Wednesday, July 22, 2020

City Walk 8: The Mystery of Guru Mandir and Death of Haunted Houses

Guru Mandir is Karachi’s busiest and hence the most polluted traffic junction. This is where Karachi’s oldest road, Bandar Road, later renamed as M A Jinnah Road, starts. Loaded and dilapidated commuter buses bring shoppers, students, workers and whatnot from Karachi’s infinite localities to this station with bus conductors wildly waving and chanting at the top of their lungs: Guru Mandir, Guru Mandir, Guru Mandir!

If you are a Karachiite in your 30s, or above, you shall effortlessly relate to this mantra along with the other ear breaking shouts of Saddar, Sadddar, Sadde! But new generation Karachiites, younger Millennials and Generation Z, might need an educational Round-the-City trip on the legendary W-11 to make sense of it!

From the name Guru Mandir, it suggests that this junction is named after some Hindu Temple, which shall be located nearby. Presence of such a Mandir would have not been surprising because precincts around had mainly been inhabited by Hindus before the 1947 partition. One such neighborhood, Amil Colony, gently stretches from Mazar-e-Quaid to Islamia Science College and was the prime abode of Karachi’s Hindu merchants.

However, this is not the case; there is no Hindu Temple located in the vicinity with this name. Interestingly, there are at least a couple of Mandirs around, one in the next-door Soldier Bazar neighborhood called Shri Punch Mukhi Hanuman Mandir. The other one, Shiv Mandir is relatively obscure and located at the far-end of Amil Colony in front of Dawood Engineering College. None of them is a Guru Mandir!

So the question arises, where does Karachi’s Guru Mandir located, if it exists at all?

In search of the answer, I circumambulated around the chaotic traffic junction a few times in the past also, peeped into the alleys, and talked to busy shopkeepers, only to inhale more and more lead filled smoke coming out of bus exhausts while also threatening my hearing sense amid the pressure horns and unchecked rickshaw silencers.   

Then I tried Google, obviously!

On the web space, I found out there were other wanderers also in town bitten by the same curiosity bug who even documented their finding, or lack of it. Their expeditions suggest there is indeed a building, right at the intersection, affixed with a marble nameplate “Gur Mandar” written in English. Ironically, even this discovery only added to the mystery, rather than resolving it, because structure of this old building looks like anything but a Mandir.

Below are those ready readings on the topic:
Looking for the Mandir at Gurumandir published in the daily The News, 2012 
Temple run: Searching for the lost Guru Mandar by Akhtar Balouch in the daily Dawn, 2012
Ownership of Guru Mandir still contested by Saher Baloch in the daily Dawn 2016

This month, July 2020, Saher Baloch, one of the writers referred above also, wrote a piece on BBC Urdu website, finally settling the dust, with a new unexpected perspective, albeit well backed by official records, that this place was actually a Gurdwara – a place of worship in Sikh religion!

Here is the write-up link:

This unexpected conclusion confused me even more; if Guru Mandir is not a Mandir then what is the authenticity of the infamous and widely broadcasted attack on Karachi’s Guru Mandir in 1992 by a Muslim mob in revenge to the sad demolition of Babri Masjid in India? Why a Gurdwara is named Mandir? How and when "Gur" transformed into "Guru" in the urban jargon? And so on... 

Shiv Mandir - Reality vs Controversy
After reading the BBC article, the curious me woke up again forcing me to search more truth. I discussed the idea with my wanderer friends to explore around Amil Colony hoping we could find more links of the story.

So the last weekend, 18th and 19th July 2020, I arranged two back-to-back Photo Walks around Jigar Murad Abadi Road which sort of connects the site of Guru Mandir and Shiv Mandir. We started with the later – existence of which is no myth. 

Rather than resolving the case of Guru Mandir’s existence and denomination, I smelled interesting controversies around this place also!

At the top of Shiv Temple entrance, A.D. 1943 is clearly visible. However it is not evident if this is the date of temple’s first construction or later renovation. What I know for sure is this place was not in use for past many years, if not decades. Pondering and wondering why no-one visits this place, especially when other Mandirs in Karachi are active and frequented by Hindu Yatris, I imagined an answer perhaps based on my prejudices and street observations rather than any concrete knowledge. The theory is Shiv Mandir must have been restricted to higher caste Hindus residing in the affluent neighborhood before the partition and who migrated to India subsequently. They must not have allowed the lower caste Hindus who were left behind in Pakistan to visit this Mandir and rather opted to lock it down.

A couple of years back I noticed some activity in the Mandir – a group of Hindus from some other district in Karachi were celebrating Holi inside the previously inaccessible compound! It was a pleasant surprise to me, more so because it was the first time I saw the gate of Mandir wide open enabling me to have a glance inside. At the occasion, I met Saghar, who introduced himself as the caretaker of Shiv Mandir. I asked if I could visit the place some other calm day when I would not be a disturbance to the devotees. His response was positive – so I took his cell number.

Last week when I called him telling my intentions, he sounded skeptical. I still gave it a try, took my friends to the Mandir and called him again. He came to the gate but refused to open it for us telling he was not authorized. I was disappointed but could understand his position and reluctance since there is a recent controversy about building of new Mandir in Islamabad and that such things can easily escalate in the Sub-Continent for violent and chaotic episodes of any imaginable scale.

When I tried the very next day, again early morning, with next batch of photographer enthusiasts, two persons suddenly appeared on a motorbike. For once, we forgot the Mandir and started counting on the luck to protect our mobiles and cameras from potential muggers. Meanwhile, one of the persons politely asked about the reason of our assembly – hinting they were also on some sort of temple duty. We quickly controlled our safety instincts and requested him if he could help us sneak in. We were lucky again – Sajan was a Godsend! Sagar obliged him and let us in with clear warning that we shall not take photographs. It was still a big deal because in other accounts, which I referred above, even coercion was reported merely for observing the site from the outside.

As expected, a host of idols were present in the temple, Shiv and family being the chief one residing under the main tomb. What I noticed, maybe out of my prejudice, all the idols were new – confirming my presumption that the temple was earlier abandoned purposefully by higher caste Hindus and hinting that it has been now encroached by some other local Hindu sect only recently – most probably by a lesser caste! The tomb and the entrance also looked renovated – mainly a repaint. The previously authentic looking sandstone tomb is now painted white which the contemptuous me found a little less sacred. While trying to grab a prohibited photo from the inside, I was hoping that the new white color of the tomb is only an undercoat and will soon be layered with the original shade.

Globe Chowrangi where Jigar Murad Abadi Raod Starts from 
Entrance of Shiv Mandir which is Often Confused with Guru Mandir 
Plaque at Shiv Mandir is Dated 1943 - Before Partition 
Crown of Shiv Mandir is Deprived of Typical Hindu Figurines Except for a Snake and Oam Sign

We Felt Lucky to be Allowed Inside
This Obviously Cannot be Labelled as Religious Harmony
Haunted Houses and the Surviving Duo
When Hindu merchants who were living around this Shiv Mandir, in Amil Colony, moved out of the city after 1947 partition, their properties, mostly 1,000 yard bungalows, had been exchanged with Muslim merchants who moved in the opposite direction – from India to Pakistan – through official paperwork. Since then, the locality had been witnessing a gradual change in its outlooks and character. A series of urban developments occurred only leaving a few bungalows, or Khoti, in their original condition.

Until a couple of decades back, when the sprawling low-rise residential buildings had yet to be envisaged, quite few of such Kothis used to look like haunted houses mainly due to the lack of maintenance and inheritance disputes. Later on, ambitious local real estate builders grabbed the opportunity arose from the change in city by-laws and killed most of these ghost houses replacing them with double or triple storied apartment blocks.

Among the surviving Kothis, I spotted a duo not only well maintained but also possessing striking architectural similarity with Shiv Mandir!

Crowns at the facade of these two bungalows and Shiv Mandir are almost identical as if designed and curated by the same mason. The overall architecture and structure of these houses indicate that the original inhabitants must have been affluent enough to construct and maintain such properties. The other interesting, but not surprising, aspect was the absence of idols and figurines on the facade, which is otherwise typical to Hindu culture. While having lusty looks on these heritage treasures, I imagined ganesh sitting in the small empty frames on outer walls!

Probably the Only Surviving Single Story Bungalow in Amil Colony 
Front Look: The Original Low Height Boundary Wall is Augmented with a Couple of Brick Layers
A Peek Back Into the History 
Closer Look of the Signature Crown
There is Another Authentic One with Double Story Structure and Some Modifications
Facade of the Double Story Survivor
Intricate Design with Crown Resembling the that of Shiv Mandir
Karachi's Vanishing Heritage
Frame on the Outside Wall of Another Nearby Old Bungalow
"ilaqa-e-ghair" Right in the Middle of Karachi
Colorful Mini Patel Para!
On the way to Gur Mandar, on Jigar Murad Abadi Road, streets are named as Cosmopolitan Society. We also photographed a few heritage houses there, however, most of them looked to be built post partition, or fundamentally renovated, in different decades.

Main target of our photo walk was to locate the marble slab inscribed with “Gur Mandar” which was supposed to be located at the other end of Jigar Murad Abadi Road, across M A Jinnah Road, besides Sabeel Wali Masjid. Before continuing with the morning walk, we fulfilled the most sacred Karachi ritual of filling ourselves with Chaye Paratha at the roadside Quetta hotel, or Dhaba. After getting recharged with the tea, we continued the walk towards our destination complaining about the weather which already turned hot and humid at 8 am! On the way, the photogenic flower nurseries along with multicolor clay pots, a vintage bus and Victorian horse carts were hard to ignore and made the walk longer.

The Yummy Layered Paratha
Paratha is Incomplete with a Chainak of Tea
Cosmopolitan Society was said to have Haunted Houses which are no more with us: RIP!   
An Old Tree in the Cosmopolitan Society
Can You Spot the Jinn Camouflaged in this Colorful Tree?  
Another Relic of the Past
A House in Cosmopolitan Society is Dated 1932
Protege of Hassan Ali Effendi - an Influential Educationist of 19th Century 
Gur Mandar Discovered
Finally, we reached Sabeel Wali Masjid and asked the passersby about the exact location of our destination. One person, who was sipping tea at the Dhaba outside the mosque, directed us to the totally opposite direction. We circled around the mosque only to find ourselves at the same place with no success. On the same path, I revealed our intentions to a rickshaw wala who was resting beneath an old tree. He listened to us and pointed out at some government building right next to the mosque. I asked him again reiterating my question more clearly – he also repeated the same gesture, then only I realize that he was actually pointing out at the exact same plaque we wanted to witness.

Finally, the pilgrimage was successful and we felt like finding our destiny! Interestingly, at the top of the building, board of some government department was affixed, successfully camouflaging the target.

It was definitely an old structure with low height boundaries and a lot of open space between the boundary wall and the building inside. The iron gate outside was totally locked but we could see the whole structure easily through walls. While we were planning to jump across the walls, a labor sitting outside the wall under another old tree showed us the other door, which was open. There was no-one inside the gate, but a teenage boy, of Pathan looks, voluntarily appeared and accompanied us inside the walls.

The wooden gate of the inside building was locked more firmly with no chance of further trespassing. We tried to peek into the inner hall but all the windows around were also foolproof. Inside the outer boundary, and in front of the main inner wooden gate, there was a recently constructed structure, which was half-razed interestingly. The boy told us that it was being constructed illegally some years back and was then destroyed by the municipal authorities probably during the recent anti encroachment drives in the city. From the background, it felt like someone was yelling at us as if hushing away from the antique place.

Ignoring the untimely divine intervention, we found an interesting seating arrangement – like a baithak – probably setup by the missing caretaker of the property. Importantly, it was shaded and enough space for five of us to sit and relax while grabbing a group photo. It was time to finish with today’s urban exploration – which was made sure by another teenager of the similar looks who showed up as if in some emergency. The young angry man was almost yelling at us while telling fragmented tale of his last fight with the trespassers like us. He was the one we were hearing from the background while entering into the building. He was actually shouting from the top of the next-door residential building as part of his additional sentry duties assigned by some “judge” residing in the neighborhood!

We had already achieved our goal and finished with the photoshoot, so there was no point in staying there anymore. While we were getting out of Gur Mandar premises, I asked the youthful protocol whether they had been inside of the building and what did they see? The question toned down the hyper one – the main benefit of my curiosity. They both hurriedly reported a big empty hall with no indication if it was a place of worship.

While we achieved the target for the day, but questions remained unanswered. It was getting unbearably hot, cooling down our curiosity and rather forcing us to jump into the rickshaw right from the point we located the sought after plaque: “Gur Mandar”!

Finding this Board was Today's Achievement!
We Tried to Peek In But Windows Were Shut Tight from the Inside
Effects of Thunderstorm and Rain a Day Earlier

The Only Sign of Life in Guru Mandar Compound 
A Cozy Place in a Hot and Humid Day
Wish I Could Talk to this Tree Outside the Guru Mandar Compound to Solve the Mystery! 
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