For most of its history, the city now known as Karachi was a mere fishing village on the shores of the Arabian Sea. Called Kolachi, it was named after a valiant Balochi fishermaid, who braved the rough waters of the Arabian Sea to save her husband from drowning.
It wasn’t until the arrival of the British East India Company, on Feb. 1, 1839, that Karachi began transforming into a major trading hub.
Being a year-long warm-water port and close to major trading hubs in the region, Karachi started to attract migrants from all over the world such as Afghans, Parsis, Jews, Goan Christians, Burmese, Chinese and Arabs. It became the most ethnically and religiously diverse city in all of Pakistan.
In 1947, when Pakistan declared its independence from the British Empire, Karachi bore the burden of being designated the capital city of a nation in its infancy. At the time of independence, Karachi opened its doors to a new wave of migrants: the Muslims from India collectively referred to as the Muhajirs. The Muhajir community came from all four corners of India, from Delhi to Kolkata to Gujarat and everywhere in between.
Each of them brought a piece of their culture and tradition to Karachi, and thus added to the fabric of an already diverse city.
The city’s literati affectionately started referring to the city as: “Uroos Ul Bilaad” (The bride amongst the cities) and “Roshniyon ka shehr” (City of lights), because of its booming nightlife and cosmopolitan scene.
The city became a favourite regional stopover and was a weekend getaway hub until the mid-’70s.
It was in 1977 when Karachi’s good times came to a screeching halt. Gen. Zia Ul Haq deposed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the democratically elected leader of Pakistan, in a military-led coup and assumed office. He enforced a strict form of Sharia (Islamic) law over the country. Pakistan slipped into a cycle of political, economic, sectarian and ethnic violence and Karachi was hit the hardest.
But now, with an improving economic, political and security situation, the city is starting to heal itself. Home to 21 million people, the majority of whom are young and active, the city is reinventing itself every day. From a thriving arts and crafts scene, to a nascent performing arts community, the city is trying to leave its dark days behind.
The fascinating diversity and rich history of Karachi is best witnessed through its myriad religious and cultural hubs, where the city’s mosaic of citizens gather daily. For the first time in many years the city is ready to say khush amdeed (“welcome”).
Mosques Founded in 1893, the Kutchi Memon Masjid is one of Karachi’s oldest mosques.
The Memons are one of Karachi’s most prominent business communities. They migrated from India to Pakistan, predominantly from Gujrat and the Rann of Kutch. Being a mercantile and trading community, many Memons migrated to the booming port of Karachi, looking for new business opportunities in the 1800s. The Memon community predominantly follows Sunni Islam.
Located a stone’s throw away from the Kutchi Memon Mosque is the Taheri Masjid, a mosque belonging to the Dawoodi Bohra community. The Bohri community is known citywide for its peaceful nature and overwhelming hospitality.
The entrance leading up to the mosque is majestic, with massive arches and long, wide staircases leading to the main courtyard. The standout feature of this house of worship is the main prayer hall lit up with its grand chandeliers.
Hindu and Sikh Temples Located in downtown Karachi is the bustling Swaminarayan Hindu and Sikh complex.
In the early years of Partition, when violence broke out along sectarian lines, many Hindus and Sikhs were given refuge in this area. The bloody and difficult years of Partition are now behind this thriving and active community. Although their numbers have significantly declined over the years, they still have a visible presence in the city. The Guru Nanak Gurdwara can easily be spotted from afar by the saffron-coloured triangular nishaan sahib (Sikh flag), fluttering high above the complex. The Gurdwara is much smaller than the larger commanding Swaminarayan temple next door.
The Swaminarayan temple is one of Karachi’s largest and most prominent Hindu temples. Its shikhara (dome and steeple) is clearly visible from most areas around it.
The most awe-inspiring feature of the temple is the intricately detailed mural on its ceiling. It’s a stunning painting that depicts the story of Lord Krishna, an important deity in Hindu mythology. Idols dedicated to Radha Krishna and Lord Swaminarayan are located within the inner temple sanctum.
Opposite the temple area is a huge parade ground that’s used for festive occasions, such as Diwali and Holi; on normal days it’s an open space where the area’s residents come to relax and watch the world go by.
Next to the parade ground is the temples’ very own gaushala (cow pen), an area where cows are worshipped and taken care of by the local community.
Zoroastrian (Parsi) Fire Temple The word Parsi is a Persian word that means “from Persia,” which is now present-day Iran and Afghanistan.
During the early years of independence, the Parsis were one of Karachi’s most influential and affluent communities. Since the Parsi community’s numbers have dwindled significantly over the years due to migration and a low birth rate, there aren’t many functioning Fire Temples left. One of the largest of them is the HJ Behrana Dar e Meher. Non-Parsis are not allowed into the temple area. The high priest is usually seated at the temple entrance monitoring and making sure trespassers do not enter the temple area.
However, a little persuasion and sweet-talking can get you to the veranda, from where you can admire the outer temple facade up close. From the veranda you can also spot a portrait or two of Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, the founder of the Zoroastrian faith, adorning one of the inner temple walls. If you happen to be visiting during an important festival you’ll notice the colourful and elaborate chalk art on the veranda floor similar to the “Rangoli” one sees at Hindu temples and houses around festival times.
Churches Karachi’s downtown area is home to a Catholic and a Protestant church, both of which hold an immense amount of historical significance to the history of Karachi.
Straight down the road from the Taheri Mosque is Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. The first thing that catches the eye is the magnificent white marble Monument to Christ the King. The interior of the monument houses a small crypt, and a replica of Saint Francis Xavier, the patron saint of Goa. Since most of the Catholic community in Karachi has roots in Goa, Saint Francis is highly revered among it.
The cathedral in its current state was built in 1881, although a church has been on this site since 1845.
Located a few blocks away from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral is the towering Holy Trinity Church. This church in its current state was built in 1855 with special Gizri sandstone. The first thing that you notice about it is its unusually tall tower that functioned as a lighthouse until the early 1900s. As the city expanded and the sea receded, its function as a lighthouse was no longer needed.
Empress Market The Indian rebellion of 1857 was a major uprising against the British East India Company’s rule in the Indian subcontinent. What initially started as a moderate uprising in the small town of Meerut in present-day India amongst the sepoys (native soldiers) of the East India Company’s armed forces, spread like wildfire across the country.
Within a year, the rebellion was ruthlessly quashed by the British and hence the mutineers were arrested and handed heavy punishments on charges of treason. According to legend, the ground upon which the mighty Empress Market now stands served as an execution square, where the mutineers had their heads blown off by canon fire.
Hence, for years to come, this tainted area became a protest square, where the locals would gather en masse and protest British rule. In 1889, a towering state-of-the-art market was built on this spot out of fear of another rebellion brewing amongst the Indian population.
To add salt to the local’s wounds, it was named after Queen Victoria: Empress of India. However, the distressing and gloomy days of the market’s origins are now far behind it.
Located in the heart of Karachi’s bustling multicultural centre, the market area is now a chaotic hive of activity from sunrise to sunset, selling everything from hair-growing formulas, to exotic herbal medicines, to the freshest fruits and vegetables in town.
The market is definitely not for the faint-hearted, but it is a memorable experience to wander through its labyrinthine alleys, checking out the regular, quirky and sometimes downright bizarre items for sale.
Frere Hall Built in classic Venetian Gothic style, the Frere Hall is by far one of Karachi’s best-known and recognizable architectural landmarks. Its distinctive red towering spires can be spotted from a mile away.
Built in 1890, it was named after Sir Edward Henry Bartle Frere, a former governor of Bombay. The building initially served as an active town hall for the small but rapidly growing Karachi area.
Fast forward to a century later, and the building now functions as a library and thriving art gallery. The gardens around Frere Hall are collectively referred to as Bagh e Jinnah (Jinnah Garden). From walkers to serious joggers to readers chilling on the grass, the park is a beehive buzzing with activity from late afternoon until sundown.
The Sadequain art gallery, named after one of modern-day Pakistan’s most celebrated and well-renowned artists, is a must see for anyone visiting Karachi.
In 1986, Sadequain painted his last masterpiece, Arz O Samawat ( The Heavens and the Earth), which covers the entire ceiling of the Frere Hall. He died before he could complete it. M. Bilal Hassan is a doctor who loves travelling to obscure locations around the world in his spare time. He enjoys writing about art, travel and geopolitics. He currently resides in Karachi.