Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Going Gothic, Empress Market, Karachi

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The subcontinent was unfamiliar with the concept of a designated building housing a number of shops and businesses under one roof. Far from it, the local idea of a market was either the periodic bazaar in an open square outside town or the narrow, stuffy alley lined with shop fronts topped by residences. Indeed, British merchants who arrived in India during the 17th century comment on the bazaars with a touch of romance.

But when the engineers of the East India Company began to develop marketplaces in Bombay and Calcutta, as they were then called, they recalled the layout of markets as they were in their native land. This was a new movement and the pace was set by covered bazaars like Crawford Market in Bombay, now Mumbai, India.

Karachi was gifted with the very talented builder James Strachan who was a firm believer in hybridisation despite his commitment to the Gothic style. The Empress Market, built to celebrate the 1887 Golden Jubilee of Victoria, Empress of India, was therefore in the ‘domestic Gothic style’. The foundation stone was laid in 1884 with plans to open the building in the jubilee year. But paucity of funds made for slow progress and the building could only be completed in 1889.

Empress Market consists of four galleries or wings arranged around a central open quadrangle with doorways affording entrance from all directions. The south side, being the main entryway, is commanded by a towering Gothic spire with clock faces on all four sides. The chiming clock that once kept time for this part of the city no longer works. But the exquisite wrought iron railing of the balconies below the clock faces still catch the eye.

Strachan was clearly a believer in matching beauty with function and used very finely carved stone to create his ornamentation. Here we find, just below the clock faces, a superb shield and divider motif running all around the tower. Below this, recessed merlons produce the effect of denticulation. This same effect is repeated above the clock below the metal roofing.

The façade of the south wing is decorated with ornamental columns topped with acanthus leaf capitals. Above them sits a row of chunky brackets as if to support the parapet. But like the columns below, these are mock brackets, their only purpose being embellishment of an otherwise simple façade.

For Karachites, the opening of the Empress Market in 1889 was not their first taste of covered shopping. The old Cunnynghame Market, there for many years, had given them the experience and was at that time falling apart. As well as that, there were the Boulton and Soldiers’ markets.

Empress Market not only provided a novel shopping experience but also a lasting landmark of the Karachi skyline. More importantly, it was a statement of Strachan’s skill in blending the Gothic with the vernacular. And so it remains: a valuable and familiar sight in the city of Karachi.

Note: This story first appeared in Stones of Empire - Pakistan Petroleum Limited (PPL) book of days 2013.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:58,


At 24 February 2013 at 22:08, Blogger Jalal HB said...

Empress Market is an important landmark of Karachi - but now it is lost in the crowd of people, consumers, vendors, birds, animal meat and congestion both within and without. Those who have seen the place, would enjoy this post - and i did.


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days