Travel with Marrium – Empress Market


At 10:30 PM on 13th September 1857, Major Macgregor received a tip-off from two soldiers under his command: the sepoys of his regiment were planning to launch a rebellion against thier commanders this night, led by Ramdin Pandey and Sooraj Bali Tevari. A curfew was imposed on all regiments and spot-checks initiated. Pandey fled with 21 of the 44 soldiers while Tevari stayed back with the rest. On May 16th, 11 rebels were hanged drawn and quartered and thrown in the Saddar Nullah near Burns Road. The remaining soldiers were sentenced to life in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Kala Pani). And so the struggle for freedom came to an ignominious end.

While the War of 1857 was firmly recast as a “Mutiny” or “Rebellion” from the colonialist perspective, it was recognized that the East India Company’s interference in native affairs had brought this to pass. Hence, the Company was dissolved and India was made a direct Crown holding, ruled by Parliament and the Queen. The new rulers set about commemorating British sovereign monarchy and impressing the strength of the British Empire and on of it’s gifts was Empress Market: the premier sale and retail market of the newly minted port-city of Karachi.

A brainchild of James Starchan, the Empress Market was in the ‘domestic Gothic style’, marrying European and Indian elements of design. This building occupies an area of 130ft by 100ft, and an expansive 231 feet frontage on Preedy Street. The four galleries or wings arranged around a central open quadrangle with doorways affording entrance from all directions. The south side, being the main entryway, is commanded by a towering Gothic spire with clock faces on all four sides.

For Karachites, the opening of Empress Market in 1889 was not their first taste of covered shopping: the old Cunnynghame Market was similar. Hence, the Imperial administrators continued the tradition of indoor markets because it allowed for easier control and surveillance of the economic activity of the natives than the sprawling open-air bazaars. The market was constructed significantly on the site of the executions of Pandey and his comrades, and designed to be clearly visible from a great distance. An obvious signal to those who underestimated the might of the British Empire. The Market dominated a major intersection separating the official quarter from the “native city”; indeed, natives, though the merchants and traders of the market, were not allowed to shop there for four years after its’ opening. The facade sported a clock tower, staring down at the intersection below. An obvious symbol of British authority similar to the architecture of market and exchange all over colonial India.

Picture by Salman Rashid

The Market was praised in no uncertain terms by Commissioner Pritchard in its opening address, who stated that it was superseded by only one structure in the whole of the Presidency: Crawford Market in Bombay. Though the two markets were quite dissimilar in structure, this was high praise indeed because Crawford market was considered the jewel of British municipal development in India. The construction of Empress Market put Karachi firmly on the map of the “Indo Saracenic” architectural revolution sweeping India.


Today, the building’s magnificence has been marginalized by poster mafia who have put countless posters across the front wall. However, it continues to be visited equally by a certain class of both rich and the less affluent on a regular basis, reminiscent of the general trend in Saddar of some decades ago.

Written by Marrium Habib | Cover photo credits 


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