Karachi: A Sensory History


A roaming band of musicians who arrive at weddings to seek donations, tips in Karachi’s Defense Phase Six

Karachi is one of the world’s largest cities—by some measures, the second largest in terms of population, and likely the world’s biggest “Muslim” city. (In this way, it is like the Indonesia of cities.) More than twenty million people live in this messy, dynamic, fractured megalopolis, the center of Pakistan’s financial and media industries and a major commercial entrepôt on the Arabian sea. Pakistan itself has a population of close to 200 million people, making it sixth in the world, just behind Brazil and ahead of Nigeria. This fact reveals a sobering reality: as Bangladesh places eighth in total population, the Indian subcontinent of the former British Raj counts some 1,611,000,000 souls—more than China (about 1.4 billion).

In other words, despite the subcontinent’s ethnoreligious and linguistic diversity, what once was “India” today comprises a unit that surpasses all others in population. If partition had never occurred, Karachi might have looked like a mere port on the periphery of a vast Indian nation—akin to a regional city in China, where “towns” of millions rank as provincial capitals, the Denvers to Shanghai or Beijing’s New York. But with the influx of Muslim migrants from India (known as Muhajirs) after 1947, and its own centripetal force as a commercial center within the new nation, Karachi became Pakistan’s dominant city—commercially, if not politically, as Islamabad (the seat of political power) and Lahore (the capital of the most populous and politically influential state, Punjab) arguably hold greater sway in national affairs. It is faster, franker, and more diverse than many of these other Pakistani cities, a place where Urdu—the lingua franca of Pakistan—is spoken among migrants from interior Sindh, the provinces of Punjab, Balochistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and India itself.

I’ve visited Karachi a number of times over the last ten years, and it has always presented itself as a fascinating puzzle that simply cannot be solved by an outsider with limited knowledge of the city’s politics, history, and language(s). (Of course, in many ways it seems like a puzzle that can’t be solved by its own residents, who are perpetually distressed by the city’s inability to realize its own immense potential, but that’s a story for another time.)


Not actually lavish

Pakistan is a country haunted by the specter of car bombs and assassinations, ingrained corruption and political gridlock, even as a growing middle and upper class shops for Crocs and Swarovskis at sumptuous new shopping centers such as Dolmen Mall and an almost incalculably vast, working-class group of strivers serves tea and biscuits, sweeps the floors, sells in shops, and chauffeurs cars in an effort to better their children’s prospects in a hoped-for future of continued growth and prosperity.


Rather than trying to parse the byzantine politics of Karachi, with its innumerable sectarian, ethnic, economic, and ideological conflicts, and its tortured place within the larger War on Terror, I decided to take a sort of phenomenological portrait of the city—a look at its distinctive textures, sights, tastes, and smells—the unique expressive characteristics that make up the warp and woof of life in Karachi, the dimensions and shapes and patterns that might stick out to an outsider, but that might seem ordinary and quotidian to an everyday resident. Here are tiles, textiles, paintings, and sculpture; glass, trucks, stairs, and floors; bags, lights, paper, clocks, plants, playing cards, and the illustrious signage (often neon, from the 60s, and too little represented here) of Karachi.

For our earlier photo essay on Pakistan, check out “The Best Style: Car Culture in Pakistan.”

IMG_3768 IMG_3769 IMG_3771 IMG_3772 IMG_3773 IMG_3779 IMG_3781 IMG_3782 IMG_3783 IMG_3794 IMG_3804 IMG_3819 IMG_3825 IMG_3834IMG_4007 IMG_3835 IMG_3838 IMG_3844 IMG_3845 IMG_3858 IMG_3861 IMG_3863 IMG_3890

IMG_3926 IMG_3930 IMG_3932 IMG_4126 IMG_4127


IMG_4134 IMG_4135 IMG_4136 IMG_4137 IMG_4146


IMG_4169 IMG_4197 IMG_4267 IMG_4230 IMG_4326 IMG_4339 IMG_4341 IMG_4342 IMG_4394 IMG_4395 IMG_4420 IMG_4422 IMG_4425 IMG_4436 Blackout IMG_4449

Alex Sayf Cummings is an assistant professor of History at Georgia State University and author of the book Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century (2013).


  1. palmcoveholiday says:

    Wow, thanks for all of this information, I enjoy your writings.

  2. Awesome information on Karachi and art. Love your pictures. Have you been to the VM Art Gallery which was founded on the experience of a community centre providing education to women?

  3. LOVED the pictures and your writing! Congrats on your freshly pressed! If you get the chance please check out: mylifeasmaeganhagan.wordpress.com

  4. Nice pics, huh?!
    Check out my site pensiveindian.wordpress.com
    Pls. do some1

  5. Great pictures!

  6. Being an Indian feel sad how once such a beautiful nation with so much diversity was divided into these many parts. If only the entire sub-continent was a single country, i can honestly say that it would’ve been the best place.
    Handful of people for their own personal gain destroyed lives of a country.

    But really amazing information you’ve put up.
    Loved the pics, love your writing.

    • Alex Sayf Cummings says:

      Thanks so much! I often wonder how history may have been different if India were not partitioned — my gut tells me it would be a better, more pluralistic, and peaceful country than the South Asia we know today, but it’s hard to say — an unpartitioned India could have also been wracked by communal violence and even civil war on a scale we haven’t seen in the past 60 years

  7. wow

  8. Nice pictures 🙂
    Please check out.. Taxguidance.wordpress.com

  9. An Activist Abroad says:

    Great post and excellent accompanying photos!

  10. I feel ashamed I did not know that Karachi was such an important city. I thought it was much smaller than 20 million people. The global south is growing bigger without us even noticing it. Your photos show a great mixture of western and eastern influences. I would love to see some drone pictures from above. I cannot imagine how it could look.

    • Sir do visit Karachi some day. You are going to enjoy a variety of culture that make up this city so lively despite all that danger that surrounds us 🙂

    • Alex Sayf Cummings says:

      Hey John, thanks for checking it out! East and West are very much entwined in Karachi — I think people sometimes assume that there is a stark divide where Pakistanis must reject American culture and reflexively hate the United States because of US foreign policy and other issues, but it’s really not the case for most people. People watch American shows, buy American brands, and so forth, but it all exists alongside pop culture that originates in South Asia, Turkey, Arab countries, etc.

      • Not only is American influence thru media prevalent in Pakistan, but it is a phenomenon throughout the world. Let’s admit it-the USA is tops in terms of creativity, and people of all races, realize that.

  11. Nice post. Karachi fascinates me (Tom), I’ve been fascinated by Pakistan in general since I read Midnight’s Children. Maybe you could do a guest Snippett on Karachi or other Pakistan-related material!

  12. Into the mild says:

    Great post! I really like the variety in the pictures.
    On a more personal level, what is your favorite part of the city to explore? What are its can’t-misses and must sees?

  13. @ Johnberk, I think you should try and visit Karachi oneday

  14. surprised that no photo of sea.

  15. Reblogged this on murtazajafry.

  16. Being once a Karachiite, I’d say not done enough justice with the pictures, but very well-written and an interesting perspective.

  17. markotop93 says:

    Reblogged this on Sebuah "Ngihaa" and commented:
    Nice karachi

  18. great information ! I would like to visit this place

  19. This is the first photo essay I’ve ever seen, and I love that you described it as a “phenomenological portrait” of the city. I don’t know why, but that phrase is just exactly what you delivered. My favorite has got to be either the Lisa Frank book or the crazy plant.

  20. me too!

  21. SS Collections jakarta 2015 says:

    Amazing ! Follow me please 🙂

  22. I visit Karachi nearly every year and I love it. Biryani, roll parathas and burgers are the main attraction:-)

  23. Nice

  24. interesting

  25. Reblogged this on pastor87.

  26. Habąq? Fæt es būěņ. 😉 http://www.progress4u.wordpress.com

  27. Reblogged this on Noir et Blanc.

  28. Follow for follow? 💕👍

  29. This is so amazing… and being a karachite it looks so perfect amd familiar description of my city..

    • Alex Sayf Cummings says:

      Thanks so much, Safakokab! I wasn’t trying to go for a truly representative portrait of the city, since I as an outsider would probably not be able to accomplish that, but I wanted to give a little slice of life

      • safakokab says:

        No it was really a great pic of my city.. and you as an outsider praised it so it was more of pleasure to read that other people find it a good place as against all the news in the media..

  30. chicagochic95 says:

    Reblogged this on A new journey awaits everyday and commented:
    Perfectly worded.

  31. 伟大! 😉

  32. Lovely piece dude

  33. Cool

  34. jmurtonen says:

    This is a very interesting piece. I wish I was taught more about Asian history during my public school education, because the cultures of India and Pakistan are so complex and important. They are two of the most populous nations on Earth, and they are in the midst of their own cold war. Pakistan’s foreign policy is almost entirely based around India, and the Earth would benefit greatly if these two nations could come to peace. However, the West relies on Pakistan to be a stable force in the War on Terror, and they rely on India for its factories so it’s unlikely they will want to get involved.

  35. I was born in Karachi but left before my first birthday. I then returned at the age of 16 and lived there for a year. My father’s family roots belong in that city so I also went on many holidays there. There’s so much more to that city than what the western media show.

    Great post. The pictures bring back many memories and definitely capture a small amount of the real essence of the city.

  36. seweverythingblog says:

    As a former Karachiite, I love your photo essay. I just went about my daily life of being raised there, and it’s amazing now to see the perspective of a visitor like yourself. I must say that you now seem to visit my city more than I have lately…….

  37. Reblogged this on whatswrong and commented:
    The world through a blogger’s eyes

  38. I see what you did there in pictures. A really good description of Karachi, most of which amused me. I’ve been there once and looking at all these images felt like visiting it again.

  39. Great post ! 🙂

  40. Reblogged this on mdgoodluck.

  41. Nice 🙂

  42. Reblogged this on nilpojapoti.

  43. Wow. When I clicked on the article, I thought the author might be someone native. Glad to be wrong.

    You know, there’s no “lavish” mall here, lol. I was going through the pictures and I saw a menu from Lahore. Did you visit Lahore as well? I’m from Lahore but I live in Karachi now. The pictures are good, they pretty much sum up our culture. A lot of people are fascinated by the truck art!

    In your photos, there’s a picture of a building that is very near to the hotel I work at! Great work, great post!

  44. This is so interesting, my parents are originally from Karachi, I just visited Karachi last month and the infamous “dolmen mall”, its so interesting seeing an outsider`s perspective of Karachi.

  45. Reblogged this on malikkalim.

  46. Reblogged this on mhrain.

  47. Reblogged this on ihelver and commented:

  48. Reblogged this on My Blog.

  49. As a karachite I appreciate the side of Karachi you have shared in this post. Thank you.

  50. Glad to read information on my city.well written 🙂

  51. Reblogged this on Queen of Goddesses.

  52. mukeemurtaza says:

    Wow.. great to see a nice blog on Karachi. I am from Hunza but living in Karachi.
    Guys, if I would be of any help. Please let me know. 🙂

  53. mukeemurtaza says:

    Reblogged this on Mukee Murtaza.

  54. very nice pictures…so simillar to India..yet so diverse…guess thats the beauty of these two nations 🙂

  55. Good writing. Indeed, Karachi is a wonderful city often ignored due to the fragile political climate in the country. Once in the past it was like today’s Dubai, people from all around the sub-continent moved to Karachi for better future. It has always been a stopping point for people moving from Africa to the sub-continent and vice versa. This is why in Karachi you will find people with different origins and a mix of cultures they brought with themselves.

    • Alex Sayf Cummings says:

      Thank you for your comment! I have often heard locals compare the Karachi of yesteryear to the Dubai of today. It is a shame that mullahs and dictators had to stifle the city’s culture in the years since

  56. Brilliant!


  1. […] Here is nice article about Qatar: Will save to not forget this link […]

  2. […] Karachi – a sensory histroy […]

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