They are one of the world’s oldest secretive societies whose members included Motilal Nehru, Vivekananda, JRD Tata, King George VI and George Washington, among others. Their temples and lodges are specimens of grand architecture and their arcane rituals have inspired as much curiosity as fear. They are the Freemasons.

Freemasonry, an esoteric fraternity which owes its origin in the late 16th to 17th century in Scotland and England came to India through the East India Company in the early 18th century. They are known by their most recognisable symbol of an interlaced ‘Square and Compass’, found on the facade of all Freemason’s Hall.

The Grand Lodge of India (GLI) is the main governing body of Freemasonry within India. It was officially constituted on November 24, 1961 and celebrated its Golden Jubilee last year.

Before the establishment of its own order there were three delegations from the Grand Lodge of Scotland, Grand Lodge of Ireland and Grand Lodge of England.

“Our first lodge was a military one established by the EIC in 1730. After the British took it back to England post-Independence, the oldest surviving lodge, now in India is the Calcutta’s Freemason’s Hall, known as ‘The Star in the East’,” Ambarish Singh Roy, a Freemason and Assistant Regional Grand Secretary, Regional Grand Lodge of Eastern India said.

The fraternity is administratively organised into independent Grand Lodges or sometimes Orients, each of which governs its own jurisdiction, which consists of subordinate or daughter Lodges. Grand Lodges are independent and sovereign bodies that govern Masonry in a given country, state, or geographical area (termed a jurisdiction).

Made famous by the bestsellers of Dan Brown, like ‘The Da Vinci Code’, the Freemasons society commands a global membership of over 6 millions and their number in India is only growing. Their secret and elaborate rituals involve a checkered-board floor and their lodges are run well by ‘Grand Masters’.

India’s first President Rajendra Prasad, first Vice-President S Radhakrishnan, Sir Phirozeshah Mehta, C Rajagopalachari, Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, the Nawab Of Pataudi Mansur Ali Khan, Maharaja Jivaji Rao Scindia, among other eminent Indians, were also Freemasons, according to information on the Regional Grand Lodge of North India.

Ambarish and other Freemasons from around the world participated in their 12th World Conference and 51st Grand Festival of India organised recently in South India.

The two-day conference in Mahabalipuram saw around 37 Grand Masters from their respective Lodges and carried the theme of “The Role of Freemasonry in Universal Peacekeeping”.

The conference was followed by a Grand Festival in Chennai which ended with the formal induction of new Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of India.

“RW Bro Vasudev Masurekar took over the charge of the next Grand Master from MW Bro Capt Dr B Balaram Biswakumar in a formal ceremony that was held during the festival,” B Kamakoti, Grand Secretary said.

Freemasons around the world though do not operate under an over-arching body they recognise and derecognise each other. Each country has one central Grand Lodge which is run by a Grand Master elected every three year.

“At the conference only those Lodges were invited which are in ‘amity with each other’ which means those that recognise each other. Also, during a world conference only the Grand Masters (GMs) are allowed to speak or present papers,” Kamakoti added.

The Grand Secretary affirmed that now with so many literature and cinema based on or featuring Freemasonry, whatever myths that been associate with it, must been dispelled.

“I believe whatever myths people had associated with Freemasonry have been dispelled now with so many books and movies, having come out and I feel really sorry for those who say, who do not know or have heard of this,” Kamakoti added.

Well, despite their presence with architecturally striking buildings bearing the ‘Square and Compass’, in almost all major cities in India, Freemasonry has still remained a somewhat esoteric and a mythical term. But its members say, they brush by it almost everyday albeit unwittingly.

“The iconic Rashtrapati Bhavan (Viceroy’s House) has Masonic signatures as many British kings were Freemasons. In fact, the plan of the creation of the New Delhi capital has Masonry embedded in it.

Even, the Jantar Mantar has Masonic elements. We can see it, a layman cannot,” added Roy who said Freemasonry involves a lot of study on astronomy as well.

Asked if Freemasonry is present in Pakistan, the Grand Lodge of India informed that it existed earlier before being disbanded by ex-Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and ex-President Zia-ul Haq.

“We did had Freemasonry in Pakistan but it was disbanded during the reign of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Zia-ul Haq and now those building are being used as government bungalows and post-offices, among others,” Roy added.

“The Goshamal Baradari in Hyderabad, built in 1682 by Sultan Abul Hassan Tanasha, is the oldest building used as a Masonic Temple in India. It was donated to the fraternity in 1872 by the Nizam of Hyderabad,” Roy said expounding on the architectural heritage of Freemasonry in India.

The organisers believed that Freemasonry would only rise in popularity from here and cited the example of the “revival of the long dormant Patna Regional Grand Lodge which had its Annual Meeting this January” and are now targeting the Ranchi lodge.

The world conference also marked a unique achievement for India as the only country to have been allowed so far to host it twice after being given the nod for the 2002 edition in New Delhi. The next edition is scheduled to be hosted by Romania in 2014.