There was a time when it was known as one of the spookiest places in Karachi. Some believed it was a haunted site. Jadu Ghar, they used to call it. Not many cogent reasons were ever given to verify the fear, but if you meet Jeevan Sonawarya who was born in one of the quarters here, he'll tell you it was because of the lull that would be witnessed in the vicinity after rush hour that made tongues wag. Those were the days when the Freemason Lodge hadn't been turned into the Sindh Wildlife Department.
Ever heard of freemasonry? You bet, many a time. Do you know what it is all about? Not sure. Well, they say it's one of the oldest fraternal organisations in the world whose members partake in elaborate allegorical and symbolic rituals. With the ostensible aim of promoting brotherhood and morality it took root in the middle ages, and its activities included charitable and community service. The original freemasons were stoneworkers or masons who travelled all across the globe during the great ages of cathedral building; hence their rituals contained tools such as plumb-rule, squares and compasses. They organised themselves into lodges, and their lineage can be traced back to the Grand Lodge of England which was founded in 1717. Certain researchers argue that the fraternity is much older than suggested.
It was in 1730 that freemasonry took root in the Indian subcontinent. Some officers of the East India Company began organising meetings in Fort William, Calcutta (now Kolkata). The number assigned to the lodge was 72. The first Indian Mason, it is said, was the Nawab of Carnatic, Omdatul Omra, followed by M. Bandeh Ali Khan. Persons of international renown like Motilal Nehru, grandfather of Indira Gandhi, and former president of India Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed were also part of this group. Inventor of penicillin Alexander Fleming and creator of Sherlock Holmes Arthur Conan Doyle were members too.
In Karachi the lodge was initially situated at a place where Sindh Club's residential accommodation exists, but when the piece of land was obtained by the club it was shifted to where it these days stands on Starchan Road, and a new structure, 'new temple', was constructed in 1914. Charles Napier laid the foundation stone of the original Masonic Lodge in 1845 three years after a decent grant had been given to Lodge Hope.
After partition, doubts were raised about freemasonry and its practitioners in Pakistan. Some thought it was a secretive cult; others dubbed it a foreign conspiracy. Consequently, in 1972 it was banned in Pakistan by the then government. Laws were introduced to prohibit the freemason society from functioning in the country and buildings, including the one in Lahore, were confiscated by the government.
“Before the ban, a great many goras used to visit this place. I have seen them chatting away in one of the halls. Then things became different, and the building was taken over by the government,” says Jeevan Sonawarya.
If you look at the building now, it won't be easy for you to recognise the mystique that shrouds it, for it is being restored by the antiquities department, and a bamboo framework covering its faÃ§ade will block your view. Only when you enter the lodge, sorry Wildlife Department Offices, then you can sense there's an air of eeriness about it. A tablet on one of the walls reads “In Memory of Wor Bro Robert Shepherd Right Worshipful Master Born At Ellen Aberdeenshire 10th Dec 1863, Died At Karachi 21st June 1896, This Tablet Is Erected By The Brethern Of Lodge Hope No 360 SC As A Mark Of Esteem, Respect And Love Of A Brother Who Was An Efficient Master, A Kind Friend, And A Loving Brother, 1896.”
The wooden (is it timber?) staircase is not as creaky or squeaky as it looks. Climb it and witness on both sides restoration work going on at a relatively sluggish pace.
The Freemason Lodge has, or had, a two-storey portico and columns topped with Ionic capitals. It's a simple, yet striking, piece of construction.
To reinstate this historic structure, not too long ago the antiquities department consulted a Belgian architect Crhistophe Polack who has been working in Pakistan for a decade now. He says “The progress is a tad slow, for nearly all government projects usually get delayed. Since officials of the Wildlife Department were on the premises, we couldn't speed up work on the building. But now I think by June 2010 we will complete the first phase of restoration with a museum in place. In the second phase we shall be able to build two lecture rooms before rounding off our job.
“We are expecting that 90 per cent of the structure will be restored to its original shape. The thing is that it used to have a pitched roof, we're going to partially re-establish that part because of technical reasons,” says Mr Polack.
Apparently there's nothing secret about wildlife. But if it's discussed in a building cloaked in mystery, even wildlife can look and sound interesting. And there's nothing mystifying about this sentence.