Preserving cultural assets

Published February 10, 2008

The protection of historic architecture and architectural monuments in the urban areas of Pakistan has been grossly neglected. Consequently, historical buildings and humbler dwellings of artistic merit in urban centres and small towns are failing apart or being rebuilt haphazardly. The latter is caused mainly by lack of training in conservation and by non-qualified conservationists trying to restore 'them back to their 'Old Glory'.'

Karachi's old historic fort still exists in the form of streets and mohallas, embellished with a number of dharamshalas, temples, mosques, shrines, and its traditional bazaars. The older suburbs of Karachi survive with some retaining their winding streets, and open squares. The 19th and 20th-century British quarters, which flourished with commercial/port activities, are largely intact. These boulevards, streets, quarters and richly embellished stone buildings from that period, are comparable to the 19th-century historic areas of other cities around the world, such as Cairo, Istanbul, Delhi, etc.

Since Independence, the historical core of Karachi has been subjected to functional pressures, which it is inherently incapable of confronting. These pressures are partly due to the rapidly growing port mega-city of Karachi, now about 35 times the population and eight times the area of the pre-Independence historic core.

Growing poverty, the infiltration of low-grade commercial enterprises, lack of a socially responsible community ethos and the complete obscurity of historical Karachi from the attention of authorities responsible for urban administration, have resulted in widespread dilapidation of its buildings. This is accompanied by a gradual loss of cul

tural traditions in the historic quarters and neighbourhoods, including cultural practices and behaviour patterns that had continued from the past. These include ritual practices, entertainment, eating, selling of traditional crafts, the operation of traditional bazaars and British period market places.

The recognition of the historic city's cultural significance and its future within the overall urban system is totally ignored by all the city development agencies, resulting in the lack of a policy framework that could guide decision-making relating to future land use, traffic improvement, the control of certain incongruous economic pressures on the historic quarters, while facilitating those which will reinforce cultural continuities, reviving selfidentity and pride of their residents.

The present policy for protection of Karachi's vast cultural heritage is an ongoing process of identifying and listing of protected buildings under the Sindh Cultural Heritage Act 1994. These buildings, scattered within the historic tissue, at a substantial distance from each other, are often a part of 19th and 20th-century stylistically rich building groups, forming a neighbourhood which is part of the 24 miles of pre-Independence Karachi's historic fabric. If this policy continues, isolated buildings, now a part of ongoing tangible and intangible cultural traditions will be transformed into dead historic monuments, squeezed between rows of ugly high-rise commercial plazas. The second more serious scenario is that of displaying old buildings as antiquities in newly developed areas.

The historic core of Karachi is therefore, in acute danger, and if the present policies and practices of safeguarding its heritage persist, only a fraction of historic Karachi will remain as a measure of cultural heritage for the coming generation.

The goal of the study on which this book is based was to initiate a process for the preservation of Karachi historic city's tangible and intangible cultural assets, by revalorisation, rehabilitating and reinforcing its tradition and physical/socio-cultural characteristics as a distinct urban district of national cultural significance, with high historic, environmental and cultural qualities. The objectives are to establish that the historic core as a whole is of national cultural significance, instead of isolated individual buildings; and have this aspect of historic Karachi recognised by politicians, development agencies, professional bodies and the citizens of Karachi. It also seeks to identify the nature and extent of tangible and intangible cultural assets of the area.

The subsequent chapters also propose necessary actions for receiving, rehabilitating and safeguarding these assets, by suggesting possible policies for controlling expansion of incongruous low-grade commercial activities, while facilitating those that encourage continuation of tradition and cultural linkages. The study identifies historic neighbourhoods, and building complexes of high cultural significance, which deserve intensive conservation efforts.

There is a need to work with communities rich in historic residential fabric, with an aim to facilitate better living conditions, through both physical up-gradation and reinforcement of social networking. This can lead to the residents' greater identification with their neighbourhood, and ultimately feeling responsible for its maintenance.

The historic quarters of Karachi today form part of a larger metropolitan area. The development and growth of metropolitan Karachi is one of the major factors of the changes confronted by Karachi's historic districts. Therefore, it is imperative to study the quarters in the context of a larger metropolitan growth.

Given the constraints of time and resources it was not possible to cover the entire 9.26 sq. miles of the historic quarters. Therefore, only one complete quarter and parts of three others, have been investigated within the framework of overall growth and development of Karachi metropolitan areas, and the changes taking place in neighbouring quarters.

Two quarters, i.e. Old Town Quarters and Serai Quarter existed before British Rule, while the British developed the Jail or Wadhumal Quarter and Ranchore Quarters. These quarters, located at a distance from each other were selected for study, firstly, as samples of British and pre-British development, secondly due to their original function and thirdly for the changes they have undergone and their role in the new metropolitan Karachi.

The Old Town Quarters, now called Mithadar and Kharadar, is the starting point of the oldest part of the city. The three other areas included in the study are located close to the Old Town Quarters and form a progressive physical link to it. This is taken as the starting point of what is presumed to be an ongoing study, which can be carried out for the rest of Karachi's historic core.

* * * * *

Karachi's origins date back to the Vedic Period, but it gained prominence in 1729, when it emerged as a major port of Sindh, having replaced the earlier busy maritime exchange centres, Daibul (Bhambor), Thatta, Lohari Bundar, Dua Jam and Shahbad. These ports had become inoperable after the moving of the rivers which caused silting and flooding.

Karachi's establishment as a port is contributed to Hindu merchants of Karak Bunder (Hasan 1988, 7), but its development, as a major western port of India is attributed to the Talpurs, who conquered it in 1729.

The British recognising the strategic position of Karachi vis-à-vis its location to the West, started its investigation in the late 17th century (Khuro 1997, 14). In 1839, they conquered Manora/ Karachi, (Baillie 1890, 17) and by 1843 they had wrenched away all of Sindh from the Talpurs and declared Karachi its provincial headquarter.

According to Baillie, at the time of the Talpur conquest of Karachi, it was a small mud fortified city located along the Lyari River (Baillie 1890, 21). It soon became a flourishing maritime trade centre, which developed further with the support of the British (Khuro 1997), and the political tranquillity of the Talpur rule. As the city grew in population, it started to spill over the city walls, and several suburbs emerged around the walls. In 1799, the population of Karachi was 10,000 and by 1813 (Lari 1996, 11), it had increased to 13,000. By 1830, it was 15,000 (Baillie 1890, 29), and the suburb outside the city wall had expanded greatly. It consisted of what are now called Napier, Market, Bunder, Rambagh, Serai, Lyari and Machee Miani Quarters (Baillie 1890, 83). A road called Rah-i-Bunder was built, during Talpur rule, to link the Karachi port to Kafila Serai, a terminal for camel caravans, located at the southern boundary of the city.

The British having conquered Karachi, set up their camp one mile from the old native fort/city, at south west of the Hindu religious Rambagh precinct (Hasan 1986, 8). In 1843, at the British declaration of Karachi as the provincial capital of Sindh province, Sir Charles Napier, started to plan the expansion and development of the city and to improve the harbour and its facilities, (Baillie1890, 45By 1854, when Napier left Karachi, the British Cantonment had been established a mile north-east of the earlier British army camps. The only buildings constructed during Napier's tenure were a few scattered colonial bungalows, offices, a few clubs, and some army barracks (Khuro 1997, 36).

Frere's plans for the city were more ambitious than those of Napier, comprising of a harbour improvement scheme, city road layout, canal construction and establishment of a railway system to connect Karachi port to the inland cities (Baillie 1890, Ch. 5, 6, 7). These developments were instrumental in Karachi's rapid population growth. Therefore, in 1850, Karachi's population rose to 16,773; by 1853 it was 22,224. Of this population 13,769 inhabitants lived in the old port/city and 8458 in the suburbs. While the native city and its port and suburbs flourished, the Saddar and Artillery Ground were the first quarters developed by the British in 1839 (Lari 1996, 139,149). Once they became well entrenched politically, the British started to establish new areas for themselves, and develop the existing native areas. With the establishment of Karachi Municipality, the developments of the city became rapid and more regulated. The infrastructure of the existing quarters was improved, and new quarters delineated.

Around mid-19th century, the quarters next to the 'native city' were developed for the growing native population, which included the Bunder Quarter, Market Quarter, Napier Quarter, and Lyari Quarter. The relatively vacant quarters south west of these, the Jail Quarters and Ranchore Quarters emerged as one of the civic centres by late 19th century.

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