who designed Mumtaz Mahal, the official residence of the Speaker of Parliament and Tintagel, which became the family home of the Bandaranaike family. The Khan family owned the Oil Mills in Colombo and built the famous Khan Clock Tower, a landmark in Pettah. The Jillas, another well-known Parsi family, established Colombo Dye Works. Homi Jilla became an army Physician, Kairshasp Jilla became a Naval officer, and Freddy Jilla served as a civil aviation officer.

The Pestonjee family arrived in Sri Lanka much later. Kaikobad Gandy was the father of Aban Pestonjee, the founder of the prestigious Abans Group. He was a marine engineer who sailed around the world and finally made Sri Lanka his home, which he called ‘the best place in the world’. In 1930 he was awarded a Distinguished Citizenship by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in recognition of his services to the country’s ports as Chief Engineer. His daughter Aban founded Abans Group, a business conglomerate that handles everything from hospitality and electronic goods, janitorial services to garbage disposal and keeping our streets clean.

“Sri Lanka is our home, we love this country, and our small community lives in peace and harmony with the people of this country, always looking for ways and means to contribute towards its development and prosperity,” said Aban Pestonjee.

Published on FT