Digging up the history of one of the oldest surviving Freemason lodges

White pillars that end in stony curls hold with regal intimidation, a grand old building that has survived since the 1920s. The Masonic architecture is evident in the tall columns and a taller roof. This is the abode of an ancient society and it bears itself with certain pride, just off the bustling Ethiraj Salai in Egmore. The main hall is adorned with life-size portraits of Grand Masters who've presided over the society over the centuries. A current member brings out an old book, covered in shiny red wrapping paper: the cursive slants of the quill-written minutes have almost faded — this is the minutes' book of Mount Lodge, the oldest Freemasons lodge (under the Indian Constitution).

“If you see the minutes' book, you will know where the meetings were held around that time, what was on menu for dinner and the decisions that were taken,” says Kylas Swaminathan, organising secretary for the Sesqui Centennial Celebrations, “When Mahatma Gandhi died, the selflessness that he showed during his lifetime made the Freemasons declare him an unattached member. The minutes of that meeting is still preserved in this book.”

Evidence points to the existence of Mount Lodge way back in 1797 (it existed under another name) and this interrupted life continued until the warrant of the Lodge Mount 926 E.C. was issued in 1862. The lodge was constituted by a charter granted on August 23, 1862 by the Earl of Zetland, the then Grand Master and Earl DeGray and Ripon, Deputy Grandmaster of the United Grand Lodge of England.

“We've been in existence for over 200 years though we haven't got a proper record of the period before 1862. The first Mount Lodge was at St. Thomas Mount, which was then a suburb. The area was considered away from the city and we would have to travel to Madras on horse-drawn carts,” says R. Sushil Raj, Regional Grand Master, Regional Grand Lodge of Southern India.

St. Thomas Mount was then a military cantonment, about 15 km from Madras on the Madras-Chengalpet Road. When the Mount Lodge was started, there were only a couple more city lodges in Madras; Lodge of Perfect Unanimity No. 150 and Universal Charity 273. Since the lodge seemed to be in a suburb, most of its members were local residents.

“Often, when we did not have the quorum, we would have to go into Madras city to bring Freemasons,” says Sushil Raj.

John Richard Magreth was the First Master of Mount Lodge, installed in the eastern chair on June 24, 1862 by the District Grand Master. In 1883, Lodge Mount shifted to its own office, which later began to crumble. The lodge was rebuilt in 1898. The building, according to the lodge's annual reports over the years, was valued at Rs. 4,500 and its furniture over Rs. 1,000.

“In 1867, the master of Mount Lodge laid the cornerstone of the Presidency College,” says Kylas. This function was presided over by the District Grand Lodge and the Lodge of Perfect Unanimity No. 150 and Lodge Universal Charity No. 273 also participated. In 1885, Mount Lodge had its First Indian Brother, S.V. Rajagopalachari.

Between 1899 and 1908, the lodge's membership was held by military officers and their frequent transfers hampered its regular functioning. The first Indian Brother of Military Rank who became the Master of the lodge was Lt. Col. Chatterjee and he was immediately transferred to Belgaum. Therefore, between 1908 and 1913, the lodge became a civilian one — a move that assured its continued existence.

In 1915, the lodge began collecting funds for constructing another storey. Rs. 265 was collected in the first instance. The estimated cost for building was said to be Rs. 10,500 and the first floor was constructed by 1920. In 1925, the Freemasons Hall was opened in Egmore.

“The Freemasons have had a strong presence in the country since 1729. We believe in development and giving any man the opportunity to become a better person. Our symbol is therefore, the masonry tools. Initially, we were a Christian organisation, but now we're among the most secular in the world. Our two taboos are religion and politics. We believe in this religiosity: the fatherhood of god and the brotherhood of man,” says Grand Master Dr. B. Biswakumar (a Grand Master is the equivalent to a President of an organisation).

In 2011, Freemasons celebrated 50 years under the Indian Constitution (wherein some lodges stayed with the United Grand Lodge of England while others shifted to the Indian Constitution under the Grand Lodge of India, based in Delhi). “We have had so many iconic men who were our members; Swami Vivekananda, C. Rajagopalachari, Motilal Nehru, J.R.D. Tata, Dadabhai Naoroji and the Maharaja of Travancore,” says Kylas Swaminathan.

In a commemorative issue celebrating 100 years of the Mount Lodge, there is a poem that ends with what seems to describe the lodge's ideals. “He too must cross in the twilight dim, Good Friend! I have built this bridge for him.”