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Customs and beliefs

April 30, 2011


This story has a subtext which is perhaps more poignant than its text. The text is about a locality which has existed for more than 150 years and perhaps to date exhibits that face of Karachi which truly makes it 'the city by the sea'. The subtext, though, is quite painful. It hurts, and hurts bad. Let's visit a certain part of Keamari and the stone-made, old apartment blocks or residences made for customs officials. In the same neighbourhood there's a church which has endured some agonising moments ever since it was constructed way before the partition of the subcontinent. How about lifting the lid on the subtext first?

It's not difficult to find Sacred Heart Church. You only have to enter Keamari and turn left before the lane where another beatific piece of architecture, St George's Church, is located. It's Toheed Road. The first building that you'll see is of residential nature for customs workers. More of that later! Walk past it and after a couple of hundred small steps the church, covered nay protected by a boundary wall, will come into view. Enter it and you'll be embraced by a feeling of warmth mixed with uneasiness that's understandable. The holy place has a history of saddening incidents.

Those who manage this beautiful church say it's more than a hundred years old. Looking at it cursorily might not make you concur with the claim. Once you go close to the stone that's used in its construction and touch it, you will nod in agreement. The problem is architecturally it's no more the building that it once was. The reasons for it are pretty heart-wrenching.

In 1969 Sacred Heart Church caught fire (don't exactly know what caused it) and was badly burnt. It managed to save its soul and underwent a rather prolonged process of restoration. It was brought back to its original shape to a reasonable extent. Little did the visitors to this place of worship know that in 1992 the church would be vandalised and damaged for no fault of its own. As a perverse reaction to the desecration of Babri Mosque in Ayodhia, India, some places of worship belonging to non-Muslims were vandalised in Pakistan. Sacred Heart Church in Karachi was one of them. They set a few portions of the structure on fire and broke down some others. It took more time for the people associated with the church to recover, some still haven't, than the building itself to rebuild. The roof was redone and the original wooden one doesn't exist anymore. The walls were reconstructed, albeit not in entirety. Some of the furniture in the holy place too is not that aged as it is in a majority of other churches in Karachi. Today Sacred Heart Church is back on its feet, but it's not the same...

Keamari is a charming place primarily because it kisses the sea with utmost affection, and the passion is mutual. Regrettably not many of the old buildings remain in this area. Whatever hangs about is enough to make you sing praises for the days when architecture was treated as an art form. Cross the unmissable shrine of a Sufi saint and reach the spot from where Toheed Road starts and bifurcates into two small roads (at the beginning of one of which is St George's Church). Toheed Road has eye-catching blocks of stone-made structures, erected in the 1920s, the likes of which cannot be found in the vicinity. These are flats made for those who work for the customs department. According to a resident, the old shades over the windows have fallen off. He claims that there are also other issues of maintenance to which the authorities concerned don't attach importance. Despite their Spartan form, the buildings are a delight to look at.

Moving straight on that road will eventually lead to Sacred Heart Church. From here turn right into a not-so-narrow lane and you'll end up at the railway track. Again, it's an intriguing bit of land with a-century-old quarters made for railway employees. It is evident they haven't been restored in a long, long time. The point is, Keamari has many examples of constructions representing colonial times.

Architect Arif Hasan says: “The importance of these buildings is that they were made at a time when Karachi was expanding, as was the port. Most of the structures in Keamari are related to port activities. They're housing for low- and middle-income employees, good housing at that. The warehouses were very good, but today they're in a stage of extreme dilapidation. These buildings are made of stone and wood. The port development took place between 1849 and 1868. Some of the major developments were witnessed in that period. They linked Keamari to the mainland. There used to be three kinds of buildings in this zone: housing, warehousing and those meant to entertain seamen. Most of the structures are gone. The ones that stay have basic architecture, climatically sound, purely functional with no embellishments.”

“The thing that I remember about the churches in this area is that they had Gothic arches.”

Across St George's Church where KPT berths can be seen clear as day, an aged building along the main road is being razed to the ground to make room for Lord knows what. One more bites the dust. Another marker about to disappear from the historic Keamari map!