Freemasonry was brought to India by members of the British East India Company with the first Lodge established under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of England – No. 72 – consecrated in 1728 at Fort William, Calcutta, Bengal. The following year, 1729, Captain Ralph Farwinter was appointed Provisional Grand Master for East India. A Provincial Grand Lodge was established in Madras in 1752 and a Provincial Grand Lodge in Bombay in 1758.

Other countries and Masonic jurisdictions also established Lodges in India. Those under the Irish Constitution were the product of travelling regimental lodges. Scottish Constitution lodges appear at the beginning of the nineteenth century as a function of trade and the military. But at least three other constitutions were also present: Lodge Solomon was founded in 1758 at Tandelga, Bengal, under the Dutch Constitution by the Commander-of-the-Fleet of the Netherlands East India Company; a French Constitution lodge, Sincere Amité, was chartered at Pondicherry in 1787; and in 1807 Lodge de l’amour Fraternelle was founded at Tranquebar in Tamil Nadu with a warrant granted by the National Grand Lodge of Denmark.

The first recorded Indian freemason was a Muslim, Umdat-ul-Umara, the future Nawab of Arcot. He was initiated in 1775 in Lodge Perfect Unanimity, Madras, and after his initiation stated that he considered the title of an English Mason to be ‘at once a cement to the friendship between your nation and me and confirms me the friend of mankind’. He expanded on the sentiment in a letter to the Grand Master of England in 1778:

An early knowledge and participation of the benefits arising to our house from its intimate union of councils and interests with the British nation and a deep veneration for the laws, constitutions and manners of the latter, have for many years of my life led me to seize every opportunity of drawing the ties subsisting between us closer and closer. By the accounts which have reached me of the principles and practices of your Fraternity, nothing can be more pleasing to the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe, who we all, though in different ways, adore, or more honourable to His creatures, for they stand upon the broad basis of indiscriminate and universal benevolence. Under this conviction I have long wished to be admitted of your Fraternity; and now that I am initiated, I consider the title of an English Mason as one of the most honourable I possess.

India underwent substantial change under British rule, not all of which was beneficial. But freemasonry with its emphasis on fraternity and brotherly relief, and a symbolism that had parallels with Eastern faiths, attracted the interest of many educated Indians living in Bombay and Calcutta, in particular members of the Zoroastrian community.

By the 1840s a minority of British Freemasons were seeking to recruit Indians into the Craft, but they met resistance. In Bengal, for example, by-law 55 of the Provincial Grand Lodge prevented Indians from admission and it was not until 1872 that the first Hindu, a Bro. P. C. Dutt, was admitted to Lodge Anchor & Hope, and then only after nine years of blackballing and appeals. In Bombay, however, matters moved more positively and more rapidly with the consequence that, after some effort, Lodge Rising Star of Western India was formed in 1843 as the first Masonic lodge open to those not of European origin.

Lodge Rising Star of Western India was established following an application in 1840 by Maneckjee Cursetjee, a citizen of Bombay, to Lodge Perseverance, No. 546, then under the English Constitution. Following his rejection on grounds of race, Maneckjee petitioned the Duke of Sussex, the Grand Master of UGLE. The duke ruled that it was improper to discriminate and that Maneckjee should be admitted to freemasonry. Delighted at this pronouncement, Maneckjee sailed for London but when he arrived found that the duke was travelling in Europe. Not wishing to delay his initiation, Maneckjee left for Paris where under the patronage of the Duke of Caze, the Most Venerable of the Grand Orient of France, he was initiated in Lodge A La Gloria de l’Universe.

On his return to Bombay, Maneckjee was invited to visit but not to join Lodge Perseverance. He declined. He was then proposed as a joining member, but the proposal failed on the ballot. Frustrated by such racism, several members agreed to petition the Provincial Grand Master under the Scottish Constitution, Dr James Burnes, to create a new lodge that would admit both Europeans and non-Europeans.

The petition, signed by twenty-seven freemasons, was delivered on 19 November 1843 and asked that Burnes constitute the lodge, name it, and become its first Master. A dispensation was granted and in December 1843 Lodge Rising Star was established with Burnes as its first Master and Maneckjee Cursetji its first Secretary. On the day the lodge was consecrated, Ardeshir Cursetji Wadia, the first Indian to become a Fellow of the Royal Society, and three Muslim Moghul merchants were proposed for initiation. And at the following meeting in January 1844, Ardeshir Cursetji Wadia and Mirza Ali Mohamed Shoostry were initiated and, for the first time in a Masonic Lodge, the Zend Avesta and Quran were placed on the altar alongside the Christian Bible.

Two years after its formation, Lodge Rising Star had sixty members and ended its third year with a further seventeen. Other lodges followed and began to accept non-European members in the 1850s. Hindus and Sikhs joined freemasonry and in the following years the Bhagavad Gita and Granth Sahib were placed on the altar.

Across the sub-continent the Lodge provided a unique environment in which Indians of different religions and communities, and Indians and Europeans, could interact. Freemasonry may not have been the only movement that spread the principle of friendship and unity across sectarian and class lines but it was probably one of the most effective. Admittedly, the Craft’s success in fostering fraternal bonds across doctrinal divides also served colonial purposes by ‘bringing together men of every rank and station, annihilating prejudices of creed and profession, reconciling opposite temperaments, and cultivating good will and brotherly love’.

Freemasonry provided an escape valve in an otherwise highly structured colonial culture, enabling Indians to be ‘citizens of Empire’ and achieve brotherhood with the British. The Craft also brought together the different communities within India, something acknowledged at the time:

high and low, rich and poor, member and visitor meet in a fraternal manner that magnetizes and knits heart to heart, and forms friendships and establishes connections never to be broken.

In 1867, the Master of Lodge Rising Star of Western India, Rustomjee Bahadurjee, declared that:

Freemasonry is spread all over the world, but in India she has special ends to accomplish. If at this moment there is any institution which is calculated to unite the governing and the governed in a bond of friendship and brotherhood, it is, I humbly submit, this institution, and hence this Lodge, which is specially for the benefit of the Natives, holds a position peculiar to itself.

And a decade later in 1877, K. R. Cama, a leading merchant and fellow lodge member, commented similarly:

It is hard to think of any other institution in India at the time that had the power to effect such social cohesion between the races and, for the British, to contribute to imperial consolidation among the more influential members of the colonized community.

Freemasonry also influenced the independence movement in India. Half the presidents of the India National Congress were freemasons, including Dadabhai Naoroji, ‘the Grand Old Man of India’, a founding member of London’s Marquis of Dalhousie Lodge, No. 1159, its first Secretary (1867–71) and later its Master (1871-72). Dadabhai was a founder of the Indian National Congress in Bombay in 1885. He was elected its president in 1886 and again in 1893 and 1906, and was a mentor to a younger generation of nationalist leaders including Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Mohandas Gandhi, and Muhammed Ali Jinnah. Dadabhai was elected to the British Parliament in 1892, the first non-white person to become an MP, from where he argued strongly in favour of reform in the governance of India.