Smokers’ Corner: The swords of Karachi

Published January 24, 2016
The tranquil Teen Talwar in 1974
The tranquil Teen Talwar in 1974

Two of the most well-known monuments of Sindh’s immense capital, Karachi, are Teen Talwar and Do Talwar (three and two swords). Jutting out from the two main roundabouts on main Clifton Road, the swords are made of white marble.

Erected in 1973, they were sanctioned by the government of Z.A. Bhutto. Though the area (Clifton) has always been an upscale (posh) locality, it was thinly populated when the swords went up as compared to the congested look that it gives today.

The construction of the swords was part of a ‘beautification project’ planned for Karachi and initiated by the Bhutto regime. The project mostly included plans for building a brand new three-lane road from the Karachi Airport till the Old Clifton area about 40km away.

The two-way road was to be divided by pavements dotted with plants and trees, and grassy roundabouts surrounded by palm trees. The project was completed in late 1974, but the swords had come up a year before.

But why swords? The electoral symbol of Bhutto’s party, the PPP, at the time, was the sword. So the monuments were originally conceived to symbolise the emergence of the Bhutto government.

The idea was to construct the swords and drape them with the red, black and green colours of the PPP flag; and then inscribe on them the party’s three main slogans at the time: Islam, Democracy and Socialism.

The project to design and construct the swords was given to famous Pakistani architect, Minu Mistri (a Zoroastrian). However, halfway through the construction of the swords, Bhutto decided to change the raison d’etre of the monuments and asked the architect to inscribe the famous motto of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, on the Three Swords monument. The Two Swords cenotaph (about half a mile away), was left bare. Both the cenotaphs were given the name, ‘Pillars of Strength.’

Forty two years after being built, Karachi’s landmark swords in Clifton stand tall amidst chaos, telling stories of past glory and present day neglect

So once the swords were completed in 1973, words of Mr Jinnah’s motto, ‘Unity, Faith, Discipline’, were inscribed on each of the Three Swords.

Engulfed by chaos in 2015
Engulfed by chaos in 2015

Both the monuments were erected on asphalt roundabouts which were further beautified with carefully manicured grass, flowers and palm trees. In 1974, the Two Swords monument was also fitted with a fountain.

Throughout the 1970s, the road on which the monuments were build was considered to be one of the most beautiful in the city. It was wide, had sparse traffic, and was surrounded by palm trees, and widespread bungalows that had been mostly constructed by British colonialists and Zoroastrian businessmen before the creation of Pakistan in 1947.

The road led directly to Bhutto’s house, beyond which lay not far from the then popular recreational areas of Old Clifton and New Clifton situated near the Clifton beach.

The first signs of the area’s commercialisation appeared in the late 1970s when a branch of United Bank of Pakistan (UBL) appeared a few kilometers away from Three Swords. The design of the branch was rather avant-garde in style and various office scenes for TV plays were shot here.

In 1979, two shopping centres appeared on the opposite sides of the road. They were Uzma Plaza and Kehkashan Centre. They were precursors to the modern-day shopping malls.

It was in 1981 when the Swords were vandalised for the first time. Ironically, the vandalising was done by supporters of Bhutto’s party, the PPP. Bhutto had been toppled in a reactionary military coup in July 1977. In 1981, graffiti against the military regime appeared at the base of the Three Swords monument.

By the late 1980s, the traffic flow on the road increased two-fold. The influx of huge US and Saudi aid (during the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan); and the rapid erosion of the former Bhutto regime’s mixed economy, gave birth to a ‘nouveau riche’ class, many of whose members began to settle in Clifton.

By the 1990s, the Clifton Road had transformed. It became extremely congested; trees were uprooted from its sides to make room for even more apartment blocks, shopping centres and advertising hoardings. Both sets of the swords showed patches of smog and dust on them.

The grass around them had turned brown and the palm trees vanished. This mostly took place during the decade-long and violent tussle between the state and Karachi’s largest party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).

Posters and graffiti of various political parties, and of clandestine religious groups (that had emerged in the 1980s), now covered the swords.

The traffic situation on Clifton Road became so bad that the size of both the roundabouts was drastically reduced and traffic signals were mounted on four sides of the Three Swords roundabout.

In 2000, amidst the anarchic and tasteless graffiti already painted across the Three Swords, emerged some religious inscriptions, painted slightly above the fading words, Unity, Faith, Discipline.

Some media reports suggested that the religious inscriptions were ordered on the Three Swords by the Clifton Cantonment Board because it believed this would dissuade people from defacing the swords!

But nothing of the sort happened. Instead, sectarian graffiti of various extreme groups began appearing on the Three Swords.

In 2005 (during the Parvez Musharraf regime), Karachi elected a mayor from the MQM. The swords finally got a make-over after almost two decades. Graffiti and posters were removed, the swords was washed, and Jinnah’s words repainted. Though both the roundabouts were further shortened, new grass on them was laid and flowers planted.

The mayor also came up with the idea of outsourcing the beautification of the roundabouts. Famous designers and private banks were encouraged to beautify them. In return they were allowed to put the logos of their companies around the swords.

The plan worked. But whereas the Two Swords have since thrived their renewal, the Three Swords have continued to face challenges which include the ever-increasing flow of traffic, pollution and frequent defacing.

Another challenge that the monument now faces is the way the roundabout has become a popular vicinity to hold protest rallies.

It’s a favourite rallying point of the city’s liberal civil society groups protesting against various human rights violations. It’s also a rallying point of Imran Khan’s PTI. It was during one such PTI rally here when the MQM chief (incensed by the rally’s anti-MQM rhetoric), said something about using one of the swords against PTI supporters. The statement triggered outrage.

With the rising flow of traffic, the city authorities have often thought about removing both sets of the swords. The truth is, had Z.A. Bhutto continued with his original idea of presenting them as symbols of the PPP, the swords would have certainly vanished. But since they emerged as symbolising ‘Jinnah’s Pillars of Strength’, they remain intact. Still standing in the midst of chaos that now surrounds them.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 24th, 2016



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