In the winter of 2012, Sadhana Rao disembarked from her flight in Delhi after having been to London for the third time in 18 months. At the end of her final trip, she had been initiated as a Master Mason into the Honorable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons, or HFAF: a women’s-only Masonic fraternity from London. For the next five years, however, she would remain the only woman Freemason in India.
“I remember that feeling of excitement, and how different I felt before and after the initiation ceremony,” she told me when I visited her apartment in Gurugram this March. “I also remember wanting to share that experience with someone, and realising sadly there was no one here to share it with.” Sadhana’s disappointment would eventually lead her to found Lodge Bharati, a Masonic lodge exclusively for women—the only such one in all of Asia. But, she said, “At that time I could not have expected how difficult it would be.”
The HFAF is one of only two Masonic orders for women across the world. For most of its history, however, Freemasonry was solely for men. Masonic fraternities began as guilds for craftsmen in Europe in the late fourteenth century, as stonemasons came together to form organisations to regulate their professional practices. In time, Masonic lodges promulgated across the continent, in the process welcoming members who were not craftsmen. They began hosting intellectual and spiritual discussions, and developed a complex system of allegory and symbolism to foster these discussions. Though the existence of these organisations was no secret, only Masons were privy to their allegory and rituals. The combination of this secrecy and the heavy use of symbols meant that Freemasonry was, and continues to be, easy fodder for conspiracy theorists. In an interview with an Indian newspaper in 2012, for example, Sadhana was asked whether Freemasons practised “Satanic rituals.”
In time, “co-Masonries” were formed—lodges consisting of both men and women. The HFAF used to be one of these, but, around the start of the twentieth century, its members decided to stop admitting new male members. It eventually became a fully female Masonic order. The HFAF shares its traditions, symbols, and allegory with the United Grand Lodge of England, or UGLE—the largest Masonic organisation in the world, in London.
Freemasonry was brought to India well before the HFAF became a women’s order. British colonial officers who were keen to maintain their relations with their Masonic orders during their time abroad founded lodges on the subcontinent as early as 1730. Lodges remain peppered across India today. The Masonic temple of the Grand Lodge of India—which is affiliated with the UGLE, and is also the governing body of all Masonic lodges in India—is located in central Delhi’s Connaught Place.
When Sadhana married her husband, GD Rao, he had already been a Freemason associated with the GLI for several years. “We used to attend all these dinners, and after the meal and some toasts, all the men would retreat into one room and the wives would be left outside,” she told me. “I used to wonder what they were doing inside, but of course my husband couldn’t tell me.”
Lodge Bharati almost entirely consists of wives of Freemasons, and the other members I spoke with expressed similar sentiments when I talked to them. I met Smitha Rao—the current secretary of Lodge Bharati, whose husband is also a Freemason—in her apartment in Noida. For four years, Smitha, a dentist, volunteered at the General Williams Masonic Polyclinic, a charitable institution that is associated with the GLI, located near the Masonic temple in Connaught Place. From the windows of the polyclinic, Smitha could see the big red building every day: an imposing symbol of what she could not fully be a part of. “Whenever I used to walk by, I used to feel this pang in my heart, you know? Being so close to it but also so far.”
Being on the margins of the community for so long eventually drove Sadhana to become a Freemason herself. “My husband used to say that Freemasonry had to do with ‘making good men better,’ and I thought, why just men? I want to do that,” she said. From 2008 onwards, with the encouragement and advice of Devinder Gupta, the former Chief Justice of the High Court of Andhra Pradesh, and also the former Grand Master—the head—of the GLI, Sadhana began to do online research about Freemasonry. She learnt that there were orders that admitted women, wrote to two of them, and, “Within a week the HFAF had responded to me.” When they asked her why she wanted to join, she explained that hearing about her husband’s experiences with Freemasonry made her want similar ones for herself. The HFAF invited her to join the order, and she went to London for her initiation. The process occurred over three separate trips, during each of which Sadhana was conferred a different degree related to her level of knowledge of the rituals and allegory of the HFAF.
After her initiation, Sadhana visited London once every year from 2012 to 2015, both to attend meetings with the HFAF, as well as to negotiate a path to recruit fellow women from India. One sticking point proved to be the initiation process: many of the potential members in India could not manage three trips to London, either because of the financial resources it required, because they had too many family obligations, or both. “It was the problem of the Indian woman’s family commitment,” Sadhana said. “You have to worry about in-laws, parents, kids, spouses. It’s hard to just leave everything like that.”
In late 2015, after four years of discussion, the HFAF agreed to send 20 of its members from London to India in late 2016, to conduct the initiation and consecrate Lodge Bharati. This marked the first time the HFAF had sent anyone abroad to initiate new members. To find people interested in joining, Sadhana reached out through Wives of Freemasons: a national network for spouses of male Freemasons. The costs of the ten-day ceremony were funded by the new members and Bharti Patel, an HFAF member from London.
In November 2016, 20 new members were initiated into the HFAF, in a ritual presided over by the order’s Grand Master from London. The ceremony also conferred Sadhana with the title of Worshipful Master—the head—of Lodge Bharati, and established Women Freemasons of India: a body to facilitate the formation of provincial lodges within India. “I was astonished. It was like a dream come true,” said Richa Chandla, the Master of Ceremonies of Lodge Bharati, who organises and conducts the lodge’s meetings. “If Sadhana were not there, if she were not firm, this could never have happened.”
The uniqueness of the space the new Freemasons created is not lost on them. “For women in India,” Smitha explained, it can be a “struggle to even travel outside the house.” Because of that, she said, “Freemasonry becomes that go-to place for comfort. It becomes a safe haven, a place for women to just be themselves and to discuss what it means to be better human beings.” The members of Lodge Bharati also have plans to create a charity focussed on girls’ education in India.
Lodge Bharati now has 27 members, and Sadhana expects it will have nearly double that by the end of the year. They certainly have a large pool to pick from: the only two requirements to apply are a minimum age of 18, and some sense of spiritual belief in a higher power.
But not all of India’s Freemasons openly acknowledge the success of Lodge Bharati. According to the women I spoke to, the GLI, in adherence to a few archaic traditions of the UGLE, which bar their lodges from officially recognising any Masonic orders of women, does not share the spaces of their lodges or conduct official events with Lodge Bharati. As a consequence, instead of meeting at the GLI’s Masonic temple in Janpath, the women of Lodge Bharati conduct their meetings in a rented space in Gurugram. When I contacted current members of the GLI, including Devinder Gupta, they would not speak to me about Lodge Bharati.
But when I asked Sadhana about the male Freemasons’ reaction to the new lodge, it was clear that she found the matter almost irrelevant. “From the beginning we knew we would have their support, but not necessarily their cooperation,” she said. “What I care about is that we have achieved what we wanted to achieve in the beginning. We have brought about a change in ourselves.”