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Karachi’s Empress Market – a dream world

M Sarwar Siddiqui


The writer is an editor and senior journalist.

The old memories warm you up from inside. Karachi’s Empress Market is also a wonder. The ancient Victorian-style building was mapped in the style of a large market. Built to commemorate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887, the site is said to have had historical significance in the 1857 mutiny as well.

Empress Market served as a meeting point, a transit hub, and a source of employment for tens of thousands of people. Hundreds of vendors worked in thousands of shops and stalls and pushcarts. This spacious building in Karachi had several entrances, but the main entrance was at Frere Road. There was a time when there were open fields all around it which made the scene very spectacular.

There were dozens of markets clustered by type: meat, dry fruit, spices, betel nut, and domestic animals. The market is based on the colonial-era building, but what made it a market were the adjoining lanes and stalls. The corridors were easily accessible to pass through one part to another.

In the past, people used to take home-made items from Empress Market in addition to their monthly rations. An entire market hall was reserved for the meat business, where all kinds of fresh meat could be found.

Meat used to be very cheap at that time and accessible to everyone. Refrigerators and freezers weren’t present in everyone’s house, so people only took as much meat as they needed that day. After the independence of Pakistan, chickens were also found in the adjoining section. Good quality local chicken was easily available for only eight to ten rupees.

The retail and grocery section was the largest, with flour, rice, pulses, etc. were available in huge quantities, and you would be surprised by the prices. Flour was easily available at Rs. 8-10 per mun and high-quality rice at Rs. 20 per mun. There was a shortage of sugar, which was rarely found in the market.

In another corner of Empress Market, there were eight or ten textbooks shops, where new and old books were sold at half price. It was also a great way to get money in an emergency because shopkeepers were always ready to buy old books at bargain prices.

In addition to books, various stationery items for students and government school uniforms and boots were also available here. There were also a couple of flower shops in Empress Market. The bottom line is everything was under one roof.

Elderly people used to visit vegetable, meat, etc. shops, whose daughters-in-law or daughters would send them to the market early in the morning with a bag made of thick cloth and a list of required items. Today, the plastic bag has revealed all the secrets, now the whole neighborhood knows who has done what shopping.

Another interesting thing is that most of the people came there on bicycles, there was no suitable stand for them, so people used to park their bicycles with great ease and confidence at the exact place where they had to shop.

As people leave the market after shopping dozens of buses were lined up in front of the market. Each of their conductors loudly signaled their destination and route and called the passengers to them. Those who could not find a place inside and had to go, they used to hang on the doorposts holding iron bars.

In this golden age of Karachi, silver double-decker buses were often seen on the roads. The travelers wanted to find a place on the upper floor so that he could see the beautiful scenery of Karachi from a little height.

This was probably the most prosperous area of Karachi at that time. The shoppers here were counted among the rich. What a wonderful time it was. There was shame in the eyes and the feeling for others in the heart. Many people become happy after remembering their childhood and many become depressed.

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