The 18th century folk tale of Mai Kolaci tells of a young fisherwoman who lived in a settlement near Keamari Bunder. When her husband Sanwal, who had gone on a fishing trip, failed to return even after fifteen days she set off looking for him in the churning waves of the Arabian Sea in her battered boat. The violent storm rolled and rocked the fragile craft and blasted it to tiny shreds. The mighty waves threw Mai Kolachi on the shores of Girzi Bunder where, miraculously, she found Sanwal. As a tribute to her gallantly and loyalty, the village elders named their settlement Mai Kolachi Goth. That village has changed its name and dimensions to Karachi, a booming megalopolis. Today, Karachi is known as the city of Quaid as the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah was born here on December 25, 1876 and also breathed his last here on September 11, 1948. Karachi remained capital of Pakistan since the creation of Pakistan and then it was shifted to Islamabad. Now it is the capital of Sind Province. Sind, the region in the south of Pakistan was known as the “Unhappy Valley” or the “Land of Uncertainties” by ancient traveler. With robbery, smuggling and gun-running amongst Sind’s biggest industries, the province remains a dangerous place to visit to this day. That being said, it was a great place to visit and I thoroughly recommend it for the adventurous traveler!
My first official day in Karachi was VERY interesting. I walked around the Central Karachi region in the morning and went to Empress Market (one of the largest in Pakistan). The atmosphere really reminded me of Myanmar. Dirt and flies EVERYWHERE. However, the kinds of products they were selling looking like it they were right out of a Indian movie. Spices, curries, chickens, goats, pigeons (for pets), lassis, chipatties, naan, etc. It was really fascinating.
A couple of observations that won’t come completely across in the photos were the complete absence of women on the streets. I think I only saw one woman and she was wearing the traditional Muslim garb. People around here tell me that this is quite typical on Sundays – the men go out to buy things and run the morning markets while the women stay at home with the kids. Also, what is also not apparent immediately are the flies everywhere and the dust – it is truly filthy!!! There are also eagles and vultures soaring all over the city and in the air. Enjoy the photos!!
A good place to start your sight seeing is at the Quaid-i-Azam Mausoleum, a monument to Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah. This curiously shaped monument is set at the top of a stepped pyramid in a small park on MA Jinnah Road just north of Bohri Bazaar. Built between 1958 and 1968 after the design of a Turkish architect, it can be most charitably be described as distinctive. In a nodding concession to traditional styles, the 31 meter high white marble structure is built on a square plan, each with a tall, pointed arch, and supports a semicircular dome, but the overall impression is minimalist and stark. Its ceiling is lined with blue-glazed tiles donated by Japan. The glass and gold chandelier came from China and the silver handrail from Iran.
Zoroastrian Towers of Silence
Like Mumbai (Bombay), Karachi is a center for Zoroastrians or Parsees, who traditionally expose their dead to vultures on hills known as “towers of silence”. You can see two of these in a large compound on Korangi Road – the vultures and buzzards hovering overhead are a dead giveaway (no pun intended) although only Parsees are allowed inside the gates. There is also a Dar-i-Mehtar (Parsee place of worship) on Dr. Daud Pota Road (shown above). In recent years, the number of Parsees living in Pakistan has dropped from 7,000 to about 2,000, most of them in Karachi.
This is Karachi’s equivalent to Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles or the Jersey Shore for New Yorkers. Most of the week its deserted except for a handful of homeless people, and when its popular, on Fridays and public holidays from about 4 pm until shortly after sunset. As you can see above, one can hire a camel for rides along the beach. Interestingly, this was the main area for young people to consume alcohol. Under Islamic law, Muslims cannot drink alcohol. However, booze can be bought on the black market and many people bought booze on New Year’s Eve and went to the beach to get drunk. The military, fully expecting this, sent soldiers to patrol the beaches to stop this from happening. Needless to say, the city was pretty much dead for New Year’s Eve!
Defense Housing Society Mosque (Masjid-i-Tuba)
This white-marbled mosque was very impressive! My guide paid off the attendant to let us in after-hours – hence the poor picture quality. However, you can’t fail to be impressed by this mosque in the heart of DHS (Defense Housing), one of Karachi’s most affluent suburbs (some of the suburbs homes are really remarkable built in Islamic style and some even I wouldn’t live in!). Built in the late 1960s, this low-slung mosque is contained under one vast dome with no supporting columns or vaults. With a diameter of 72 meters, the dome is claimed to be the largest of its kind in the world. Constructed of white marble, it has thousands of mirror tiles in its thermally proofed interior giving the impression of twinkling stars. The acoustics are perfect for hearing your own voice!! You can hear massive echoes throughout and hear conversations in the corner of every mosque. It was really kind of surreal. I can’t imagine having mass in there – one would probably pass out.
Streets of Karachi
The streets of Karachi are filled with the vehicles covered head-to-toe in decorative ceramics and paint. Although somewhat gaudy, they clearly illustrate the imagination of the Pakistani people. There is nothing I enjoy more than walking the streets of the local markets to get a flavor for the local culture. Some of the pictures below were taken while I walked near and around Saddar and Empress Market, one of the largest markets in Karachi. Saddar, the city center, is the main shopping area with thriving markets selling carpets, fur coats, leather jackets, snake-skin purses, silk scarves and the country’s biggest range of handicrafts. It also has a number of food stalls and cheap restaurants and the majority of budget hotels. Nightlife in Karachi is an oxymoron.
Another interesting observation was the lack (but beginnings) of the Internet. There are a couple of signs and I even saw a bus for a company (www.netmaze.com) that rented a dumpster truck, emblazoned the bus with their name and filled it with a bunch of guys handing out flyers to cars driving by!!! Unbelievable no one got killed!
Soldiers or policemen with automatic weapons are a common sight in Pakistan. I guess that’s what happens when the country is under military rule. They were especially abundant at night because there are a lot of young people hanging around the city looking for parties.
Colorful buses were everywhere in Pakistan. The vehicles were very similar to the Jeepneys found in the Philippines. Buses and vehicles are decorated with all kinds of lights and enamel that make them all really gaudy. I don’t think I saw a single bus that hasn’t been enhanced (defaced) in this way! It makes fuzzy dice look like nothing! Also, many people are so poor and fares are so high (because of skyrocketing oil prices) that many buses have created a seating arrangement on the roofs of buses. Literally you see buses going by at 80 km/h with people hanging onto dear life sitting on the roof or hanging out of windows!!!
There was also an interesting monument commemorating Pakistan’s entrance into the nuclear weapon family. There are replicas of this monument in every major city in Karachi.
Crabbing in Karachi
A common past time in Pakistan is crabbing. We rented a small boat (less than 15 feet in length) and took it out into the bay. We were accompanied by several Pakistanis who gave us fishing tackle and bait and let us have a try at catching crabs. As you would expect, none of us caught anything but luckily the crew brought plenty of food for us to eat. They prepared a sumptuous meal of crab, fish and bread. Although it sure tasted good at the time, in the back of my mind, I had a nasty feeling that it was going to get everyone sick. Sure enough, the following day more than half of us were suffering from food poisoning. As for myself, it took a few more days for the poisons to hit me but once it did I was out like a light. I suspect this was the origins of the parasite that knocked me out for 10 days. I thoroughly suggest taking the boat out to crab but don’t eat the food. You have been warned!!!
Our crew preparing our feast (parasitic condiments included free of charge), fishing tackle and bait…Karachi style, and the source of the little Green Men!
Although most of the following places are easily reached on a day trip from Karachi, I suggest you rent a car and a guide. Some of the laws say you must strictly travel with an armed guard in these regions but I was able to do so without one. Nonetheless, its well worth visiting some of these places if you are even mildly interested about anthropology and some of the oldest civilizations in Asia. I rented a driver named Salim who drove me out to Chakundi (tombs), Banbhore (ancient city where Islam was introduced to the Pakistanis/Indians), Haleji Lake (observatory for birds), Thatta, and Makli (ancient temple/mosque city).
Although some way beyond the city limits, this is the safest excursion from Karachi. The tombs are worth a visit if you don’t mind taking the risk. Graveyards stretch for many kilometers west along the coast right into Baluchistan, but the largest and most impressive tombs and mausoleums are concentrated at the end of a short land off the National Highway to the east of Karachi. They are constructed of slabs of rock, stacked into oblong pyramids of cubical stone (Chaukundi means cubical) and carved with exquisite designs. Their history is unrecorded, but most are believed to date from the 13th to 16th centuries.
Although now a considerable distance inland as a result of silt deposits from the Indus, Banbhore is believed to be the ancient port of Debal, the 8th century landing site of the Arab conqueror Mohammed bin Qasim, who marched north from here to Multan to establish Islam on the subcontinent. It’s interesting for the extensive ruins on three different historical periods so far uncovered – Scythian-Parthian, Hindu-Buddhist, and Islamic – as well as an 8th century mosque believed to be the earliest on the subcontinent (I’m shown above standing at the entrance). A small museum has various finds from the site including the phallic lingham statue shown below:
Thatta / Shah Jahan Mosque
Thatta was once a large and prosperous city but it declined after the Indus changed course in the early 18th century. Nowadays its interest is more architectural than commercial. According to some accounts, Alexander the Great’s army rested here before marching on into the Makran. The town’s main attraction is Shah Jahan Mosque, shown in my pictures. This mosque was built by the Moghul emperor between 1644 and 1647 and is one of the most magnificent examples of Moghul architecture. Its 93 domes give it superb acoustics. The tile work, a wide range of shades of blue, and the calligraphy are equally impressive. It’s said that Shah Jahan founded it to repay the town when he sought refuge here after arousing the anger of his father.
This vast necropolis, a couple of kilometers before Thatta on the road from Karachi, covers some 15 square kilometers and is said to contain over one million graves. They are mainly made of sand stone, exquisitely carved with geometric and floral designs like those at Chaukundi. The earliest date to the Summa dynasty which ruled Sind from the mid-14th to early 16th century. The next group dates from the Moghul period. The carvings are so regular that they seem to have been stamped into the stones. Some mausoleums are being restored. Tombs from the Arghun and Moghul periods have beautifully glazed or enameled tiles and bricks, which local artisans still manufacture, particularly the Thatta blue tile.