Inside India #16: India’s Freemasons – ritual, mystery, and Imperial legacy

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here

Friday 24th November 1961. The Ashoka Hotel, New Delhi. Gathered at this prestigious location: three delegations from the Freemasons’ Grand Lodges of Scotland, Ireland, and England. Their purpose: to constitute the Grand Lodge of India. 

Freemasonry, long the subject of myth and hyperbole, traces its roots to stonemasons’ guilds in medieval Europe, whose members built the great castles, cathedrals and churches of the age. Chancing upon each other on scattered building sites across the region, they found themselves in need of a means of recognising fellow craftsmen and sympathetic souls: thus was Freemasonry born. 

Picture attribution: Igustavinho. Creative Commons.

Over time, membership was opened more widely, drawing in gentlemen members from across a range of professions. This new ‘symbolic’ Freemasonry began to adopt pseudo-religious rites and convoluted ceremonial practises, including the much-lampooned masonic handshakes we now associate with the organisation. 

Some of the earliest Freemasons’ lodges appeared in Scotland. (The oldest surviving minutes in the world are said to come from Lodge Aitchison’s Haven in East Lothian, dated 1599). By the late 1500s there were lodges across the country from Edinburgh to Perth. 

In 1717, the first Grand Lodge was founded in England. Within 15 years, there were Masonic lodges around the world, from the outer edges of Europe to North America. 

Freemasonry is often considered a Christian phenomenon, but in reality Masons have encountered considerable hostility from the Church over the centuries, one reason why conspiracy theorists adore them. (Freemasons are required only to believe in a Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.)

The Freemasons commitment to secrecy has long fuelled the idea that if you join you will become privy to ‘ancient mysteries’. This supposed cache of ‘secret wisdom’ drives wild speculation. Some say Freemasonry is a cult with links to the Illuminati. Others believe it to be a global network of powerbrokers secretly pulling the world’s strings. One popular story involves the Knights Templar and the lost treasures of King Solomon’s Temple.

Today there are millions of Freemasons around the world. It’s hard to know exactly how many because a certain degree of secrecy is still part and parcel of the order. In most lodges, Freemasons are categorised via a ranking system: apprentices, fellows of the craft, and master masons. (Within these ranks are numerous sub-ranks known as degrees.) 

From the seventeenth century onwards, freemasonry was transported to every corner of the globe on the back of the advancing British Empire. 

In India, the Masons go back to the early 1700s, when officers of the East India Company began to meet in Calcutta’s Fort William, site of the notorious Black Hole, the dungeon where over a hundred British prisoners died of suffocation in a single night. It was here, at Fort William, that the first Indian Lodge was constituted, in 1729, with the exhortation “to Empower and Authorize our well beloved Brother Pomfret….that he do, in our place and stead, constitute a regular Lodge.” That first lodge was listed as Lodge No. 72 in the rolls of the Freemasons, its coat of Arms adopted from the East India Company. 

Within two decades, lodges had been constituted in Madras and Bombay, and in 1775, the first Indian Mason was initiated: Omdat-ul-Omrah. However, it wasn’t until 1872, when the first Hindu Freemason was initiated – a P.C. Dutt – that the doors were truly flung open to Indian members. 

Today India has over 500 lodges and more than 25000 Freemasons. 

In the city of Mumbai, for the past 120 odd years, their base has been Freemasons Hall in the city’s iconic Fort District. This is where Mumbai’s 44 lodges welcome new initiates.

Freemasons Hall is a venue steeped in tradition. Upon entering, one observes the foundation stone, located at the northeast corner of the building, in line with the edicts of freemasonry. The reception is crammed with portraits and statues of prominent Indian Masons, some of the country’s most famous and accomplished men – women, alas, are still not permitted membership. A staircase leads down to a chandeliered banquet hall in the basement, and upstairs to the main temple, resembling an enormous courtroom. There are three high chairs in the temple, for the Sun, Moon, and Master of the Lodge, located at the East, West, and South of the temple respectively. A letter G hangs from the ceiling, signifying that God is always watching.

And that brings us back to 1961 and a truly momentous occasion in the history of Indian freemasonry: the constitution of the Grand Lodge of India.

The consecration was led by the Grand Master Mason of Scotland, and the Deputy Grand Master of Ireland, with the traditional words: “In the name of the Grand Lodges of England, Ireland, and Scotland, and by the command of their Grand Master, I constitute and form you, my good Brethren into the Sovereign Grand Lodge of India.” 

As in other parts of the world, the influence of freemasonry has been pervasive, though largely invisible, bringing together the wealthy and the powerful. Because of their influence and secretive bent, over the centuries, the Freemasons have been accused of peddling bigotry, racism, patriarchy, anti-Semitism, and class prejudice. (The Freemasons themselves claim that their mission is, and always has been, a moral one.) 

Others argue that the British used Freemasonry to strengthen Imperial rule, especially in India, employing the bonds of masonry to bind networks of influential Indians to their cause. This may well be true, but, for the most part, the conspiracy theories that surround the Masons are more the invention of writers than based in fact. 

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

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