11 Oct 2020


One of the traumas of living in Karachi is to discover overnight decisions to cut down a huge banyan tree or to obliterate the view to the graceful Kothari parade with a network of ugly overpasses. Lilac-flowered lignum trees are suddenly cut down ruthlessly to make way for the planting of Conocarpus trees that, in turn, are chopped down to ugly stumps. A beautiful building on M.A. Jinnah Road with its sleepy wrought iron balconies is reduced to rubble to make way for an ugly concrete building to maximise shops and offices. Beautiful pre-Partition Amil residences of Gurumandir are continuously “modernised.”

Some decisions are planned quietly behind the scenes while others are whimsical. That familiar trauma and despair was felt by Karachi citizens after a sudden decision to scrape the wooden floors of the 1865 heritage building Frere Hall and to remove nets inviting pigeons to peck at and nest near Sadeqain’s painted ceiling. This is all happening while restoration proposals had been submitted to the Sindh government’s Heritage Committee.

Destruction of heritage sites because of wars or natural disasters, tragic though it is, is understood to be an inevitable consequence. Destruction due to ignorance or neglect is a wound that doesn’t heal. This city is filled with unnoticed exquisite heritage buildings that are hidden behind coils of electric wires and shop signs. While as many as 422 buildings are listed as heritage, there is no implementing body in Karachi such as the Walled City of Lahore Authority, to systematically restore these buildings and their environs. We rarely hear of them until one collapses.

Managing heritage buildings and districts in cities that need to expand to accommodate growing populations has been debated by city planners all over the world. Recent theories propose restoration and revitalisation of precincts, rather than just buildings. Fez city is an example, where new buildings are allowed only in the Nouvelle Ville or new city district. In Karachi, the old city is a defined space between Lyari and Malir rivers and from Kemari to the City Jail — just 72 square miles of a city that has grown to almost 1500 square miles. Karachi’s master plans make no mention of heritage, which remains hanging on by the proverbial fingertips.

Destruction due to ignorance or neglect is a wound that doesn’t heal

Pakistan is not the only country where heritage faces ruin and pillage. Southern Italy has thousands of abandoned churches and Roman ruins that have been pillaged and turned into rubbish dumps. Too often, restoration in Pakistan does not follow scientific protocols. The original tiles of both the Multan Clock Tower and the Shah Jahan Mosque in Thatta were reportedly simply removed and replaced with new ones. Cracks in the Rannikot Fort, the largest stone fort in the world, were plastered over untidily with cement.

Pakistan has an extraordinary heritage from 45,000-year-old Paleolithic sites, the several thousand-years-old Juniper forest of Ziarat, the 9,000-year-old city of Mehergarh, the sophisticated 4,500-years-old cities of Moenjodaro and Harappa, and much more still awaiting discovery. In documented times, from Gandhara, to Mughal and British times, there is a rich legacy of art and architecture. In the surprising absence of modern archaeological training institutes, our handful of passionate archaeologists await international funding and expertise, to uncover and preserve our history. Successive governments remain trapped in the dilemma of our identity as a new country or custodian of ancient lands.

Pakistani people remain connected to traditional customs, are proud of their family lineage and, judging by the many social media sites sharing history, would be open to playing their part in preserving heritage. But so much of our politics and planning follows the tabula rasa or clean slate policy of discarding the initiatives of previous civil servants, and making fresh polices, that prevents the long-term planning that restoration of heritage requires.

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi Email:

Published in Dawn, EOS, Octoberr 11th, 2020