Exploring Old Town Karachi

Article in Daily Dawn by Haneen Rafi, October 01, 2018

KARACHI: History buffs, lovers of art and architecture, and a few young souls wanting to learn more about the city’s rich cultural and architectural heritage, gathered at Pakistan Chowk early on Sunday morning to take a walk through the surrounding mohalla.

Organised by the Heritage Walk Karachi (HWK), a project of the Pakistan Chowk Community Centre, the purpose of the walk was to allow people from different walks of life to engage with the area of Old Town, and enable them to explore their historical treasures, outside the restricted category of pictures.

A guided tour was organised and the group carefully explored new alleys, streets, buildings, structures and spaces, most of which form part of an invaluable historical treasure of the city. Unfortunate is that these structures are marred by rapid urbanisation; the expansion of families has compelled residents to either abandon these buildings, or renovate them as per their need with no regard for how to preserve the cultural and architectural heritage of the buildings.

The initiative to revive Pakistan Chowk, spearheaded by architect and heritage consultant Marvi Mazhar, has had to battle institutional apathy and indifference yet has thrived as a centre of learning and research with regards to Karachi’s rich heritage.

Ms Mazhar was present at the start of the tour to reiterate the need to “both preserve and activate the memories and memorabilia of Old Town, by simultaneously archiving and exhibiting it.”

She spoke about how the walk takes one into the core of Old Town to witness “the dynamics between heritage, urban developers and the civil society. The city is changing massively every day; the facades that you see today might be completely empty from the inside and dilapidated, yet the law says you have to retain the skin of the heritage which is a controversial stance as you will see many buildings left to rot beyond repair so that you have to eventually demolish it.”

Participants had to pay a small fee to register for the walk and a list of instructions was sent to each. A large focus of the walk was to introduce to people the influence of different religions and communities on its architectural fabric, and the need to respectfully engage with the different spaces.

The tour was headed by Shaheen Nauman, who is project coordinator at HWK, who diligently shared small details about the different buildings and historical spaces the city was once proud of.

Starting off with the Sarnagati Building, which is located at Pakistan Chowk, Ms Nauman shared that the red sandstone building’s first floor in the 1960s was donated to the British Council and turned into a library. Apart from that an art studio for emerging artists, a printing press and publishing house, and headquarters of Sindh Sudhar Society were also present in it; the building, she said, was the place from where many quarterly publication like Ismat and Saraswati were launched, circulated and distributed.

The Sevakunj hostel building was built by a Hindu trust and Ms Nauman shared how the building was once the hub of student movements, and cultural and educational activities in the area. “A block style building, the hostel rooms used to be so big that they were shared by two students. It is also said that stacks of books would be placed between the two occupants for some privacy.”

Whether it was the Sadik Manzil or the 1918 established Dhani Ram building, it was plain to see that the heritage of the city is eroding away with no concern for the time when there is nothing left to preserve.

Shabby renovations of jharokas, and a blatant insult by painting stone carvings in tacky colours, were a usual sight. The walk was a grim reminder for how we take our history and heritage for granted, be it the institutions responsible for preserving it, or those individuals who either own or live in such buildings. The streets too were littered making it hard to navigate the pavements and overall the areas were in a state of neglect and decline.

Ms Mazhar reiterated how Pakistan Chowk — initially a neglected space and dilapidated beyond recognition — was rehabilitated and much effort, including finances were funnelled in for this initiative. However, the authorities concerned are uninterested in its upkeep and maintenance despite repeated reminders.

The Sarnagati Building

The Sarnagati Building at Pakistan Chowk | Copyright Marvi Mazhar & Associates

Written by Shaheen Nauman, Researcher at HWK, PCCC. and Project Coordinator HWK.

Sarnagati Building is an impressive red sandstone abandoned building around Pakistan Chowk. It was built in early 30’s. According to the present owner Mr Jitendra Shahani, ‘'It is an earthquake proof building with solid foundation. In its initial building plan it was supposed to be a seven storey building. The red stone used be brought from Jaipur on ships & after 1947 this supply of stone stopped because of that only three storeys were built’’. Since Karachi was the capital in those days, several ministers had their offices in this building. Once the capital changed to Islamabad, in early 60’s the first floor was rented to British Council at Rs 2000 per month. As this library was centrally located in the city, many renowned people of today were its members, like Rumana Husain, (a writer and story teller), Lynettee Viccaji , (an educationist). After British Council Library, Geographical & Historical Society established a library under Dr Hamida Khuro, a politician and a historian, twice served as Sindh’s Minister for Education.

Lease of Sarnagati Building of 1963 for British Council. Copyright Marvi Mazhar & Associates

The second floor housed an Art Studio for emerging artists and an Art school, “Sarnagati School of Art” before 1947. We know from references left by late Sughra Rababi, (1922 – 1994), after her graduate studies at the Sarnagati School of Art in Karachi she went for post-graduate studies at the Rabindernath Tagore’s Shantiniketan Fine Arts University in Bengal. She was also a contemporary of Abdul Rehman Chughtai.

Presently, second floor serves as an office for the Shahani Associates. We found the office, to be a huge hall with very beautiful well maintained original ceramic floor tiles very breezy and well lit by the windows, overlooking the Pakistan Chowk. The office was part of the three halls lined with shelves of books & the walls adorned with family pictures & a large portrait of (late) Mr. P.K Shahani, an MPA of Sindh Assembly in 1975 & MNA in 1977 and the first Chartered Surveyor of Pakistan and his Academic Certificates. These halls were filled with ancestral books, passed down the generations & were from late 1800, when British ruled this area. There some historic furnishing also present such as wooden screens/dividers from the old library. These screens have wooden panels that have intricate floral designs which appears to be a hybrid between kashi kari and wooden fretwork

Ground floor had printing press & publishing house. The headquarters of Sindh Sudhar Society was also here. It oversaw the launching, publication, circulation and distribution of first quarterly in Sindhi language of ‘Ismat’ & ‘Saraswati’ which were readily available to the students living in the area mainly at Sevakunj and Meetharam Hostels. Sarnagati is written in English & Sanskrit language on the semicircular facade of the building. Sarnagati is pronounced, “Sharangati” which means, “Relief”.

Art School at Sarnagati Building | Copyright KARACHI Megacity Of Our Times

Sarnagati written in Sanskrit language on the semicircular facade of the building I Copyright Marvi Mazhar & Associates

Sarnagati written in Sanskrit language on the semicircular facade of the building I Copyright Marvi Mazhar & Associates

Original entrance floor tiles of Sarnagati Building viewed from first floor. Copyright Marvi Mazhar & Associates

Original Floor Tile | Copyright Marvi Mazhar & Associates

The Mendoza Building

The Mendoza Building in Aram Bagh Quarter | Copyright Marvi Mazhar & Associates

Written by Shaheen Nauman, Researcher at HWK, PCCC, Project Coordinator HWK

The Mendoza Building on Arambagh Road is an abandoned and neglected stone masonry building, one of its kind in the area with amazing architectural ornamentation. It has been built with Gizri sandstone. It has beautiful arched windows, stone columns supporting the jharoka styled balconies, two crowns with the roundels in front elevation. It also has a gable roof, which cannot be seen from the street.

We do not know the history of Mendoza building, ‘‘ When was it built? What was it original name’’? Mendoza building got its name from the pharmaceutical Company Chas A. Mendoza as it was operating on the ground floor.

This building was one of the 25 sites listed on 2018 World Monument Watch List, founded and supported by the American Express. It brings a call of action for the threats, heritage sites are facing or opportunities for protection, conservation and engagement.

The Water Troughs of Karachi

Written by Shaheen Nauman, Researcher at HWK, PCCC

Water Trough near Pakistan Chowk | Copyright Marvi Mazhar & Associates

During Colonial times the means of transportation was animal drawn, be it donkey or camel carts or bullock carts for carrying cargo or transporting the poor. The rich had Horse drawn carriages, “Victorias”. For this animal population Water Troughs were built near markets, parks or sites where these animal carts would wait for cargo or a passenger. These were built with locally available yellow Gizri sand stone.

These water troughs are part of Karachi’s architectural history. These were built by important citizens or in their memory. Some were gifted to people by philanthropic institutions. The majority of these water troughs have disappeared, only a couple of them are left, which are not maintained and neglected. One of them is at Pakistan Chowk area. During British era this area was a busy taxi and Victoria stand, popularly known as ‘Purana Tonga Stand’.

Translation of the inscription on marble plaque of Water trough reads: “This site or monument was constructed in memory of Late Thakur Morarji Shiv Boda by his son Thakur Valamji Morarji on 8th day of Bhadarwa month (roughly last two months of Gujrati calendar) 1965.

Archives in Stone

Written by Ghania Shams Khan

Signage for a public carriage stand | Copyright Marvi Mazhar & Associates

In 1885 the East India tramway company was established. The tram carriages were pulled by horses till 1905 when they were replaced by petrol run trams. This transit system in its early stages left many marks in the old town like the water troughs for the horses who used to drag the Victoria carriages, here pictured is a signage for a carriage stand which is carved with the SPCA (Society for the prevention of cruelty to animals). During the British rule this act was passed based on the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) in the UK.
This particular signage represents these important parts of history all together. It presents a dialogue in Karachi when trams were run by horses and the concern for the protection of animal rights as well. With a sculptural style from the colonial era it exists in a dilapidated state like the disappearing water troughs which served an almost similar purpose for the horses running the Victoria carriages.
Such troughs and carriages managed by Karachi municipal, are now left abandoned and disused. Such signage require attention as they are records of Karachi’s history and an archive of its development in the colonial era.

A home for the rusting infrastructure of Karachi’s past.

Written by Ghania Shams Khan

On first glance a chimney of stone masonry will peak any bystander’s curiosity crossing Nishtar road. Like a point in space the structure stands out from its context because of its verticality and materials of the colonial era. Within Ranchoreline quarters, this particular building is strongly engraved in the old town’s fabric.


Site map for the compound: chimney seen from Nishtar road, Ranchore line quarters.

Crossing a rusted gate and skipping the pile of trash present on site, the curiosity will lead to a stone built structure displaying a plaque with carvings nostalgic of the British rule. Written on it “Karachi municipal drainage works opened by his Excellency the right honorable Lord Harris G.C.I.E. Governor of Bombay’ A governor who served from 1890 to 1895 during British rule and another important name ‘James Strachan’ the chief engineer and secretary of Karachi municipality in 1873. The two names who had great influence in Karachi’s history as a critical governor and as the architect/engineer who left behind some of the important colonial heritage in the city.


An engraved signage at the entrance naming the officials involved in the project | Copyright Marvi Mazhar & Associates

Typical colonial elements are evident on the structure with its cornice, arches and the stone masonry | Copyright Marvi Mazhar & Associates

On entrance one sees the chimney and the start of the stone building. A plaque is present on the front archiving the buildings history | Copyright Marvi Mazhar & Associates

Upon further discovery, massive machinery is found within the building as well with a label of ‘Fraser and Chalmer Ltd- Erith, England’ (fig.no.1.3.) an Anglo-American company specializing in boilers, engines, pumps, etc. As written on the plaque these machinery must have been used for the drainage works, and as boilers.


Machinery found on site labeled "Fraser and Chalmer Ltd- Erith, England", an Anglo-American company specializing in boilers, engines, etc. | Copyright Marvi Mazhar & Associates

This pre-partition building has evident colonial features with its stone masonry and arches some blocked and a chimney that can be spotted from afar. The building stands as a reminder of the British rule and represents the development done in Karachi by them, simultaneously representing the abandonment of such development right after the British left.
Maybe this built structure could’ve been very beneficial for the context but it stands as an empty compound now, inhabited by wild shrubs only and the machinery which show the role they played in the city’s infrastructure, now rusting into behemoth hollow metal structures intertwined with plants, existing in a hauntingly dilapidated condition.

Wild plants, shrubs cover the site transforming the open space into a bed of green and taking over the machinery | Copyright Marvi Mazhar & Associates

The infrastructure that could’ve been an integral part of the context, is now rusting into useless metal | Copyright Marvi Mazhar & Associates

The story of Vulcan Iron Works

Vulcan Iron Works

The Vulcan Iron Works were factories owned independently by numerous entrepreneurs in England during the Industrial Revolution. Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and smithery was the name of choice for these industries. Some notable factories were those of Robinson Thwaites and Edward Carbutt in Bradford, and that of Thomas Clunes of Worcester, England. The largest of the ironworks were the Cleveland Works of Bolckow Vaughan in Middlesbrough. These industries began approximately around the 1850’s, with some lasting till the mid-20th century. These factories mainly manufactured castings for motor cars, railway rolling stock, locomotives and ironwork for the railways. These factories were established in Worcester, Derby, Bradford, Langley Mill and Preston, England.

The Vulcan Iron Works came to India around the 1870’s and set up factories in Karachi, Lahore and Ahmedabad. The one in Ahmedabad is still functioning however the factories in Karachi and Lahore have been shut down. One of these factories original building still stands to date in Karachi.


The Case of Mangalore Tiles in Karachi

Red clay tiles have been found at a bungalow (plot FT-2/13), opposite Old Race Course Ground, on McNeil Road, Railway Quarters, Karachi.

Bungalow at McNeil Road, Railway Quarters, Karachi

The front façade of bungalow FT-2/13| Copyright Marvi Mazhar & Associates

These red clay tiles have also been found at Jufel Hurst School at Shahani Street.

Jufel Hurst School at Shahani Road, Karachi

The front façade of Jufel Hurst School | Copyright Marvi Mazhar & Associates

Historical Background of tiles:

The red clay tiles found on site were famously known as Mangalorean tiles because they were native to the city of Mangalore in India. They were introduced to the region by a German missionary, George Plebst (1823-1888), who was specialized as a mechanic but later acquired prolific skills in firing and glazing. He found huge deposits of clay in Jeppo (near Mangalore) near the banks of the Gurupura (also known as Phalguni) and Nethravathi (also known as Bantwal) river and thus laid the foundation of Basel Mission Tile Factory in 1865. The tile factory was located on the bank of Nethravati River, near Morgan’s Gate, around 0.1 km away from Ullal Bridge. It was the first tile factory of India, which not only produced roof tiles that met the need of well-fitted roofing tiles during pre-partition era, but also produced floor and ceiling bricks, ornamental and artistic earthenware, quality slaked and unslaked lime. Initially hand presses and mills driven by bullocks were used but in 1874, mechanical establishment was opened in Mangalore and by 1881, steam engines were used to power the presses. Mangalore tiles were the only tiles that were preferred for Government buildings during the British rule and they were also famous in India, Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka (Ceylone), East Africa, Middle East, Europe and Australia. In order to meet the growing demands of the Mangalorean tiles, factories were established in Puthiyara (1873), Kudroli, Malpe, Codacal, Olavakkode and Feroke. After the First World War, the Basel Mission Industries was taken over by the British Government and a new company, The Commonwealth Trust was established in 1919. The management was then transferred to the Indians in 1977, giving rise to the Commonwealth Trust (India).

Basel Mission Tiles found at bungalow FT-2/13 | Copyright Marvi Mazhar & Associates

Due to the large deposit of clay, abundant supply of firewood from Western Ghat and cheap labor helped boost the tile industry in India and following the Basel Mission Tile Factory, in 1878, Alvarez & Co. was established by Mr. Simon Alvarez. Due to the high demand of the tiles form Bombay, Karachi, Jaffna, Colombo and East Coast of Africa, the old set up was sold and new buildings were erected over the area of three to four acres, in 1907. The buildings consisted of three drying and one machine shed, together with three oil engines, two coal kilns, go downs and offices. The machinery included nine tile presses with dies and two large double roller pug mills.

Alvarez & Co. tiles found at bungalow FT-2/13| Copyright Marvi Mazhar & Associates


The Mangalore tiles are made from hard laterine clay, weighing 2kg (4.4 lb.) to 3 kg (6.6 lb.) per tile. They attain their red color due to the high concentration of iron compound found in the clay. Due to the properties of clay, the tiles have a cooling effect which beats the heat of harsh summers. These tiles are also suitable for high rainfall regions since they drain easily and fast.


Mangalore tiles are popularly used in Goa, Canara, Kerala, and Konkan. They are especially made to be placed over kitchen and bathroom at an angle of forty five, for the smoke to escape. Timber rafters are required for the use of these tiles and since the cost of timber is high, this proves an expensive proposition. Many people opt for sloping concrete roofs over which Mangalorean tiles are laid, in order to retain the aesthetic charm.



Urban Negotiations | Case of Illegal Pedestrian Bridge

A pedestrian Bridge is being  proposed for students, from private property- crossing public road.

Site Plan of the DJ Science College, Karachi.

Historical Background
Historical Background: The Northern extremity of the Rambagh Quater is defined by M.A Jinnah (Bunder)Road, the western boundary by Dr. Ziauddin Ahmed (Kutchery), southern boundary by Aiwan-e-Sadar) Roads, while Strachan, Mohd.bin Qasim (burnes) and Robson Roads divide this Quarter from Artilley Maidan Quarter. One of the major buildings of this Quarter is the Dayaram Jethmal Sind College designed by James Strachan and Dr. Ziauddin Ahmed (kutchery) Roads. During the 1870's this area had been a garden with trees and plantation, but by 1893, the impressive college building had been constructed in its place. One of the main gardens of karachi, the 'Doctor Burns Gardens' is also located in this Quarter. The D.J. Science College building is majestic, well constructed in the Rambagh Quarter, old town Karachi. This building was inaugurated in 1887 by then governor of Bombay, Lord Reay, as the Sind Arts College. Diwan Dayaram Jethmal, a distinguished philanthropist was its chief promoter and benefactor. 

Building No: KAR/RAB/008
Building Name: D.J.Sindh Govt. 
Science College (Deyaram Jethmal College)
Address: Dr. Ziauddin Ahmed (Kutchery) Road
Plot No: 3 & 4, RB/4
The D.J. Science College building is majestic, well constructed in the Rambagh Quarter, old town Karachi. This building was inaugurated in 1887 by then governor of Bombay, Lord Reay, as the Sind Arts College. Diwan Dayaram Jethmal, a distinguished philanthropist was its chief promoter and benefactor.

Case of the D.J. Science (Institution) Pedestrian Bridge:
It's unfortunate, that D.J. Science college administration did not take any advice from Heritage Committee/ Architects on intrusive construction for the pedestrian bridge for a 55 feet wide road. The width of the road, and the surrounding context does not permit for such a massive, insensitive construction. Culture of pedestrian signals need to be promoted in the old town, downtown of Karachi. By allowing the bridge construction, the committee will channel the trend of this type of construction in the sensitive heritage cultural precinct zone, which in future will be plastered with hoarding and billboards. The height of the bridge will be approx 20 feet high, obstructing the heritage facades leading on axis on Kutchery Road. 

Advice / Suggestions:
Vehicles must yield the right-of-way to pedestrians within a crosswalk that are in the same half of the roadway as the vehicle or when a pedestrian is approaching closely enough from the opposite side of the roadway to constitute a danger. Since its a two way road, the walkway can have a designed approach, by adding an island in the center of the road and formalised footpath at point A to point B.
1. To have a traffic officer designated to help students cross during morning/afternoon college hours.
2. To have signage's across the road, in Urdu & English with speed limit restrictions.
3. Introduction to have zebra crossing with pedestrian signal as a suggested system for the Institution, and also start the trend of pedestrian signals across the Old Town/Downtown.
4. To add vehicle speed softening measures before pedestrian walkways.

Heritage in Custody: The Case of Pakistan Chowk

By Asad Alvi
The Socio-Cultural History of the Area:
Pakistan Chowk was once called the educational heart of Karachi. If you ask an old Ned-ian, they will testify to this. The area was first utilized for educational purposes by Dayaram Gidumai Shahani, who many have gone on to call, alongside Edulji Dinshaw, as the ‘Father of Education’ in the country. Today, the rich socio-cultural history of Pakistan Chowk, patronized by Gidumai, suffers from historical amnesia. As Akhtar Balouch has written, that the history of Pakistan Chowk’s degradation is also, in many ways, an insight into how Gidumai turns from a “silent servant to a silent suffers.”
In 1880’s, the area was bought by Gidumai and mapped out as an educational center in the city (Khuhro, 1997). It was from here that the Sindh College Association began to operate, and it was here that Gidumai himself laid the foundations of the D.J Science College, of which he became the principal. After Gidumai died, the area was bequeathed to Kewalram Shahani, Gidumai’s son, who became the long-living educational and cultural patron of the area.
Under Kewalram, however, the area transcended its mere educational activity to that of tourism, too. The Chowk housed the busiest taxi and Victoria station in the city, which was popularly known as the Purana Tonga Stand, which tourists and locals alike used to visit nearby cafes and restaurants, two of which were the popular Café Saadi, and Kaisar Restaurant. The former served as a public space where students from nearby institutions could interact during lunch breaks, and became an important hub for educational interaction, and the latter became famous for serving the likes of Noor Jehan. Just behind Café Sadi, the Chowk also housed the Bholu Akhada. A muddy wresting arena, the Akhada became the breeding grounds for wrestlers, producing great sportsmen like Bholu Pehelvan and Aslam Pehlevan, who both became world heavyweight champions. On one occasion, the president of Pakistan himself, Khwaja Nazimuddin, travelled to the Chowk in Karachi to watch the match. Pakistan Chowk’s history, thus, is a rare intermingling of education, sports, culture, and metropolitanism.
However, while patronizing Pakistan Chowk as a space for tourists and culturalists, Kewalram Shahani also made sure that the activities in the area stayed true to the original spirit of his father: that of education, and perhaps, this is what the Chowk’s defining trait eventually became. The Shahani family were Hindu-Sindhis, and essentially, educationists and writers. Hence, the very pathos embedded in the family’s history made it a cultural imperative that the area be utilized as a hub for the printing press, reason why Arif Hasan calls the area perhaps “the first flourishing printing press of Karachi”. Gidumai had himself translated the likes of Jab Sahib, Bhagwat Gita, and Yoga Darshan, and these books were available in the newly flourishing literary market that founded its basis at Pakistan Chowk. Kewalram, on the other hand, became a philosopher, and wrote a treatise of Sufi philosophy called, “Mana Jo Chabuka” (The Scourges of Heart). The young man quite surprised the literati at the time when he wrote the first feminist novel of the Sindhi language, “Maa aen Dheeya” (Mother and Daughter).
Keeping up to their literary progress, the Shahani family opened up libraries, translation centers, and art schools around the Chowk.

The Saranagati building, the most imposing building around the Chowk, a red sandstone structure, was donated to the British Council and turned into a library, the second floor of which housed an atelier for emerging artists. One building on the corner, which has now been turned into a card printing shop, became the headquarters of the Sindh Sudhar Society, which oversaw the launching, circulation, and distribution of many quarterly publications, such as Ismat and Saraswati, which were made readily available to students living inside the area, mainly at the Meetharam and Sevakunj Hostels.
This brings us to a wholly distinct and important tangent of contribution: the hostel culture for which Pakistan Chowk became a facilitator, where the students of the newly flourishing NED University found home. By this time, the rupture of Partition had occurred, and newly pouring migrants, including students, recognizing Karachi as an important educational front, began to utilize the Pakistan Chowk. Three large hostels were opened: Sevakunj, Mehtaram, and Meetharam, the latter named after Kewalram’s late younger brother. All hostels offered free services and many of their residents were alumni students pursuing jobs, who went on to live there even after graduation. The hostels also housed reading rooms, where students could read dozens of daily newspapers and periodicals.
These experiences have been immortalized by the archival documents at NEDAASC (NED Alumni Association of Southern California, USA), which function mostly as memoirs and testimonies. One such document, penned by then-student Dr. Arshad Mehmood, speaks: “I was in Lahore when I received the telegram, “Come immediately, Vacancy open.” The sender’s address was at Sevakunj Hostel in Pakistan Chowk near NED College in Karachi. I caught the evening train, and made it to Sevakunj in the early afternoon of the next day. A quick shower to wash off the train dust, and I was ready. There was one large room, which housed four students, and the four cots and four desks in that room. Regular meetings and parties were held in the hostel courtyard, where we gathered valuable knowledge and friendships that have lasted a life time.” Such is, then, the cultural importance of these hostels. It is Farooq Soomro who writes: “Intizar Hussain compares old buildings to trees which have their roots deep inside people’s hearts. Everything revolves around such landmarks. And they remain forever in our stories and dreams becoming part of our folklore. Sevakunj is one such building.”
Sevakunj has a strong presence and character: it is decorated with a minimal but elegant façade. Inside, there is a small courtyard, reminiscent of a Persian sahn, in which students would accumulate in the evening and discuss education in a communal whole. The main architectural feature of the verandah is its arcading of exquisite motifs, often incorporated in buildings at the time; however, an unusual feature are gable frontages, possibly due to the influence of the recently completed Viceregal Lodge at Simla, considered to be a “free interpretation of the Elizabethan or English Renaissance.” (Davis, 1985: 117) Meethram is more intricate, the front façade comprising of detailed window-work, and a gallery. The neo-classical style of the hostel is not surprising; at the time many other native patrons and affluent philanthropists considered Renaissance and Palladian Architectural expression as the most befitting, which conveyed their enlightenment disposition and civilizational progress, which kept up with the cultural spirit of Pakistan Chowk. (Lari, 2000).

Precisely who designed these hostels has fallen into historical obscurity, but Lari contends that it may very well have been Strachan, who designed other buildings in the vicinity, and that Meethram’s neo-classical accuracy could only have been devised by a mastermind such as Strachan himself (Ibid). Lari and Davis both point out to an important fact: that the very architecture of the buildings surrounding the Chowk echoes its socio-cultural pathos. Architecture, then, becomes a way to sustain culture – stamp the architecture down, and the culture will go with it too.
Field Notes: Pakistan Chowk Today Problems, Complaints, and Reminiscences
If the urban theorist Jane Jacobs is right, that “the history of a space is also the history of the people who inhabit it”, then the history of Pakistan Chowk’s degradation is also an analysis of the ethnography of its residents. Hence, my field notes were not merely passive observations, but also conversations with people I encountered at the Chowk. Thus, problems, complaints, and reminiscences:

  1. It is the broken staircase I notice first. There is practically no way to climb to the space of the chowk itself – it can be quite high for the elderly who may face difficulty reaching it. Hence, its accessibility is limited to people who are physically strong to jump. Someone like my grandmother cannot reach the Chowk.

  2. A broken balustrade/grill. It disappears halfway into the air, and does not line the complete parameter of the Chowk. A nearby shopkeeper tells me that there was an original balustrade, only obstructed by stairways on both ends of the chowk, hence giving the area a genuinely neat look, something that has been replaced by a more precarious look now.

  3. Garbage and Waste: The chowk is surrounded with trenches, waste and garbage disposal, some of which has been set to fire, and there is a cloud of gray smoke emanating from one side. It is difficult to breathe. I manage to locate the area’s oldest occupant, Arshad Abdul Latif, who runs the Pakistan Tailors in the area, which opened in 1955. Originally a migrant, Arshad has seen the spacial features of the Chowk change over the last period of 50 years. He recounts that the last appraisal of garbage waste in the area was done by municipal authorities in 1989, under Benazir Bhutto’s government. There has been none since.

  4. Political Vandalism: On either sides of the structure of the Chowk itself, are political posters and graffiti, the messages often bordering on intolerance and threatening tones. One, for example, reads: “Bund kamron ki siasat nahi chalegi.” (The politics behind closed doors won’t work!”). This, in essence, defies the diverse and tolerant historical nature of the area. Another graffiti reads: ‘Perfume Chowk.” This popular phrase has an interesting history. An eastern perfume pushcart started painting the phrase across the city to promote his business. Realizing how much his business had prospered due to this activity, local bhatta-khors decided to hijack the slogan and use it to for bhatta activity across the city, where the collected bhatta was accumulated at a Chowk in Gulistan-e-Johar that was infamously named, Perfume Chowk. This is an important observation for me. The imposition of Perfume Chowk (which stands for corruption) onto the structure of Pakistan Chowk (which stands for growth), operating vis-a-vis the wordplay on Chowk, is what the revolutionary Julio Martinez called ‘symbolic dislocation.’

  5. The Peepal Tree: There is a massive peepal tree at the center of the roundabout, which serves as a giant shade, that can be utilized in very interesting and creative ways. Right now, it serves as a shade/resting place for beggars/fakirs and people working at nearby car repair shops. Usually, men in greasy clothes are sleeping underneath the tree on an ordinary afternoon; you can notice their sacks and bags hanging from the branches of the tree; a mirror hangs loose with a broken toothbrush attached to it; these bags contain rotten food for days – some bags are torn and the food is spilled everywhere, leading to an unbearable stench – there are flies all around them, and their pillows and clothes bundled together, lined against the body of the trunk. The description is not meant to demonize these subjects along the lines of classicism; it is to show that these factors genuinely accentuate an atmosphere of decay in the area, and lend the area a generally dirty look. When I ask one fakir who lets him use this place, he tells he pays a regular sum of money to the police-man in the area. If an important part of heritage preservation is also bioecological concern, then this peepal tree must remain clean, and these people should be relocated to other spaces for their afternoon naps – the political implications of this should be considered first.

  6. Benches: Abdul Latif also recounts how in the earlier years, while there were no benches, residents of the area would bring mats and chadors with them in the evening and play ludo and taash. Evening leisure activities around the Chowk are now almost non-existent.

  7. Tonga Stand/Fountain: There is a dry fountain. This, however, was not used for drinking purposes as much, but for mere decorational ones. A prime use of the fountain, however, was for Tonga-walas. Imam Buksh, who watched his father drive a horse carriage, the ‘Victoria’ around the Chowk, and who now spends his time commuting children from school to homes, recounts an interesting story. When his father died some decades earlier, Imam Buksh inherited the family’s only horse. The horse, too, died after a few years. Imam tells: “Horses also need gallons of water, especially in this Karachi heat. The fountain water was used by all tonga-walas for their horses. Unfortunately now, it does not work. The public tap, at the Purana Tonga Stand, also gives no water”. The Purana Tonga Stand also had tethering spots where tonga-walas could chain their horses and carriage, but this spot has been erased. Many like Imam live in the fear of their horses and Victorias disappearing in the night.

Heritage in Custody: A Precarious Future
While my field notes provide a more nostalgic account of cultural decay embedded in the minds of Pakistan Chowk residents, there have been other structural, political, and tangible problems that the Chowk has faced over the last several years, and ongoing tribulations continue to affect the area, a phenomenon that one newspaper report went on to call ‘Heritage in Custody’. The phenomenon of urban decay at Pakistan Chowk has manifested itself in many ways, two of which have generated much concern from residents of the area:
I. The Conversion of Mitharam Hostel into a sub-jail:
Last year, the government decided to convert Mitharam Hostel at Pakistan Chowk into a sub-jail. The proposal was approved by the Sindh chief minister, on the request of the Rangers DG, Major General Bilal Akbar. The latter had asked the provincial government to allocate a facility to detain suspects, especially those being interrogated by the Rangers under the 90-day preventive detention in accordance with the Anti-Terrorism Act. The CM House spokesperson noted they had sent a summary of approval to the home department. The historic hostel has already been under the use of Sindh Rangers since the last several years, serving as barracks. The Sindh government’s decision to convert the Mitharam Hostel, an historic edifice with magnificent architecture, into a sub-jail has drawn severe criticism from conservationists who demand the government to take back the decision and set up the jail outside city limits, for the hostel is among the over 1,000 buildings declared protected under the Sindh Heritage Protection Act.
Yasmeen Lari noted in a newspaper report: “Jails should be kept away from populated areas because of security hazards. While one had been hearing of government plans to relocate outside the city the Central Prison, which was out of the city limits when it was constructed but over years came to be surrounded by residential areas, the government’s plan to set up a new jail in the midst of Pakistan Chowk is incomprehensible. Soon the Rangers would want to fortify the Mitharam Hostel. The building was designed as a hostel and not as a jail by renowned architect James Strachan who was associated with the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation and had to his credit many other beautiful edifices like the Empress Market. By converting the hostel into a jail, the government is completely changing the character of the historic edifice.”
Hameed Akhund, former secretary of Sindh culture department, in the same report, noted: “Pakistan Chowk is an education related area and buildings in the vicinity should not be converted into a jail. Located in the middle of thickly populated area, the building would expose the locality to violence and threats of terrorist attacks after it had been converted into a jail.”
II. The Green-Line Metro:
The prime minister announced earlier this year that the Green Line will be extended all the way to the CDB area. The project, worth Rs16 billion, is being funded by the federal government. Sualeh Ahmed Faruqui, chief of Karachi Infrastructure Development Company Limited (KIDCL), responsible for the building and execution of the Green Line BRT project, is of the opinion that they have to take the project to its logical end, which is Tower. He said if they turned the Green Line back right from Urdu Bazaar, the purpose of the project would not be fulfilled. This makes it essential for a new route to be devised, says Dr Muhammad Tahir Soomro, EA consultant and former director of Karachi’s mass transit cell. The Green Line is now expected to enter the Saddar area from Kutchery Road all the way to Pakistan Chowk and then through Court Road, touching Sharah-e-Liaquat, and entering MA Jinnah Road.

Courtesy: Green-Line Corridor Plan, Official Website of Green-Line

With this route plan, EA consultants believe the volume of passengers will increase by around 0.2 million people, which will reduce the cost of the government’s subsidy. This route, however, does not sit well with Ashar Lodhi, an operational consultant for both Green and Blue lines, who argues that the Green Line would require additional bus-stop stations to be constructed across the areas it passes through, many of which are mixed-traffic areas with historical roundabouts where street-interaction is an important aspect of one’s lifestyle. To counter this, and make the project ‘city and culture friendly’, the KIDCL has invited not only urban planners on board, but also cultural theorists, academia, and civil society members, to provide their input on the plan, and devise ways in which this project does not subsume the culture of the Chowk. The marriage between cultural and civil society actors with developmental authorities, has, however, never been successful. It is only a matter of time which will reveal how this collaboration turns out, and whether, if the Green Line Metro is to cut through the Pakistan Chowk, will take into account its rich socio-cultural and historical significance.