Manora, though not really an island, let’s your imagination see itself an isolated island community build by people once lost at sea. Manora Island, as it is commonly known, is a small peninsula connected to mainland Pakistan by a 12 kilometer long sandspit. Along with its neighbouring islands, Manora forms a protective barrier between the city of Karachi in the north and the Arabian Sea to the south. Due to it’s strategic location the island has been known to great civilizations through time. It was from Morontobara (ancient Manora) where Alexander the Great launched his fleet for Babylonia after his campaign in the Indus Valley. In 1554 the island was visited by the Ottoman admiral Seydi Ali Reis and mentioned it in his book Mirat ul Memalik - considered one of the earliest travel books in Turkish literature. In the 18th century a fort was constructed on the island when the port of Karachi traded with Oman and Bahrain. It was in 1839 the British East India Company conquered Karachi after taking over Manora from it’s Talpur rulers and later annexed it to British India in 1843.
Many times I have thought of visiting Manora, which is a roughly 20 minutes boat ride from Karachi harbour. Last weekend I finally made it there with Maria. After chaotic Karachi Manora felt like heaven. We arrived at the boat launch mid-morning and were quickly surrounded by desperate boat owners and hawkers who are struggling to survive these days due to a declining – if not vanished – tourism industry in Pakistan. After much haggling we got an offer for a return trip to the island for 2,000 Rupees (aprroximately US$20) in a private boat. However, there was something else in the cards for us that day. We ended up getting a free ride with the navy – but that’s a story for another time.
Our first reaction after being on the island was a feeling of freedom. After weeks of being in Karachi, where it’s generally considered unsafe to for Maria and I to be walking about on the streets, we were free to roam. The people of Manora seemed very friendly and welcoming. What strikes you as soon you land on the island is the religious diversity considering a small population that resides on the island. Manora is the only place in Karachi where I stood in one spot and sew a catholic church, a hindu temple, a sikh gurudwara, and mosque in plain view – all functioning. This kind of tolerance itself was enough to make me fall in love with this place.
We decided to walk the island in clockwise direction. We got off the jetty and followed a road up to the tallest lighthouse in Pakistan build by the British after taking over the island. Unfortunately the fellow who would let us in to visit inside the lighthouse never showed up. With navy soldiers pointing their guns in our direction I was in no mood to test their patience by loitering around the entrance of one their most important base. We decided to backtrack a few meters and walked right up to the tomb of a muslim saint – Shah Ghazi Maudi.
A narrow passage next to the tomb led us to a spectacular view of the beach and the Arabian Sea. We walked right down to the calm, tepid waters and walked right in to the sea. Manora is not the ideal place for swimming, so we decided to walk on the beach enjoying the beautiful sea breeze. We were not alone though. Though the beach was not packed there were many people out to enjoy a beautiful Saturday afternoon. Aside from dipping in water, there were horses and camels to be hired for a ride along the beach. We decided to share a camel – “Raju”. The camels master, a native of the island spoke better English than many tradespeople on mainland. It turns out he was born under the British rule, giving him plenty of opportunities to pick up the language. He told us of peaceful times in the country when travelers from around the world would find themselves discovering the many wonders of Pakistan, Manora being no exception. We made deal with the kind man with some wonderful stories to tell and well kept camel.
After a visit to secret underground tunnels built before the time of the British and a relaxing ride along the beach our new friend and camel dropped us off in front of the Varun Dev Mandir (Hindu Temple). The temple situated right at the beach is devoted to Varuna, the god of the oceans in Hindy mythology. The original site of the temple is considered to be centuries old. However, the present structure was built back in 1917. The temple seemed to me like the perfect location for the next “Lara Croft” (Tomb Raider) movie because to its exotic surroundings and run down condition thanks to years of erosion. During our exploration of the temple we met the priest who was kind enough to offer us a private tour of the temple and the ruins.
By around 2 pm in the afternoon we had to head back to the jetty to catch our boat back to mainland. I was not ready to leave. The island with no cars or pollution, just a gentle breeze and soothing sounds of the sea had me captive. Fortunately, due to some miscommunication with our friends in the navy the boat forgot to pick us up. Perfect! Instead we found ourselves a simple restaurant by the beach that offered fresh fish at dirt cheap prices. For just 320 rupees (roughly US$3.00) we had a half kilo of fresh fish, cooked right in front of us and a bottle of soda. It was perhaps one of the best meals I have had in the last 3 months in Karachi. The owner of the restaurant, a native of the island and retired school teacher from Karachi, offered wonderful company during our stay at her humble establishment.
Before heading back to the jetty to catch our ride back to the mainland we stopped to see some artisan products at tiny souvenir shops along the road. Most of the products were made with materials, such as shells and stones, found in the area. Due to the lack of tourism these days we did not have to bargain to get incredible prices. Imagine 10 cents (US$0.10) for a pair of beautiful shell earrings – you just can’t beat that!
Since visiting Manora and learning about its heritage I have started to see Karachi with a different lens. I believe that with the will of the people the city, with it’s rich history, culture, and beauty can be transformed in to a wonderful destination to be enjoyed by travelers from around the world. Let’s hope that like the great civilizations of the past that this region continues to welcome and inspire people for centuries to come.