It was July 2016 and I was standing in front of an old house in Hirabad, one of the pre-Partition neighbourhoods of Hyderabad in Pakistan’s Sindh. The house had a nameplate bearing the name of its owner, Topandas Jaisingh Shahani.

I was accompanied by Uttara, Shahani’s granddaughter and Syed Muhammad Shah, who was our guide and lives in Hirabad. Uttara came all the way from Cambridge to see her ancestral home. We went inside and saw the house as it stood there, more than 80 years old. It was relatively better preserved and still exuded a strange charm that is typical of pre-Partition homes.

Topandas Jaisingh Sahani's house before it was demolished. Photo credit: Zahida Rehman Jatt
Topandas Jaisingh Sahani's house before it was demolished. Photo credit: Zahida Rehman Jatt

But when I went to see the same house in 2018, more than half of it was completely demolished. Nothing was left of the old structure except a large empty plot littered with bricks and debris, empty racks that once belonged to wooden almirahs and some alcoves that used to keep earthen lamps.

Shah said some builders bought this property, demolished everything, including the nameplate on the façade bearing the name of its owner. Now, this place is chalked to become a multistory plaza. While I felt sad at the fate of Shahani house, this was by no means an isolated incident. In fact, this was one of the many stories of demolition of beautiful historic buildings in once-magnificent Hyderabad.

An old building in Hyderabad. Photo credit: Zahida Rehman Jatt
An old building in Hyderabad. Photo credit: Zahida Rehman Jatt

Hyderabad is not that old compared to the other grand cities of the subcontinent such as Lahore and Delhi, but it nonetheless boasts some very beautiful pre-Partition buildings. The city was founded during the reign of Ghulam Shah Kalhoro in 1768. The centre of power was the fort located on a small hillock while the rest of the city expanded around it.

Hyderabad grew rapidly during colonial times and this is when most of its lavish public and privately-owned buildings were constructed. Most of these buildings were built by wealthy Hindus who were engaged in transoceanic trade and served the British civil service.

My association with the city is more than 10 years old, when I started studying at the University of Sindh. On most evenings we would take a university bus which would drop us off near Haider Chowk.

A house in Hyderabad's Advani Lane. Photo credit: Zahida Rehman Jatt
A house in Hyderabad's Advani Lane. Photo credit: Zahida Rehman Jatt

From there, we would walk to Gaari Khata, and towards Kohinoor, adjacent to Resham Gali, the Champs Élysées of Hyderabad.

On our short stroll we would see immensely beautiful and elegant buildings on both sides.

Nowadays, several old buildings have vanished in the thick mist of time. When I recently went back to the same area, I was disappointed to see many of them demolished.

The city's pre-Partition neighborhood. Photo credit: Zahida Rehman Jatt
The city's pre-Partition neighborhood. Photo credit: Zahida Rehman Jatt

There were gaping holes in their places, as if the soul of a building was staring at us with its sightless, dispassionate eyes.

I felt a sadness sweeping over me because of the destruction of so many buildings, as these structures defined the city of Hyderabad for me and for many others.

In fact, Hyderabad, which once was known for its gardens, parks and Gothic buildings, is now a congested and overcrowded urban centre.

The slow process of degradation started from Partition and has reached a dangerous level today. With a large number of Muslim refugees pouring in from India in 1947, the need to house people grew immensely.

A heritage building that was recently demolished. Photo credit: Zahida Rehman Jatt
A heritage building that was recently demolished. Photo credit: Zahida Rehman Jatt

In the absence of proper planning, the city expanded rapidly, both horizontally and vertically.

Conversely, when Hindu owners left their palatial mansions, they were given to the incoming refugees who were not affluent enough to take proper care of them.

In many instances, single buildings were allotted to several families, each creating cubby-holes for their own use, thus disfiguring and weakening the structure.

Over time, some of the buildings that were still strong were bought by various construction companies, torn down and converted into concrete plazas.

The entrance to the Khiani Mansion. Photo credit: Zahida Rehman Jatt
The entrance to the Khiani Mansion. Photo credit: Zahida Rehman Jatt

Even some of the buildings that were declared “protected” were demolished during this spree.

For example, Khiani Mansion, an imposing building situated on Tilak Incline, was half-demolished before some people notified the authorities.

Now, it stands helplessly with most of its beautiful superstructure gone.

Moti Mahal, a most elegant edifice, was demolished years ago and a commercial plaza stands in its place. Many other such buildings are threatened.

Khiani Mansion was half-demolished before some people notified the authorities. Photo credit: Zahida Rehman Jatt
Khiani Mansion was half-demolished before some people notified the authorities. Photo credit: Zahida Rehman Jatt

Currently, dismantling old buildings and constructing plazas is perhaps one of the most lucrative businesses in the city.

It seems that only those buildings survive which have a disputed ownership and therefore cannot be sold. But, their physical condition is also very pathetic.

The buildings of Hyderabad are not only concrete structures; rather, they embody the spirit of the city, its past magnificence and grandeur.

However, because of growing urbanism and ill-planned development, we are losing a rare treasure.

As mere words cannot save these buildings, there is an urgent need to implement a strategy to save what is left of the pre-Partition heritage of Hyderabad.

This article first appeared in Dawn.