Sukkur’s own Dharmashala

Sarfaraz Memon takes us to a historic centre of urban Sindh's Hindu community

Sukkur’s own Dharmashala
The Dharamshala in Sukkur was constructed in 1925 by the Hindu Panchayat to provide boarding and lodging facilities for visitors. Built on a huge plot, the Dharamshala had 68 spacious rooms on its ground and first floors. It also had five halls on the first floor, a temple, a well, two water tanks and separate toilets for men and women.

Situated near the clock tower, the Dharamshala, which once housed visitors from diverse religious backgrounds, has now been converted into a residential complex where many Hindu families currently reside.

Prakash, a resident of the Dharamshala, says his family moved to the complex around 1955 and has been living there since.

"It is unfortunate that one cannot even spot traces of the Dharamshala's former glory today," Girr says

The hotel at the Dharamshala – known as the ‘Hindu Hotel’ – was established by three partners, Bhago Mal, Cheno Mal and Moti Ram. Prakash says that as time passed, the hotel was renamed Qalandari Hotel and one of its branches was established outside the Dharamshala for the public. This happened because the hotel inside the Dharamshala only served vegetarian food. Meat options became available at the new branch. Owners of the Qalandari Hotel also established a branch near Cantt Railway Station.

Prakash says that the Dharamshala served as a boarding house till 1947. When the violence of the 1947 Partition broke out, some Hindu families took refuge in the Dharamshala and never left, thereby turning the hotel into a residential complex.

Residents of the Dharamshala have made many changes to its structure to accommodate their families, Prakash says. “A lot of the original design of the building was lost because of these changes,” he adds.

“The Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) gets rent for every residential unit but does not bother to maintain or repair the building,” says Prakash. “Residents of the building carry out repairs on their own.”

Everything in the Dharamshala has changed, from the temple to the well.

Mandho Girr, an elderly resident of the Dharamshala, still remembers the time when the building was used as a boarding facility. “I was born in 1937. My father, Khem Chand, was a cook at the Hindu Hotel in Dharamshala and I often accompanied him to the Dharamshala,” he reminisces.

He says the rooms of the Dharamshala were not furnished and visitors rented a charpoy, sheets and quilts.

Girr says at the time there was also a rest house for Muslims near the Dharamshala, which was demolished in the mid-1960s. The municipal corporation then constructed a commercial and residential complex in its places, named ‘Mehran Markaz’.

“Everything was fine till the mid-1950s. Then, due to some differences between the Pakistan Hindu Panchayat and the ETPB, the latter took custody of the Dharamshala property,” he recalls. Since then, residents of the Dharamshala have been paying monthly rent between Rs. 1,500 and Rs. 2,500 to the board.

“I saw the Dharamshala when it was at the peak of its glory. It is unfortunate that one cannot even spot traces of the Dharamshala’s former glory today,” he says.

Over time, shops were constructed along its boundary wall and encroachers set up stalls nearby, adding to the dilapidation of the structure.

Girr now sits on a chair in front of the main gate of the Dharamshala with some medicines displayed on a small table.

He says he inherited some ‘desi totkas’ (traditional remedies) from his mother for treatment of jaundice and measles.

“I don’t charge anything for these remedies but people who benefit from the treatment pay me with their own free will,” he says. “I sit at this table from early morning to sunset and have treated thousands of people suffering from jaundice and measles,” he says. “My sons are not interested in ancient medicine and I am afraid that my remedies will die with me,” he says.

Geeta Mai, an elderly woman who moved to the Dharamshala with her husband in 1951, says that when she first saw the building, she was impressed with how beautiful and spacious it was. “There were huge resting spaces for men and women. Men used to sit in their designated area after work and relaxed there. Women also had space for themselves where they would gossip and drink tea after completing their household chores. There was robust activity in the halls of the Dharamshala late in the night,” she says.

“Our children played in the playgrounds nearby. The main gate of the building closed around 8pm and there was a tangible sense of peace, tranquility, and safety here,” she says.

Mai says that as the families in the Dharamshala grew, residents began encroaching upon the open space. “Over time, the wide streets of this area became narrow,” she says.

Mai’s husband runs a grocery shop in the main bazar while she makes ‘papars’ to make earn some extra money.

Kanta Devi also makes papars to earn livelihood for her family and her husband works at a shop in the date market of Sukkur.

Kanta Devi was born in the Dharamshala in 1952 and proudly calls it her home. “My father was a cloth merchant and our family was quite well off. When my father died in 1955, my mother handed over the store to my uncle but he was not able to run it the way my father used to. When my uncle passed away in the late 1980s, my mother sold the shop along with the stock of clothes,” Devi says.

Mohammad Ali, an official of the ETPB, says that the board gets little rent for the property. “Residents have made many changes inside the building and outside, shops and stalls have sprung up,” he says. “It is not the responsibility of the board to remove these encroachments. This is the job of the district government and the municipal corporation.”

“We seldom get funds for repair and maintenance of this building,” he says. “In this day, residents of the Dharamshala pay between Rs. 1,500 and Rs. 2,500 per month, which is nothing compared to rents in other parts of the city where people pay more than Rs. 15,000 for an apartment with two or three bedrooms,” he says.