Just like the hundreds of thousands of others who work in the southern part of Karachi, I encounter the bustling area of Saddar and the old town almost every day. Despite being born and bred in this city, my relationship with the old city area and its colonial past remained limited to passing by and observing it from afar while on my way to other destinations.
Being a woman, I do not get many opportunities to interact with the streets of my city, let alone walk through them. So when I learned about the Heritage Walk Karachi (HWK) organised by the Pakistan Chowk Community Centre (PCCC), it instantly piqued my interest.
Arriving at the gathering spot i.e. Pakistan Chowk on a sunny Sunday morning, I can safely say that I did not know what to expect. A superficial glance at their Instagram account informed me that their audience consists mostly of students, academics and urban experts. What I did not expect was the diversity of people attending the walk, despite us being a small group of eight or so individuals. The reason for the lack of participants, I later learned, was the ungodly start time of 7:15am and the scorching summer heat.
Shaheen Nauman, the face of Heritage Walk Karachi
The tour guide and project coordinator of HWK, Shaheen Nauman, is “one of the first women” in Pakistan to lead their own historical tour, according to the HWK’s website. “Having spent a significant portion of her life exploring the area on her own, Nauman is well versed in the histories and stories of Old Town Karachi,” it says. Starting in January 2018, the walk has been taking place every Sunday with the exception of major events like Covid-19 and Ramazan.
“I love the colonial buildings that show the history of our country. And I am closer to the colonial buildings because when people talk about their ancestors, they talk about their heirlooms, they’d say ‘ye meri nani ka gharara hai [This is my maternal grandmother’s skirt]’, ‘ye paan dan hai [This is a betel case]’, ‘ye itar daan hai [This is a pomander]’,” Nauman told Images.
“I don’t have any material thing to show anyone that my family is from this part of the country. So I attach myself to colonial buildings. It has been very satisfying to be on the roads and show people the heritage of my city. I love my city.”
You can tell by the passion and vigour in her voice that she cares deeply about the city, its colonial infrastructure and this project. “It is sort of giving back to the city because what I am is because of the city.”
Nauman joined HWK as a guide in February 2018 after Marvi Mazhar, an architect and the founder of the PCCC, learned of her passion for colonial buildings. She introduced herself as the “face” of the HWK.
The journey began at Pakistan Chowk and ended at Karachi Sweets.
Nauman told me about the restoration of the Chowk by Mazhar and how the aim was to make it a communal space. Someone had ripped out the old benches and sold the material so they had to be replaced. They also faced hindrances from traffic, especially rickshaws and bikes, that would often come through the entrance/exit of the Chowk as a shortcut.
According to Nauman, most people who resided in the area before Partition were Sindhi Hindus. This is evident from the emblem of “Om” in Sanskrit engraved in the centre on the front of most buildings that are still in relatively original — yet damaged — condition.
Buildings were not the only feature of the walk. Plants and trees indigenous to Karachi, such as the Banyan, Tamarind and Siri, were also focal points of the route. All three kinds of trees are naturally shady trees, conducive to both animal and human activities.
Walking back in time
There are two periods when a very large number of buildings were built in Karachi — one is the 1930s and the other is between the 1880s and 1890s. The reason for the 30s was the separation of Sindh from the Bombay presidency in 1936. In the 80s and 90s, railways and the port were constructed, which began another major surge of buildings being constructed in the city.
The spectacular Sarngati Building was our first stop. Built with redstone brought in from Jaipur in the early 1930s, the structure has withstood the test of time. “It is an earthquake-proof building with a solid foundation. In its initial building plan, it was supposed to be a seven-storey building. The red stone used to be brought from Jaipur on ships and, after 1947, this supply of stone stopped. Because of that, only three storeys were built,” the current owner, Jitendra Shahani, told Nauman on a different occasion.
When Karachi was the capital of the country, many government offices were situated in the building. According to Nauman, one of the main reasons the building has remained remarkable is because of its stone. “Redstone is very strong, that’s why,” she explained.
I asked Nauman about the significance of starting the walk so early — and if the reason was merely to avoid the traffic that inevitably clogs the area during the later hours of the day. “[It’s] not only traffic — you can observe more. The day becomes hotter as it proceeds. Especially in the summer, you’re really draining yourself. God forbid, you could get heat stroke. To be on the safe side, to be in a cooler temperature, it’s easier to walk, to observe and to listen,” she replied.
That made me wonder if the timings prevent participants from interacting with people living and working in the area. “Pakistan Chowk Community Centre has three parts. One is oral history. There, we come and take interviews of the people who have been living here, who are still living here, who come and work here, and the womenfolk. That is another project. It is part of the Pakistan Chowk Community Centre but another project,” Nauman explained to me.
Traces of the city’s past were present all around us as we strolled down the relatively vacant streets. The old town area has historically faced water shortages and carriages are still used to bring water from government pipelines.
Earlier, communal water fountains were used but due to the scarcity of water, they have now become obsolete.
Gizri stone is another popular stone that was mostly used to build older structures. Unlike the redstone, which was expensive and had to be brought in from further away, Gizri stone was local and cheaper. The yellow-coloured buildings that are most likely to come to your mind when you hear “old colonial buildings in Saddar” are all made of Gizri stone.
While on our walk, we came across a historic building with a missing missing. Nauman informed us that “this is how demolition starts”. When someone wants to tear down an old building, they start by taking down the roof and then the internal structure, leaving only the front facade. Then, they simply wait for the facade to start crumbling so then they have a ‘legitimate’ reason for the building’s demolition.
We visited a building that had been demolished from the inside to make a parking lot but haf its front-facing facade intact. Upon a cursory glance, it appeared to be a heritage site from the outside. No one could have guessed that a parking lot existed just beyond the exterior.
This is the flaw in the heritage laws that the facade must be maintained, Nauman commented. Even if the building is rotting from the inside, no one cares as long as the outside appearance remains ‘colonial’ enough.
As we wandered deeper into the streets, I noticed that modern metal shutters replaced traditional wooden accordion doors. The latter were few and far between in a road filled with a never-ending series of metal shutters.
A few characteristics common to the architecture here were stone facades, narrow entrances, indoor courtyards and cross ventilation. Wooden screens would be used to provide privacy as well as ensure air circulation and sunlight.
The names may have been changed, yet the buildings remain with tiny remnants of the original here and there. An “Om” or a snake emblem, the initials of the earlier owners engraved along with the new names show the constant fusion of yet struggle between the past and the present.
I inquired if the heritage walk organisers would like to focus on other, similar areas in Karachi. “Yes, we have already planned everything. We don’t have the guide right now, so we will be training one. Everything, you can say, [is ready], the posters are ready, the route is ready. But we just need a guide that can do it with dedication and responsibility,” responded Nauman.
Most people who join the walk do so by hearing about it from their family or friends. “I mean, most walks I have done have been a result of word of mouth. I don’t post much. It’s been the word of mouth that people have been telling others about the walk,” said the guide.
One of the participants, Sahar Sheikh, a banker working in Karachi, found out about the walk through the Pindi Heritage Walking Tour. “That’s organised by a student there. He’s really passionate about the city. I thought this would carry the same flavour of passion, which is very true. The organisers seem very passionate about the history of the city, their love for the overall area that is depicting so much of our heritage.”
She felt “it is very different in Punjab where the government is very involved in the protection of the buildings”. “It’s not the same here in Sindh,” she said. She found the element of “government support is completely missing” here. “It’s like nobody cares whether the history of the city is rotting or eroding away. They don’t give any attention to that,” she lamented.
“I am originally from Karachi. That’s why it really pains my heart because it is not that Pakistan is not involved in preserving its history because in other provinces, it is doing it. But it’s just this part of the country…nobody cares,” added Sheikh.
On a personal level, the banker tries to take part in such activities whenever she can. “I have always been a part of [this], for example by visiting the [Karachi] Biennale. Because they are held in so many different buildings in the city that you normally don’t have access to. Similarly, that’s what I was very excited about here.
“I was thinking maybe there’d be elements where you’d see some sort of support from the government, but, again, it was very much missing. So though you felt like you were stepping back in history, you also felt like you were losing a large part of your heritage — to erosion, to encroachment, to illegal tearing down of buildings. That part of it really pains my heart,” she said.
She felt deeply that “it’s really important” to preserve history. “Right now, we are in that era of humanity where everything can be documented. You have the internet and you put things on the internet and it stays there forever. Previously, you had to note down stuff, and things got lost in translation but since the world is now a global village, that is something very good about technology that we are able to preserve all of this.
“Even though we might not be able to preserve it physically, there will be people later on, newer generations that would have access to this part of our history — maybe by going online and looking at it, by watching videos, by [seeing] things people have shared or documentaries,” said Sheikh.
Alina Rizwan, another participant that joined the walk for her final-year undergraduate thesis on protection and preservation of heritage, decided that the walk could be part of her project.
“Preserving heritage sites is preserving our older generations, preserving the older cultures, preserving the heterogeneity of the city.
“I feel like by doing this we are preserving the traces of the ones who lived here. Similar buildings are in London as well but they have kept them preserved and in good condition. The issue with us is that we quickly put the blame on someone. But we ourselves as a nation are very ‘hateful’ towards our culture. ‘Hum ne humari saqafat ko kabhi value nahi kya [We have never valued our culture]’. That is the reason why this is the condition of our heritage [sites] today,” said Rizwan.
She added that she had very different expectations from the walk. “I thought that since usually we are not allowed to go inside these [colonial] buildings, through this walk maybe we will get the chance to go inside, we could explore them deeply, something like that could happen. But what I expected did not happen. Again, it was very informative because the information that she [Nauman] gave is not something readily available to us,” she explained.
She did acknowledge the knowledge and experience the walk offers but expressed her desire to enter more buildings instead of merely observing them from the outside.
“I want more people to come here but I would also like to suggest keeping the route shorter while making it more meaningful. Make it so that we can see things that we normally cannot have access to. Right now, when I travel I can see Denso Hall from outside. I can see the Empress Market from the outside. However, if they [HWK] take permission [to go inside] then this can be more fruitful.”
For people who are still not convinced whether they would like to explore the older parts of the city through the Heritage Walk Karachi, Nauman has one thing to say — “seeing is believing”.
Header image — The Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) building. Photo: Author