Smokers’ Corner: Once upon an ancient Karachi

Published March 13, 2016
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Karachi is a complex creature. Pakistan’s largest city, it is also the country’s most diverse and pluralistic metropolis. But it is a tense place, with a high crime rate. Here, political, economic and ethnic tensions are always threatening to break out from their uneasy slumber.

Karachi’s history has mostly been documented and told from the 19th century onwards. Or mainly from the period when, in the mid-1800s, British colonialists occupied what was then a dusty and rugged fishing town ruled by a Muslim Sindhi-Baloch dynasty (the Talpurs).

The British then began turning this town into a proper city and an important trading post. That is why Karachi is treated as a relatively ‘new city’.

Karachi did not evolve like most ‘historical cities’ of South Asia, such as Lahore and Delhi.

The earliest traces of Karachi may go back to the Greek period, but its modern history begins with the British rule

Till the 17th century, it was a barren land of rolling sand dunes and thorny shrubs. It hardly ever rained here, and the weather was hot and sultry for eight months of the year. The winters were sunny and pleasant, but short.

Under the British, Karachi rapidly evolved from being a dusty little town to becoming a prosperous, diverse and one of the most stable cities in British India.

Karachi’s reputation as a robust centre of trade and pleasure remained intact till the early 1970s. The situation began to go downhill from there onwards. An ever-increasing population and haphazard planning put the city’s resources under tremendous pressure, triggering ethnic tensions and conflict and an increasing crime rate. This trend is yet to be effectively arrested.

The question historians have asked is, how did such a ‘new city’ expand so quickly? What made people settle here and eventually turn it into a gigantic metropolis?

Unlike most major cities of the world, Karachi was nothing more than an insignificant dot on maps before the 19th century. It was an inhospitable place, sprinkled only with a few inconsequential fishing villages.

But it had a natural harbour. Yet, this harbour did not gain any significance before the Talpur dynasty built a small fort near it, and before the British turned this fort into a thriving trading hub.

Nevertheless, Karachi does have a history which precedes both the Talpurs and the British.

Its natural harbour was first mentioned by a passing army of Greek king and warrior, Alexander the Great, in 325 BC.

The army was exiting India through the Indus River in present-day Pakistan. One of Alexander’s commanders, Nearchus, sailed all the way down to the mouth of Indus which empties the sweet waters of the river into the Arabian Sea.

Some historians suggest that the commander’s army arrived at a place they named, ‘Morontobara’, which is the present-day Hub area in the far north of Karachi.

Morontobara in ancient Greek means, ‘woman’s harbour’. Historians have concluded that the area at the time was a fishing village, most probably ruled by a matriarch.

While on their way to the Makran coast (in Balochistan), Nearchus and his men arrived at a place where today stands the busy Karachi port.

A great sea storm was raging at the time, but the commander was impressed by the harbour. He also noticed a small village here and called its inhabitants ‘the fish-eating people’.

Much of this information was derived by historians from the surviving texts of ancient Greeks about Alexander’s invasion of and exit from India thousands of years ago.

After this, the area which today is called Karachi, vanishes from ancient writings. There is no mention of it.

However, it reappears hundreds of years later in 711 CE, when Arab commander, Mohammad Bin Qasim, invaded Sindh (by sea).

His forces entered Makran from where they reached a small port city which Arab writers called Debal.

According to M. Usman Damohi ‘s Karachi: In The Mirror of History and many other historians and archeologists, Debal is Manora: a coastal area of present-day Karachi. Debal was a small fishing and trading post and its inhabitants were largely Hindu. There were many Buddhists here as well.

Sindh at the time was under the rule of Hindu king, Raja Dahir. The locals called Debal, Diwal, a word derived from Sanskrit, meaning the abode of God.

After defeating an army at Debal, Qasim moved north into Sindh.

Eighth-century Arab historian, Ibn-i-Hawqal, described Debal as a dry and arid land that supported little agriculture. But he adds that the inhabitants of the city were very enterprising. They lived in houses made of mud and maintained fishing vessels. They mostly spoke ancient Sindhi and a dialect of Balochi.

Some 800 years later, in 1554, an admiral of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, Syed Ali Reis, visited Debal and opened trade with the inhabitants. In 1568, a Portuguese fleet attacked Debal.

This suggests that the city was not under the direct control of the mighty Mughal Empire of India. The Portuguese destroyed Ottoman ships anchored there. By now the population of the city also had Muslims, but the majority were still Hindus. Almost all of them spoke Sindhi and Balochi.

This area once again vanishes from history books until the arrival of the British.

According to some 19th-century British travellers, the city (in the 18th century) was being called Kolachi Jo Goth (‘Kolachi’s village’ in Sindhi). Historians have concluded that Kolachi was probably a descendant of the matriarch that the Greeks had first mentioned. The matriarch was from a fishing village around a freshwater well. This place was called Meethadar (sweet water door) when Sindh was being ruled by the Talpur dynasty.

The Talpurs had constructed a wall around the most populated area in the city which today is Karachi’s impoverished and troubled Lyari area. The fort had two doors, Meethadar and Kharadar. Kharadar faced the sea and means saltwater door. Both names have survived till this day.

British travellers and officers who came here at the time called the town, Kurachee. They observed that a majority of the city’s population was involved in the fish trade and lived in the walled area (Lyari).

Outside the walls the area was largely arid and sandy, with few animals and birds, such as dogs and fox, eagles and crows. There were some tiny fishing villages near the sea.

The British writers observed that crime was rife in the city, and houses (made of mud) were built close together. There was no sanitation or any idea of garbage disposal or collection. Men and women were aggressive and loved to wear ‘gaudy clothes’.

The writers also noted that though alcoholism and rowdiness was high among men, they were hardworking, and that the city’s Hindu and Muslims coexisted peacefully.

There were many Sufi shrines and Hindu temples here as well. In 1839, the British attacked the city and made it a part of British India. And from here begins Karachi’s modern history.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 13th, 2016


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