Colombo has been a port of trade from at least the 8th century when Arab merchants started visiting the Island and shortly after decided to set up home in this strategic part of the trade routes from the Indian Ocean to the Far East.
Whilst Indian traders have been active in Sri Lanka for over 2500 years, Indian Muslim merchants such as Bohora and Khoja Ismailis are said to have been around here since about 1881 as per Wikipedia.
However, so far, the first record for the Khoja presence is the oral history tradition of some of the current families and a written account prepared by Mr. G.S Chatoor, according to whom, the first Khoja Ismaili to set up a business in Sri Lanka was Mr. Saboor Chatoor, who migrated from Mumbai in 1915 to open a local importing house.
The company he registered “Saboor Chatoor and Company” has continued for over a 100 years. Initially it was importing commodities from India. With gradual growth over the 1920’s and 30’s, exports to India and European markets commenced. Due to the Second World War, business operations were disrupted. With the war ending in 1945, the company concentrated on the export of spices. By late 1940’s, Saboor Chatoor & Co. became large exporters of all types of agricultural products, especially spices. Today, it is known as Saboor Chatoor (Private) Ltd and is run by his son, Gulamhusein Saboor Chatoor from its own building and warehouses, appropriately called “Spice House”. Other members of the Saboor Chatoor family also run diverse businesses.
Khoja merchants from Gwadar and Karachi were also also regularly shipping dry fish to Colombo. One of them, Gulamhussien Remtulla (Remu) did come to Ceylon in 1920, but chose not stay. He eventually returned in 1933 and his business venture grew from a dealership for Usha fans into a manufacturing plant. These days, his company is largely into real estate and run by his grandson, Ashraf Bhai Aziz.
Around the same time, a number of other Khojas from Karachi arrived to settle, including Hussien Jaffer Bhimji who also came in 1933 but left in 1942, when the Japanese bombardment started. He had an Usha sewing machine dealership and a number of provision stores. Most of the others also started provision stores and did quite well.
By March 1934, when the Ismaili Imam, Agakhan III passed through Colombo, on his return by ship from Burma to Europe, the total consisted of five families (Saboor Chatoor, Ibrahim Virji Madhani, Hussien Jaffer Bhimji, R Jinnah and M Chaggan (fifteen persons in total). At this time, Saboor Chatoor was appointed as the first Ismaili Mukhi from 1934 to 1966.
Taking advantage of the excellent facilities in Colombo, most of the Khojas sent their children to English medium schools and generally enjoyed a good quality of life.
In 1947, Ibrahim Datu Meru came from Gwadar to settle and his family lived in Sri Lanka until the early 1990s, when Itmadi Ismail Meru migrated to Canada. In the early 50's, Noorali Mohamed Adatia migrated from Porbandar and established a dry fish business as well. His large family continues to live in Sri Lanka.
There are now members of only three families in Colombo-Adatia, Chatoor and Remu.
The current Jamatkhana, community center, at 562/18, Lower Bagatalle Road, Colpetty was built in 1952 and Sir Oliver Goonetileke, Minister of Food and Agriculture at the time, who went on to becoming the Governor General of Ceylon, later known as Sri Lanka, and the first person of Ceylonese origin to hold this vice-regal post.
The only Khoja Ismaili to sit in the Parliament of Sri Lanka was Mr. Abdul Aziz, once as an elected member and later, a government nominated member.
The only Khoja Ismaili to be elected to the position of the Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (established in 1839) was Mr. Gulamhusein Saboor Chatoor. He was the first minority community (Muslim or Tamil) member and held that prestigious office from 1987 to 1989.
With the transition to North America, only a handful of Ismailis currently remain in Sri Lanka.
Compiled with the assistance of Mr. G. S. Chatoor as well as Mrs. Nadiya Adatia of Colombo.