There was a time when Lahore's Charing Cross was the place to be seen and heard. It was where the fashionable and the rich moved about, and the elite loved to be seen. It was where Imperial India was most visible.
In the middle of the crossing is the garden where today juts out from the ground a needle-like monument called the Summit Monument, a reminder of the Islamic Summit of 1974. The canopy that stands in the middle of the garden was designed by the famous architect of Lahore, Bhai Ram Singh. In the canopy was a grand statue of Queen Victoria that looked across to the sloping Queens Road. The statue was cast in London in 1900 by B Mackennal, just a year before the Queen's death in 1901. In 1951 the statue was removed to the Lahore Museum, where it can still be seen. Decades later military dictator Gen Ziaul Haq got placed a wooden model of the Holy Quran where once stood the statue.
Facing the canopy, across the road, are two buildings of considerable historic significance. One is Shahdin Building on the western side of the crossing, while on the eastern side is the old Masonic Temple of Lahore. Shahdin Building has been purchased by a foreign bank, while the old Masonic Temple was taken over by the Punjab chief minister to use it as an office. Behind the canopy is the Punjab Assembly. If one was to approach the canopy from the west, the building to the left is the Alfalah Building, where once was a beautiful garden. To the eastern side, where today stands Wapda House were rows of shops in the Mela Ram Building and the Jodha Lal Building. To the right was the famous Nedou's Hotel, where today stands the Avari Hotel. Let us go back in time to take a short look at these famous buildings, some of them lost forever.
First is the Lahore Masonic Temple of Charing Cross. Its formal name was the Lodge of Hope and Perseverance No. 782, a Masonic lodge warranted by the United Grand Lodge of England. The lodge was closed in 1972 by Z.A. Bhutto, who saw the Freemason Movement as “anti-Islamic”, a claim that has never been proven. The beginning of an intolerant age had dawned upon us, a process that just does not seem to stop.
The first Masonic Temple of Lahore was built in 1859 at Anarkali on Lodge Road, a site where was built Lady MacLagan Government High School. The Masonic Temple at Charing Cross was built in 1914, using the foundation stone from its predecessor, on the land that had once been a garden and part of the Lahore Zoo. The new temple was designed by Basil M. Sullivan, a consulting architect to the Government of Punjab. It was designed to be similar to the Shah Din Building, both of which flank Queen's Road. For many years, up to the early 1970s, it remained vacant and was popularly known as "Jadoo Ghar". As a young reporter I happened to be among the first to tour this 'Jadoo Ghar' and was saddened by the immense library that lay littered on the floor. Rare books were sold as 'raddee' â€“ waste paper. Even today many of these rare books can be found in the numerous second-hand bookshops in Anarkali.
The famous writer, Rudyard Kipling, was a freemason in Lahore in 1885, at the original lodge building, and was initiated before his 21st birthday. He served as secretary of the Lodge, and remained a member for three years, demitting in 1889. He wrote of the 'Lodge of Hope and Perseverance' in "Something of Myself" and in a letter to the Times, describing “decorating the bare walls of the Masonic Hall with hangings after the prescription of King Solomon's Temple and meeting members of many different religious faiths, including Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Jews. In the lodge everyone was equal.”
In the late 1980s, the Heritage Foundation Pakistan and Concerned Citizens of Lahore started a project to renovate the heritage buildings on the Mall Road, including this one. Freemasonry is a much misunderstood fraternity, for they spent their time and money in helping the needy. Their rituals have a lot of mystery to them, but what little I have learnt they seem harmless and not worth bothering about.
Now let us dwell a bit on Shahdin Building. It was built by Justice Mian Muhammad Shah Din (1869-1918), the first Muslim to be made a judge of the Punjab Chief Court, now known as the Lahore High Court. Life in this building has been described with considerable colour by K.K. Aziz in his book about Lahore in the following manner: “Facing the assembly chambers, was the Metro, where in summer tea was served 'alfresco' and Miss Angela did her cabaret show. In the two hall-size rooms of the Shahdin Building was the Lorangs, the finest restaurant in town, patronised by the elite. Near it stood the Stiffles where the guests dined in dinner jackets, danced in the evening and lunched with their friends in as English an ambience as could be conceived.
“The Standard had its large premises next to the driveway leading to Regal Cinema and facing The Mall. Several steps lower than Stiffles and Lorangs in glory, status and prices, it catered for the middle class and were always crowded; in summer it used the large space between its building and the footpath as an open air tea house.”
We see fine horse-drawn carriages coming to these eateries in the Shahdin Building, where carriage drivers in top hats opened the doors to ladies and gentlemen clad in their expensive evening suits. It might as well have been Piccadilly in London, save for the extra turbaned servants that tugged along. The Stiffle Restaurant served, according to an old menu card, 'chocolates, sweets, cakes, etc. made only from the best British manufacturing materials and unrivalled in the Punjab'.
Just next to Shah Din Building was the famous Goldsmiths shop where the rich purchased their gold and silver ornaments and wares. It still exists in its original structure, only neglect has turned it into a very sad place. I visited the structure and had tea with the owner, only to listen to a sad tale of how they had run out of 'interested' visitors.
In the grounds where today stands the Alfalah Building was a beautiful garden, with the Charing Cross post office to one side. If you walk behind this building, even today that old post office is functional. The story of the Assembly Chambers is another story, but that is a recent addition completed in October 1938.
Just to complete the picture we have an account of other residents of Charing Cross. Coming from the east on the left side of The Mall were Ranken & Co., the C&MG Press, Cutler Palmer and Co., wine merchants, Sunny View Hotel, Smith & Campbell, the chemist, L. Richards the outfitters, and Walter Locke the gun-maker and Mr. J.D. Bevan, pianoforte dealer.
On the right side of the road were Hakman the court milliner, Price Edwards the opticians, Hayat & Brothers, Fred Bremner the photographer, Savoy Hotel, Setna & Sons, Paplos the cigarette maker, Stiffles and C. Steirt & Co. music saloon. If anything, this reflected the times when the Charing Cross was the jewel of the British Empire in the Punjab. Today we rush past history forgotten. Many new meeting places have sprung up, for such is the way times move.