Marred by years of political and sectarian violence, Karachi does not have the best of reputations – judging by news headlines over the past few years, many would think of it as being a highly intolerant urban centre. However, having gone to school and college with almost every religious community represented here, I find it hard to digest that the population of Karachi is hateful or prejudiced.

And so, I set out on foot to explore the downtown area of Karachi.

I started walking from the historic Zaibunissa Street all the way towards St Patrick's Cathedral. Every subsequent block I walked by was inhabited by a different religious community. These communities have lived here harmoniously with one another for many years.

The Memons

The first religious site that comes up along the way is the hauntingly beautiful, yet highly neglected, Kutchi Memon Mosque. This particular street is inhabited by people from the Memon ethnic community.

Built by the Memon community in 1893, this mosque is one of the oldest in Karachi.

I particularly loved the interior of the mosque which was a unique Pistachio green.

The Parsis

After a short walk down the street, I came onto another block that was represented by another community, the Parsis. The word Parsi is a Persian word that literally means from Persia – present day Iran – where the Parsi community traces back its origins to. If you closely observe this street, the words Iran or Irani are stamped across almost every storefront next to the produce they are selling – Irani Bakery, Irani Tea and more.

During the early years of independence, the Parsis were one of Karachi’s most influential and economically sound communities. They contributed heavily towards the establishment of a vast number of institutions, social and health setups around town. The most prominent of which are the NED University and Lady Dufferin hospital. Their community’s numbers have dwindled over the years due to migration and a low birth rate hence there aren’t many functioning Fire Temples left.

One of the largest of them is the HJ Behrana Dar-e-Meher (Fire Temple). Non-Parsis are strictly not allowed into the temple precincts, but after a lot of persuasion, the guard and head priest were kind enough to let me into the verandah area. There was a lot of colorful chalk-art on the verandah floor similar to the rangoli one sees at Hindu temples and houses during festivals.

Looking at the outer façade, I spotted a few symbols and structures that I had seen represented atop Persian historical sites. The most prominent of them being the Faravahar that was located at the top of the building.

From the outside, I could spot a portrait of Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, the founder of the Zoroastrian faith, adorning one of the walls.

Religious chalk art near the staircase leading up to the entrance area of the temple.

The Dawoodi Bohras

After a short walk down the block, I came face-to-face with the mighty and chaotic Empress Market.

I noticed I was standing behind what seemed to be a very large mosque. Being the curious soul that I am, I walked towards the main entrance of the mosque that was located just another block down the street. As I was approaching the entrance I realised the building was a Jamaat Khana belonging to the Dawoodi Bohra community. The Bohra community is known citywide for their peaceful nature and overwhelming hospitality.

I made my way up to the entrance and asked if I could get a quick look around the place. I was prepared to be shooed away, but to my surprise, I was allowed inside without hesitation and was also assigned a guide to show me around. He told me this particular Jamaat Khana was called the Tahiri Masjid and was one of the largest Jamaat Khanas in the city.

The entrance leading up towards the mosque area is pure grandiose. The interior of the mosque bears architectural influences from across the Islamic world. The most awe inspiring part of the mosque is the main prayer area. I was literally left speechless when all of its chandeliers were lit up. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

The main staircase leading up to the interior of the mosque.

The main prayer area as seen with all its chandeliers lit up.

My guide apologetically told me it was almost prayer time and that the tour would end here. I thanked him for his hospitality and for the brief but efficient tour of the mosque.

The Catholics

I was now heading towards St Patrick's Cathedral, which is located straight down the road from the mosque. Located around the church area are some of the most prestigious convent schools in the city, St Patrick's and St Joseph's.

Since it was a Sunday afternoon, the schools were closed and the area was pretty quiet. I could spot a bunch of people heading back home from mass in their Sunday best.

Once I got to the gate I asked the guard if I could go in, he replied “It’s God’s house, who am I to stop you?”

The first thing that you see before the Cathedral itself is the magnificent white marble Monument to Christ the King. The interior of the monument houses a small crypt, and a replica of St Francis Xavier the patron saint of Goa.

Since most of the Catholic community in Karachi has roots in Goa, St Francis is highly revered amongst the Catholic community of Karachi also.

The Cathedral in its current state was built in 1881, albeit a church has been on this very site since 1845. It was the largest Catholic Cathedral in Karachi with a capacity of 1500 people, until the St Peter's Cathedral was built in Mehmoodabad in 2001 – that has a capacity of around 5000 people.

The church was empty since mass had just ended, so I had the place to myself. The interior is massive and has spacious high ceilings like most Churches abroad. Beautiful large colorful stained glass windows were located all along the interior of the Church.

One of the beautiful hand stained glass windows of the Church.

The interior of the St. Patricks Cathedral.

The Hindus and Sikhs

Once I was done exploring the Church, I made my way to the gate and asked the guard where I could get a rickshaw from; he pointed me in the direction of the main road. I quickly got on to one and headed out towards my last stop: The Swaminarayan Temple.

Located just a short ride away – barely 10 minutes without traffic – on main MA Jinnah road, an area that’s more commonly known as Lighthouse, the temple is located right behind an unassuming archway leading into an enclave dead opposite the massive red sandstone KMC building.

The Swaminarayan Temple is part of a complex of the same name, which houses people belonging to the Hindu and Sikh communities. Most of the houses here are at least a century old. In 1947, right after independence, quite a few people of the Hindu and Sikh communities were given refuge here.

The bloody days of 1947 are now far behind the people of this thriving community. As I made my way to the temple, I was surprised to learn that right next to the temple is a Sikh Gurudwara. I wasn’t allowed inside as they were conducting prayers there at the moment.

I then moved on towards the temple area. The temple itself is stunning, to say the least, but the stand-out feature is the hand-painted mural on the roof of the temple that depicts the story of Lord Krishna.

Adjacent to the temple area is a massive parade ground that is used for functions and festivals. I was surprised to learn that the Swaminaryan complex also housed its very own Gaoshala, an area where cows were kept, worshipped and taken care of.

The Swaminarayan Hindu Temple, also known as the Lighthouse Mandir.

Citizens of the state

After my journey through Karachi’s diverse yet peaceful centre, I couldn’t help but go back to Jinnah’s August 11, 1947 address. He spoke of a lot of things during that address from equality to rule of law to religious freedom, but what struck me the most about his speech today were the following lines:
You will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.

At the end of my journey, what hit me the most was that every religious group in this vicinity went on with their daily lives and religious practices peacefully without any hindrance, side by side.

At the end of the day, it didn’t matter if they were Parsi, Hindu, Sikh, Christian or Muslim. Faith wasn’t political – it was simply a personal choice, which they all understood and respected. In the end, they are all citizens of the state – unique and beautifully Pakistani.

This article was first published on Dawn.