Rituals, ranks and symbols: Inside the world of Freemasons in Mumbai, an order with secrets
Contrary to popular myth, Freemasons do not have links to the Illuminati or drink wine out of human skulls
It’s a brotherhood of the kind that would appeal to anyone: mysterious, relatively unknown, historically rich, with secret symbols and handshakes, and open to a select few. This is why, since its inception, Freemasonry has been the subject of conspiracy theories and myths, from links to the Illuminati and Knights Templar, to the practice of occult rituals, to ceremonies with wine drunk out of human skulls.
The reality is much less interesting. The Freemasons are an archaic society, one of the world’s oldest and largest non-religious, non-political, fraternal and charitable organisations. Simply put, they are a brotherhood that seeks to ‘improve men’.
“I get so many calls from people telling me they want to be part of the Illuminati. I explain to them that we are quite boring,” says Sunil Pandit, a first-generation freemason belonging to the St George Lodge. Fellow mason Ambuj Mathur chips in, “We don’t drink blood or kill animals or people either.”
A long lineage
Freemasonry, it is believed, traces its origins back to medieval stonemasons who built cathedrals and castles. There is not much evidence to support this or the other theory that says it started in the court of King Solomon. What is known is that freemasonry, in its present form, originated in England in 1717. Four London Lodges came together at the Goose and Gridiron Tavern in St Paul’s Churchyard and declared themselves a Grand Lodge – the first in the world. The British brought freemasonry to India, to Calcutta in 1729, and Bombay in 1758.
Back then, most lodges (the basic organisational unit of Freemasonry, it also refers to the building in which the masons meet) came under the Grand Lodges of England, Scotland or Ireland. After Independence, in 1961, an independent Grand Lodge of India was formed.
DGL Bombay has 23 lodges under its jurisdiction, and the meetings and events of the different Lodges are held at one building, the Freemason’s Hall in Fort. Located on a quiet street corner near CST, the building is 120 years old. There are three temples on the first floor, offices and two dining halls downstairs. The dining halls are for the meals (banquets) after the meetings, sit-down affairs with Continental food like apple pie or meat pies. The old dining halls' walls have portraits of past Master Masons. There is an in-house caterer, who also manages the café and bar (aptly named The Goose and Gridiron) attached to the building.
The Freemasons have an open house once a year. “It celebrates the laying of the foundation stone of the building, on 5 June,” says Pandit.
A replica of the stone can be found in a small hollow in the café.
Freemason’s Hall has three temples; the main one is called Sandhurst Temple after Bombay’s governor, Lord Sandhurst, who laid the foundation stone of the place. “We call it a temple because there are certain rituals followed here. There are two parts to a meeting: administrative and ritualistic. There are talks on certain issues and we enact scenes from King Solomon’s time,” adds Pandit.
The Sandhurst Temple is a high ceilinged room with a mosaic pavement (indicates good and evil) above which hangs the letter G (for God) under the fresco of an all-seeing eye. A pipe organ by the side provides music to the rituals. There is seating all around, with certain chairs kept aside for the different ranks.
At the head is the Worshipful Master, who has assistants, a junior and a senior warden who sit to his north and his west. There are two deacons, a secretary who takes the minutes of the meeting, a treasurer, and a Master of Ceremonies. Near the door sits an inner guard who ensures that no strangers walk in.
The layout of a masonic temple anywhere in the world is the same – the Master sits in the east (direction of sun rise) and he opens the proceedings, and the senior warden who closes them, sits in the west. Each rank comes with its own regalia – aprons, jewels (rings, watches), lapel pins. The Deacons have a wand, with a dove at the top.
The Worshipful Master is usually seen with a gavel and sits behind the Volume of the Sacred Law – holy books of different religions. Freemasonry is religion-agnostic. “If you do not believe in a God, a higher force or an all seeing eye, you cannot be a mason. You take your oaths and obligations on your holy book of choice,” says Pandit. There is a rituals book but it is not religious. Instead, it lays down guidelines on how to enter the lodge, who escorts you, what to speak, what is expected of you, the obligations to take, etc. The meetings consist of prayers too, but these are not associated with any religion. There are also odes, songs that are sung during a ceremony, with music from the piped organ.
New members are initiated in the temple, and go through three degrees (grades): Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason.
Secrets and lies
DGL Bombay is the second oldest Lodge in the country, and reputedly, the toughest to enter. Pandit, a former Master Mason, was the first Indian initiate of the Lodge; back in the 80s, the members were mostly expats.
No one can just walk in and be a mason; you have to be invited. “A person can only join if a fellow mason has vouched for him. It’s a brotherhood so you have to be able to trust the new member coming in,” says Mathur. To become a freemason, you have to be of mature age (21; 18 for sons of members), of sound mind and strict morals. This year, the St George Lodge, for the first time in history, had a father and son initiated on same day and going through the degrees together.
The society believes they make good men better, and that freemasonry is a character building process. This is why working tools – the square and the compass joined together – have become their most definable symbol. Another set of symbols are the ashlar (fine stone). “You enter as an apprentice, unpolished and rough, and then after you get a masonic education, you become a perfect ashlar,” says Pandit.
Freemasonry, say its members, is not a secret order but an order with secrets. In the olden days, masonry wasn’t institutionalised and masons would meet as trade bodies and share trade secrets. They had symbols to distinguish a member mason from the world at large.
The open house is possibly their way of dispelling myths and sharing their secrets. It’s not the only time the place is open to the public. There are ‘Ladies nights’ that are open to spouses, partners or girlfriends of members – they can sit inside the temple but aren’t allowed to join the core meeting. Even children are allowed on certain days.
Why aren’t women allowed? It has to do with the fact that masons in earlier times were all men. “We are puritans so we do everything by the book, the way it’s been done for 300 years. But, I think the next generation could see a lot more women masons,” adds Mathur.