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Masonic Ritual and the Display of Empire in 19th-Century India and Beyond

Rituel Maçonnique et mise en scène de l’Empire dans l’Inde coloniale du xixe siècle et au-delà
Simon Deschamps


Cet article se propose d’explorer le rôle de la franc-maçonnerie dans la mise en scène, la diffusion et la célébration de l’Empire britannique. Il fait valoir que les loges maçonniques occupaient une place centrale dans la sphère publique coloniale indienne. Elles organisèrent des processions, des cérémonies de pose de la première pierre et des banquets sans commune mesure, qui devinrent partie intégrante de la représentation impériale. Le rituel maçonnique, par conséquent, occupa une place centrale dans la mise en scène du pouvoir colonial en Inde et contribua également à promouvoir le culte de l’Empire qui se développa dans les dernières décennies du xixe siècle. À cet égard, la franc-maçonnerie offre une perspective intéressante qui permet d’articuler le local et le global, le matériel et le culturel, Empire formel et informel. Elle offre également un éclairage intéressant sur les circulations impériales.

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1When the concept of imperial display is applied to 19th-century British India, what immediately comes to mind is the 1877 Delhi Durbar, which was a mass celebration of Queen Victoria’s assumption of the title of Empress of India. Anthropologist Bernard Cohn was one of the first to deconstruct this key piece in the dramaturgy of colonial power. And yet, despite all the scholarship devoted to such grandiose pageantry, little attention has been paid to the type of everyday life display that such social and cultural organizations as Freemasonry had to offer. Actually, Freemasonry was particularly well suited for the task because, paradoxically maybe, it had a long-standing tradition of ritualized public performance. This is where this paper stems from. To what extent did Masonic ritual become an integral part of imperial display? What did Masonic ritual have to offer? How instrumental was this incorporation in the exercise of colonial rule? What role were the native elites meant to play?

2The first part of this paper will focus on Freemasonry’s early contribution to imperial pageantry, while the second part will highlight how Indian Feemasonry specifically framed the Indian Empire as a consensual and fraternal partnership. The third and final part will examine colonial India as the cradle of the Masonic cult of Empire.

3In the context of colonial India, the British were obsessed with controlling the image they gave off. ‘He wears a mask and his face grows to it . . . A sahib has got to act like a sahib’, to quote George Orwell (Orwell 8). The British were convinced that the Indians were particularly sensitive to show and pageantry (Cohn 2004, 125). Mastering public display in the colonial public sphere, which had emerged in the last quarter of the 18th century, and which Mrinalini Sinha defines as ‘an intermediate zone between both metropolitan and indigenous public spheres’, was crucial (Sinha 492). In A Passage to India, Forster mentions how the windows of the British clubs were barred so that the natives would not peep inside, especially as the heavy consumption of gin might have slightly affected the way they were seen (Forster 24). This colonial public sphere was the stage on which imperial rule and power relations were to be performed through acts of social and political communication. In his work on social performance, Jeffrey Alexander explains how the public sphere was the prime site of ‘cultural performance’, which consists in displaying for others the reality that they ‘wish to have others believe’ (Alexander 547). British imperialism, therefore, had a strong spatial component and ought to be read in terms of the visual occupation of space, temporary and permanent, a form of colonial habitus, which assigned roles to its participants.

  • 1 The Provincial Grand Master of Bengal held the highest masonic office in India.

4In their attempt to control the colonial public sphere, the British experimented with various forms of public display, including Masonic ritual. Back in Britain, Masonic processions and cornerstone-laying ceremonies took place on a regular basis, at least until the Combination Act of 1799 (Clawson 228). In India, by contrast, they continued with unabated enthusiasm and were actually sponsored by the colonial administration. Freemasonry in India was ostentatious. It organized public processions, banquets and cornerstone-laying ceremonies on an unprecedented scale. These were regular public events attended by hundreds of spectators. In 1813, for instance, 120 Masons walked in procession Government House in Calcutta so as to greet Lord Moira-Hastings, who had just been appointed as Governor-general of India and Provincial Grand Master of Bengal.1 Moira-Hastings expressed his gratitude for such a splendid welcome, ‘here, where, above all other parts of the world, attachment to ceremonies appears the most rooted’ (Chunder 20). This is a remarkable example of the amalgamation of imperial and Masonic ritual. Much in the same way, his successor, Governor William Pitt Amherst (1823-1828), who was not a mason, also expressly asked the Freemasons of Calcutta to lay the foundation stone of the Hindu College, in 1824 (Firminger 166). This was quite a pattern. In the words of the Calcutta Gazette, the foundation stone of the Hindu College was laid ‘with the usual imposing ceremonies of Masonry’ (Cohn 2004, 645). And indeed, Freemasonry was involved in laying the cornerstones of most colonial buildings in India (Fozdar 299). But how can the colonial administration’s particular interest in Masonic pageantry be accounted for?

5Part of the answer lies in the fact Masonic ceremonies were tailored to impress and meant to be a spectacle. They were colourful, picturesque and imposing events. Many governor-generals were Masons themselves (Cornwallis, Wellesley, Moira, Elphinstone, Dalhousie, Ampthill, Connaught). Besides, it was customary for the local respectability to be invited and partake. Most Masonic events were actually advertised in the press and received wide coverage. This is how the Calcutta Gazette described the Hindu College cornerstone laying ceremony: ‘As far as the eye could reach, it met Tiers above Tiers of human faces, the house tops in every direction being crowded to cramming by the natives anxious to have a view of the imposing scene’ (Firminger 167). Much like the traditional Indian durbars, Masonic ceremonies followed a script and obeyed very strict rules regarding the placement of people and objects: ‘His Excellency WILL then direct the Ceremony to commence . . . . The District Grand Superintendent of Works, English Constitution WILL hand the plate to the District Grand Secretary’ (Letter 23rd January 1895). The itinerary of the procession was also endowed with symbolic meaning as most of the time, the brothers walked in procession from the Government House to the Church, which clearly further identified freemasonry with the local Establishment. Masonic processions were organized with military precision, which is not all that surprising considering the military ranked high in Masonic membership in India. This takes us back to the etymology of the word ‘rite’, which literally means ‘order’. In fact, the association of military uniforms and Masonic regalia and jewels added to the visual impact and further amalgamated Masonic and imperial hierarchies. This is an aspect of colonial rule that ought not to be neglected as clothing, according to Bernard Cohn, played an important part in the metaphors of power and authority. Interestingly enough, the impressive quality of Masonic regalia and jewels was often pointed out in the press: ‘The scene had a truly sublime character. In the square area stood the Brethren of the mystic Institution in their badges and jewels of the ceremony’ (Cohn 1983, 177). Beyond its obvious aesthetic qualities, Masonic ritual was deemed all the more valuable to represent Victorian authority in India as it conveyed a sense of respectability, order and prestige.

6Masonic ritual was also in perfect agreement with the Victorian code of conduct the British sought to put on display, and most notably ‘masculinity’. This was such a concern that in 1854, wearing a moustache became compulsory for East India Company troops garrisoned in Bombay (Hyam 411). Indians were believed to be particularly sensitive to this display of manliness. Of course, all Freemasons did not wear a moustache, but Masonic lodges were the exclusive preserve of men and promoted male fraternalism. In her study of fraternalism, Mary-Ann Clawson identifies four defining characteristics, which are ‘a corporate idiom, ritual, proprietorship and masculinity’ (Clawson 53). And these are precisely the values that the British sought to encode in their public displays. In Masonic banquets, the celebration of masculinity went hand in hand with the cult of British military heroes. In 1812, for instance, a banquet was organized on St. John’s Day in Calcutta, during the course of which the brethren gave several patriotic toasts including to ‘His Majesty King John the Third’, but also ‘Our Noble and Gallant Brother the Marquis Wellington, and the brave Brethren and Heroes under his command’, and ‘the heroes of the battle of Seringapatam’, by which the British had defeated Tipu Sultan in 1799 (Firminger 122–23). British masculinity was all the more defining as it was contrasted with the alleged feebleness and effeminacy of the Indian. In the departure speech he delivered in 1823, Moira himself mentioned ‘the degradation of manhood in the Asiatic regions’ (Gould 2003, 185). In his Culture and Imperialism (1993), Edward Said further explains the relationship between ritual and representation: ‘No less than the image of Greece, images of European authority were buttressed and shaped during the nineteenth century, and where but in the manufacture of rituals, ceremonies, and traditions could this be done’ (Said 16). This process became a lot more institutionalized after the 1857 Indian Rebellion, at a time when the legitimacy and supremacy of the British were increasingly called into question.

7It is particularly difficult to assess how exactly the native public reacted to Masonic pageantry, especially as most accounts portray the Indians as mere spectators, captivated by the spectacle before them, as in the case of the following article, taken from the Indian News:

The scene that presented itself, was altogether highly picturesque and imposing, and must have been particularly so to those who had never before witnessed anything of the kind. The masonic brethren all arrayed in their richest costumes, with the setting sun glittering upon their various decorations; the thousands of natives grouped around them. (Carey 82)

8Alexander explains that: ‘The actor’s desire is to cause the spectator to confuse his emotions with those of the stage character’ (Alexander 530). But did he? We know for a fact, that the natives sometimes referred to the lodge as Jadu Ghur or the house of magic, traces of which can be found in the Masonic press: ‘They [the Indians] also consider that “Magic” is practised by them [the Freemasons] and they term the Lodge building “Jadoo Gurh”, Sorcery or Magic-house’ (The Freemasons’ Quarterly Review 1839, 88). Other testimonies also mention the fact some Indians associated foundation stone laying ceremonies to magic and more precisely the Boothkhanawallas or houses of the devil (Fozdar 33). There are also converging accounts that suggest that Masonic temples were left unharmed during the Indian Revolt of 1857. And yet, the greatest caution is required as to the credit that can be given to such testimonies, which were essentially circulated by the British.

9In the wake of the Indian Revolt, the British Parliament abolished the East India Company, and placed India under direct authority of the Crown with the Government of India Act (1858). In the words of Lord Lytton, the new Viceroy and Governor-general, the new strategy was designed ‘to appeal to the Asiatic sentiment and traditions of the Native Indian aristocracy . . . to increase the éclat of [Her] Majesty's Indian Empire’ (Gopal 113). This is where the renewed interest in imperial pageantry originated. The ultimate purpose was to create a new narrative that would better accommodate British presence in India. The Royal Titles Act of 1876 made Victoria Empress of India and was enacted on the occasion of the so-called ‘Imperial Assemblage’, which took place the following year in Delhi. This grandiose piece of pageantry was designed to display the loyalty of Indian princes to the new Empress and was fashioned after the traditional Indian durbars organized by the Mughal emperors. Forms of public ritual that could incorporate the native elite into the new narrative were therefore in high demand.

10Masonic ritual could easily fit them into the picture because unlike most forms of imported organized sociability, Freemasonry had opened up to native participation. Umdat-ul-Umrah, the eldest son of the Nawab of Arcot was initiated in 1776 and paved the way for the handful of natives who had become Freemasons by the turn of the century (Letter, 12th October 1784). His father, Muhammad Ali Khan Wallajah (1723–1795), was a close ally to the British and the Masonic brotherhood here served as a diplomatic channel. Much in the same way, most Indians who joined the Masonic order in the 19th century were close allies of the British. This was the case of the Rajah of Kapurthala, Randhir Singh (1831–1870), for instance, who was initiated in Lahore in 1861. The account of his initiation is particularly interesting because it mentions ‘his faithful and active loyalty’ in 1857, and the fact he ‘gave his Troops, both horse and foot, to the Commissioner’ (The Freemasons’ Magazine and Masonic Mirror 1862, 15). This would tend to suggest that he was granted membership as a reward for his loyalty. The same logic can apply to Duleep Singh (1838–1893), the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire, who became a member of lodge Star in the East No. 67 in Calcutta in 1861 (Robinson 53).

11In that respect, Masonic membership anticipated the imperial knighthood orders such as the Order of the Star of India, created in 1861 with the purpose of publicly rewarding loyalty and celebrating Empire. In 1878, the Order of the Indian Empire was created with the same purpose. What Randhir Singh and Duleep Singh had in common beyond the fact they were Indian Masons of princely descent, is precisely that they had both been awarded the Star of India or the Order of the Indian Empire. In fact, Masonic and imperial jewels were considered valuable props and proudly displayed by their holders, Indian and British. The Elphinstone Dock cornerstone laying ceremony, which took place on 11 November 1875, is a case in point. This event was part of the royal visit of the Prince of Wales to India, which took place in 1875 and 1876. As a matter of fact, Albert Edward was also Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England, and in the account that was made of the event, attention was called to the fact ‘the only other ornament [the Prince of Wales] wore, beside his Masonic emblems, was the Star of India’. In fact, the account of the event also mentions that he was ‘wearing his apron, cuffs, and collar, as M. W. Grand Master of Freemasonry and Patron of the Order in Scotland’ (Proceedings 1875). This would tend to suggest that he considered his imperial duties and his Masonic duties as perfectly complementary in displaying Empire to the Indian princes he met, namely the Rajah of Kohlapoor, the Maharajah of Mysore, the Rao of Kutch, and the Gaekwad of Baroda. According to Bernard Cohn, the royal visit of the Prince of Wales to India was the first expression of the new feudal paradigm. Obviously, Masonic ritual formed an integral part of the visual and symbolical vocabulary used to bind the Indian princes to the British monarchy. In fact, Freemasonry was also known as the ‘Royal Art’ because of its close ties with the royal family. Many of Queen Victoria’s close relatives were Masons, starting with her two sons. Her father prince Edward (1767–1820), and two uncles George Augustus Frederick (1762–1830) and Augustus Frederick (1773–1843) had actually been Grand Masters of the Grand Lodge of England (Harland-Jacobs 2007).

12According to David Kertzer, ‘ritual connects past, present, and future abrogating history and time’ (Kertzer 10). And this is precisely what the British sought to achieve. They sought quite literally to ‘showcase Empire’ in the sense of building a symbolical glass case designed to focus attention on the vestiges of India’s distant past, while keeping social and political change out of the picture. The purpose was to create what Francis Hutchins has described as ‘the illusion of permanence’. Paradoxically, maybe, this function was perfectly served by Masonic universalism and the incredibly syncretic nature of its ritual. Ever since the first lodge was set up in India, in 1730, the Freemasons had been searching for evidence of an antique Indian Masonic order. As early as 1733, the Grand Lodge of England had written to the Provincial Grand Lodge of Bengal asking it ‘to discover in these parts the remains of old Masonry and transmit them to us’ (Gould 1900, 136–37). This is not all that surprising as the origins of Freemasonry had always been the subject of much speculation. James Anderson himself had mentioned the Temple of Solomon and India in the Constitutions (1723): ‘Nay, even in INDIA, where the Correspondence was open, we may conclude the same’ (Anderson 17). But in the case of India it became systematic and took a public dimension, which it did not have in Britain. In fact, these pseudo-anthropological findings were incorporated in much of the Masonic pageantry that took place in 19th-century India. In the wake of Napier’s conquest of Sindh, for instance, a lodge Hope No. 337 was opened in Karachi in 1843 and the cornerstone of the first Masonic Hall laid two years later. Napier, who was a Mason himself, delivered a public speech in which he traced back the origins of Freemasonry to a Brahmin who had been initiated to the knowledge of the Druses (The Freemasons’ Quarterly Review 1845, 115). Two years later, when visiting lodge St. Andrew in the East No. 67 in Pune, James Burnes, the Provincial Grand Master of Western India insisted on the fact that: ‘No one who has studied history can doubt its connection, or rather identity, with the ancient mysteries of the Hindoos and Egyptians, and others that emanated from them’ (Laying the foundation stone 6). Clawson explains the phenomenon in the following terms: ‘fraternal orders made constant reference to the past, portraying themselves as the modern embodiments of age-old traditions’ (Clawson 21). Masonic fraternalism, therefore, was bound to be a major asset at a time when the imperial obsession in India was with inventing age-old traditions and spinning a universal history, which made India a living museum of the European past. Actually, this form of Masonic universalism was a major contribution to the fantasized India which the British sought to display, as explained by Cohn: ‘This construction of a universal history enabled the British to control the Indian past . . .  But since the British were still in a position through their own history to direct the future course for India, it made the British part of India in their role as rulers’ (Cohn 2004, 122). Sometimes even, Masonic ritual had a metatextual dimension that sought to weave together western and eastern traditions. The speech delivered by James Burnes, the Provincial Grand Master of Western India, on the occasion of the cornerstone ceremony of the Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy Hospital in 1843 is quite representative of this attempt to create continuity:

Such then is the simple origin of one portion of these ceremonies which so far will be recognized as analogous to those performed by one of our most distinguished Parsi families in laying the foundation keels of some of those superb vessels which of late years have brought Great Britain and India into closer and dearer connection. (Laying the foundation stone 6)

13Interestingly enough, some Indian Freemasons actually reinvested the myth of a common Masonic legacy for their own purposes. This was the case of Darasha Chichgur, a member of Bombay lodge Rising Star of Western India No. 342: ‘It is true that Masonry [has] its origin in the East, but owing to the decay and downfall of civilization, and consequent spread of the spirit of religious intolerance, it left its shores and entered a far more congenial sphere in the West’ (The Freemason 1885, 11). This is all the more striking as his speech was given to the Grand Lodge of Scotland in Edinburgh, a long way away from India, which leads me to my third and final part.

14On February 29th, 1860, an article was published in The Cornwall Chronicle, in which the author celebrated Freemasonry as ‘the talisman’, the means by which to solve ‘the great problem of how to improve the social relations between the European and the Oriental’ in Lucknow (The Cornwall Chronicle 1860, 2). The distinctive feature of this newspaper article is that it was not published in India but in Launceston, Tasmania, some 9,000 kilometres away from Lucknow. This testifies both to the fact information travelled fast, and to the concern that was felt across the Empire after the shock waves sent by the 1857 revolt. It also raises two interrelated questions: To what extent did Freemasonry contribute to spawning and spreading the cult of Empire that developed in the last decades of the 19th century? More provocatively maybe, can India be considered as the cradle of the Masonic cult and display of Empire? This question is all the more relevant if we are to consider, with Hobsbawm, that India was ‘the core of British strategy’ and a testing ground for most colonial policies (Hobsbawm 95).

15In the last decades of the 19th century, the Masonic rhetoric of the universal brotherhood of man was systematically used in public displays and worked as some kind of a mantra, which echoed across the Indian Empire. When laying the foundation stone of the Elphinstone Dock in 1875, the Prince of Wales celebrated Freemasonry’s potential ‘to unite together men of various castes and creeds in the bonds of fraternal brotherhood’ (Proceedings 1875). In 1887, a Masonic periodical pointed out that ‘Freemasonry [was] a potent instrument for the preservation and propagation of loyalty to the Throne amongst all castes, creeds and classes’ (The Freemason 1887, 7). In 1900, John Welldon, the Archbishop of Calcutta, celebrated ‘the cult of the Masonic doctrine’ as a rallying point in a country where ‘the division of races and religions is more acute’ (The Freemasons’ Chronicle 1900, 7). On leaving India in 1890, the Duke of Connaught, who had served as Governor-general and Grand Master of Bombay, expressed his satisfaction at standing before his brethren ‘men of so many nationalities and creeds, but all imbued with the same true spirit of devotion to the Craft and loyalty to our beloved sovereign’. On the same occasion Connaught declared: ‘I have always felt it to be a very great privilege to be enabled in any way, however small, to help in welding those different elements together in loyalty to our Most Gracious Sovereign the Queen-Empress’ (The Freemason 1890, 13). A few months earlier, the English Masons of Union Lodge No. 767, based in London, had addressed a speech to the Duke of Connaught in which they made it known that: ‘As loyal subjects of your Royal mother, our beloved Empress-Queen, we believe that Masonry in India will do much to support her Royal throne, as well as to diffuse light, truth, love, and benevolence among the people over whom her Majesty reigns’ (The Freemason 1890, 14). More than ever before, the unifying idiom of Masonic brotherhood was feeding into imperial rhetoric and display to extol Empire and loyalty to the Crown. More interestingly maybe, it also suggests that imperial rhetoric was pervading Masonic discourse in the motherland.

16Further evidence of this can be found in the so-called ‘imperial lodges’, which were first founded in London for the purpose of bringing together Freemasons with an interest in Empire. Empire Lodge (1885) and Empress Lodge (1895) are two striking examples if only by the name they bore. Out of the 37 founding members of Empire Lodge, more than half had served in India. Several Indians actually attended lodge meetings, including the Rajah of Ketri and the Rajah of Shapura (The Freemason 1897, 9). There were several Indian members, including Dadabhai Naoroji (1825–1917) and Sir Mancherjee Bhownagree (1851–1933), the first two Indian members of Parliament. An increasing number of Indians were then becoming Masons in London, which both testifies to the greater circulation of imperial subjects, but also maybe to the growing willingness to have them participate in the celebration of Empire.

17The opening speech of Empire Lodge, delivered by the Reverend Studholme-Browning, perfectly illustrates its purpose:

I believe the future of this lodge may be a most useful one. It will afford to our colonial brethren, whether home permanently or on holiday, many opportunities . . . to convey . . . the assurance that the Mother Country glories in the fact the sun never sets on an English lodge. So, brethren, we complete tonight, another link in that great Masonic chain of affection, which passes round the universe and binds together with the strongest bonds of fraternal love, England and the colonies of the English Empire. (The Freemason 1885, 2)

18Imperial lodges were entirely dedicated to the cult of Empire. Freemasonry was a major asset because its vast network of lodges could echo and amplify Empire celebrations, fostering a greater sense of fellow citizenship of Empire amongst both its members and the public. This was also expressed quite clearly in the speech:

When some national rejoicing in England is echoed back with some increased enthusiasm from India, Canada and Australia—then I think we Masons may claim with pride that our lodges have had much to do with preserving that brotherly feeling upon which the sun never sets. (The Freemason 1885, 2)

19In fact, not only does this speech prove how much imperial and Masonic rhetoric could be woven together in displaying Empire, it also suggests that Freemasonry intended to play a role in circulating imperial nationalism across the Empire.

20Empress Lodge was even more closely associated to the official celebrations of Empire. It was specifically founded on the occasion and as part of the Empire of India Exhibition, which took place in 1895. Imre Kiralfy (1845–1919) the impresario of the exhibition was a founding member of the lodge and attended the dedication ceremony (The Freemasons’ Chronicle 1886, 298). Its stated purpose was to provide ‘one more proof of the affectionate loyalty with which every English subject regards the gracious lady who rules over this vast empire’. Here again, India held centre stage. Sir Mancherjee Bhownagree, an all-time supporter of British rule in India, was also a member and hoped ‘that the lodge would do a great deal to cement the bonds between Britain and the Continent of India’ (The Freemason 1895, 3). The bonds in question were symbolized by the jewel worn by the members of the lodge, which consisted in a slightly revisited Star of India medal. This was actually not uncommon at all. Cama Lodge founded in London in 1885, West Essex Lodge founded in Harlow in 1895, and lodge Star of India also founded in London in 1910, all made use of the Star of India as a lodge jewel (Rich 87). As such, the conception and circulation of Masonic jewels also bears testimony to the growing influence of Empire in Masonic practices. It also confirms that the relationship between Freemasonry and Empire was mutual in the sense that the Masons also borrowed from the visual vocabulary of Empire. India was the crucible in which the Masonic cult of Empire developed, before spreading to London and across the Empire and back. The fact a lodge Imperial Brotherhood was opened in Bombay in 1908 with the same raison d’être as the London imperial lodges, is further proof that the model was now being exported to India. Lodge Imperial Brotherhood actually took the logic of celebrating Empire even further: ‘Lodge Imperial Brotherhood, as its name implies, aims at vivifying the Imperial idea, by giving it practical application under Masonic guidance’ (Lodge ‘Imperial Brotherhood’ 30). In his inauguration speech, Frank Beaman, a judge of the Bombay High Court and founder of the lodge added: ‘We think that important results may, as we are sure they ought to, follow upon reinforcing Imperialism throughout India, by the Catholic virtue and humanizing influence of Freemasonry (Lodge ‘Imperial Brotherhood’ 31). The banner of the lodge associated Britannia and Saraswati, the Indian goddess of knowledge, wisdom and arts. More than ever the Empire was ‘an entire interactive system, one vast interconnected world’ (Cannadine 3).

21Freemasonry took an active part in displaying, promoting, and celebrating the Empire. Its universal rhetoric offered an inclusive idiom that could portray British presence in India as a consensual partnership while showcasing India as a timeless and unchanging society. When this illusion of permanence was shaken by the Indian Revolt of 1857, its rhetoric of universal brotherhood, highly syncretic ritual, and close ties with the British monarchy were perceived as valuable assets in the attempt to place the Indian princely aristocracy under the authority of Queen Victoria. All in all, colonial India was the prime site on which the British rehearsed the show. It was home to a cult of Empire bolstered and circulated by Masonic lodges.

22Of course, Indian Masons were not mere pawns in the Masonic display of Empire. They wilfully entered the lodges and took part in Masonic pageantry as a means to affirm their status, but also because Freemasonry was a social resource that could easily be appropriated. Over time, they incorporated elements of Indian culture to Masonic ritual. The Zend Avesta, the Koran and the Vedas were soon to be laid on the altar in the lodge, alongside the Bible. Masonic ritual was translated and performed in vernacular languages. The British were forced to face the contradictions of their rule. More than half the presidents of the Indian National Congress between 1885 and 1906 were actually Freemasons (Fozdar 450). The colonial public sphere became the stage on which the symbolical battle between the colonizer and the colonized was performed. In this battle, both sides made equal use of the social and symbolical resources at hand, including Freemasonry.

23In that respect, Freemasonry offers a stimulating venue for articulating the local and the global, the material and the cultural, formal and informal Empire. It also offers an interesting insight into imperial circulations, as well as intercultural communications. The Royal Oriental Order of the Sikha and Sat B’hai as well as the many orientalising Masonic orders born at the end of the 19th century in Britain testify to it and further prove how much the Empire could strike back (The Freemasons’ Quarterly Review 1870).

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1 The Provincial Grand Master of Bengal held the highest masonic office in India.

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Simon Deschamps, « Masonic Ritual and the Display of Empire in 19th-Century India and Beyond »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 93 Printemps | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2021, consulté le 23 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Simon Deschamps

Simon Deschamps is a Senior Lecturer in British studies at the Université Toulouse - Jean Jaurès and a member of the research group Cultures Anglo-Saxonnes (EA 801). His research interests include cultural imperialism, networking and globalization, fraternalism and sociability, universalism and nationalism, as well as representations of power. His most recent publications include the articles entitled ‘From Britain to India: Freemasonry as a Connective Force of Empire’ (2017), ‘Merchant and Masonic Networks in Eighteenth-Century Colonial India’ (2017), and a monograph entitled Sociabilité maçonnique et pouvoir colonial dans l’Inde britannique, 1730-1921, which was published by the Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux in May 2019.
Simon Deschamps est maître de conférences en civilisation britannique et du Commonwealth à l’Université Toulouse 2 - Jean Jaurès. Il est l’auteur d’une monographie intitulée Sociabilité maçonnique et pouvoir colonial dans l’Inde britannique, 1730-1921 publié aux Presses universitaires de Bordeaux en mai 2019. Ses derniers articles en dates incluent « Merchant and Masonic Networks in Eighteenth Century Colonial India » (2017) et « From Britain to India: Freemasonry as a Connective Force of Empire » (2017). Outre la franc-maçonnerie, ses recherches portent sur l’impérialisme culturel, les réseaux et la mondialisation, la sociabilité et le fraternalisme, l’universalisme et le nationalisme, ainsi que les représentations du pouvoir.

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