KARACHI: Empress Market was and in many ways still is a transport hub in the metropolis. The landmark is where students boarded buses for their colleges and the city’s largest educational institution, Karachi University (KU).
The KU point buses started and ended their route at this market. Although it had lost the usual hustle and bustle after as many as 3,000 shops around the market were bulldozed during a recent anti-encroachment drive by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC), it is still seen by the locals as a landmark of the metropolis. And above all, the place is where the most shocking events in Karachi’s history took place.
While many people consider revisiting the past as too nostalgic, the narrative is indeed worth recalling keeping in view the metropolis’ somewhat infamous colonial and post-partition past. It is believed the colonial British government used this place to execute freedom fighters of the 1857 War of Independence. Moreover, the ground where the market building stands now was a pool filled with the blood of martyrs.
Those who were not hanged or sent via Karachi Port to Kala Pani — the prison in the Andaman Islands — were tied to the mouths of cannons and blown to pieces as a message to anybody who dared risk mutiny.
There’s an old saying, ‘The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.’ As such every next morning the British used to find the massacre ground strewn with rose petals — the red of the petals signifying the blood of the freedom fighters. Fearing the space would become a permanent memorial to the martyrs, they decided to build a monument on the site dedicated to Queen Victoria, Empress of India.
And to further dilute the importance of the place, a bazaar was developed in which items of daily use, including some exotic ones, were available under one roof.
Following a Supreme Court order, a major operation was launched in November 2018 to remove shops constructed illegally on land encroached around the market. Some stakeholders believe the clean-up had restored the visual grandeur of the market although social commentators objected to the destruction of a large number of small businesses, some of which had been in existence for more than 50 years.
Supporters of the demolition believe KMC had done a good job by clearing the severe congestions around the historic market, turning the area into a recreation spot with green spaces.
The tower and the clock, however, need some final touches. The park had been covered with safety grills on four walls. Proponents say it’s also time that the landmark of this city be renamed as a fitting tribute to patriots, martyrs and freedom fighters.
Customers who frequented the area remember their days zigzagging the fruit vendors outside Empress Market. There were no proper shops but wooden pushcarts piled with guavas, pomegranates, apples, bananas and grapes.
Almost every evening after a walk with their families in Jahangir Park, some visitors used to stop to make purchases.
The task was a little arduous, especially in the evenings when the bazaar was most crowded. One had to make one’s way rubbing shoulders with fellow shoppers, bicycles, and scooters parked close together, and stray cows in search of leafy throwaways.
In the evening visit to the market visitors often took the opportunity to meet their relatives and friends with whom they otherwise did not get a chance to spend time. One of the many reasons for this was that many visitors lacked their own transport.
Before the digital era, when most people did not have mobile phones, the internet or even televisions of their own, such meetings were essential for people’s recreation.
In recent weeks, the condition of the meat section of the Empress Market was reportedly in a shambles. The place once filled with buyers was almost deserted.
There were very few shops with hardly any buyers. It was in a hopeless state. Stray dogs and cats were occupying the place and the overall situation of the floor was, simply put, miserable.
There was nobody to take care of the historic market which once had dedicated sweepers. The area reserved for selling fish had been shifted outside the main market near the parking area.
The central area inside the market had become a bit too congested as the vendors were now occupying the area. Although the area outside the main market had been renovated, any work to improve the existing condition inside the market had so far not been initiated.
There’s a dire need to renovate the market from the inside. This can be done jointly by the KMC and the shop owners to overcome difficulties and start a renovation or refurbishment process in phases.
There should not be any problem in preparing a refurbishment plan as the Empress Market restoration committee includes experts and researchers who were competent and able to give their input. Experts such as Shahid Abdullah, Tariq Huda, Marvi Mazhar, Komal Pervez and Durriya Kazi could use their influence for positive urban change.
Former Karachi commissioner Iftikhar Shalwani said that Empress Market was the city’s historical heritage and the reason behind restoring the building to its original shape was to reclaim the past glory of one of the finest cities of the world.
Former mayor Wasim Akhtar remarked that he would try to make sure that the new look of the Empress Market would be graceful as it deserved to be.