Karachi is a
subcontinent within a city, as described by Rumana Husain. Everyone claims
their innate right over the city but the communities that played a part in
giving the city its name are long gone or living in oblivion. With history,
the city’s character, as well as name, has gone through numerous changes.
From Alexander’s army, Sindhi and Baloch fishermen to the British, the
city’s name evolved through a process of trial and error. Noted architect
and town-planner Arif Hasan claims that while the city may not have
necessarily been historically active, the port has always been a part of many
legends and stories.
356-323 BC, Krokala
The first claim to a name
comes from the Ancient Greek Empire. Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) is said
to have left behind seven Alexandrias, from Egypt to Afghanistan, during his
conquests. It is possible that Karachi could be one of his Alexandrias, if
not that then at least his Krokala. Alexander made the mouth of the Indus the
eastern frontier of his empire. To protect it from invasion, the son of
Macedon ordered strengthening defences at Pattala (the present day Thatta)
and built two forts with naval yards, one of which was close to Karachi.
Because of the convenience of the site, Alexander used it as a camping site
for his fleet and army to march on to the Persian Gulf and the Babylonian
Empire. The exact site of Krokala can’t be established because of the
constantly changing course of the Indus but the scholar Dr Hamida Khuhro
claims that there is a possibility that Alexander sojourned in Karachi before
crossing over to Balochistan via the coast. The well-known architect, Yasmeen
Lari, states that as Admiral Nearchus set sail from our coast, he did it on
orders from Alexander. “It is fair to think that Alexander was here”, the
architect told Kolachi.
However Alexander F.
Baillie in his book ‘Kurrachee, Past, Present and Future’, holds that
Karachi was never situated on the route of the Indus hence it cannot be
Krokala. What remains undisputed is the fact that Admiral Nearchus of
Alexander’s fleet tread on our soil. Alexander Burnes (AD 1805-1841) in
‘Travels into Bokhara’ stated that there is a similarity between the Bay
of ‘Currachee’ in the mouth of the Indus, and the point from which
Nearchus took his departure from Sindh.
More specifically, it is Morontobara, the present day Manora Island.
Arrian, a noted historian from the second century, recorded that Nearchus
reached Krokala on October 8, 326 BC and left after 24 hours. Meanwhile, the
mystery of Krokala continues.
Karachi could also have
been the ancient city of Debal. Debal was the port of the empire of King Rai
Chach. It was Debal where we are told that Muhammad bin Qasim defeated Raja
Dahir in AD 711. Historian Henry Elliot believes that Debal is present-day
Karachi. He quotes Ibn Haukal, a 10th century Muslim geographer, who
described Debal as a large port, located west of Mehran, with no large trees
or date-palms. This description points towards Karachi. The name Debal is
derived from ‘dewal’ meaning ‘temple’. It corresponds to the temple
at the Manora Island.
Debal was invaded by Sultan
Jalaluddin of Khiva in 1221. He is famous for plundering the city by the sea
but played no role in shaping its name.
Turkish Captain, Sidi Ali
who started his journey in 1557 mentioned what is now the city of Karachi in
his book ‘Mohit’ written in 1558. He warned that the whirlpool nearby was
destructive. “If you guess you must be drifting to the Jaked, you must take
precaution and endeavour to reach the coast of Makran, either port of Kalmata
or Kawader or Kapchi Makran. Bunder Kawader is the place where coconuts grow,
or you must try to get to Kaurashi or to enter Khurdi-ul-Sind...”
Kaurashi’s sound resembles that of Karachi.
In the 1700s, fishing
communities of the Sindhi tribes and from the Makran Coast settled along its
coast. Some claim they settled on the islands of Manora, Bhit and Baba.
Folklore tells of a fisherwoman by the name of Mai Kolachi making the city
her abode and starting her family in it. Mai Kolachi had seven sons, six of
whom were hardworking fishermen while the seventh one was handicapped. Once
the six brothers set sail on the sea but never returned. It was thought that
an evil crocodile in the sea had eaten them. The seventh brother, Mororo,
went to the sea to take revenge. He succeeded in killing the crocodile. Mai
Kolachi became the head of the village and as a mark of respect to her the
village was named Kolachi. The settlement that grew out of her family was
eventually called Kolachi-jo-Goth. Mai Kolachi is buried in a small graveyard
in the Boulton Market area according to legend. Sindhi and Balochi lore sing
of Mai Kolachi and her sons.
Kolachi-jo-Goth is also
thought to have evolved from the Kulanchi or Kulachi tribe, tracing its root
to the tribes settled in D.I Khan. The members of the tribe came and settled
in parts of Karachi and the city took its name from them. Yasmeen Lari states
that despite their popularity, these tales don’t have much credibility but
since it is history, there will be various accounts of the same story.
She gives more weight to
another story referring to the same time period. A famous Sindhi merchant
Naomal Hotchand wrote in his memoir that originally some 20-25 huts of
fishermen occupied the harbour of Karachi named Dirbo. There was a pond
nearby called Kalachi-Jo-Kun. Kalachi was a fisherman’s name and Kun meant
‘deep ditch’. Naomal’s great grandfather Bhojomal was a merchant
settled at the Karak Bunder port on the Hub River. That port became
sand-barred and was declared unfit for usage, thus the posse of merchants and
traders settled there looked towards the east. Their search ended when they
spotted the head of the harbour at Dirbo.
1729, Kalachi or Kolachi
Naomal claimed that in
1729, Bhojomal laid the foundation of Karachi with the help of his fellow
merchants. Soon the port became famous for trading with Muscat and Persia,
making it susceptible to invasions. It was then fortified with two gateways,
one facing the sea, Khara Darwaza- and other facing the Lyari river, Meetha
Darwaza. The name of the city was spoken of as Kalachi or Kolachi.
1783, Kolachi and Kurrachee
Subsequently, the Talpurs
took over Sindh and raided the city of Karachi many times. In 1783, they were
successful in gaining control over the city. Dr Khuhro maintains the Talpurs
needed a harbour that wouldn’t change its course with the river thus
Karachi was the ideal location. However, Dr Khuhro also claims that the
Manora fort with the two gateways was built by the Talpurs. The name of the
city was stated as both Kolachi and Kurrachee by then.
With the British East India
Company spreading its wings all over the subcontinent, Karachi’s potential
didn’t escape their eyes. The port seemed the nearest to Europe in the
entire subcontinent. The Talpurs had a hard time defending it. On February 7,
1839, an agreement for the surrender of the town was signed, which gave full
possession of the town and the fort to British forces. After Queen Victoria
succeeded the throne, Karachi was the first addition to the British Empire.
By that time the pronunciation of the city included the letter ‘r’
According to the Imperial
Gazetteer of India, Crochey, Krotchey Bay, Caranjee, Korachey, Currachee,
Kurrachee and Karachi were all different spellings of the city. The spellings
differed because there was no official documentation or record stating the
name of the city, and the pronunciations differed because the accents of
those associated with it differed. Lieutenant John Porter, Captain of the
ship Dolphin in 1774 went to the ‘Crotchey’ Town, a fortified city by the
sea. Nathan Crow, of the Bombay Civil service, visited Karachi in 1799 and
described Munga Pir (Manghopir) in the town of ‘Currachee’. He received
permission to set up a factory in ‘Curachee’, a town of 10,000, in the
same year. Charles Mason, credited with discovering Harappa, in 1830
described the city as “The bazaars of Karychee are narrow and in places
covered to exclude heat. It is fairly supplied with shops and in it are
several respectable merchants and bankers”.
A letter posted in 1874,
from Karachi to Bombay, interestingly carries the postmark on the front with
`KURRACHEE’ written on it and the delivery postmark on the back read
Karachi! The 138-year-old envelope was from the collection of Mohammed
Siddick Faruk, a collector who has exhibited historical artefacts and
archives on a few occasions. It is also possible that when Scinde Dawk -
Sindh’s postal system- came to Karachi, the city settled on its final
spelling. The British settled on the spelling of Karachi as the official name
of the city. Arif Hasan claims that it must have been in the 1880s. Yasmeen
Lari also seconds this. The maps she came across from the Karachi Municipal
Corporation (KMC) dating to early 20th century spelled Karachi in its present
way. This means that by the late 19th century, Kurrachee had been replaced
with Karachi, at least officially.
Like its name, the city
went through constant evolution. Alexander Baillie argued forcefully for the
adoption of ‘Kurrachee’ as the correct spelling, going by local
pronunciations. However, it is now much too late for Baillie’s desire to be
fulfilled. While the city continues to change and grow, Karachi, to those who
love it, will always be Karachi.