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Manora — a living manifestation of diversity

The small landmass southwest of Karachi offers a unique opportunity for recreational and religious tourism

By Sarah Ather Khan |
Beach has been developed to provide a safe, secure, and clean family recreational place for the people of Karachi. PHOTO: EXPRESS
PUBLISHED January 01, 2023

Homogenisation of cultures, brought about by the system of global production and consumption, has created the need to actively seek out "differentness". As a result, cultural and ethnic tourism have been showing an upward trend in global travel. Literature suggests that multiculturalism frequently draws tourists, and that multicultural and multiethnic cultures are frequently the most popular and successful tourist attractions.

Culture, together with tourism, is a growing sector of the economy and attracts both local and foreign investment. Many entrepreneurs, tourists, and other nations are drawn to areas that are inherently enriched in diverse ethnic, social, traditional, and regional resources, and that is because they see great economic and commercial potential in them. A diverse society can be greatly beneficial if managed well, but if it is not handled with collaboration and consideration, results may be detrimental and irreversible.

Culture is a broad concept that may be thought of as our "way of being", encompassing both tangible and intangible characteristics, including race, skin tone, gender, language, religion, folklore, art, and even cuisine. The act or attribute of including or involving people from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds is known as diversity. Cultural diversity is, therefore, the wide range, uniqueness, richness and abundance of various things within a certain context coexisting peacefully regardless of their origins, civilizations, or customs. Appreciating and accepting our fellow human beings—regardless of religion, belief, skin colour, or gender—improves us as citizens. Diversity of cultures contributes to the development and expansion of knowledge and values like respect, acceptance and tolerance.

Manora has a long lineage of human habitation, having attracted a variety of cultures and civilizations that have left their mark, as evidenced by the island's tangible and intangible heritages. Manora is a small landmass lying southwest of Karachi, and it enjoys a rich ecological, physical, cultural, and religious history.

Manora's pluralistic fabric is a rich blend of multiethnic communities speaking Sindhi, Punjabi, Balochi, Pashtu, Kokani, and Urdu. This multiethnicity is the consequence of a number of reasons, including the diverse ethnic admissions to the Karachi Port Trust (KPT, people who chose to remain in Manora after their term was ended, and the local fishing community, which makes up the majority of the Sindhi and Balochi populations in the area.

Presently, the culture of the island is visibly split; only a very small portion of the population can be considered as "locals". Most of the island is dominated by security agency personnel recruited locally, along with a culture of official control and discipline. However, the locals still cherish and practise a shared culture of respect, security, privacy, social trust, and peacefulness that has been long prevailing on this island.

The multi-religious community of Manora, which includes Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs, is a good example of how different religious communities can live in peace with one another. The 2.5 square-kilometre peninsula has a variety of religious places, and holy festivals of every religion are held here with great fervour and enthusiasm, strengthening its multi-religious fabric. The three most significant festivals observed here are Christmas, Urs of Shah Ghazi, and Diwali.

The site for Diwali celebration is Shri Varun Dev Mandir, a Hindu temple owned by the Pakistan Hindu Council. The Varun temple contains two other shrines, one to Jhule Lal and the other to Shiva. Jhule Lal is believed to be an incarnation of Varun and is usually represented sitting cross legged on a lotus, balanced on a palla (fish) swimming in the Indus River. Varuna is a Hindu god who represents water and is thought to watch out for the safety of fisherman at sea. The temple is one of the island's most significant historical landmarks. Worshipers of the temple bow to their Lord as they cross the waves, showing how highly they esteem the structure. Due to the puja (worship) that is held there on the full moon dates of every month, and the two main Hindu religious holidays, Diwali and Holi, the temple becomes a key destination for religious tourists.

The thousand-year-old shrine of Yousuf Shah Ghazi is the principal magnet for believers who have spiritual attachment with the Sufi saint. The shrine is visited via boats by many people—irrespective of age, religion, caste, and colour—throughout the year. But the annua urs is the time when there are thousands of devotees visiting the island. Between the 12th and the 19th of Rabi-ul-Awal, the Urs of Baba Yousuf Shah Ghazi is grandly observed with great religious fervour, and meals are provided at the langar for everyone, regardless of faith, caste, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.

Two churches on this island are reminiscent of the British colonialism. One of the oldest churches is St Paul's; it is a Protestant community Church and was constructed in 1864. The other is Sir Anthony's Church, a Roman Catholic Church; its foundation stone was placed in 1921. For the celebration of their significant religious celebrations of Christmas, and Easter, the Christian community is drawn to these historic landmark religious locations.

Manora offers a unique opportunity for recreational and religious tourism. For a long time, Manora has been favoured by local and foreign tourists for its brown sandy beaches and clear blue skies, major attractions of recreational tourism that provide opportunities for rejuvenation far from the chaotic and urban Karachi. Due to the prevalence of the old belief of crossing sea to ward off evil spirits, historically, Manora has been a popular spot for removal of spells and witchcraft.

Another reason for Manora’s robust diversity is its governance. KPT, the Cantonment Board of Manora, and Pakistan Navy are the three most significant stakeholders governing Manora. They oversee providing, managing, and maintaining public services and social and physical infrastructure within their respective domains of influence. This fractionalization, however, has resulted in the fragmented development of the island; it is devoid of a comprehensive integrated plan.

The Karachi Coastal Comprehensive Development Zone (KCCDZ), Diamond Bar Island, and Sugarland City Karachi Waterfront were among the proposals made in the past for and surrounding the areas of the Manora Island. The KCCDZ project calls for building of three artificial islands by reclamation of land in the nearby seas; it will be situated in the backwater area on the west embankment of the KPT. KCCDZ was initially planned in 2001, and it has since been updated in 2022 to exclude the Machar Colony's four hundred acres from the plan. An ultra-modern urban infrastructure zone, residential redevelopment to raise local living standards, integration of industries like IT, fashion, and media, improvement of marine ecosystem, and a significant amount of potential for foreign investors are part of this $3.1 billion redevelopment project proposed on 1,581 acres.

The Karachi Waterfront Sugar Land City was proposed in 2005–2006, suggesting a development of world class infrastructure and amenities on 60,000 acres at Hawk’s Bay Sadnspit area and Manora ridge, turning the island into a tourist resort with a water sports arena on the shore. The concept featured residential, commercial, recreational, and entertainment facilities, as well as special economic zones, with the goal of creating a hub for trading, manufacturing, and services industries.

In 2006, plans for the Diamond Bar Island, which would have included 12,000 acres of the Bandal, Buddo, and Manora Islands, were suggested. The project included residential villas and apartments, hotels, shopping malls, office buildings, and business centres, in addition to a golf course, clinics, schools, technical colleges, universities, a marina, theme parks, resorts, and co-generation facilities. Highway bridges with six to eight lanes would connect Karachi with the imagined Diamond Bar Island City.

The multi-million-dollar proposals attest to the fact that this area possess a huge potential for development and is therefore attracting foreign investors. However, they are examples of large-scale, high rise, high end, modern, gentrified development that pose a risk to fisherman communities, local populations, historical buildings, and visual and cultural identity of Manora. They are also a huge threat to Karachi, exposing her to natural disasters due to deforestation of mangroves.

Recently, a few small-scale initiatives have been implemented in Manora to aid in the promotion of tourism. These spot interventions, without any comprehensive planning, are attracting and facilitating thousands of day-trippers to Manora beachfront, but inevitably are also contributing to problems like stress to limited resources, environmental deterioration, overcrowding, and congestion.

The Manora Island is a gateway to Pakistan's main economic hub, a home to three naval bases and a cantonment area. Due to its close proximity with the port and national security concerns it cannot be fully developed as a tourist destination despite its rich cultural, religious, ecological, and physical diversity. Planning for Manora, generally and specifically for tourism, revolves around two key questions: How much tourism? And how?

Lack of tourism planning in any area often causes threat to pristine environments, irreversible damage to cultural and heritage, and overexploitation of natural resources, to name a few drawbacks. The peninsula calls for an integrated plan, made with collaboration of all local and administrative stakeholders, with a concern for its ecological and social cultural assets.

According to Arif Hasan, one of Pakistan’s leading architects, activists, social researchers, and writers, urban development must be based on certain principles of sustainability, equity, and justice; it must respect the ecology, with land use determined on the basis of social and environmental considerations; it must give priority to the needs of the local population; and, most importantly, it must respect and promote the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of the communities.

Kamil Khan Mumtaz, one of Pakistan’s leading architectural designers, prioritizes the qualitative qualities of people over the quantitative effects of growth while making plans for human settlements. He advocates that inclusiveness, prosperity, and wellbeing of local stakeholders should be among the guiding principles of planning, along with economy based on need rather than greed, sustainability, and conservation of history and values.

Planning for Manora should take into account the island's cultural, historical, religious, and ecological diversity, capacity for tourism development should be evaluated in the physical-ecological, socio-demographic, and political-economic domains to safeguard the island from the detrimental effects of unplanned and unregulated tourism development.

Sarah Ather Khan is a freelance contributor and an assistant professor the NED University Architecture Department. All facts and information are the sole responsibility of the writer