Khoja Civic Society
WHAT WALL PLAQUES TELL US ABOUT THE KHOJA CIVIC SOCIETY
Sultan Somjee June 2019
"I RAJANBHAI NANJI IN MY MEMORY HAVE GIFTED LAND FOR THE JAMAT KHANA AND APPROXIMATELY R 2000 FOR REPAIR WORk DATE.21-9-1923"
મે રાજનભાઈ નાનજી પોતાની યાદગીરી માટે સદરહુ જમીન જમાતખાનાને ભટ આપી રીપેર કામમા ૨000 આસરે ખરચ કરેલ છે તા. ૨ ૧- ૯-૨ ૩
When my long lost third cousin, Arif Rawji, brought back the wall plaque of our great grandfather Rajan Bapa (1853 -1929), carrying it in his rucksack from Juno Savar in Gujarat (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juna_Savar) to Calgary in Alberta, many stories ran through my mind. The immediate ones were family and migration stories about the ancestor we call Rajan Bapa that the Mombasa Jamat knew as Mukhi Rajan Nanji. Mukhi Rajan Bapa’s involvement in the building of Jamatkhanas led me to reflect on the Ismaili Khoja tradition of giving, which created properties for communal benefit and planted the roots of the civic society in both Africa and India.
For over four generations, stories about Rajan Bapa’s industry and piety have been passed on to his descendants. At the turn of the 20th Century, he came in a dhow from India to Mombasa to meet his only daughter Mariam Bai. Mariam Bai, they said, ‘was given’ as we say in patriarchal Gujarati, to the Suleiman Virji family of Diu in the Portuguese colony of Gujarat. Mariam Bai was just fifteen years old when she married and came to Africa. This is all I know about my great aunt. I have not even seen her picture.
Another story is about the voyage. One night when the storm raged over the Indian Ocean, Rajan Bapa’s dhow got lost. Next morning, the captain released a crow. The crow showed where the nearest land was. That’s how my ancestor landed in Kismayo on the Somali coast. Being a merchant himself, Rajan Bapa purchased some beads as an investment at the famed bead market of Kismayo where camel caravans from the sand dunes of the interior and dhows from the Indian Ocean met and traded. In the first decades of the 1900s, Kismayo was a vibrant trading port with a sizeable settlement of Khoja merchants. Among them was the family of Lalji Mangalji, the name that is associated with the building of the magnificent Darkhana in Vancouver. It is probable that my great grandfather stayed with his family because Laji Mangalji, so the story goes, was the Mukhi of Kismayo.
રાજનભાઈ નાનજી ૧૮૫૩ -૧૯૨૯ Rajan Bhai Nanji 1853 -1929
Lost Khoja travelers like my great grandfather, itinerant merchants, and penniless young men would often find their way to the Mukhi's house. Arrangements were then made for meals that the local Khoja jamat was obligated to provide for their caste men, and they slept in the Jamat khana. That was how it was done in those early pioneer days. Visiting merchants and newly arrived made long term friendships and contacts at the jamat khanas and learnt to know the land from the earlier settlers. The jamat’s hospitality was spoken about as partly religious and partly as the caste custom of brotherhood known as panjebhaiyo that brought barakat meaning blessings. This was the time when dhows with Khoja merchants on board plied between India, Muscat and Zanzibar and the inland trade routes were laid.
My great grandfather’s story then moves to Mombasa keeping the beads in the thread. This is what I learnt from one of Rajan Bapa’s grandson. They called him Meshnari Madat Bhai. Meshnari Madat Bhai was interested in finding family roots and had in fact visited the ancestral village of Juno Savar in Gujarat. He said that every morning Rajan Bapa was seen spreading his straw mat under a palm tree at the old market in Mombasa. Rajan Bapa measured the beads in his cupped hands and arranged them in heaps in lines on the mat. The Mijikenda from the nine village communities around the old slave port came to admire and buy the beads that would resonate with their norms of beauty, social values, and adornment.
Rajan Bapa’s initial investment in beads like that of other Khoja merchants later expanded to textiles and he became a wealthy man. In fact, wealthy enough to be blessed to be able to contribute to community charities and building of two jamat khanas in his birthland. So, the story connects back to the origin in India through the practice of giving what we called sewa and dharma. Sewa and dharma are mentioned in the earliest of scriptures like the Bhagvat Gita, the longest poem ever written in an ancient language. It is still recited as an oral tradition, recalling the ethics of giving and serving.
What I remember from incidental anecdotes in family talk is about Rajan Bapa’s act of giving to the community. This is what brings pride to his descendants and is remembered. Stories of giving were memorialized on wall plaques and told as oral histories about migrations, origins and family genealogies. Growing up in Kenya and travelling around in East Africa, I enjoyed reading the names and dates on plaques on our community buildings - schools, clinics, libraries, social halls and the jamat khanas. They told me about our forefathers, the history of the settlement and making of the community. The plaques became immediate and meaningful when I could associate them with family names.
Nowadays, when meeting my second and third cousins, who are generally in their senior years as I am and are descendants of Rajan Nanji’s five sons - Ratansi, Chagan, Rehemtulla, Somjee and Husein, our conversations invariably lead up to the pedhi, meaning the family genealogy in the patriarchal line. The pedhi helps us to locate our precise descent and hence how we are related to each other when meeting for the first time. Amazingly, many of them can recite the pedhi going back to nine names of the Rajan Nanji ancestry. This is not unusual. Memorizing the pedhi used to be a common family practice. Children were taught the names of their ancestors at an early age. Genealogies traced family origins and therefore roots bearing identities in a complex society that marked one by one’s aatak, meaning the lineage name which often ended with ણી (written as ni in English) in the Gujarati and Kutchi Khoja traditions. Some families have stepped aside from this tradition in favour of middle-eastern names as aataks and thus faded from the Khoja lineage consciousness.
The Juno Savar Jamat Khana
The jamat khana in Juno Savar was built at the time of severe political and communal unrest. This was the era of rising Hindu and Moslem nationalisms while the devastating Chapan yo Dhukar was killing millions in Gujarat . There was also the brutal suppression of numerous rebellions collectively known as the Indian Wars of Independence and the Freedom Movement. Gandhi had returned to India from South Africa and was mobilizing a mass resistance to British rule. In such a situation, a three-way rift among the Khoja caste was deepening over the ownership of their communal caste properties in India. The rifts among the Sunni Khoja, Ithna Asheri Khoja and Ismaili Khoja essentially became pronounced and, in fact, were made official at the Bombay High Court cases popularly called the Aga Khan cases in the second half of the 19th Century. Also, concurrently, the British had started the process of simplifying, re-naming and ‘formalizing’ the complex Indian societies into distinct religious categories for facilitating the first all-India population survey in 1877. Census taking has been a way of containing, monitoring or mobilizing a population during emergencies. The British sought to rule using British standards, cannons and understanding of how a society ought to be composed. However, being non-indigenous, they were baffled by the religious and custom overlays especially the Hindu-Moslem overlaps. Thus, they needed to change the socio-religious-cultural compositions of India to fit into their worldview, perceptions and codification of law.
The Aga Khan cases resulted in intense disputes, bitter enmities and sharp divisions among the Khojas. Worst of all they split families. This had a devastating effect on blood relationships that lasted for the next three generations. In fact, the divides were so stark that social interactions, communal caste meals, joint celebrations and inter-communal use of the shared spaces such as burial grounds and the jamat khanas, were suddenly demarcated by faith boundaries. This was painful because separated faith loyalties hurt each other. When Imam Hasan Ali Shah (Aga Khan I) won the court case of 1866, he was accordingly recognized not only as the rightful Imam of the Ismaili Khoja but also legally an heir to the entire Khoja caste’s common properties.
Thus, the Juno Savar jamat khana, like other jamat khanas at the time, was significant as a gathering place that anchored the community in its Satpanth faith and oneness affirming ethnic-cultural ties during the turbulent days. It was a place for the rural folk to offer prayers, practice meditation and have peace. It was a venue where communal meals were shared. Eating a morsel together is a central rite for a community that holds the sacredness of food while offering prayers for the departed, at funerals and during festivity rituals.
The Khoja migrations happened during such stormy times and they carried the dissension to the east coast of Africa. Each group then built prayer and social halls that helped them grow roots as separate communities in the new land. The Mombasa stone jamat khana was built in 1898 in Kuze near the dhow harbour. My family memories are of Rajan Bapa Nanji as the mukhi of Kuze jamat khana in the old town. Thereafter, he built two jamat khans in India as already mentioned. Some would even vouch that there were actually three. No one, however, had anything tangible to prove this. Now that his picture and memorial script have been removed from Kuze jamat khana library with those of the other early sewdaris (community benefactors), it leaves a vacuum in the continuation of remembrance and the passing of community stories of our civic endeavours and leaders. Such visible signs as pictures, citations and plaques inform future generations about migrations, early settlements and the making of community in the arrival cities of the Khojas of the Indian Ocean. However, most importantly, public memorialization, like family heirlooms, hand down memories of the place and people.
Photo Arif Rawji
Juno Savar Jamat Khana plaque held by Veljibhai Narshibhai who had kept it with him. In the background is the Juno Savar Jamat khana building that was opened in 1923. Notice the Gujarati door and recesses for holding lamps.
Arif obtained the plaque from a neighbour who had, for whatever reason, gratefully preserved it. The marble tablet was chiseled out of the jamat khana wall where Rajan Bapa had it installed with the hope, I would think, that his descendants would see it one day and remember their lineage, the family tradition of giving and the ancestral village of Juno Savar. Obviously, Rajan Bapa had affection for all three. In 1923, when the new stone jamat khana of Juno Savar was opened, there would have been the usual celebratory majalis and sherbet. My ancestor never would have expected that the plaque would be removed and put away one day. It happened so soon, even before celebrating the hundredth year of the opening of the stone jamat khana in Juno Savar which will be in 2023.
Dhan, Sewa, and Dharma
As I said earlier, I have been reading the plaques on community buildings. I was curious about the origin of jamati funded institutions in the new country. ‘When? What? Who?’ I had simple questions in my mind that would tell me about the seeds of the civic society and history of the community in a particular place. There appeared some legendary names such as the Rahimtulla Waljee Hirjee family, who built the present-day Aga Khan Academy building on Limuru Road in Nairobi, as well as the old Ismaili Rest House on Park Road. Both the buildings are historically noteworthy in terms of the role they played in community life. The first one provided boarding for upcountry students and education for girls in the 1930s. The second was a house with a guest room or rooms for the traveling merchants to stay. This was around the 1950s when trade was picking up again after the post-war depression. The traders came from small rural towns like Kisii, Homa Bay and Bungoma on business visits to the big city and needed a place to stay.
Photo credit see footnote 4
Then there were others like Rahim Jivraj who built the present-day Parklands Jamat Khana in Nairobi. And there were many more. Some like Allidina Visram (1851- 1916) and Sewa Haji Paroo (1851 – 1897) addressed various community needs on their own volition in keeping with the beliefs of their forefathers. Suleiman Virji’s grants built the stone jamat khana in Nairobi (1920) and a school in Mombasa (1918). Sewa and dharma were also called to the responsibility of the affluent, which Khoja social ethics required of them. Later, some broadened out to include the greater society crossing over the religious and racial boundaries in apartheid East Africa by establishing Public Trusts. As early as 1937, The Rahimtulla Trust was the first to do so among the Ismaili Khoja, followed by R H Paroo Charitable Trust in 1942, and Saleh Mohamed Trust in 1956. In the same year, Mohamedally and Maniben Rattansi Educational Trust was launched. The Rattansi Trust has been hailed as ‘a historical landmark of the first publicly acknowledged acts of philanthropy in Africa’ For over more than half a century, the Rattansi family has upheld the sacred duty of dharma that the founder Mohamedally Rattansi explained to his sons before he died. Dharma, he said, was his obligation calling him to ‘give back’ after he had everything he needed in life. This is a family story that is written in the opening chapter titled ‘Dharma, the Last Duty’ in A Legacy of Giving: The Story of Mohamedally and Maniben Rattansi Educational Trust (Lukalo-Owino, R. 2008). The Trust was Mohamedally Rattansi’s ‘final returning of the happiness he had borrowed from the world’ (p. 4) in that, his act of dharma.
To this day, dharma imbibes the spirit behind the running of the Trust that is devotedly managed by Vijoo Hassan Rattansi. Her exemplary, almost single-handed work to sustain the dharma tradition, is for the entire Khoja caste to reflect on, honour and speak about. Dharma is that act of giving back what one has acquired from the goodness of the Earth and people of the land. That is possible when the person feels that he/she has had a contented life. A life filled with shukhar that we pray for and say on many occasions, especially when burying loved ones in gratitude for life lived in contentment.
Unfortunately, when we erase the benefactors’ names from the walls in communal spaces, as I later noticed at Parklands Jamat Khana in Nairobi, we also erase them from the community’s memory and local history. Consequently, stories of early migration and development of towns that inform our origins and identity, diminish. Such an erasure of memory is not right when it’s done without the approval of the family and the government department that works on the preservation of heritage buildings. These structures may not be monumental, but they are symbolic. Removal of memorial signs is like eradicating the past. In the case of the Ismaili Khoja people, it’s a loss of the visible heritage lodged in the legacy of the concepts of sewa and dharma – the combined civic and religious ethic of the obligation of giving from the times of the Vedas. Moreover, remembrances as in plaques honour memories of the patrons as role models and keepers of the best of our social ideals. One reason for the de-memorialization, and in some cases defacement, that has been going on quietly, without the consultation with the families of the benefactors, maybe a lack of appreciation of how architecture can be an expression of social aspirations, ethics and principles of faith and service. Another reason may be simply the lack of awareness of the vital role that the early founders of the civic society played in the making of the community. The third reason, perhaps, could be that the antique plaques do not seem to fit in the modern and renovated looks that are given to the old buildings. Or it may be simply due to neglect. There may also be other reasons.
Photo Tameezan wa Gathui
The top plaque on the wall of the Amreli Jamat khana in Gujarat has been defaced in an attempt to erase the writing.
You may ask why the founders of the civic society need to be respected and remembered anyway? When there was not enough support from the colonial state for raising the standard of living of fellow kinsmen and women, our forefathers built the first jamat khanas in almost all the small towns in East Africa where they had settled. Then, often attached to the prayer hall, they had a library, a social hall, a room for the religion school and a few benches outside for the elderly to rest and chat. Often, though not always, there was a room within the jamat khana building kept as a guest house. Such houses played a central role in creating a network of upcountry traders and for expanding their businesses. So great was the need for rest houses that in time they grew into buildings with dozen or more rooms with an employed caretaker and cleaning staff. Then as time went by, they also erected health clinics through both individual and collective involvement. That was the pattern. The donors’ names were carved on the wall plaques. Had Arif not rescued the plaque and carried the discarded 12 square inch marble piece in his rucksack from Juno Savar in Gujarat to Calgary in Alberta, my larger family would have lost a proud moment of our heritage to a fading myth of Rajan Bapa Nanji. Memories not recorded become obscure even within the families before we begin to say with diminishing certainty, “True or not true, I don’t know. But this is what my father told me …” and then that too vanishes.
Giving dhan (wealth), sewa (mainly used for social service requiring time and effort), and performing an act of dharma (onus of returning to the Earth and society) have been ancient Khoja cultural practices based on social ethics. These practices have a place of honour in the larger Lohana Khoja caste that’s today divided into three separate sub-groups, as mentioned earlier, bearing separate religious identities as Sunni, Ithna Asheri and Ismaili Khojas. The evidence of this tradition is in the records in the law courts of Mumbai dating back to the 1840s. When Imam Hasan Ali Shah (Aga Khan I) came to India from Persia, there already existed well-established and maintained community properties of the then one Khoja caste. These properties were for communal welfare and use managed by elders and volunteers. Though we don’t hear much about each other today because of the dense walls that we have built around us as religious entities, all Khoja hold the obligation to give to the jamat as sacred. Often speaking in English, as we do nowadays, we use the Gujarati and Kutchi terms like sewa that put a religious meaning to community service as in the ancient literature of India and as spoken about among the temple, derasara and gurudwara communities in various Indic languages.
Finally, rescuing, repairing, preserving or re-installing the tablets is the responsibility of the families because we do not have a Community Heritage Register that records civic contributions prior to the AKDN. Some descendants in the sewadaris’ families may remember what their ancestors had built and the locations. This would be a good place to start to enquire into their memories. Sadly, nowadays not all know or want to know the history of the community that made us what we are as a people. Consequently, often we find that there is little or no awareness of the earlier civic activities in small towns and villages of Eastern Africa. These were the places where our ancestors had first settled as pioneers. That’s where the next two, three and even four generations of African Khojas were born and raised. This is where our families lived for two hundred years, and where we made a home, built a Jamat khana and looked after each other on both sides of the equator stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic.
Vancouver, June 2019
PS: The tradition of sewa and dharma held sacred by the forefathers, continues today among small independent groups of Ismaili Khojas in the Western diaspora. These groups work quietly as civic societies to uplift education and health standards of the underprivileged in Africa, especially in Uganda, and the Ismaili Khojas in India.
is a writer and an ethnographer. He is the great grandson of Rajan Nanji. He has written two historical novels, Bead Bai (2012) and Home Between Crossings (2016), about migrations and settlements of Ismaili Khojas in East Africa. He gathers stories from oral traditions and tangible culture of the community such as the photo album, bandhani (bridal silk shawl), the kanga, tribal beadwork, siri (diamond studded nose button) and other items of material culture.
Sultan Somjee recorded some of the stories in the novels from two community exhibitions that he curated. The first was ‘Coming of the Satpanthis to Africa (Ma aging gracefully)’ in 1994 at the Aga Khan Complex, Parklands, Nairobi when he was with the Aga Social Welfare Board. It was a participatory exhibition with the Seniors and Seniors Chairperson Gulshan Bai Fazal. The second was ‘The Asian African Heritage Exhibition’ that ran for five years (2000 -2005), at the Nairobi National Museum while he was the Head of Ethnography at the National Museums of Kenya.
(3)This has been recorded with photographs by the British Gujarat Agency as written in the award-winning book, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. (Verso London, 2000) by Mike Davis.
(4)The Rahimtulla Trust, 1986.A Unique Kenya Legacy: The Rahimtulla Trust
(5) Spelt as written in Gujarati on the plaque in the old stone Jamat khana in Nairobi built-in 1922.
(6) Dr. Tade Aina of Ford Foundation in the Foreword to A Legacy of Giving: The Story of Mohamedally and Maniben Rattansi Educational Trust by Rose Lukalo-Owino, Allavida, Surrey, England, 2008.
This, however, is not entirely true. Recorded Khoja philanthropy in Africa goes back to the 1800s. For example, in 1887 Tharia Topan (an Ismaili Khoja 1823-1891) commissioned a health clinic for Zanzibar but he died before completion. Haji Nasser Nurmohamed (an Ithna Asheri Khoja) later bought the building and completed it in memory of his son. Today, the building stands as an architectural monument to combined Khoja philanthropy. Another example is that of Sewa Haji Paroo (1851- 1897). He built a school, a hospital, a Sunni mosque and several wells for people of all races in his native Tanganyika.