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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XX No. 13, October 16-31, 2011
Masons remember ­ Madras connections

During Madras Week, the Freemasons of Madras and Chennai Heritage teamed together for a week of sight-and-sound programmes. Presented here are excerpts from some of the history-recollecting presentations the Freemasons made before each show.

A Nawab’s ‘Thank You’

Once the home of the first Lodge, now Police headquarters

Freemasonry first came to Madras in 1752, 22 years after it arrived in Calcutta. When the premier Grand Lodge of England issued a Warrant, to Lodge No. 222 to meet in Madras, this became the second Lodge in India. The Lodge was re-numbered in 1790 as No. 102 (a practice common prior to 1863.) The first Lodge warranted by the rival Atholl Grand Lodge was No. 152 (also known as No. 1 Provincial) which was constituted in 1768 and met at Fort St. George. This Lodge switched allegiance to the premier Grand Lodge in 1786 to become the Lodge of Perfect Unanimity No. 233 and is now the Lodge of Perfect Unanimity No. 150, the oldest Lodge in the District of Madras.

The early Lodges in Madras were generally short lived. The premier Grand Lodge warranted five Lodges between 1752 and 1765, all of which had been erased by 1801. Further Lodges were then warranted under the premier Grand Lodge of England and, from 1813, under the United Grand Lodge of England so that by 1840, 76 Lodges had been warranted under the aegies of Madras, of which 26 were then still in existence. Of those which had ceased to exist, 31 had been erased, 14 were military Lodges which had left the Province, and five had been transferred to other jurisdictions.

The Provincial Grand Lodge of the Coromandel Coast, as it was originally called, came into being with the appointment on February 27, 1767, by the premier Grand Lodge of Captain Edward Pascal, as Provincial Grand Master. In 1866 the Provincial Grand Lodge became the District Grand Lodge of Madras; from 1849 until 1907 the District also included all English Lodges in Ceylon. When the Grand Lodge of India was founded in 1961 there were 37 Lodges in the District, 18 of which opted to transfer to the new Grand Lodge. There are at present six Lodges in Chennai working under the English Constitution, all of which were formed before the Grand Lodge of India came into being.

Numerous Lodges had been constituted in India by the Moderns, while others had come into existence under the auspices of the Ancients. This situation was complicated somewhat by the fact that there were also Lodges in India of Irish and Scottish origins. However, it was in India that the warring groups joined together in harmony long before the formation of the Union of England.

The first Indian Mason was Omdat-ul-Omrah, the Nawab of Carnatic, who was initiated into the Lodge of Perfect Unanimity. When I visited the Library and Museum of Freemasonry in Freemasons’ Hall, Great Queen Street, London, the home of the United Grand Lodge of England, I asked the Librarian if there was anything of interest pertaining to this particular Nawab of the Carnatic. Lo and behold, within a few minutes, she brought out an extremely fragile looking parchment, sealed within its own micro-climatically controlled container. She then placed it on the table and allowed me to handle it, albeit only after putting on the mandatory gloves! It was, in fact, a letter from the very same Nawab to the then Grand Master, incidentially, also the British Sovereign, expressing his sincere thanks for having allowed him to be initiated into the Craft! Now wouldn’t you say that my cup runneth over?

Bro. Ranganath Sastry was the first Hindu to be admitted into Freemasonry – in the Lodge of Perfect Unanimity No. 233, in 1857.

Bharat V. Epur

The first Lodge’s search for a home

The Lodge of Perfect Unanimity is the first Lodge to have been established in Madras. It was consecrated on Saturday, October 7, 1786. There is a vivid account of the proceedings on that day when about fifty Brethren assembled at a house on the Choultry Plain at 11.30 am, when the Lodge was consecrated and constituted in a solemn manner. It was followed by an excellent lunch at two o’clock, when the Brethren raised many toasts.

The porcelain punch bowl with the Lodge of the Universal Charity. Handpainted outside and inside. Inside in the middle, is a representation of the sun. The square and compasses, symbols of Freemasonry, are seen on outer side. Other Masonic tools are seen on the three sides. The bowl rests on a beautifully carved teakwood stand.

Between 1786 and 1921, the Lodge met at several places in Madras – in the compound of the present St. Andrew’s Church in Egmore; the Pantheon Rooms on Pantheon Road, Egmore; on Spur Tank Road, Chetpet; in the premises of a Mr. Read in 1802, in Vepery; in College Hall on College Road in a place which was also used as a theatre for plays etc. This frequent displacement caused serious difficulties for the Brethren to meet with any regularity. It was about 1838 that Lord Elphinstone, the then Governor of Madras who was a Freemason, showed great interest in this matter and this culminated in plans to build a Masonic Temple at the corner of Edward Elliott’s Road (now Dr. Radhakrishnan Salai) and the Marina. The building still stands, now serving as the Headquarters of the State Police. Some of its Masonic emblems are still visible in it.

This building was used as the premises of the Lodge for some time, but various factors forced the Lodge to find an alternative location. In 1859, the Lodge had its meetings at 169 Mount Road in a place called Mr. Williams’ Rooms, taken at a rent of Rs. 20 per month, but in 1861 it started meeting again in Vepery, sharing its premises with two other Lodges of the District.

Meanwhile, the premises on the Marina were sold to the Government in 1873 for Rs. 20,000. This was invested in Government Securities at 5 per cent. With this capital available, the Lodge began a search for premises of its own and considered many properties before ending up buying a property belonging to a Mr. Garatt, a tailor, at the junction of General Patter’s Road and Mount Road. This property was spread over 100 grounds and included a building that is still in existence and which houses the Premier Laundry and Murray & Co, the auctioneers, behind the landmark LIC building. In later years, the District Grand Lodge of Madras bought the buildings from the Lodge and subsequently sold a portion of this large extent of property to redeem its debenture-debt raised earlier and create a sort of corpus of its own. This corpus helped in the acquisition of land that was a part of the Chesney Hall campus in Egmore on which was constructed the present building with its magnificent architecture. This was raised at a cost of Rs.290,000 and was inaugurated by Lord Goschen, the then Governor of Madras, on Friday, February 27, 1925.

The Lodge of Perfect Unanimity made a vital contribution to the constitution of a general Masonic Charity Fund in 1818 which formed the basis for various Masonic charitable activities over the years, disbursing relief and charity to the underprivileged. The Lodge was also substantially associated with the starting of the Male and Female Orphans’ Asylums in 1808-1809. This ultimately came to be known as the St. George’s School and Orphanage on Poonamallee High Road. The foundation stones of the building in the girls’ dining hall show evidence of Masonic ceremonial associated with the building. To this day, a nominee of the District Grand Lodge is on the Board of Management of the School.

K. Kannan

The punch bowl of fellowship

The Lodge of Universal Charity, a descendant of the Carnatic Military Lodge No. II founded in 1784, and of the Lodge Strength and Beauty VIII, Vellore, formed in 1795, was formed in 1811 but ceased to function in 1830. The warrant and furniture of the Lodge, which were then in the charge of Andrew Wight, the Master, were preserved carefully by him in the hope of one day being able to revive the Lodge. His hope was fulfilled when on May 15, 1846 the Lodge was revived and he was re-installed as the Worshipful Master. The Lodge has been functioning continuously since then. Among its Brethren today is Bro V.V. Venkatasubramanian, aged 95, a member of the Lodge for the past 65 years and who still attends its meetings.

The Lodge has in its possession a beautiful Punch Bowl which is more than 200 years old. It was received as a gift in 1813 from the Carnatic Lodge No II. It is displayed annually at installation meetings in the Lodge.

The word ‘Punch’ is nothing but a mispronunciation of the Hindi word Panch, meaning five. A mix of five ingredients made the drink – arrack, sugar, lime juice, nutmeg and toasted bread pieces. The Englishmen who first tasted this drink were so taken by it that they very soon introduced it at many of their parties. They mixed the drink in a big bowl usually made of porcelain from China and let the imbibers help themselves liberally using big ladles. In course of time, brandy and wine replaced arrack and large slices of lemon took the place of the toasted bread pieces. Songs, innumerable, have proclaimed the virtues of Punch, and extolled it as a panacea for all diseases

A description of the drink is found in the Book of Days, a book of antiquities written by Robert Chambers. He records, under the date 25.10.1694: “Punch is comparatively a modern beverage, and came to us from India, in the latter part of the seventeenth century. One of the earliest printed notices of it is in Fryer’s Travels, published in 1672, where we are told that punch is an enervating liquor, drunk on the Coromandel Coast, and deriving its name from the Industani word paunch, signifying five, the number of ingredients required to form the mixture. Sailors brought the novel compound from the East, and for some time it seems to have been drunk by them alone.

The Indian potation, making its way from sea to land, met everywhere with a most welcome reception. In 1680, a doggrel poem, titled ‘Bacchanalia Celestia’ extolling its virtues appeared from the pen of one Captain Ratcliff. In this effusion, Jupiter is represented with certain minor deities on Mount Olympus, hearing for the first time of the novel beverage just invented on earth, and determined to try it. Accordingly, all united to compound a jovial bowl of punch.”

Universal Charity’s Bowl has outlived its glorious days. It is now a decorative piece and is no longer put to the same use as in the past. One of the reasons is that the bowl has developed a small crack and can no longer hold any potation without leaking it. Moreover, the present-day Brethren have milder preferences when it comes to a question of tasting a drink.

Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote the following lines about an old silver Punch Bowl that he had come across: “This ancient bowl of ours, it tells of good old times, of joyous days, and jolly nights, merry Christmas chimes. Those who used it – they were a free and jovial race, but honest, brave and true that dipped their ladle in the punch when this old bowl was new. Our eyes grow moist and dim, to think of all the vanished joys that danced around its brim.”

D. Rajasekaran

Freemasons recalled

The Pitt Macdonald Lodge was consecrated in 1867 in memory of Brother Maj. Gen. William Pitt Macdonald, the last Provincial Grand Master and the first District Grand Master of the District Grand Lodge of Madras. This is the third oldest Lodge in the city.

James Higgs, a member of the Pitt Macdonald Lodge, was the Managing Director of Higginbotham’s from 1890 onwards and was associated with the construction of the impressive new building of this iconic bookshop. The most distinguishing feature of this building is its splendid winding staircase. There is strong reason to believe that this staircase must have been the idea of James Higgs. Freemasons have a great passion for winding staircases, as nothing distinguishes Masonic architecture more than the winding staircase!

The last British Mason who became the District Grand Master, Sir George Townsend Boag had served as Chief Secretary of Madras and Governor of Orissa. He was also the Dewan of Cochin for two years. He led the District Grand Lodge of Madras from 1933 to 1946. Boag had his residence in T’Nagar and a road there was named after him. When he planned to return to Britain, his house was purchased by Kurma Venkata Reddy, then acting Chief Minister of Madras Presidency. The house was later purchased by famous film star Sivaji Ganesan and Boag Road in more recent times became Chevalier Sivaji Ganesan Road in honour of the thespian.

Eardley Norton, that wonderful barrister, was associated with the Indian National Congress right from its early days. He participated in the 1887 session of the Congress held in Madras at which he made a much acclaimed speech defending his support for Indian nationalists and association with the Congress. As an outcome of the Madras session, Norton was appointed a member of the committee which drafted the constitution of the Indian National Congress. Norton was responsible for getting Parry & Co. to build in 1897 Lawyers’ Block at the corner of Esplande (now NSC Bose Road) and Moore Street. The building housed quite a few lawyers’ offices, including that of Norton.

The British in the English Lodges in India did not consider the Indians masons as their junior Brethren. They treated them as their equals. It was but a short step from there for the first Indian, T.V. Muthukrishna Iyer, to become the District Grand Master in the pre-Independence era.

One last tidbit. This was a tip to the Brethren visiting Madras on business or pleasure to stay at the Madras Club. The note says: “This Club is an admirable institution. Without insisting upon an aristocratic exclusiveness, it is nevertheless an asylum for gentlemen. It is well and liberally conducted and the charges come within the means of most persons in the upper circle of society. Living at the Club costs about a guinea, ten rupees, per diem!”

K.V. Srinivasan

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In this issue

Your Worship, here's Musings' wish-list
Automotive sector wakes up to traffic woes
Masons remember ­ Madras connections
The Mystery of the ­Appearing Lorises
Changing with the times
Reviving a heritage craft

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