It is perhaps impossible to reach a consensus on which places to include on a list of top attractions in Karachi. The geographical spread of the metropolis makes it difficult for one individual to see and know the entire city. To add to this, the city’s ever-increasing population and diversity ensure that you keep discovering new landmarks, rituals, food, beliefs, dialects and different ways of looking at it.
Karachi is full of forgotten stories, which any outsider may find perplexing, for Pakistan’s largest city has a relatively brief history. People living in the old quarters of the city never knew its former occupants and are thus unable to narrate the stories attached to their localities. You might stumble upon a story or two as you walk through the old streets or climb the staircase of one of the stone buildings and have a closer look at the nameplates.
This experience into the unknown is what makes exploring Karachi a fulfilling experience. This is what makes my Karachi different from yours.
It’s easy to love or hate Karachi, but it’s hard to remain indifferent to the City of Lights.
It has been more than a year since I wrote the first part of my DIY tour of Karachi. I have not stopped exploring the city in the meantime, and thought you might want to discover the less-explored areas of the city this time. Here is part II of the DIY tour:
Ratan Talao Gurdwara
The easiest way to find the Ratan Talao Gurdwara on a Sunday is to look for the famous halwa poori wala where people queue up early in the morning. The shop is set up in the shadow of another temple, which has been sealed after disputes over its ownership. Adjacent to the temple is the Nabhi Bagh College, where the rundown gurdwara still survives inside the college boundaries.
The side facade might give you the impression that the gurdwara is in reasonable condition, but when you get to the front door, you can see that the place is practically abandoned. The walls have survived with but the plaster has peeled off, the arches look shaky and the roof is gone.
The floor has disappeared behind shrubs and debris, but you can see a glimpse of the colourful tiles. There is a blackboard in the central hall of the gurdwara, hinting that it might have been used as a classroom. You will also find stone imprints of sacred Sikh symbols embossed on all four sides of the building.
Set in the heart of the Gandhi Gardens, these lawns have one of the oldest trees in the city. Even though they have gone through renovation a number of times, it is fair to say that the lawns have seen better days.
The layout of the garden, the use of red bricks, and age-old trees in the backdrop create a brilliant setting to spend an evening in Karachi.
Footprint Pakistan Handbook calls Dhobhi Ghat one of the two most interesting sights for people watching in Karachi – and it lives up to this distinction. The ghat stretches approximately two kilometres along the banks of the Lyari River.
You will meet many people here who reminisce of the good days when the river had clean water. Even fish and groundwater were abundant. However, with the changing ecosystem of the city, the river turned into a sewage drain, making the water unusable and putting many dhobis out of business.
With time, the dhobhis have adopted to modern methods and washing machines have become increasingly common at the Dhobhi Ghat today. However, the dhobi’s donkey is still used to transport the clothes from and to the ghat.
Jewish cemetery in Kutchi Memon Graveyard
The Kutchi Memon Graveyard near Cheel Chowk is one of the oldest graveyards in the city and was originally a Jewish cemetery.
The graveyard is also a vibrant public space and you will find children and families here on weekends. When you reach the farther end of the graveyard, there are signs of a compound wall that used to be there. Within this space are old graves in dilapidated condition.
A local Memon Kutchi businessman, Haji Bachal, purchased and gifted this land to his community before Partition. However, Jewish graves remained intact and only withered away with time. Hardly a few tombstones have survived with legible writings in Hebrew, English and Hindi.
You have to fight for space with pedestrians, carts, cyclists, hawkers, and vehicles to enter the Lea Market. The iconic Clock Tower can guide you to the main entrance from distance, but you can also enter the trapezoid structure from many of the other openings. The multipurpose market is well designed but given the chaoticness, it is easy to get lost.
Lea Market was constructed in 1927 in the Napier quarters, which historically was a trading hub. It was named after Measham Lea, an Englishman who served as an engineer at the Municipal Corporation.
Today, every Karachiwalla must have heard of the Lea Market, even if they have never been there.
The market is at the intersection of Napier Road, Siddiq Wahab Road, River Street and Sheedi Village Road. Although Lea Market is easily accessible, which makes it an attractive choice for retailers, wholesalers and customers, it also makes the surrounding area polluted and congested. Traffic moves slowly and you have to remain vigilant before taking a step in any direction.
The Clock Tower takes centre stage in the market’s layout and depicts the current state of affairs as the clock remains frozen in time and the staircase to the tower is locked.
Dentist Gali and Lea Market bus stop
From the Lea Market, head to Napier Road. On your left, you will see a bus stop from where you can take a bus to most of the towns in interior Sindh. A little further away from the bus stop are a number of dental clinics. I remember a friend wondering aloud if people from this area suffer from a dental epidemic. Someone told me later that these dentists thrive on the travelers commuting from the bus stop, the proximity to which makes them an attractive spot to get a quick dental fix.
If you keep driving straight on Napier Road, you will find yourself in front of Nigar Cinema, a good old single-screen cinema from the days of yore. Thanks to the heritage laws, the building has survived, but in reality it has only delayed its inevitable demise.
The building is now being used for a variety of purposes. There is a small Sufi shrine in its basement which attracts a lot of devotes, the lobby is used for raising sheep, and the main cinema hall is used as a warehouse.
The only thing related to art is the studio of Parvez Bhatti, Lyari’s Michelangelo – known for his portrait of Obama and his family – inside the compound. On a regular day, you will find him or his son busy painting commissioned work.
I came across two janitors during one of my visits here. As I asked for permission to take their photo, one of them hesitated and replied that he is only a janitor. The other janitor cut him short and said, with a wide smile, “Please take our photo, we might get famous.”
Narsingha Bhagwan Mandir
Tucked between multi-storey buildings in Ranchor Lines, this city secret has one of the most enthralling entrances. You have to walk through the narrow opening, typical to the residential quarters of the old town, before you come across a surprise in the courtyard.
A decorated door, adorned with a statuette on each side, welcomes you at the entrance of the temple. The interior is humble but well kept and is in deep contrast to the surrounding concrete buildings.
Narsingha Bhagwan is an avatar of Vishnu. He has a human torso and legs, but a lion’s head and claws. Vishnu took this avatar to defeat a demon king. A popular deity, you will find this incarnation depicted in sculptures and paintings all across India. The mandir is perhaps the only temple in Pakistan dedicated to the avatar of Vishnu.
Christ Mission Church and School
The school is one of the oldest in the city and has a glittering list of alumni, which includes the founder of the country, M. A. Jinnah, and a host of cricketers such as Intekhab Alam, Mushtaq Mohammad, Sadiq Mohammad, and Haroon Rasheed.
Henry W. Preedy, the first Collector of Karachi, founded the school in 1846. He was also the patron of the Christ Mission Church, which is across the street. The school was nationalised in 1971, and thus began the decline in the quality of the education and subsequent negligence by the bureaucrats in power. A few new blocks have been added to the school and the old blocks have been renovated, albeit with an ostentatious finish.
The church is one of the oldest Protestant churches in the city. It has hardly been changed over the years and remains almost the same, with 150 year-old façade and wooden instalments.
Baba-e-Urdu’s final abode
Very few buildings in Karachi will boast as decorated a history as the Anjuman-e-Taraqi Urdu office. Long before its association with Baba-e-Urdu, Maulvi Abdul Haque, and the Anjuman, the building was home to one of the finest schools in the city.
The foundation stone was laid in 1921 by Mahatama Gandhi, who took keen interest in its management. The school was named after Shri Sharda Devi Mata, the goddess of wisdom in Hindu mythology. Jamshedji Mehta, the founder of modern Karachi and its mayor, was chosen as President of the school.
The school relocated to Gujrat after Partition, but the building was handed over to Maulvi Abdul Haque, who used it as his residence and office. He was buried in the same building after his death.
Beech Wali Masjid
People in Marwari Lines claim that the Beech Wali Masjid was built 250 years ago, making it the oldest mosque in the city, if the claim is true. The Marwaris are known for their expertise in stonemasonry. Beech Wali Masjid, though only a shadow of its former glory, is a testimony to their craftsmanship.
The surviving stone facade has intricate designs around the main entrance and on the pillars. Sadly, the rest of the building has not survived in its original form and has given way to a more contemporary design that has concrete and tiles.
This is one of the most original cafes in the city and a fitting place to end your journey after a tour of Karachi. The café has evolved over time, but remains a popular hangout place. It is one of those unassuming places where you are not under pressure to constantly order something to keep the owners happy.
The most striking feature of the café are the murals on its walls, painted by its resident artist, Irshad. The murals depict artists, sportsmen, politicians, architects, qawwals, designers, writers, singers and the café's staff, amongst many others. There is bit of a memory for all of us on these walls, and you can sit here watching people react to the murals. The collection keeps expanding and on some days, you can find Irshad painting a new portrait.
There is still much more to Karachi and this DIY tour should only serve as a start. When you embark on this journey, you will discover that your experience will be different from mine. Your Karachi will be different from everyone else’s. Only then will you understand the immensity of a city of more than 20 million people.
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