Bridging history

Published June 7, 2010

But which is the stone that supports the bridge?— Kublai Khan

The generally accepted definition of a bridge “a structure spanning a river, road, etc giving communication across it.” Naturally the history of making bridges dates back to the time when the concept of civilisation took root. The earliest examples of overpasses can be studied from the period when the Romans began building bridges over ravines to make commuting relatively trouble-free. The idea kept evolving and during the Renaissance, as revival of Greek knowledge took over everything else, bridges weren't just a means of communication but also carried a certain element of architectural finesse — even residences were constructed on them.

Not that there weren't any bridges in Karachi before the British started developing it in the 1830s, but it's nearly indisputable that the kind of infrastructure that Charles Napier and company began introducing into the city to improve ways of communication not only made Karachi connect with the rest of the world in a better fashion but also facilitated the daily lives of its denizens with basic amenities.

However, some historians and architects believe that Karachi didn't have a particular design plan for development, and apart from other unavoidable factors it was the ever-increasing demographic and social pressures that resulted in some fabulous works of construction. Isn't it the case even today?

In the 1880s the city began expanding from what used to be known as the native town. The dust-puffing pathways were paved with small chunks of stones and pressed down with steamrollers running over sand mixed with gravel. It's the same period when, perhaps, bridges made of stone proved useful as well as aesthetic additions to the cityscape.

There are a handful of pre-partition bridges in Karachi that are still going strong and have tremendous cultural significance. They are hard-wearing and can shoulder the load of heavy vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Clifton Bridge, for example, has a presence that no other overpass has. Try and reach its base and have a closer look at the beautiful arches. You won't feel as if you're a traveller. You can't help but think in your heart about the era in which it was built, showering profuse praise on its makers. It is not an inanimate object. That's why you'll find the homeless (and drug addicts) enjoying long hours of blissful sleep under the arches (and alongside the railway track) that defy the searing sun.

Clifton Bridge may not be the oldest, but Chand Mari Bridge or Scandal Point near the PIDC building has a pretty aged existence.

There are stories associated with it, not all of which are entirely convincing. One story, though, can be made into a film. It was in the colonial rule that a young man and a younger girl fell head over heels in love with each other. Social norms didn't allow them to get married, so they decided to kill themselves by jumping off the Chand Mari pul. They did. The bridge was thus labelled Lovers Bridge.

The Native Jetty Bridge is probably the oldest of the lot, whereas Kala Pul has undergone many changes and is now pretty much a contemporary facility. But you can't take away the historicity associated with the two. The Garden precincts and the Manghopir region too had a couple of similar important structures signs of which these days are a bit hard to detect.

Architect Arif Hasan says “Bridges played a significant role in the development of Karachi city in its nascent colonial days. First and foremost, they linked some important areas with one another making commuting and communication a convenient task. Then distances were reduced to a great extent. Also, there were areas where pedestrian movement was often hampered by official convoys, so that was taken care of etc...

“The oldest bridge that comes to my mind is the Napier Mole or the Native Jetty Bridge. The purpose of building this particular facility was to connect the harbour with the main city, that is, the Keamari area was now connected with the town.

“Another important overpass is Chand Mari Bridge. This, along with Wallace Bridge, were made when railways was introduced here. Naturally the idea was to provide a link between the then newly-constructed warehouses and the commercial centre. Now this Chand Mari Bridge is/was also known as Lovers Bridge. Legend has it that there was a young couple who fell for each other and wanted to get married. As it usually happens their relationship was stymied by societal norms and they committed suicide by jumping off the bridge. But essentially Chand Mari made a bow over the railway track. Wallace Bridge served the same purpose.

“Clifton Bridge, although constructed before partition, was a later addition to this bunch. It's a pretty sturdy structure and again built over the track but also provided the connection between the Clifton Islands and the rest of the city. Chand Mari, Clifton and Native Jetty bridges were utilitarian structures designed by the Royal engineers. They had balustrades, beautiful protective parapets, as their marked architectural feature, which have now been removed.

“Kala Pul — what you see of it today is not the original version — was no less important. There was a regular movement or army convoys in that area; the pul was constructed so that the pedestrian movement didn't hold back the convoys, and vice versa.

“It's not correct to suggest there were proper bridges in Manghopir. Actually there were many causeways in areas such as Manghopir, Sher Shah and even one where today the area of Hasan Square is located.”

“With regard to the question as to why these bridges hold an important place in our collective cultural history, well they tell you about how civilisation developed and how it progressed. So there's a need to preserve and conserve them with care,” says Mr Hasan.

You can see cars zipping and zooming on Chand Mari Bridge. Underneath it an old man is comfortably perched on a charpoy. He sticks his neck out and looks upwards. There are no lovers on the bridge. All he sees is cars... and lots of them.

mohammad.salman@dawn.com

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