Manockjee Cursetjee

It is the middle of May on a hot sticky late morning in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), one of the hotter periods of the year, the sun is ascending to its highest point as it approaches midday.

We are in the Central-West part of the city, standing on Juhu Tara Road just a two-minute walk from the famous Juhu beach.

As soon as the transport arrives my spouse and I jump in without hesitation, out of the scorching sun into a pleasantly air-conditioned taxi.

Our destination – “The Goose and Gridiron” restaurant.

 

The author at the Goose and Gridiron, Mumbai. Photo: Alex Lishanin.

Goose and Gridiron Restaurant menu, with Masonic symbols. Photo: Alex Lishanin.

 

A fifty-minute drive through colourful Mumbai brings us onto a quiet and wide street. Stepping out of the taxi, in front of us is a tall building with a modern look and a large sign, ‘Sterling Cinema’.

As we are looking around for the restaurant, we manage to spot it on the other side of the road, a cleverly hidden terrace covered in plenty of screens and leafy plants.

Stepping under its roof is like stepping into a forgotten era; a combination of long wooden benches and smaller tables with mosaic tops, from the ceiling are suspended differently coloured lanterns and strategically placed fans.

Yet, still too hot to sit outside, we decide to step inside, into a London-style bar with full-on AC and rock music.

As I look around, the wall behind me is adorned with canvases of pyramids, ‘third eyes’ and other signs hinting to Freemasonry.

A waiter brings us a menu, which on its first page reads a story of the origins of the bar’s name.

Going further through the menu, I notice that quite a few dishes, rather than having the usual letter markings of the meal type (V-vegetarian, S-spicy) instead display a little Masonic symbol of square and compasses.

 

 

Freemasons’ Hall, Mumbai. Photo: Alex Lishanin.

After a delicious meal, we went to visit the Masonic Hall which is supposed to be right next to the restaurant; according to the waiter, the two establishments are in fact attached to one another.

Upon exiting the restaurant and going up the street, we discovered the waiter gave an accurate account.

However, when reaching the corner of the street, the old building with a lavish three-arched stone porch does not indicate an entrance to a Masonic Hall, only a small marble plaque on the front porch stone pillar is giving it away.

Entering the building the ground floor is open for the public to visit. I find myself surrounded by a number of Brethren masterfully brushed onto large paintings suspended from the four walls.

Alongside these is are a statue of Jahangeer Cursetjee Mistree – Honorary Past Deputy Grand Master and Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of all Scottish Freemasonry in India, and a marble wall of Rt. Worshipful Bro. and Most Excellent Companion Khursheedjee Rustomjee Cama.

 

 

Statue of Jahangeer Cursetjee Mistree, Honorary Past Deputy Grand Master and Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of all Scottish Freemasonry in India – Freemasons’ Hall, Mumbai. Photo: Alex Lishanin.

At the very end of the entrance hall, there is an office of the Hon. Secretary and Treasurer.
I knock on the opened door, followed by a semi-loud inquisitive ‘Hello?’ A figure pops from behind the desk: “Yes, how may I help?”
I am invited to sit down over a cup of tea and chat about Masonry in Mumbai. Soon enough it becomes spiced up with few stories but the one that most catches my attention most is a story of the first Indian to enter the Masonic Brotherhood of India.

At the very end of the entrance hall, there is an office of the Hon. Secretary and Treasurer.
I knock on the opened door, followed by a semi-loud inquisitive ‘Hello?’ A figure pops from behind the desk: “Yes, how may I help?”
I am invited to sit down over a cup of tea and chat about Masonry in Mumbai. Soon enough it becomes spiced up with few stories but the one that most catches my attention most is a story of the first Indian to enter the Masonic Brotherhood of India.

Freemasonry was founded in India in 1728, but it was not available to the natives of the land until Lodge Rising Star of Western India was consecrated. Mumbai’s prominent merchant, one Manockjee Cursetjee (1808-1887), applied three times to join Lodge Perseverance No. 546, but was denied on each occasion on the grounds of being an Indian.

In those times any social synergy between Indians and Europeans was very much non-existent, thus rejecting Cursetjee’s applications in order to prevent any further applications by other Indians desiring to join the Brotherhood.

Determined to see the light of Freemasonry, Cursetjee set off for England, where his cause found favour with the Duke of Sussex, then the Grand Master of England. Unfortunately, upon his arrival, the Duke had already left for mainland Europe.

Cursetjee then went to Paris where, in 1842, through the influence of the Duke of Decazes, he joined the Lodge A La Gloria de l’Universe. Upon his return to Mumbai, members of Perseverance lodge concluded that in the interest of the Craft admitting properly qualified Indians into Freemasonry would be prudent.

Towards the end of year 1843, Lodge Rising Star of Western India was duly formed with Right Worshipful Brother Dr James Burnes as its first Master and Brother Manockjee Cursetjee as its first Secretary.

 

 

Freemasons’ Hall, Mumbai, ground floor. Photo: Alex Lishanin.

The Brother relating this tale concluded: “The rising Star of Western India lodge gradually increased the number of its members and last year celebrated its 175th anniversary.”

Next day as I am dining in the Shalimar Hotel, I ponder about the man who had become the first Indian to enter the Masonic Brotherhood of India.

 

 

Rt. Wor. Bro. Manockjee Cursetjee, Pioneer of Freemasonry in Western India.
Image via: Lodge Rising Star of Western India

With a mobile phone to hand and excellent internet connection, all the information is at my fingertips.

I scroll through Google hits displaying his name and discover many interesting things about the man; with one most notable, his fervent desire to be able to provide education for the women of India.

In 1859, in his own house “Villa Byculla”, he started the first English school for Indian girls with an English governess.

His book, entitled “A few passing ideas for the benefit of India and Indians” (1862), gives invaluable insight into his philosophy, struggle and work towards enlightenment of the natives of his country.

The book gives an account of correspondence between himself and other progressive minds such as the Hon. Mountstuart Elphinstone, founder of the first native educational institute in Bombay; Hon. John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune, founder of the first native female school in Calcutta; the Chairman of the Select Committee of Parliament whom Cursetjee corresponded with “On the moral regeneration of the natives of India” (pg 48).

Cursetjee also corresponded with Reverend W.R. Fletcher on “Founding the young Ladies’ institute among Parsees and other Natives of Bombay” (pg 70), where in his own words he states: “The following selection of correspondence will be found to illustrate my views aforesaid on education in general, and female education in particular, among the Natives of India…”

In the beginning of the Preface of “A few passing ideas for the benefit of India and Indians”, Cursetjee notes:

When young and wild in my green days, I wrote to a Native friend of mine, I was treading the way to ruin – stood on the precipice of perdition – by occasional indulgence of some of our national vices; but I had some real friends who were watching my movements; they administered sharp rebukes on my occasional foibles; and which had the effect of snatching me from my doom, and enabling me, by their precepts, and by their examples, which I paid attention to, to come to the right path of thinking and acting.

 

As I put my mobile down, I finish my freshly squeezed watermelon juice, watching the busy Mumbai street through the window of Shalimar restaurant;

Bro. Cursetjee’s last words echoing in my head:

 

…to come to the right path of thinking and acting…

Further Reading

 

History of Lodge Rising Star of Western India #342 GLoS

https://www.lodgerisingstar.com/histris.php

Article by: Alex Lishanin

 

A Few Passing Ideas for the Benefit of India and Indians

By: Manockjee Cursetjee

A Few Passing Ideas for the Benefit of India and Indians by Manockjee Cursetjee.

This Correspondence originally printed for private circulation only, but the subject appeared to be of such importance to all interested in the cause of Female Education in the East, both proving what has already been effected and also what the efforts of a single mind bent upon improving the moral and intellectual condition of a country may accomplish, that it is hoped the following may move the interest and sympathy of many to greater interest in the education and regeneration of the natives of India. 

 

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