Protection and preservation of the city’s heritage
– now or never!
By Menin Rodrigues
KARACHI: 5 July 2021 – Social media pages, groups and other digital platforms are
perpetually posting images of historical buildings of Karachi; some vanished, many defaced,
others surviving the vagaries of time. Unfortunately, it is simply a shared memory, vestiges
of a glorious past for the city’s original settlers.
Do these bouts of nostalgia mean anything to its current citizens and future inhabitants of
this beleaguered city? Can we relive or revive the past? How can we permanently protect
these edifices by ‘enforceable’ law after all these years of neglect and irrelevance? These
are some questions to ponder upon and find answers.
There are numerous stone structures in the older parts of the city, residential, commercial,
and governmental, all ‘once’ privately owned and envisioned by the multi-faith
communities of Karachi in British India – Muslim, Hindu, Parsi, Goan-Christian and Jew.
Most of these buildings and landmarks are about hundred years old or older and the
designs and motifs on many of these structures are believed to have been hand-carved by
the ingenious Marvari craftsmen.
Realistically, there would be about 100 iconic structures built over a period of 100 years,
from 1845 to 1947 that are crying for preservation and protection. These magnificent
edifices have stood the test of time, they are a part of our heritage, culture and above all,
history of this city. Therefore, it is now our collective responsibility to preserve and protect
each one of them – it is now or never!
These edifices have been left behind by a people who had the dream to see Karachi develop
into one of the finest metropolises in the East, and therefore, they built landmarks to last!
But unfortunately, all through the 1950s, 60s, and 70s we forgot all about the treasures of
home! The awakening about the existence of these masterpieces came in the 1980s among
those who realized that it was about time, we saved these structures from destruction; but
by then, the beauty of Karachi had already started to vanish!
Now that we have access to social media to highlight and talk about the unprecedented
decay and destruction of these places, how can we save whatever remains of the city’s
legacy? Many heritage sites and beautiful single-family homes have disappeared in the past fifty years; unfortunately, the future citizens of the city (today’s children and young adults) will never know or be able to trace their existence. Who is responsible for this destruction?
While on one hand there are ‘citizen journalists’ on the digital landscape who try to bask in
the glory of Karachi’s magnificent buildings, we must not forget they are a part of a city
which was another country! We did not build them; we inherited the treasures of the city. I
find it pertinent to use the term, “the past was another country” because this is how the
highly acclaimed, the late Omar Kureishi would describe the city in his columns.
On the other hand, we do have some like-minded organizations such as the department of
culture and heritage, government of Sindh; the department of architecture and planning at
the NED University, the Heritage Foundation and others who are doing their best to restore and protect. All these efforts fall within the ambit of the Sindh Cultural Heritage
(Protection) Act promulgated in 1994 which is, “an Act to preserve and protect ancient
places and objects of architectural, historical, archaeological, artistic, ethnological,
anthropological and national interest in the Province of Sind.”
While everything looks good on paper and there are visible interventions of protection and
preserving heritage sites, it is also important to note that unless, such sites and its history
are included in the curriculums of educational institutions and students and the youth are
encouraged to participate in relevant workshops, debates and interactive dialogues with
historians and authorities, the stalemate on this issue shall prevail.
Therefore, the time is now!