Defining Karachi is always difficult. Is it a port city or an industrial hub? Can Karachi best be described as the city of Urdu speakers or is it actually a mini Pakistan? The truth is that Karachi is so large in terms of both area and population, that its neighbourhoods can easily be thought of as distinct towns, each with its own subculture and history. This is not surprising considering that the city’s architectural landscape is neatly divided in precise epochs: the precolonial era, the city under the Raj, post-Partition Karachi and modern Karachi.
As the city expanded from a fishing village into a port city and then metamorphosed in August 1947 to become the capital of Pakistan, it became host to a diverse set of people and languages, each of which left an imprint on the city’s map. The names of Karachi’s neighbourhoods are a reflection of this phenomenon and it is interesting to note how religious sites, famous landmarks, personalities and city planners live on in the city’s maps.
Meethadar and Kharadar
These names range from descriptive to prosaic. The latter ones are easy to decipher. For instance, Soldier Bazaar was the place where British soldiers and their memsahibs would do their shopping back in the Raj days. Mukka Chowk was named after a statue of a fist on the junction’s roundabout, Dalmiya was where the Dalmiya cement factory used to be, Lucky Star is famous because of the eponymous restaurant located there, Pehlwan Goth was where wrestlers trained and Water Pump has an actual pump used by tankers that transported water across the city.
A history behind some of the quirkily named areas of the city
These are the easy ones but there are many parts of Karachi that have a story behind them. Kharadar and Meethadar, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city are among them. They predate the colonial era and mark the days when Karachi was a small fishing village called Kalachi Jo Goth. When Lord Napier conquered the city in 1842, the British thought of the original neighbourhoods as the Old Town and listed it as the first quarter out of the 26 they divided the city into.
The old city had spread over an elevated plain of 35 acres between the Lyari River and the brackish Arabia Sea. In 1729, this area was fortified with a high wall and its western gate, which was towards the sea, was known as Kharadar — a combination of “khara” for salty and “dar” meaning gate. In other words, Kharadar simply translates to the Gate of Salt Water. Kharadar is notable for being Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s birthplace and where he spent his youth in the narrow lanes of the neighbourhood.
The other gate faced the north-east towards the Lyari River and was called Meethadar, from “meetha” meaning sweet and thus the Gate of Sweet Water. The Lyari River changed its course in the 19th century and even though the locality no longer abutted the sweet water, the name stuck on. Meethadar was once the main business centre of Karachi but the arrival of the British prompted the businessmen to move to Saddar, Cantonment (Cantt) and Bolton Market. Many of these were Hindus and, in fact, until Partition it was a Hindu-dominated area, the signs of which are visible from its street names such as Chandan Mukhi Lane and Vishramdas Sukhramdas Street. At the eastern end of the neighbourhood is Rampart Row, where elaborate examples of 20th century Sikh and Hindu architecture still exist.
Both Kharadar and Meethadar are distinctive of what remains of the pre-colonial Karachi. The wall that separated the Old Town from British quarters was broken down in 1860 to enlarge the city but the neighbourhoods named after the two gates lived on.
Hawke’s Bay and Guru Mandir
However, if Meethadar and Kharadar are reflections of pre-colonial Karachi then the neighbourhoods created after 1842 reflect the colonial Karachi. As time passed, Karachi became a city of the Raj and its lanes and landmarks reflected the power of its colonisers. If one goes west from the port, towards the beach, one arrives at one of Karachi’s famous picnic spots Hawke’s Bay. The number of Karachiites who routinely flood this beach in summer would have overwhelmed Bladen Wilmer Hawke, 9th Baron Hawke (December 31, 1901 - July 5, 1985) of Towton; he had a beach house there in the 1930s after which the beach was named.
The eldest son of Edward Julian Hawke, the 8th Baron Hawke, Bladen later became a Conservative politician and, in 1939, succeeded his father in the baronetcy, serving later as a Lord-in-Waiting and government whip in the House of Lords from 1953 to 1957 in the administrations of Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan. Before arising to the baronetcy, Bladen Hawke was posted in Karachi for a few years. Being fond of its pristine beaches, he started the trend of beach houses there. The Baron passed away 30 years ago but his name lives on in this stretch of golden sand.
If you head north-east from Hawke’s Bay and down M.A. Jinnah Road you move from a place named due to Karachi’s colonial past to one that signifies its local diversity. The Guru Mandir locality near Quaid-i-Azam’s mausoleum is so named after the Gur Mandar — famously known as Guru Mandir — which was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.
Finding the actual temple can be a challenge; the Gur Mandar building is not in usage and its doors and windows are barred. Sources also say that it was initially a gurdwara, a point also noted by the Evacuee Trust Property Board. But even if the temple does not host devotees at the moment, people’s memories live on and the locality is still called Guru Mandir. Interestingly, this area marked the northern boundary of pre-1947 Karachi. The areas just beyond, such as PIB (Pir Ilahi Bukhsh) Colony, were established soon after Partition to house incoming immigrants. Guru Mandir has famous eateries, a prominent mosque, a well-known dairy shop and yet, the only name people recognise and visible on maps is Guru Mandir, which was once at the edge of Karachi but is now centrally located.
Lalukhet and Golimaar
North of Guru Mandir is another area that like PIB Colony was developed to house immigrants. The locality’s formal name is Liaquatabad after Pakistan’s first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan but it is popularly known as Lalukhet. A densely populated area surrounded by commercial zones, it is hard to imagine that the teeming shops and people were all once agricultural land that lay along the banks of the Lyari River. After August 1947, the government of Pakistan started buying land for housing projects and approached a farmer named Lalu who owned this tract. Eventually the land was purchased by the Pakistan Public Works Department from Lalu and a housing project was started to settle the Urdu-speaking Muslim refugees from northern parts of India.
Today, however, the area has several other ethnic groups besides Urdu speakers and hundreds of Sindhis, Kashmiris, Seraikis, Pakhtuns, Baloch, Memons, Bohras and Ismailis live there. For the denizens of Karachi, it is a place to strike good bargains for a number of items including furniture, clothing, shoes and jewellery. Lalukhet conjures up many images for those familiar with Karachi and if you say the word “Liaquatabad” in front of a local resident he will gently correct you with “Lalukhet”.
Another area that captures the city’s colourful side is Golimaar. Golimaar and Lalukhet have something in common; the colloquial names overshadow their official ones. Golimaar is part of SITE (Sindh Industrial Trading Estate) Town and while the city administration’s documents have it labelled as Gul Bahar, few people call it that. The area lies next to the Lyari River and like Lalukhet was mainly farmland before immigrants settled there. The area takes its name from the words “goli” (bullet) and “maar” (‘fire’ as in a verb). While many think this is because of the violence that Karachi saw in the 1980s, the roots are actually much further back. Before independence this area was used as a shooting range by the British Army.
Another source says that in those days, carriage and warhorses which could no longer be used were brought here to be shot. So, it was the British doing the shooting which gave the area its name. The Golimaar neighbourhood itself is a mass of downward sloping twisted lanes and alleys that lead to the Lyari River. If you pause at the banks there, you might find bullet shells from the days where an English drill sergeant yelled “goli maar!”
Buffer Zone and Paposh Nagar
If Golimaar and Lalukhet have their roots in pre-Partition days, Buffer Zone in Federal B Area takes its name from the time when Karachi was the capital of Pakistan. The government was not just settling immigrants but also developing projects for civil servants and government officials who would be working in the capital. In 1953, Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Bogra initiated the housing scheme, which came to be known as Federal B Area. This was all part of the Federal Capital Territory plan which was made in 1948.
The Federal Capital Area (F.C. Area) would have the principal government offices and buildings and the residential area around it would be Federal B. Area (F.B. Area). The area around the government zone was designated as a buffer zone which would not be developed or populated and would keep the rest of city’s population away from the sensitive places.
However, in 1959 Ayub Khan’s government decided to move the capital to Islamabad and, soon after, the idea of Federal Capital Areas was killed off. Federal B Area was populated by then but there was no need of extra security around it now that government offices would be shifted to Islamabad. And so the bar on construction in the buffer zone was lifted, which made available hundreds of acres for housing projects. Today, the original zone lies between the old Federal Capital Area and other parts of the city but while they have acquired new names such as Azizabad or Dastagir, the area between Federal B Area and North Nazimabad is still formally called Buffer Zone.
Defunct government plans are the reason behind Buffer Zone but former commercial interests define another neighbourhood further north. Today you would go to Paposh Nagar for its heavenly beef qorma or herbal medicine but the neighbourhood takes its name from the thriving shoe industry that was once the main industry here. The etymology of Paposh Nagar reveals that it is a combination of the words “pa” meaning ‘foot, “posh” meaning ‘to wear’ and “nagar” which means ‘town’. In plain English, you come here to wear shoes. This area became known for the footwear and leather workshops that flourished here from the 1950s to the 1970s. With the addition of Abbasi Shaheed Hospital many people came to associate it with the hospital and soon most footwear factories moved to other industrial and commercial areas of Karachi.
Karachi’s towns and localities have names that beguile and intrigue. The characters that define these names include government plans, religious sites, colonial usage and heritage. These forces are mutable and constantly shift but ultimately it is the citizens who carry on their titles as they see fit. This is not surprising considering Karachi’s egalitarian nature and the final word or name lies with the people who own it.
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 30th, 2017