At the end of a cul-de-sac in the Egmore district of Chennai, there's an imposing century-old building which still serves the purpose for which it was constructed. It's Chennai's Freemasons' Hall.
The masons are, of course, a secret society. But when I sent an email asking if I could have a look around their Chennai HQ, I got a prompt call back saying: sure, come along. I'm not a mason and didn't pretend to be - but I was made very welcome,
The hall is on the banks of the river Cooum - but happily sufficiently far back to be protected from its stench - and is surrounded by trees which prevent a full vista of what is an elegant colonnaded building.
The Freemasons' Hall was opened in 1925. The governor of Madras, Lord Willingdon, had laid the foundation stone a couple of years earlier. But the history of masonic lodges in this part of India stretches back to the 1750s.
An earlier masonic temple in the San Thome district is now - according to S. Muthiah's authoritative and encyclopedic Madras Rediscovered - the office of the Director-General of Police. Some masonic insignia is apparently still visible there.
The Egmore hall is well kept and was being renovated when I visited. I was shown round the three masonic temples on the site - the biggest seats 250 people - and the three dining halls. All the masonic paraphernalia - sashes, aprons, set square, dividers - was on display, but I was asked not to take any photos.
These images of the main hall and temple are taken from a masonic website:
I was told that the Chennai district remains home to about fifty lodges - six following the English constitution, one each in the Scottish and Irish tradition, and the rest falling under the masons' Indian constitution. What's the difference? I don't know.
There are a couple of small masonic halls on the outskirts of Chennai, but this is the main masonic meeting place in the city. There was no sign of women's involvement in freemasonry - all the photos on the website feature men (though remarkably the redoubtable Annie Besant was an active freemason more than a century ago).
When many other institutions dating from the colonial era are struggling to survive, the freemasons seem to be in robust health.
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