Origins of Masonry in Eastern India

From the very origins of its creation, Freemasonry turned its attention to the ‘wider world’ as shown by the contents of its Constitutions. In India, Masonic lodges spawned in the wake of the trading agreements and territorial expansion carried out by the East India Company. Thirteen years only separate the creation of the Grand Lodge of England, the first masonic governing body, from the constitution of the first lodge on the Indian subcontinent.
In 1729, Captain Ralph Farrwinter, an officer of the East India Company, was appointed Provincial Grand Master for East India in Bengal, and warranted the first Indian lodge East India Arms, No. 72, based in Fort William, Calcutta.
From there, Freemasonry spread to the presidencies of Madras and Bombay where Provincial Grand Lodges were formed in 1752 and 1758, respectively. The three main Indian centres of masonic activity were now in play.
In the last two decades of the 18th century, the number of lodges opened on the Indian subcontinent increased tenfold. The register of the Provincial Grad Lodge of Bengal reveals that by 1793, 11 lodges had been created in the province of Bengal.
While six lodges were operating in Bombay, the remaining five were spread out throughout the province, most notably in the cantonments of Berhampore, Cawnpore and Chunar. In Madras, the register for the year 1789 mentions the existence of 8 lodges, 3 in the city of Madras, 2 in St. Thomas Mount and 2 in Trichinipoly.
By 1871, there were approximately 15 English lodges and 4 Scottish lodges in Bengal; 12 English lodges in Madras; 11 English Lodges and 12 Scottish lodges in Bombay.
The Carnatic Military Lodge No. 355, went into abeyance at the beginning of the Second Anglo-Mysore War, in 1780, and rose from its ashes in 1784, when the war was over. Faced with a dramatic increase in the number of lodges under their immediate supervision, the metropolitan Grand Lodges reached a point where they had no choice but to create an intermediate body. The Provincial Grand Lodge of Cheshire, founded in 1725, was the first to serve this purpose.
The Provincial Grand Lodges of Bengal, Madras and Bombay soon became vital intermediaries between local lodges and the mother Grand Lodges.
When the Duke of Cumberland, the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England, appointed George Williamson to the office of Provincial Grand Master of Bengal, in 1787, he did so “for the purpose of cementing the Brethren and more easily communicating with the Grand Lodge”
The task was rendered extremely difficult by the vastness of the jurisdictions they were entrusted with. By the early 1820s, the Provincial Grand Lodge of Bengal was expected to provide supervision to nine ‘country lodges’ located at distances ranging from 150 to 800 miles away from Calcutta.
The Provincial Grand Lodges of India were generally able to gather and centralize most of the information relative to the lodges under their jurisdictions. In fact, they managed to provide the metropolitan authorities with detailed accounts concerning the state of individual lodges within their supervision.
The proceedings of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Bengal for 1819 provide a good illustration. The dispatch sent to the Grand Lodge of England comprised details about the 21 lodges within the province.
The three main structures of the network – the Grand Lodge, Provincial Grand Lodge and the local lodges – were connected through a vast chain of correspondence. Local lodges had always been expected to make regular returns to the Grand Lodges, in order to forward their fees, membership lists, and periodically report on their activity. At the turn of the 18th century, under the Unlawful Societies Act (1799), this customary practice became a legal obligation, as the Grand Lodges were required to list the names of all members and visitors participating. Indian lodges were not exempt, and the exchanges of correspondence that ensued, which now constitute valuable material for the study of colonial freemasonry, formed the very nerves of the masonic communication network.
They provided cohesion and connectivity to distant limbs of the same body. Despite the obvious distance-related hardships, the masonic official correspondence network was paramount in knitting together the local and metropolitan masonic forces at work. Originally a craftsmen’s guild, freemasonry was designed as a structure that could accommodate itinerant professions. Therefore, it adopted a set of rules and regulations that made it possible for the lodge to operate as its members moved from one location to the next. This structural flexibility was complemented by a set of dispositions later adopted by the Craft to facilitate the mason’s mobility.
The Grand Lodge of Ireland was the first to introduce the ‘masonic certificate’, allowing the mason to be recognized as such in unfamiliar settings. This piece of personal identification acted as a passport, offering instant recognition and a right to assistance to its holder.
Combined to the ‘right of visitation’, one of the main landmarks of the Order, the mason could travel the extensive masonic network in the most effective way. No one expressed the effectiveness of masonic membership as well as John Grant, the Provincial Grand Lodge of Calcutta, when he visited the Provincial Grand Lodge of Bombay, in 1846: “A fortnight ago, I arrived here an entire stranger in Bombay, and now, as if by the stroke of an enchanter’s wand, I find myself surrounded by devoted friends and brothers”.
Masonic membership offered great opportunities in terms of access to the great variety of intelligence transiting through the masonic network. Besides, the high concentration of merchants amongst Indian lodges turned them into a highly prized social venue for the quantity of up-to-date commercial information made available, especially regarding the East Indian market.
According to its membership list, lodge Perfect Unanimity No. 150, based in Madras, brought together merchants operating in England, America, Pondicherry, the Isle of France, Denmark, and China. Freemasonry’s extensive network combined to the trust and respectability patterns that defined masonic fraternalism facilitated the meeting of potential new trading partners hailing from all parts of the world.
Masonic membership thus created a sense of mutual obligation that could supplement and reinforce the existing trading networks. In fact, trust was deemed so important by the brethren that their monthly masonic periodicals, such as The Scientific Magazine and Freemasons’ Repository, often included a section entirely devoted to the latest bankruptcies and disbarred members.
In commercial ventures, trust was of the essence, and shared masonic membership could act as a form of guarantee. The establishment of the first joint stock bank of Madras, in June 1788, is a case in point. Out of the 8 founders of what came to be known as the Carnatic Bank, one of the first British private banks of India, at least five were masons. This further confirms that masonic membership could serve as a form of backing for commercial ventures.
As masonic lodges spawned across India, they contributed to exporting this sociability by emulating their metropolitan counterparts. The presidency capitals of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay grew rapidly and became the three main centres of associational activity. Calcutta soon became the “leading overseas arena for British-style sociability and associations outside North America”.
Masonic lodges were not the only form of sociability on offer. Towards the end of the 18th century, a growing number of coffee houses and punch houses were created alongside several clubs and societies. The Noble Order of Bucks (1777), the Catch Club (1784), the Asiatic Society of Bengal (1784), the Bombay Literary Club (1804), the Calcutta Turf Club (1809), the Bombay Byculla Club (1833), and the Madras Cosmopolitan Club (1873) were also rather successful within the presidency towns.
In fact, many of these clubs and societies were dominated by masons. shared the same members. For example, William Hickey (1749-1830), who served in India as a lawyer of the East India Company, was a member of a masonic lodge, but also of the Noble Order of Bucks and of the Catch Club. However, none of these clubs and societies could claim a network as extensive as freemasonry or such a high degree of connection with the local respectability.
Freemasonry in India was rather impressive. Several Governors-General, including the Earl of Cornwallis (1786-1793), the Marquess of Wellesley (1798-1805), the Marquess of Hastings (1813-1823), and the Marquess of Dalhousie (1848-1856), were also high-ranking masonic officials.
More generally, no other form of sociability could offer as many advantages as Masonic lodges did their members. In India, from the constitution of the first lodges all the way into the 19th century, freemasonry held centre stage. Masonic lodges organized processions, cornerstone layings, and banquets on an unequalled scale, receiving wide coverage in the local Indian newspapers.