Empress Market – A gift to the people of Karachi
The icon of Karachi, stood out in 1889, stood the test of time, and as it is being cleaned out today, still stands out in all its glory. The main entrance still houses the clock tower, the four corners with smaller towers surround the inner courtyard. What a bustling market indeed!
As I can recall, from my early childhood days, we often walked there from our home at Mehta House on Frere Street. Woven basket in hand, our mother led us in through the
massive gated entrance with the towering clock tower. The steps leading into the entrance at that time showed signs of wear, polished and worn down by countless people climbing up into its cool and dark interior and then out into the sunlit courtyard.
Little grocery stores lined the left wing as you entered; same on the right. All these stores were raised at least three or four feet off the main floor of the building. Foreign canned goods could be purchased at some of the stores, and this was usually our first stop, before heading to the vegetable/fish/meat section of the market. I loved going here and I hated it at the same time. I loved the smell of the spices as you entered the main building, loved the smell of fresh green chillies and other vegetables.
What really turned me off were the meat and fish sections. Chunks of meat hung from hooks, goats hooves, cows hooves, goat heads, goat organs, including liver, lung, heart and other unmentionables all openly displayed, the stench turned my stomach and the sight was not pleasant. Chickens being slaughtered, de-feathered and then cut into pieces
broke my heart and maybe this is why I am not a meat eater. My mother always tried to shield me from these sights, but the eyes cannot escape the obvious.
There were dry fruit vendors, spice vendors, fruit vendors all gathered around the inner courtyard. Bargaining was the norm, we had no plastic bags then, so vegetables were weighed and tossed into our ‘tokri’ or woven basket. Only meat and fish were placed in clear plastic bags or sometimes waxed paper. In those days, not many of us knew what lay below this grand market’s foundation. Today, with unlimited access to information, I have come to learn that human blood, long ago had stained the very soil on which this market was built, including (possible) human remains. And so begins my story…
The Mutiny, as the British called it, began in May 1857 and spread throughout the sub-continent. The War of Independence as we like to call it, began with the Sepoy Rebellion. Different versions of the same story are out there, some linking it to the fact that cartridges used by the Sepoy soldiers were laced with animal fat, both cow and pig. This would have obviously offended both Hindu and Muslim soldiers and was the spark that ignited the revolt. To me, it sounds incredulous as the British would have seen this coming, so why do it in the first place? I think that the
Sepoy soldiers had not been paid for months, the price of food was on the rise; the cantonments were off-limits to the locals; who were getting tired of British rule anyway. What began in Meerut soon spread across the country, it was planned for sure; but not well enough. By the time it
reached Karachi, two soldiers betrayed the other 40 or so Sepoys who were ready to revolt. To counter the attack, the British took quick and deadly action…
On a starry night in May, 1857 a handful of Sepoy soldiers entered the Cantonment in Kurrachee. Shots were fired, and they were taken by surprise when surrounded by British officers and soldiers of the local infantry. Half of the Sepoys were able to escape when they found out they were betrayed. Twenty or so were not so lucky.
“Lay down your weapons now!” they were ordered, surrounded by British soldiers.
Ram Din Pandey and Suraj Bali Tevari stood still, weapons in hand. They whispered to each other.
“If we surrender, all will be lost. If we don’t, they will gun us down.” Pandey looked at Tevari who stared back, desperation in both their eyes.
They ordered their men to lay down their weapons, but still held onto their own rifles.
“I said to lay down your weapons!!” an officer shouted again, aiming his service pistol at both the armed men.
“Let my people go first.” Pandley yelled back gun pointed down
Seconds later a soldier hit him with the wooden stock of his rifle. He fell down, blood dripping from a wound to his head. Tevari put his rifle down. They were soon all arrested, put
in chains and locked up in the military prison. A few of the escaped men were rounded up, their bodies hacked to pieces and thrown in the Lyari river near Mithadar.
After a brief trial, Pandley, Tevari and a few more of their men were sentenced to death. The remaining were sent to Kala Pani (a prison on the Andaman Islands). On a dark night,
and not unknown by the locals, the hangings took place. A pit was dug, bodies were cut to pieces and thrown in and buried.
For the ringleaders, a more horrible fate awaited.
“Let it be known to all your people, that any kind of revolt or conspiracy carried out against her Majesty will not be tolerated. Your execution is to be carried out in broad daylight on the parade grounds tomorrow morning.” The military judge did not mince his words.
They were not allowed to meet with their family members, nor were they given the right to speak in their defence. The next morning, in full view of the public, Pandley and Tevari were tied in front of two cannons, blindfolded and blown to bits. Locals were ordered to pick up body parts that were thrown into the drain on Bunder Road. No proper burial, no chance for families to mourn.
In time, the British noticed that flowers and wreaths were being laid out on the execution grounds (Parade ground). It took several years, but out of concern that the locals would build a shrine to the people who had laid down their lives for freedom, claiming them to be martyrs for the cause, they decided to build a large market on the grounds. Karachi’s famous engineer James Strachen came up with the plans in the late 1800’s and the foundation was laid during
Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. A gift for the people! Indeed!! Ironically, the market was for “whites” only and not open for the locals to shop.
Well, the British did succeed in preventing a shrine for the Freedom Fighters to be constructed on the site. Over time, their struggle and sacrifice was forgotten; but history cannot be erased. With information out there, we can remember, in our hearts and in our minds and with the restoration of the Market, that is really a memorial to our fallen.
Thanks for reading,
(Pic was taken by my dad, inner courtyard, Empress Market, late 60’s)