Peshawar’s jewel in the crown, the Mohallah Sethian or Sethi Street, stands as a testament to days gone by when stories of distant lands were narrated over cups of green tea and caravans of traders stopped in the city, while travelling from the Central Asian steppes to the Indian plains.
This was the area where the Sethi family settled when it arrived in Peshawar in the 1730s. Historians recall that the Sethi family belonged to the trading class and “transacted international business, commerce and trade which passed from India to Afghanistan and Central Asia,” as noted by late historian Ahmed Hassan Dani.
The Sethis have left Peshawar with seven magnificent havelis. The Sethi House, which still stands, was built by Sethi Karim Bakhsh in 1882. In the words of architect Naeem Safi, the house embodies techniques and aesthetic influences from a diverse range of sources. The design resembles old houses in Baghdad whereas the decorative elements trace their origins to Samarkand and Bukhara, and even bits of Persia and India.
In his writings, Dani threw some light on where the Sethis came from. He traced the etymology of the word Sethi to the Sanskrit word ‘Sreshthin’ which means the head of a business community.
But the family saw its fortunes change while in Peshawar. The family’s wealth declined after the First World War when the Bolsheviks toppled the Czarist Empire. The repudiation of Czarists bonds and change to new currency notes turned the Sethis into paupers from princes because they were in possession of these bonds.