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.

1700s, Kolachi-jo-Goth

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.

1839, Karachi

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’ prominently.

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.





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