By Aamir Latif
Pakistan’s largest city Karachi is often associated with chaos in the international media, but locally it is known by other taglines -- the heart of Pakistan, mini Pakistan, Quaid’s city, city of lights -- and with good reason.
This cosmopolitan 15-million strong commercial lifeline of the country, which today is a picture of skyscrapers and slums, Toyotas and donkey carts, Italian cuisine and biryani, also has a rich history, hosting unique and breathtaking orange and rose pink colored buildings from its colonial past. But experts worry that the city’s rare structures would soon be lost through not only the ravages of time, but also neglect of its supposed benefactors and greed of land grabbers.
Nowhere is this fact more evident than the city’s southern district, which hosts the largest concentration of buildings from British colonial times, many of which have already been declared as protected sites.
Hameed Akhund, former secretary of culture and heritage department of southern Sindh province of which Karachi is the capital, told Anadolu Agency: “Karachi is blessed with a huge architectural treasure.
“But, this treasure has been lost due to a variety of reasons, slowly and gradually,” Akhund, who is also the secretary general of Endowment Fund Trust -- a semi-government organization that works for the preservation and protection of heritage in the province, said.
So far, the provincial government has listed nearly 2,000 premises as heritage sites in the province, of which some 1,700 are in Karachi alone.
Akhund cited an unprecedented population increase, unplanned urbanization, illegal land occupation and lack of government’s attention as key factors behind the city’s crumbling architectural treasures.
“Karachi’s population was only 400,000 at the time of partition but now it has already crossed 15 million, according to official estimates, and over 20 million as per unofficial estimates.
“This has understandably created a huge opportunity for the real estate industry, that is why hundreds of old-styled buildings have been replaced by skyscrapers in the city in recent decades,” Akhund said.
“Secondly, a large number of old buildings are either illegally occupied or even the legal occupants are paying the rent like 150 rupees [$1.3] to 250 rupees ($2.1), which had been settled at the time of partition.
“Therefore, on the one hand these occupants do not worry about maintenance of these buildings, while on the other hand, the owners do not concern about repair,” he said.
Temples and land grabbers
Slouched against its crumbling wall, Amus Samid described the sorry state of the 150-year-old Jaag Nath Akhara Temple in the “Old City” -- a term coined to represent the 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) area of Karachi that existed before the country’s independence in 1947.
The temple used to be a central worship point for Pakistani Hindus, but this neglected site is now a picture of apathy.
A narrow and dust-filled street leads the temple’s entrance, and subsequently to the main worship hall, which is decorated with portraits of Hindu gods and goddesses -- mainly Kali Mata, the goddess of death and doomsday.
The dust-bowed mosaic floor and walls of the hall are dotted with small holes. A huge hole in the ceiling of a side hall also hangs above disciples who use the area for their animal sacrifice rituals.
“The government and the Hindu property trust have no time for repairing or preserving this type of temples located in the poor localities.
“They are interested in glitzy mansions and huge towers,” Amus, in her late 80s who has been serving the temple for the last 60 years, told Anadolu Agency.
After Christians, Hindus make up the second-largest minority in Muslim-majority Pakistan, with slightly over 2 percent of the total 210 million population.
Another disciple Leela Wanti feared that if the government did not take some immediate steps to preserve the temple, the next generations would no longer be able to see this ancient structure in the next few years.
“Another temple which used to be located a few hundred meters from here, has already been encroached by land grabbers. They are eyeing this temple as well.
“If the government or the Hindu trust do not take some urgent steps to save this temple from complete destruction, you will probably see a huge concrete plaza at this site in next few years,” Wanti told Anadolu Agency.
Clock tower in ruins
Some 200 meters away from the Jaag Nath temple is the historic clock tower of Lee Market. What used to be the city’s favorite gathering place, it is currently home to a makeshift vegetable market, where vendors repeatedly make loud chants about their wares to attract buyers.
Scores of auto-rickshaws are also parked in a long queue near the outer wall of the structure, turning it into a permanent and illegal transport terminal.
City historians say the clock tower dates back to 1920s. All the wooden window covers are broken or dislodged. Even the rusted clock hands have been resting at 11.45 -- a.m. or p.m. no one knows -- for several decades now.
“This site used to be the cleanest and one of the favorite pastime sites for Karachiites [local term for residents of Karachi].
“I still remember the days, when I was a student and always looked at the clock while walking past the tower to attend my school in 1950s,” Abdul Rehman, a retired government employee in his early 70s, told Anadolu Agency.
“The government has not been able to repair the clock, which has been out of order for last several decades. How can I expect it to preserve the whole tower,” Rehman said.
Cinemas also affected
The famous Nigar cinema is another site in a state of collapse. It used to be a central part of the city’s cultural life for decades, but now the battered structure is being used as a godown by a local businessman.
The outer walls are weathered by the salty air of the Arabian sea and a neon sign has been placed on top of the entrance. The “Nigar Cinema” inscription is now completely rusted, making it hard for anyone to believe that the site was once a main attraction for film lovers.
“It was like a window-breaking rush at weekends till late 1980s. But, the gradual demise of Pakistan’s film industry, and the business interests finally snatched this source of entertainment from us,” Rehman added.
Akhund, whose organization is currently involved in the preservation of 120-year-old iconic building of Karachi Press Club, urged the government and concerned authorities to immediately take steps to preserve whatever unique heritage is left in the city.
“Whatever are the reasons but the end result is we are fast losing our architectural treasure.”