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.”
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