AMIDST the rundown homes and shops of the old Shahi Bazaar in Gwadar, a beautiful white structure with blue doors and windows captured our attention. As we clicked away, a barber from a nearby shop asked the purpose of our visit offering to take us there. The barber, who gave his first name as Kaleem Banda-e-Ali, told us that the structure was inside an Ismaili neighbourhood a few steps away from the main market.
Criss-crossing the old lanes of the Shahi Bazaar, where some of the shops were shut, we came across the neighbourhood. As we made our way past old wooden houses whose doors, we were informed, were closed forever, we finally came to the white structure. It was an Ismaili community centre, a jamaat khana. As the doors were locked from outside, we sat near the steps as Kaleem described the jamaat khana and explained the reasons behind the migration of Ismailis.
“A jamaat khana is the first requirement of the Ismaili community,” said Kaleem, who now remains among the 100 families living in a neighbourhood made for over 500 families in Gwadar in the 18th century. There used to be a proper record of the number of families in Gwadar and their ancestors. This was burnt down along with the jamaat khana in 1823, according to writer Shahabuddin A. Gwadari. According to him, soon after moving to Gwadar, the Ismailis built a small community centre, very different from the structure today. It was made of cane and mud. After it caught fire, work on a sturdier building began in 1864. By 1874, a main hall of the community centre was opened for the community. The community centre was, however, completed in 1910.
In his book Gohar-i-Gwadar that chronicles the life and times of the community, Gwadari writes that “...In the ancient times, Arabs and Hindustanis used to be bound by business and trade. Ismailis from Sindh and Kutchh used to trade with Iraq and around the Persian Gulf. Over the years, many Ismailis stayed in Gwadar for a long period of time due to its proximity to the Arabian Sea.”
According to Kaleem, it is said that the main reason behind the migration of Ismailis to Gwadar was the drought in Kutchh in 1799 which affected many bordering areas of Sindh. Elaborating, Gwadari said that “during the drought many Ismailis moved to Muscat, Balochistan and Gwadar. Some got down at the famous port of the time, Keti Bandar. Most went towards Jahu and Panjgur [south Balochistan], and later cut off ties with the Ismaili community.” Once in Gwadar, “the Ismailis soon took over trade in items such as rice, sesame seed, oil, cotton, wool, animal hide, fish, cane and wood, alongside Sindhi-Hindu shopkeepers selling sweets and cloth,” he added.
A “self-confessed octogenarian”, Gwadari moved to Karachi in the 1950s. Formerly associated with the health department and having served in the northern parts for a long time, his fondness for Gwadar is nevertheless evident. “I spent my childhood there and have the most beautiful memories of our home and the people I met and befriended over the years.” As for his home in Gwadar’s Ismaili Mohallah, it is now locked and a reminder of the simplicity attached to the homes of the time.
Speaking about the history of Gwadar, he continued, “It is said that when the Portuguese attacked India, they also took over Gwadar which is evident from the number of structures around the port area resembling Portuguese architecture. One of them is a fort built by the Portuguese which can be seen even today inside the Ismaili neighbourhood.”
Others include a bund built by the Portuguese over the main mountain in Gwadar to contain rainwater. He said, “If we separate the word Gwadar, as in ‘Gwa-Dar’, it may also mean hawa ka darwaza [gateway of the wind]. During the Portuguese government, Gwadar was also spelled ‘Goadar’ in the government gazette. When the British came to the Indian subcontinent, they changed the spelling of Gwadar to ‘Gwadur’.”
There are different tales surrounding Oman’s possession of Gwadar. It is said that an Arab prince came to the Makran region, after a family conflict, and sought refuge from the Khan of Kalat. The Khan of Kalat is said to have gifted him the area. “But according to another story, the Portuguese sold the port of Muscat to the Arab sardars, along with Gwadar, which was also under their control. It was sold to an Arab sultan Syed Imam,” explained Gwadari.
From that time, Gwadar was in Oman’s possession until 1958. After much discussion, donations were raised for the purchase, the biggest contribution being made by Aga Khan Prince Ali Salman Mohammad Shah. It is said that the sultan of Muscat sold Gwadar on one condition: that he would be allowed to depute young men from Makran to his army.
At present, the 100 Ismaili families in and around Gwadar belonging to the Ismaili community are mostly involved in the export of dry fish to Colombo. “Over the years, many from the community moved to Karachi and some eventually settled abroad. The reasons for the migration of community members, both previously and now, have always been to look for better prospects for their children. But no matter where we go, Pakistan is and will always be considered home,” Gwadari concluded.
Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2015