I enter the 255-year-old, ochre-coloured stone building opposite Sterling Cinema at Fort and conjecture about the goings-on inside. It is, after all, Grand Lodge of Western India of the Freemasons, the world’s largest fraternity. Even if one believes half of the bizarre urban legends and controversies which abound about Freemasons around the world, it would mean that this building has seen things more eye-popping than that sensational blockbuster playing across the hall. Some call them a cult or a secret society, but Freemasons identify themselves as a “secular society with secrets, who simply practice philanthropy and takes up causes in health, education and other social good.” I have blood on my mind -- more like a posse of grim-looking men drinking blood from skulls, unflinching (blame it on author Dan Brown’s description of the Freemasons in his book, The Lost Symbol). I take the large, carpeted staircase and surreptitiously look for signs. Obviously, there are none.
The men and the Masons
I enter the room to my right and find five Masons, including the Indian Grand Master, waiting. There is a small, round table at the centre of the room and some wooden chairs have been pushed at the back to make space for us. To my (slight) disappointment, none of the Freemasons are wearing their elaborate uniform. They do not look particularly bloodthirsty either and none seem to have an explicit penchant for skulls, or nooses.
Instead, the surprise lies in little things -- the small, black notebook on the table, which I later learn is the Freemasons’ ritual book (“Go on, read a page or two,” Regional Grand Secretary Meher Gimi, 70, will soon tell a flabbergasted me), the presence of three young Masons (the fraternity was struggling with youth involvement until a few years ago) and an openness uncharacteristic to the Freemasons (given that I come here thinking that the men will proclaim, “No comment,” at most of my questions).
It is an important time for the Masons. On August 31, the fraternity will hold its first public event outside a Masonic Lodge. To celebrate Swami Vivekananda’s stint with Freemasonry, the Masons will install his sculpture at the Vivekananda Kendra at Kanyakumari. What makes the event unique is the fact that until about a decade ago, Freemasons’ events were never open to the public, were held at the Masonic Halls alone and were attended by the fraternity.
And that is not the only thing changing about the 20,000 Freemasons in India. Over the past few years, the Freemasons have come to the conclusion that the mystery around their arcane practices and rituals was causing them more harm than good. True that -- an internet search will tell you how the Freemasons have been categorised as people who run some of the world’s most powerful governments, offer goat sacrifices at their meetings, and plan world dominance. The Freemasons say they haven’t gone as far as having hired a PR agency, but now sense the need to speak about the society and allowing visitors around in their lodges.
‘We are normal’
Grand Master MW BRO Vasudev Masurekar, 59, is the first to speak up amid the group. “We are as normal as they come,” he chuckles. Freemasonry, he explains, is a fraternity united by a common goal of doing good for society and being better men in the process. “It is a way of life. We choose causes, and gather the money and resources among ourselves, and help. The only difference here, perhaps, is that we do so internally and do not try to find out how much a fellow Mason donates,” he smiles.
Masurekar has been a Freemason since 28 years and was elected to be Grand Master in 2009. He says he has lost count of the number of controversies and myths the Freemasons are associated with. “Of course we have secrets, like any other society does. But they are ritualistic. The Freemasons have a unique handshake, for instance, but that is to identify a fellow Freemason. So many respectable Indians have been Freemasons -- Motilal Nehru, C Rajagopalachari, Sir Phirozeshah Mehta, Sir Jamshetjee Jeejeebhoy. Were they doing hocus-pocus, then?”
The first Grand Lodge of Freemasons was built in London in 1717 and the secrecy, adds Masurekar, comes from the fact that, even then, only the elite were members. When the British brought Freemasonry to India and built the first Lodge in 1730 at Calcutta, natives were not allowed to be Freemasons. Later, when they were, only the princes and nawabs made it to the fraternity. The Grand Lodge at Fort was built in 1758.
Regional Grand Master of Southern India for Freemasons, R Sushil Raj, 56, who is overseeing the preparations in Kanyakumari, was in his late 20s when he joined the Freemasons. “My uncle was a Freemason but barely spoke about it. However, now that I am a Freemason, I understand it was always about privacy, not secrecy. In fact, I didn’t even discuss the decision of being a Freemason with my wife. She assumed the Freemasons were like members of a Rotary club, and the men disappeared into the meeting for a few hours every weekend. Like the Freemasons, even Rotary Clubs didn’t allow women into their meetings back then,” he says over the telephone. Raj runs a textile manufacturing firm at Marthandam near Kanyakumari.
When Raj’s uncle asked him to join the Freemasons, he says he did not think twice. “Being a Mason is a way of life. When they were young, my sons (who are now Freemasons themselves) saw me disappear into ‘secret’ meetings with a suit on, and came to associate the suit with Masonic meetings,” smiles Raj.
A society with secrets
“That’s not the case anymore,” says Grand Secretary Gimi, and nods at the three Freemasons – Amol Deshmukh, Gaurav Kalia and Hormuz Jal -- sitting with us. He explains that the Freemasons still have a strict initiation process, but the family knows everything there is to Freemasonry except the rituals. A man can become a Freemason if his father is one, or must be vouched for by a Freemason himself. The fraternity conducts thorough background checks to see whether he fits the bill. The Freemasons do invite men into the fraternity (interestingly, Brown is one such man), but do not publicly solicit members.
An internal survey conducted in the late ’90s, however, revealed that memberships were dropping and the youth was uninterested in Freemasonry. “That’s when it was decided that we would allow families to attend our meetings, hoping that some of the misunderstandings would be cleared and young sons could see where their fathers disappeared every weekend,” laughs Gimi. It has worked. “Until the late ’90s, the average age of a Freemason was 40 years. Since the past five years or so, it is 27 years. Younger men are coming forward and we are not struggling with dwindling memberships anymore. This wouldn’t have been possible had we not opened up,” says Masurekar.
Thirty-three-year-old shipping lawyer Deshmukh, for instance, became a Freemason five years ago. “My first memory of Freemasons is expectedly rife with controversies. I had read about their secretive ways and controversies in school, and forgot all about them until a senior colleague and mentor suggested that I become a member. I still had no idea about what Freemasons really did, but I knew he was far from a dodgy character,” says Deshmukh with a smile. Gradually, he adds, he learnt that Freemasonry was simply a way of giving back to the society. “Instead of writing cheques to charities, I understood that I would be required to maintain impeccable character and put in time and effort, too. That appealed to me a lot more than clicking on random NGO websites.”
For 34-year-old Jal, it was the idea of brotherhood that brought him to Freemasonry 14 years ago. “My uncle was a Mason and so were many relatives in my neighbourhood. I grew up sensing the secrecy, but I couldn’t miss the belonging they experienced, too. Back then, no one spoke about what they did. But now, Freemasons’ families know pretty much everything about the society, except the rituals.” Apart from the philanthropy, it was the emphasis on building character which attracted him to the society. “We all get busy with our careers and marriages, and find it convenient to forget that being a good human being needs time and practice -- it doesn’t come overnight. As a Freemason, I know I am expected to have impeccable character, empathy and fraternity towards my fellow members. It keeps me grounded.”
Inside the chamber of secrets
At this point, Gimi suggests that we move to the Masonic Temple where all the meetings are held. I am taken aback and ask them if the secret handshake’s next. Gimi laughs and shakes his head. “There are no big secrets in there that could change the world! It is just a venue for our meetings.”
The Masonic Temple has the expected checkered flooring, which is one of the important Masonic symbols. A pipe organ sits in a corner and a table at the opposite end of the room has the Gita, the Quran, the Guru Granth Sahib, the Bible and the Zend Avesta. There is an elevated wooden chair for the Grand Master and two small tables opposite him for the junior assistants, complete with bulbs and writing material. Gimi points to the windows and says that, in the olden days, the hall was covered with black curtains before a meeting to keep people out. And in older times, Freemasons arrived hidden in horse-drawn carriages for meetings and never even wanted to be seen. Then -- “Go on, sit at the Grand Master’s chair and see how it feels.” I mumble that I can very well imagine and that they needn’t bother. But Gimi insists and I sit down. “How does it feel?” “Like a Grand Master,” I finish lamely and skedaddle.
Women not allowed
The Freemasons laugh as we return to the meeting room. I ask them whether this newfound openness will extend to women becoming Freemasons too. Women are not allowed to be part of the society. Masurekar smiles sheepishly, as if he was expecting me to bring it up, but hasn’t had the time to formulate a satisfactory answer yet. “Well, the idea of Freemasonry, as the name suggests, comes from work equivalent to stone masons -- to shape something as hard and stone and create something new.
Women could not do that back then, and that’s why they were not allowed to be members. Now, however, there is a women’s wing which comprises family members of Masons. ” He agrees that times have changed, but says that the rituals of Freemasons are male-centric and will have to be changed in essence if women were to be part of the society.
Famous Indian Freemasons
Pandit Motilal Nehru
Sir Phirozeshah Mehta
Dadabhoy Nowroji Tata
Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy
Who are the Freemasons?
Freemasonry is a fraternal organisation that traces its origins to the loose organization of medieval Stonemasonry. Early organisational forms included “lodges,” incorporations, and craft guilds. Freemasonry now has a membership estimated at around six million worldwide. The fraternity is administratively organised into independent Grand Lodges, each of which governs its own Masonic jurisdiction, which consists of subordinate (or constituent) Lodges. The largest single jurisdiction, in terms of membership, is the United Grand Lodge of England (with a membership estimated at around a quarter million). Freemasons use signs (gestures), grips or tokens (handshakes), and words to gain admission to meetings and identify legitimate visitors. (Source: Wikipedia)