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A Fading Legacy of Sindh’s Urban History

Shikarpoor, today an insignificant small town in Sindh with less than 200,000 people, historically enjoyed the status of being a prestigious urban center. It played a pivotal role as the nerve center of a network of trade, commerce, and money-lending activities for an extensive network of caravan routes connecting Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iran with India. Its strategic geographic location south of the Bolan Pass resulted in its development as a gateway and entrepot of Afghanistan, Khelat, and the Khorasan.

The legacy of a vibrant multicultural and multi-ethnic resident community of affluent merchants, traders, financers, and landowners is reflected through remnants of historic built fabric that are representations of religious, political, social, and cultural expressions. Burton (1877) described Shikarpoor as "the capital of merchants, bankers, and money changers." However, gradual transformations occurred through the last few decades of nineteenth century leading to the city's decline, and the final blow to city’s prosperity came during 1947 partition, when a massive exodus of Shikarpuri Hindus took with them the strength and spirit of a strongly associated community. Shikarpoor has since suffered decline in all sectors; experiencing reversed standards of urbanized sophistication and city management.

Demographic transformations resulted in the collapse of a community-based support system that provided educational, health, and other welfare-related facilities that depended upon philanthropy. Statistics on present socio-economics of the resident community indicates over 50 percent households are associated with menial jobs and depend on very low and inconsistent monthly incomes. Under-resourced and poverty-stricken owners of historic properties succumb to pressures of an increasing market of antique dealers. Ongoing demolitions remain a major threat; elements of intricate timber and metalwork embellishments adorning façades of historic havelis are being continuously ripped off and extensively re-used in new residences and commercial establishments in big cities, flamboyantly claimed by élites as their prized collector’s items.

The city was on the World Monuments Watch for three cycles—2008, 2010 and 2014—and declared as protected heritage under the Sindh Cultural Heritage Preservation Act 1994 with 1203 properties within the city’s municipal limits given legislative cover. Can these measures succeed in curbing vulnerability to vandalism and pressures compromising Shikarpoor’s heritage values and the potentials of its economic revival?

Immediate measures to prevent further destruction are most essential, and this can only be possible with socio-cultural revival and economic regeneration that benefits associated communities. There is thus a need to venture beyond mere listing, fossilizing history, or treating heritage assets just as artifacts or monuments for pleasure of a privileged few. Practical approaches must be undertaken to ensure the preservation of the historic environment in its entirety. This would mean taking serious steps toward establishing a long-term monitoring system, developing appropriate regulations, creating supportive technical and financial resources, organizing programs to inculcate a sense of pride and appreciation among residents and administrators, and encouraging them to take up responsibility as custodians of their inherited legacy.