The Story of Karachi

Posted on September 15, 2006
Filed Under >Bilal Zuberi, Architecture, Culture & Heritage, History, Travel
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Bilal Zuberi

Karachi has a wonderful history that is neither discussed nor celebrated as much as the history of Mughal Lahore (see ATP post here). As we saw from the earlier ATP post on ‘whistling’ in Karachi (here), there is much interest in this, certainly from me. As someone who grew up in Karachi, the most I was taught about its history revolved around the history of its name (derived from the town of Mai Kolachi) and that the Venetian gothic style buildings were remnants of the British cantonments and Karachi’s short-lived existence as the capital city of Pakistan. (See some historical video footage of Karachi on ATP here).

Well, now I feel I know a bit more about my city, its rich history, and the architectural heritage that still stands impressively (despite languishing in neglect for decades). For that, I thank a wonderful website titled “The Story of Karachi“, which I was introduced to by the folks at the Karachi Metroblogs. Judging by its guestbook logs, the website has been in operation since mid 2005, but it seems it only recently become well known to the internet dwellers.

The simplicity of the narration deserves praise and clearly the material is organized such that it can continue to evolve almost as a wiki project. The photographs are simply awesome. Check it out.

I will try to cite a few interesting items from the website here, which I am sure many Karachiites would find fascinating, but would also be of interest to a broader audience:

  • Karachi’s is said to have been known as Barbarikon during the Indo-Greek Kingdom. That town became Kolachi jo goth when an old fisher woman by the name of Mai Kolachi settled there, and the town eventually came to be known as Karachi.
  • Kharadar and Meethadar areas are the sites of two gates of a fortress that was built near the village of Kolachi near Manora by the Talpura Amirs in the pre-19th century history.

The Talpura Amirs erected a small fort at Manora near the village, which had some cannons brought in from Muscat. The fort had two doorways: one facing the sea known as Khaara Darwaaza (Brackish gate) and the other facing the Lyari river known as Meetha Darwaaza (Sweet gate).

  • Karachi officially became a part of the British empire in 1843, which is also the year when the city got linked to Multan via river transport . That led to a significant growth in population

On February 1st, 1839, a British ship, the Wellesley, anchored off the island of Manora. By 3rd February, the fort at Kolachi had surrendered without firing a single shot and this small fishing village crossed a turning point in its life. Three years later in 1843, upon the annexation of Sindh into the British empire, the regional capital was transferred from Hyderabad to Karachi by Charles Napier, the first governor of Sindh. The British made the town an Army Headquarters and military cantonments were established outside the town limits.

In 1843, a river steamer service was introduced linking Karachi with the city of Multan, 500 miles upstream on the Indus. The population of the city started rising rapidly and by the 1850′s, Karachi had become an established city with a population of about 14,000 and prosperous overseas trade.

Soon, moneyed people from Bombay, Goa, Kuchh and other parts of the subcontinent started migrating to the city to undertake various occupations. The town’s population started rising rapidly which is evidenced by the fact that the municipality’s income rose from Rs. 6,000 in 1848, to Rs. 27,000 by 1850 in just two years.

  • In 1861, Karachi got its first railway connection (to Kotri), and the trade of cotton began to prosper due to the shortage caused by American civil war. In 1864, direct telegraph connection was introduced and the harbor & port were modernized to allow Karachi to become an important full-fledged sea port for India.


  • It was also during this time that several monumental buildings such as the Frere Hall, Sindh Club, St. Patrick’s Cathedral & School, Merewether Tower (now simply known as ‘tower‘ to the bus conductors) and the Gymkhana were built.
  • Towards the end of the ninteenth century, the relationship between Lahore and Karachi were firmly established: Lahore as an agricultural hub, and Karachi as the main port for goods from Lahore. In many ways that relationship continues to this day.

The 1890′s saw the emergence of the Punjab as the granary of India and Karachi was the region’s principal outlet. This brought many business opportunities to Karachi and the population of the city expanded. Consequently, revenues of the city also increased and public works projects were undertaken on a grand scale. Boulton Market was built in 1883, and in 1890, the grand Empress Market was constructed to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign. This monumental structure with a clock tower was designed to compete with the Crawford Market of Bombay and was designed to be 12 feet higher. The market quickly gained a position in the city’s center. Hospitals such as the Civil Hospital and the Lady Dufferin Hospital were also inaugurated.

  • It was in early 1900s that the area now known as Bunder Road, Burns Road, Elphinston Street, and Preedy Street became crowded commercial areas, with traffic building to the point that a tram had to be introduced from Saddar to Keemari. I wish we still had trams in Karachi. Not least for aesthetics, but also because of the hazards we have now created with the bus -dependent public transportation system.

By 1891, statistics showed a population of about 105,000 and by the time the 19th century drew to a close, Karachi had 117,000 inhabitants as of 1901. Karachi had become one of the biggest and best outfitted ports of the world.

  • It seems that the air travel arrived in Karachi around 1927, and the location of the first airport was exactly where today’s Jinnah international Airport now stands. During the second world war, the airport served to house airforce planes as well.

In 1924, an aerodrome was built and Karachi became the main airport of entry to India. The British Government also developed an Imperial Airship Communications Scheme in the 1920′s, which was a plan to have a fleet of large dirigibles providing mail and passenger service to far-flung portions of the Empire. A site was located outside Karachi and construction of an airship mast, hangar and a hydrogen plant was begun in 1927. Although, this program was cancelled after the destruction of the Airship R 101 in 1930 with great loss of life, the shed and the mast remained as impressive relics of the plan till well after Pakistan’s independence. They were later dismantled and the steel was used for buildings and bridges along the Pakistan Railways. The site later became the international airport at Karachi.

  • Karachi became the capital of the province in 1936, and of course the capital of the newly created state of Pakistan in 1947. It remained in that position until 1958, when Islamabad was created.

In 1947, independence was finally granted to the subcontinent and Pakistan came into being as a new country made by the partition of British India. Karachi became the capital city and premier port of the newly formed state. It was the most built up city in Pakistan at the time and accommodated a huge influx of migrants to the newly formed state, which made it expand at a rapid rate. Pakistan’s first civil and military bureaucracy was housed in the city and Karachi served as the capital city of Pakistan until 1958 when a new capital was made at Islamabad.

What happened to Karachi after 1958 is a mixed bag of positives and negatives. Federal resourced shifted away from the city and the businesses could not keep up what the government neglected. I am too young to know what Karachi was like in the 60′s and 70′s but from what I hear, it was still an exciting place, at least until after Bhutto was hanged. The shutdown of the Hotel Taj and the ambitious Casino project in Clifton are reminders of what could have been. Ethnic strife took hold in the 80′s and only recently has the politics settled just enough to allow for some alternative voices to be heard.

Today Karachi is struggling to find its place as the liveliest city in Pakistan. It now has a population greater than 12 million (according to 2006 estimate) and the City District is now divided into eighteen towns governed by elected municipal administrations. Karachi is the financial capital of Pakistan, a hustling bustling metropolitan mega city with its rich mix of cultures, races, and religions.

It is estimated to generate approximately 65% percent of the national revenue but somehow the state of the city’s streets, markets, architecture and landscape does not indicate so. The streets are crowded, noisy and polluted, and we all know what happens when it rains in the city. The infrastructure of this cosmopolitan city is struggling to keep up with the demands of a growing population while the administration falters. It is unfortunate sight that the majestic buildings of the past are now coated with soot, hidden behind ads of aamil najoomis or stifled in the glare of neon lights. The few remaining reminders of Karachi’s diversity of the past include Christian missionary schools or educational institutions setup by the Parsi community.

The fortunate thing is that the city has withstood some very troubled times, and always seems to bounce back. The Niharis, Haleem, Behari Kebab, and the Biryanis seem to occupy people’s minds fast. When all else fails, Clifton beach is still there for some serenity. I know I can always count on it!

24 Comments on “The Story of Karachi”

  1. Eidee Man says:
    September 16th, 2006 12:31 am

    great article….have wondered about the origins of Karachi many times myself.

  2. Samdani says:
    September 16th, 2006 2:19 am

    Bilal, you have discovered a great resource. Thanks. In looking at the pictures I am amazed how different Karachi looked adn how much it has changed. We often talk about how things have not improved, but in looking at Karachi then and now, some things have improved greatly.

  3. September 16th, 2006 3:07 am

    Why no one is talking about recent flood in hyderabad???

  4. September 16th, 2006 8:04 am

    Samdani: you are right. A lot has changed for the good. But the photos also show how fast the city has grown and why its infrastructure would be under considerable pressure. Many parts of the city are not well planned and are just having difficulty keeping up with the population growth. There are shortages of water, electricity, sewage drains, even places to dispose your trash of.

  5. Owais Mughal says:
    September 16th, 2006 8:46 am

    A site for finding Karachi’s historical photos is:

  6. September 16th, 2006 8:56 am

    Hi Owais, Thanks for pointing out the website The Story of Karachi again. That website is exactly what motivated this post.

  7. rashed says:
    September 17th, 2006 11:08 am

    vow really ur site is so nice, keep it up
    best regards

  8. Adnan says:
    September 17th, 2006 2:03 pm

    Hope to see Karachi one day and the rural Pakistan also.

  9. Umera says:
    September 17th, 2006 7:45 pm

    This was an excellent post and thank you for referring the readers to an excellent site about Karachi. I have always wondered about the history of Karachi and this really does answer many questions. Thank you.

  10. iFaqeer says:
    October 8th, 2006 3:45 am

    Good work, Bilal! As my father always says (quoting which writer, I am not sure):

    Karachi ajnabiyon ka sheher hai
    Aur har ajnabi iss ka shehree hai

    And about the aerodrome and aviation history, Karachi’s location made it a very important stop on the international routes. For example, if I remember rightly, it was one of the three places in the world that had hangars for the Hindenberg:

    And Amelia Earhart stopped by and fixed her wings on her last trip:

  11. sultan says:
    October 29th, 2006 9:04 pm

    There is very disturbing news that some PIA aircrafts been banned from flying in European airspace. This has been shrugged off as usual by PIA saying that there is no problem with our aircrafts and the requirements of the European community are only ‘cosmetic”
    When will we learn to tell the truth?

  12. December 11th, 2006 12:02 pm

    Ofcourse, in this day and age, no post on Karachi would be complete without links to the virtual Karachi on the internet. There are many sites that portray Karachi’s architecture, history, culture, life, business, and ego (yes, Karachi has an ego that only Karachiites can understand and appreciate!). However, for an everyday conversation of Karachi-walas, join the metroblog at:

  13. saher says:
    December 27th, 2006 11:51 pm

    very informative work, very well indeed, this is a great effort to inform the world about the happenings in karachi, for entertainment please visit

  14. January 12th, 2007 2:24 pm

    [...] I have just missed it but I did finally make it ‘back home’ this winter after a much-delayed hiatus. I hadn’t been able to travel for almost six years now. So getting back to Karachi was particulalry pleasant and memorable. [...]

  15. January 29th, 2007 1:22 am

    There are some really wonderful pictures of historic Karachi posted on Metroblog karachi by Sufi. Worth seeing (here).

  16. February 25th, 2007 1:34 pm

    R U bilal Zuberi currently working for BaNK iSLAMI, IN ANY CASE GREAT JOB , LOV TO SEE MORE PICS tHANX.

  17. February 27th, 2007 2:36 pm

    [...] Since we are on a roll here in talking about Pakistani cities, I thought I would share with you this very interesting video on Karachi I saw posted on Karachi Metroblog. It is done by something called ‘Chai Panni Productions.’ Unfortunately I could not find much information about them (if anyone knows, lease share). I have titled the post as I have (instead of using the title ‘Dekh Magar Piyar Se’) because it struck me that his does capture the rhythms of Karachi so wonderfully and authentically. I like it for the same reason that I liked the video we had posted earlier on Nihari in Karachi. While I was not particularly impressed by the child reciting rote learned ashaar (because of the selection), but the pace and the sound, and the style made me think back fondly of the years I spent as a child in Karachi. [...]

  18. April 20th, 2007 4:03 pm

    U still havent replied if u r Bilal Zuberi of bank Islami, in anycase is it possible u can add our link to your page.
    Karachi will soon see a transformation from rickety old rick to pretty cute 3 wheeler.
    (Honestly I think they shud leave few rickys on the road, what will karachi b witout them, hehehe

  19. April 21st, 2007 1:02 am

    Haider, I am not the gentleman from Bank Islami. Thank you for the link to Ammar Cars though.

  20. Zaheer says:
    July 21st, 2007 4:25 am

    Can anyone tell me what has happened to the principal website whose link is provided in the article? I just get “page cannot be displayed”. I hope it has just shifted to an alternative site and not just disappeared altogether.


  21. moez says:
    September 2nd, 2007 4:16 pm

    your site is good, and make it colorful with the colored history of Karachi.

  22. November 7th, 2008 3:58 am

    dear bilal
    I found this site and the links so usefull that iam overjoyed I will try to submit what photos I got as our family baground and love to the city I haved moved to india goa left karachi 20 years ago.I will share and like to share your comments about our karachi.
    karachi and Goa are like same city,if u come to Goa you will feel your in karachi.lots of common things u will find like the baked bread of soldier bazar,the jams of garden east.
    looking forward to b in touch

  23. ali says:
    June 4th, 2009 4:35 am


  24. Fahad amjad says:
    November 27th, 2011 10:38 am

    The woman name you mentioned in this blog post is only kolachi and it was only known as kolachi jo goth. You can search more on various resources above internet. After that suspicious names, i dont feel like to learn this whole crap. Please dont give false information. If you cannot search before write, at leas dont write.

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