THE edifices of shops in Shahi Bazaar were already dilapidated due to years of neglect when rains exacerbated their miserable state.—Photo by Muhammad Akbar Notezai
THE edifices of shops in Shahi Bazaar were already dilapidated due to years of neglect when rains exacerbated their miserable state.—Photo by Muhammad Akbar Notezai

GWADAR’S Shahi Bazaar is every bit royal as its name implies; its streets hold tales going back centuries.

The historic market has not only been a bustling trade hub, but also holds the status of a heritage site in the port town. Its pre-partition-era buildings have survived the ravages of time, but now they face another challenge: climate change.

The recent torrential rains have wreaked havoc on the bazaar’s already dilapidated structures. It has been over a month since the rainfall stopped, but the water is yet to be drained from the market.

Until some years ago, drainage wasn’t an issue for the market as the water would flow down to the sea. However, the natural waterway was blocked after the construction of the Gwadar East Bay Expressway.

Torrential rains in Feb inflicted heavy damage on historic buildings in Shahi Bazaar

The road, built at a cost of $168 million under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), was completed in recent years and connects the main port town with the Makran Coastal Highway. Following the construction, rainwater now accumulates in and around the Shahi Bazaar.

Rich history

Those who have been in the market for decades share nostalgic anecdotes from the time when the bazaar used to be lit throughout the night with oil lamps and had people bustling through its alleys.

According to locals, the bazaar had sprung up during rule of the Omani Sultanate in Gwadar, which is why the vestiges of Omani architecture are still visible in the buildings. Some other buildings in the market also contain relics of Portuguese architecture.

Gwadar used to be a part of the Khan of Kalat’s dominion before Partition. The suzerainty over the port was granted to the brother of Oman’s then-ruler, Sultan Bin Ahmed, after he had a falling out with the ruler and sought refuge in the neighbouring state.

After becoming the ruler of Oman, Ahmed refused to return Gwadar to the state of Kalat. It was only after the struggle of locals and four years of intense negotiations that Gwadar port became part of Pakistan after it was ‘purchased’ for a sum of $3 million in 1958.

“From across the Makran region, traders would come to the Shahi Bazaar for trade,” recalls Eid Mohammad Baloch alias Eido, a radio mechanic, who had a shop in the bazaar for the past 50 years.

The market also houses a school, a temple, and a Jamaat Khana of the Ismail community. The school was built by the Ismaili community as their first-ever school in the region.

Ismailis were some of the oldest dwellers in Gwadar and were associated with trade activities. Even though the number of community members has decreased to a greater extent, their Jamaat Khana, first established in 1850 in the Ismaili Mohalla, still stands.

Ali Mansoor, a resident of Ismaili Moh­alla, recalled that the worship place in Gwadar was one of the three Jamaat Kha­nas established around the world in 1850.

“The other two were established in Africa and India with the same designs as that of the Jamaat Khana in Gwadar.”

Most buildings along the narrow strip of Shahi Bazaar are houses constructed with mud, wood or concrete. While most of these houses are in dilapidated conditions now, their small wooden balconies still stand as the last vestiges of history.

One of the most frequently visited places in the Shahi Bazaar is the tea shop called Kareemoka Hotel. It is usually thronged with people who engage in discussions about local affairs over a cup of tea. Other popular spots are the shop of Khuda Bakhsh Halwai and the shop of Eido, the radio mechanic.

Heritage in ruins

These shops were already dilapidated due to abandonment and negligence. Now, the torrential rains have left them in a state of disrepair.

During his conversation with Dawn, Eido recalled that Gwadar had seen torrential rains, floods, and other natural calamities in the past.

“Back in 2010 too … floods affected the Shahi Bazaar,” he said, adding that the damage caused by recent rains has been much more catastrophic.

The damage is palpable as one navigates the twisting streets of Shahi Bazaar following the torrential rains.

The mud houses are in ruins while the Omani watch tower has also been partially damaged.

The only exception to this damage is the Jamaat Khana, which has survived due to its strong construction.

“The torrential rains and floods particularly affect the old heritage buildings,” said Nasir Rahim Sohrabi, a social activist based in Gwadar.

“We have been raising our voices on all forums to protect the Shahi Bazaar, particularly public heritage. But so far, there has been no substantial action,” added Mr Sohrabi.

Following the calamity, the Gwadar Development Authority (GDA) came under scathing criticism as the entire port town was flooded. It has been held responsible for not maintaining the drainage system around the Shahi Bazaar.

But GDA officials have rebuffed the criticism, claiming that they have been working in the port town, including the Shahi Bazaar, to protect the buildings constructed during the Omani rule.

“We have been working to protect the telegraph office and restore the Omani Watch Tower,” said GDA Chief Engineer Syed Mohammad Baloch.

He conceded that the recent torrential rainfall had damaged the market, and GDA is carrying out restoration work to protect heritage and promote tourism.

Mr Sohrabi has grim hopes of any efforts on the part of authorities, but he is committed to raising his voice for the development and restoration of Shahi Bazaar.

Unfortunately, his clamours and requests are dying down like the buildings of the old Shahi Bazaar.

Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2024

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