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The world of freemasons

MAGNIFICENT BUILDING: The 300-year-old building was donated by Mir Osman Ali Khan.

IT IS an organisation with a worldwide presence, and is yet shrouded in secrecy. A `movement' with a membership base that far outnumbers the Lions and Rotary clubs together, and yet you would not even know if the man-next-door was a member. Believed to be dating back to the times of King Solomon, it still holds appeal among people from a cross-section of society. Welcome to the world of freemasons.

In an apparent bid to clear misconceptions about the organisation, the freemasons from the twin cities and adjoining areas like Warangal decided to speak out and interact with the media and society recently.

Though freemasonry existed in the ancient times, the movement as we know it today, took shape in the 16th-17th century in Great Britain. A.V. Ranga Rao, a senior freemason, says, "the profession of architects and masons represented the cream of the intelligentsia in that period. And they constituted almost all the (masonic) lodges at that time. Over a period of time, its membership base has spread to include people from all professions."

Freemasonry, in the words of some of the seasoned members, is one of the world's oldest secular fraternal societies. One of the fundamental pre-requisites to be a freemason is belief in God. Atheists and non-believers are not `admitted'. Which is why while Motilal Nehru was a freemason, his son, Jawaharlal wasn't. Nor is Jyoti Basu. Which perhaps also explains why freemasonry is not as active in the communist countries.

The most distinguishing feature of the freemasons has been the secrecy attached to the organisation, its rituals and the extreme reticence of the members. But, "our meetings are held on dates and places known to many people. The notices of the meetings are sent by mail (therefore subject to interception) so where is the secrecy," ask the members. Though what goes on inside the `temple' (place of meetings) will never be revealed for historic reasons. Says P.S. Moorty, "each profession has its own guild. It protects its members and through an oath keeps a close watch so that the secrets don't leak out."

Membership to the masonic lodges isn't easy to come by. Only adult men, with a firm belief in God must be recommended by an existing freemason and then the lodge and its committees consider it. If found fit and appropriate, a person is admitted as a freemason and he needs to come through the rituals (in three stages or degrees).

Talking of rituals, there is grandeur to the rituals of the freemasons. Every freemason is dressed in a grand attire — regalia — and occupies a specific place in the temple. (The temple houses the holy works of all the important religions). Anyone who has read The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, will recall the graphic and pulsating detail in which the `Body of freemen' and their meetings are described. It is very difficult not to draw parallels between Conan Doyle's Lodges of Freemen and the masonic lodges. Says Ranga Rao, "The Valley of Fear is a wonderful novel. Perhaps, at one point of time, when you had the operational lodges, there was a tight leash over the members and leaked secrets meant death in some cases. It is not so anywhere today. With so many judges and advocates being freemasons, I think it is the most law-abiding society you would find."

Hyderabad has been home to masonic lodges for over 120 years. The British brought in freemasonry in 1872 when the St. Johns Lodge met regularly. Almost at the same time, the Mayo lodge also met here. The Nizam of Hyderabad, himself a freemason, donated a building to permanently house the movement in Goshamahal Baradari, where even today several lodges function.

The Goshamahal Baradari building itself is a monument of sorts, and represents vestiges of a bygone era. The massive banisters and balustrades, the walls adorned by portraits and photographs of many freemasons in their regalia and an equally lavish banquet hall are all awe-inspiring. As you walk around admiring the beauty of the building, a list of prominent freemasons is rattled out. An illustrious list that includes names like Socrates, Plato, Pythagoras, Henry Ford, Clive Lloyd, Swami Vivekananda, C. Rajagopalachari, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and Madhav Rao Scindia. A glimpse of the social service done by the masons is also on show.


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