A chance encounter opens a portal to the history of Freemasonry in Delhi, shrouded in myths and mysteries
On a hot Monday afternoon, when clouds were looming large on the horizon but holding back the rain, there was a knock on the door of a neighbour’s flat. It was a young man dressed in a black coat and trousers, with dark-rimmed spectacles covering almost half his face, who introduced himself as Udayan. He had come to discuss the virtues of Freemasonry after reading an article by the neighbour, who had expressed some doubts.
It was Sir Thomas Metcalfe, the mid-19th century British Resident in Delhi, who had become curious about Freemasonry (with its weird rituals and symbols) and invited some members of the secret guild to Metcalfe House, now a DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) office. The meeting took place in the basement, which is now lying vacant and is described by some as haunted.
The scientists, however, are sceptical but other staff is not above believing the gossip. In the past some chowkidars had heard voices, interrupted by screams, in the basement and the clanking of an iron chain as though a prisoner were being led to his execution. Dr. T. N. Upadhyay, an ex-DRDO scientist, confirmed that he had heard some such stories though he found it hard to believe them. However, he also confirmed that the basement was used after the Revolt of 1857 to interrogate and punish freedom fighters. History books say that Sir Thomas’s heir, Sir Theophilus Metcalfe, who had to seek refuge in Rajputana to save his life after his ancestral house was attacked and badly damaged, was prosecutor and judge combined. “The ghosts of the dead still haunt the basement,” said a credulous employee.
Obviously Freemasonry had nothing to do with ghostly tales. Udayan asserted that it was a fraternal organisation whose annual membership fee in the Capital was about Rs 6,500 at which, besides lectures and seminars, one was assured of good lunches and dinners, plus amiable company of the cream of society. His take was that Freemasonry started a long time back, during the days when the Pyramids were being built in Egypt, though the organisation came into its own when the Grand Temple in Jerusalem had been constructed by Solomon the Magnificent 3000 years ago and hence its biblical affiliations. After completing the building the workers decided to form a guild of Freemasons (freed from the project assigned to them). It was then that Hiram Habif, the master-builder from Tyre, was murdered because Solomon wanted the bejewelled secret Word of God worn by Habif on his covered forehead, which was later buried at the base of the temple.
In the Middle Ages Freemasonry began to make its presence felt in Europe with the coming up of Lodges, particularly in England and then in the USA, notwithstanding Edgar Allen Poe’s horror story, “The Pit and the Pendulum” about a traitor’s end. Significantly there are no women members of the guild. In India the British set up the first Lodge at Fort William, Calcutta in 1728-29 (year of Masonry 5732). Among the members were rajas, nawabs, judges, lawyers, doctors, professors, civil and military officers and other elite. In Delhi, Lodge Star was consecrated in 1857 but was “washed off” during the Revolt. It was resuscitated in 1861 but erased in 1864. Next year Lodge Phoenix was established. In 1872 it was replaced by Lodge Jamuna, which held its meetings in Daryaganj, Jamuna Road and Mori Gate. In 1889 the Lodge was moved to a permanent rent-free site in Qudsia Garden, where it stays. People living nearby started calling it Jadoo Ghar (house of magic) because of late-night meetings by men in black. On 24 November, 1961 The Grand Lodge of India was consecrated at Ashoka Hotel and three days later the Regional Grand Lodge of Northern India came up at the Freemasons’ Hall, New Delhi, while at Agra Very Worthy Brother K. N. Wason (a famous shoe manufacturers and exporter) headed Lodge Star. Mathura had its Lodge Ligonier.
The visitor in black to MIG Flats was at pains to demolish damaging myths about Freemasonry. The guild, informed Udayan, works to further humanitarian causes — health, education, charity and calamity relief. Besides, the Nizam, the Nawabs of Rampur, Chatthari and Pataudi, C. Rajagopalachari and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed were among its members. When the visitor left he shook hands in a strange way (by which Freemasons worldwide recognise each other), leaving behind a buzzing mystery that helped the neighbour to overcome the languor of an intensely humid day all right.