Pakistan through history and culture

A trip to the National Museum of Pakistan in Karachi and Thatta for a dose of archaeological treasure…

Our trip to Pakistan last January turned out to be a culturally enriching journey and we thought it would be nice to document some of our experiences and observations. We found Pakistan a place of historical and cultural diversity with much to offer beyond the usual image projected.

We were determined to show the children that there is more to Karachi than “hot bazaars and lots of people”; their rote response when quizzed about the city. So, we thought it would be a good idea to take them to the National Museum of Pakistan for a dose of culture and history and subsequently change their impression of the city.

In 1970, the museum relocated from Frere Hall to Dr Ziauddin Ahmad Road and is under the auspices of the Department of Archaeology and Museums. Nestled in a surprisingly peaceful oasis, the ornate façade of the building forms a backdrop to people having their lunch in the gardens on the grass. The museum is pleasantly unique in its architecture. While most museums are entirely indoors, a colonnade on the upper level provides a charming outdoor aspect from which the galleries branch off.

The building houses artefacts which span from 2,000,000 years ago to contemporary civilisation. Such is the expanse of history attributable to parts of The Subcontinent. Life-size relief maps locate the various Indus River Valley Civilisations, such as Periano Ghundai (3500-2000BC), Moenjodaro (2500-1500BC) and Harappa (2100-1600BC). Various aspects of life are represented through accompanying miniature models, which are particularly eye-catching to children. Amongst the numerous archaeological treasures are earthenware jars and vast collections of coins belonging to various Mughal dynasties, with some dating back to the 6th century BC of the Indo-Greeks, Scythians and Parthians. Ethnological galleries include life-size representations which show village life, their handicrafts and dwellings, and everyday dress and costumes, together with some exquisite jewellery. Relating to the Independence Movement, there are items of furniture, paintings, and photographs of political figures and items of clothing of Jinnah. Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic artefacts are testament to the various religions of The Subcontinent to which both Pakistan and India have played host since ancient times.

It is indeed fortunate that this little museum brings to life the vast number of civilisations dating back 2,000,000 years. On our visit, it struck us that the museum could be enhanced with some potential changes. Most of the artefacts had accompanying explanatory plaques; however, some didn’t. Unfortunately, this gave a feeling of inconsistency. Also, the overall display of items would be improved with better lighting. Airtight cabinets would protect priceless and irreplaceable items from moisture damage and general deterioration and ensure their preservation for future generations.

To make a museum visit more appealing to youngsters is to make it an interactive and fun experience. Other museums have had success with kids’ Q&A worksheets in the form of questionnaires and various activity booklets to be filled in throughout the visit with a small reward at the end.

As our cultural heritage site, we chose to visit the city of Thatta. It was the capital of Sindh from the fourteenth century till 1739 and is known for its historic monuments. These are also listed among UNESCO’s world-heritage-listed sites. See:

There are two main famous areas in Thatta. First, the tombs at Chaukundi, the necropolis of graves at the Makli Hill, where several Tarkhan and Mughal officials are buried. The graves are made of solid rock and are embossed with beautiful calligraphy from the Quran. Admiring these graves reminds one of the impermanence of life and the finality of death. Second is the Shahjahani Mosque, which is the main mosque of the city and was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a gift to the townspeople for their hospitality shown to him. It is adorned with exquisite blue and white tile work designed like a mosaic and fortunately these vibrant colours have withstood the test of time. The mosque is also a testament to the grandeur of the Mughal Dynasty, as is the Jama Masjid in Delhi, one of the largest and best-known mosques in India, also commissioned by Shah Jahan.

Today, Thatta is also known for its handicrafts and colourful glass bangles. These artefacts are well known throughout The Subcontinent. The hand-printed fabrics, block-printed clothes, the exquisite embroidery work inlaid with tiny mirrors and the intricately designed glass bangles sold in the bazaars of Thatta entice the tourists and are difficult to resist.

An inspirational occasion was an evening at the Karachi Arts Council, dedicated to the Student Movement of the 1950s called ‘Looking back to look forward.’ This nostalgic journey was made through a collage of slide presentations, short documentaries, impassioned speeches and verbal accounts in person from those who were intrinsic to The Movement. Many artists and poets contributed to this event and a rich vocal performance by Tina Sani stood out as something truly magical, transporting the audience to another plane. The electric atmosphere only heightened once the acclaimed band Laal hit the stage – – and it wasn’t long before most of the students in the auditorium were on their feet singing away. Laal are indeed friends of democracy and human rights and are doing a fantastic job of raising awareness of both students and the working class about their rights. Further, by providing the Pakistani youth a platform to express themselves, Beena Sarwar, together with her colleagues, is doing some wonderful work to continue the legacy of her late father, Dr. Mohammad Sarwar. We certainly hope that this canvas with its palette of nostalgia, youthful energy, hope, music, poetry and passion provides a source of inspiration to help them create a bright future for themselves, should they decide to move forward and claim it.

Not long ago, a friend lamented, “…Yes what’s happening in Pakistan at this point is demoralising, but then if you live in this situation, I guess you develop a level of immunity as a safeguard…do not moan and groan so much, and continue to maintain a level of normalcy, but deep down it hurts and you keep having a feeling as if you are sinking!” Despite the gravity of the current situation, events such as this show that people are willing to “maintain a level of normalcy.”

Given the difficult times that contemporary Pakistan is facing, the importance of preservation of cultural and historical treasures in the National Museum Of Pakistan and at Thatta becomes more important than ever. Their presence as icons of pride form part of the cultural and national identity of Pakistan and can be revered amongst current and future generations alike.

Huma Ahmar

Danielle Gehrmann

The version above has some minor modifications. The original article can be found at:

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