A Changing Cityscape

In physical terms nothing remains of Karachi’s pre-British past. Yet we know the sites of important eighteenth and early nineteenth century buildings which have now been built over. We can still identify accurately the outlines of the walled city and the positions of the Shor and Shireen Gates. Pre-British Karachi survives most forcefully in the names of mohallas and suburbs. In many cases these names are connected with the folklore of lower Sind, and in others with classical and medieval accounts of the coastal areas. The architecture of the town, its trade, system of administration and education, and its social life have been recorded in European reports and local narratives. This past has now been obliterated and we are wrongly led to believe that pre-British Karachi was just a small fishing village.

After the British conquest of Sind, in 1843, the town was developed on a grid iron plan. Deviations from this were made occasionally to create some monumentality, which suited the imperial image. Thus Merewether Tower was originally on the ads of the Napier Mole Bridge. The fly-over constructed over the railway line was added later by the British and it destroyed this axis. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, symmetrically planned lies on the axis of what was originally Clerk Street. At the other end of this street, and also on the same axis, is the High Court building. Its western facade lies on the axis of another street, now called Shahrah-e-Kamal Ata Turk. Similarly, what was before Somerset Street, terminates at one end at the Clock Tower of the Eduljee Dinshaw Charitable Dispensary. There are numerous other examples of this kind.

The Empress Market was opened in March 1883. Its Gothic clock tower was on the central axis of what is now Karam Ali Talpur Road. When the Cantonment Railway Station was designed, its central gable, in a similar style, was placed on the same axis and Karam Ali Talpur was supposed to terminate in an impressive square at that end. However, the scheme was not completed and the road now does not continue beyond Lucky Star. This axial planning is no longer visible because of the multi-storey development which has taken place between Lucky Star and the Cantonment Station.

The early architecture of the British was for make-shift military and administrative purposes and, as such, it was of a utilitarian nature. The Commissioners Office in the Collector’s Lane is a living example of this style. Another example is the building now used as the multi-purpose hall of St. Joseph’s Convent School. This hall was originally a church and a marble plaque outside it stated that it was the “first house of God in pagan Scinde”. The date was 1843. The plaque has now understandably vanished. The old Government House, on the site of the present one, was also a similar kind of building.

From the 1850’s onwards, however, Karachi’s British architecture became more elaborate. Renaissance, and Gothic facades became common, and their Bombay and Madras adaptations were imported into the city and used even for commercial and utilitarian buildings. Much of this architecture survives along Napier and Rampart Roads. Elsewhere, it has all but disappeared. Important buildings such as the City Courts, Frere Hall, the Old Museum Building opposite the Shaheen Complex, the D.J. Science College, etc., were all built in these styles. In both European and local domestic architecture the elements of Classical and Gothic revival crept in, and are visible in houses in the Old Cantonment and in Keamari and Kharadar.

The pre-British tradition of building a timber frame structure on a Gizri Stone plinth, coated with mud plaster and topped by large wicker wind- catchers, had vanished completely by the first decade of the twentieth century.

In the nineteen twenties, the influence of the newly built Imperial Capital in Delhi was felt in Karachi As a result, many buildings in this “Indo-European” style were designed. Indian and Islamic elements were incorporated in the European facades and plans. Examples of this style are, among others, the Hindoo Gymkhana, Mohatta Palace, the old building of the Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the KMC Building. The first three were designed by Aga Ahmed Hussain, a prominent architect of that period. For his contribution to the architecture of this city, he observes at least a street or chowk to his name.

All pre-British and British period architecture paid special attention to Karachi’s particular climate. To catch the south-west monsoon wind, rooms either faced west, as in colonial architecture, or were surmounted by wind-catchers as in pre-British days. Similarly, either the openings were small so as to keep the heat out, or were protected by large verandahs facing south or west. These considerations no longer seem to matter.

In 1885, “The East India Tramways Company Limited” started to function in Karachi. Initially the trams were pulled by locomotives. However, due to noise and security problems the locomotives were replaced by horses and subsequently by tramcars run on diesel. The last variety was of a very utilitarian design but pleasing to the eye at the same time. Their disappearance has broken an important link of Karachi with its past. It would be of great interest if these carriages could be exhibited to the general public along with the story of Karachi’s public transport, and if models of the earlier ones could be reconstructed. The tramway system had made it possible for the citizen to travel almost the entire length and breadth of the city until as last as 1948.

Until long after independence, certain suburbs of Karachi were covered with fruit gardens. Along the Lyari, from Mithadar as far as what is today Gulshan, there were date and mango orchards, many dating back to the eighteenth century. On holidays these were frequented by the town people. Malir oasis was also an extensive agricultural zone. Little of this green belt survives today and, when it does, it is threatened by commercial interests and KDA schemes.

Pre-British Karachi survives and will continue to do so in the names of mohallas and suburbs of this city. Colonial Karachi, on the other hand, is dying both physically and nomenclaturally – the former because of the pressures of the age in which we live, and the latter due to official policy. Old names related to the city’s history and its benefactors are no longer in use, and a lot of street and park sculpture of historic interest is lying n the KMC junk yard. Plaques and information regarding important buildings have, in most cases, vanished from their premises.

It is important that Karachi’s fascinating story and its rich heritage should he collected, documented and made available for permanent exhibition to its citizens, so as to give them a sense of pride and to link them with the city’s past. Perhaps a part of the, new Civic Centre could be reserved for this purpose.

Whereas pre-independence Karachi reflected the spirit of the British Raj in its planning and architecture, post-independence Karachi has reflected the political chaos, economic brigandage and cultural crisis that followed. Added to this, but of lesser importance, was professional incompetence, technological limitations and the failure to improvise.

Because of being transformed into the capital of the new state and being its only port, Karachi expanded rapidly. Its planners and city fathers were unaware, however, like their counterparts in most post-War Third World countries, of the social and economic transformations that the post-independence period was to bring, and which were to flood the new cities with, migration from the rural areas. Rural poverty at last caught up with the relative affluence of the non-industrialised colonial cities.

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