A Pedacito of Karachi’s Empress Market
Updated: Jun 19, 2022
Having lived in Karachi most of my life, I know every nook and cranny of the city like the back of my hand. I could tell you the best places to eat, the best places to shop, the most fun things to do in the city.
I could rattle off a list of places to go if you’re on a budget and a list of places if you’ve got money to burn! Karachi is a weird mix of posh and working class. A melting pot of ethnicities, roadside food stalls, roadside vendors and truck hotels, high-rise skyscrapers, and Michelin star restaurants, Karachi has it all. Where modern buildings meet colonial architecture.
Empress Market is one of those colonial buildings. Located in Saddar Town in Karachi, it was built during the British Raj, when the subcontinent was a colony of Queen Victoria. Empress Market was built as a tribute to her between 1844 and 1889, and what a gorgeous tribute it is!
Saddar is the old part of Karachi, in recent years the city has expanded so much, with a lot of land reclaimed from the sea. The old part of the city has many such architectural buildings that have been preserved as a part of Karachi’s cultural heritage. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Holy Trinity Church, the Municipal Corporation Building, The Port Trust Building, Mohatta Palace, Frere Hall, are all remnants of Karachi’s colonial past and worth a visit.
Empress Market is expansive and majestic to behold. As soon as you enter you are hit by a myriad of smells; spices, poultry, fruit, oils, fish, cheese, sweets, all mixed together. Whatever you are on the hunt for, chances are you will find it here; from dry fruit and nuts to crockery, caged birds to keep as pets to fresh meat and fish, homeopathic medicine to homemade oils, snacks, and candy of every kind imaginable.
I would go there often with my mom, and we would invariably end up in the spice enclosure. It was breathtaking to look at, heaps of spices in every color of the rainbow; chili in various shades of red; from bright scarlet to a deep maroon, the burnished golden yellow turmeric, the pinkish-white rock salt.
The brownish-yellow cumin, the dark brown cinnamon, all of these spices combining in the air to create a new smell, strong but not unpleasant. She would haggle over the prices, you always have to haggle over everything in Pakistan, it’s like an unwritten rule.
We would then move on to the dry fruit and nuts section. She would sample a few things, some figs, or walnuts, some almonds, or dates. She would pass me a few to try, like old hands we would talk about whether or not the nuts were of good enough quality, and then buy a few kilos of each.
Next was the vegetable and fruit area. Here all the vendors either sat on the floor or had little stools to sit on, they had their wares spread out in front of them on large sheets of cloth and crude, rudimentary weighing tools. This was my least favorite section because my mom would buy too much and I’d be stuck carrying the groceries to the car.
There are little kids roaming around with jute bags on their shoulders, offering to carry all your bags for a price. I’ve never been able to find a satisfactory solution to whether or not one should engage them. On the one hand, you’re helping them earn a livelihood, but on the other they are children.
My favorite was the candy section, the section my mom would try to steer me clear of. You can find every manner of cheap candy here, and I am a sucker for cheap candy. I would swallow plain sugar if I could. I always got my mom to buy me a few bags of terrible candy and would eat it all in a day or two.
We would always meander through the place, curious about everything new or interesting for sale, and would end up picking something useless, that would gather dust in the house forever. The various vendors would have their own specific calls to get your attention, some would sing a made-up song, some would call out to you.
It’s been several years since I last visited Empress market. I miss it just like I miss most things about Pakistan. My memories of the market intertwined with the bittersweet memories of the time spent with my mom.
As of 2020, the Pakistani government is trying to get rid of this thriving market, a market that is not just a part of the fabric and culture of Karachi, but also a source of livelihood for countless people.
The anti-encroachment laws have already succeeded in getting rid of most of the open-air vendors that sold their wares in the surrounding area, and now they are trying to shut down the entire market altogether.
I hope this fills you with as much outrage as it does me, on a human level we can always empathize with the plight of the poor and working-class.
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