Husaini Masjid, Colombo

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By Fatema Shabbir Baldiwala

For my father, Sheikh Taherally Karimbhoy, the masjid of his adopted home in Colombo, Sri Lanka was more than just a place of worship. It was also the place to reconnect with his roots in India. It is no exaggeration to say that it was the epicenter of his life, the source of his identity, and visiting it on a regular basis was evidence of his commitment to his community. It was a place as familiar and necessary to him as his home in Bagasra, Gujarat; the home from which at a young age he had been sent away by his father out of fear for his life.

As a teenager, just after the partition was declared by the British, he had taken my great aunt’s green saree and unfurled it in the village compound shouting ‘Pakistan Zindabad’. It was a thoughtless rebellious act designed more to cause mischief than to be taken seriously, but my grandfather didn’t think it was funny. Fearing that my father would face severe reprisals, he put him on a ship and sent him to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), believing he would be safe there under the guardianship of my great uncle, Sheikh Khanbhoy Karimbhoy.

Today, many years later living as I do in the United States, I often reminisce about my childhood Lanka home. Although I am not an exile and am here by choice, not having visited my childhood home for fourteen years, I somehow felt I was in self-imposed exile. It was time to take my kids home and introduce them to my side of the family and to see the places that held dear memories for me.

Thus, the summer vacation inadvertently turned into a tour of the four Dawoodi Bohra masjids of Sri Lanka. It was not planned as such, but I am glad it turned out that way; what better way to explain matters of faith, culture, and history to our children than to show them the concrete structures of places of worship that represent all of those things?

1. Husaini Masjid, Colombo
The first masjid we visited was the one in our home city; Husaini Masjid in Glenaber Place (also Adamaly Place), Bambalapitiya, Colombo. This was originally built by the E.G Adamaly family in 1957. The masjid was a building made of teak and marble facing the sea on a vast stretch of land with coconut trees with rail tracks running parallel to it. Growing up, going to the masjid was a daily activity for me since I lived just at the top of the road, and, because of that, I have many fond memories of it. At that time, the congregation was much smaller (it is now three times larger) and I had the run of the place. I remember the sadness when it was necessary to bring down the masjid in order to build a larger one in its place to cater to the growing number of worshippers. Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin RA performed the inauguration of the newly built masjid in 2000. Today, this is the largest Dawoodi Bohra masjid in Sri Lanka and it has a vibrant and dedicated congregation that meets often. Syedna Burhanuddin RA has delivered the Ashara Moharram sermons on 5 occasions in Sri Lanka and it was always in this masjid. This masjid overlooks the Indian Ocean with the fans rarely being used as the flowing sea breeze does a good job of keeping people cool. The architect of the new masjid is Mr Aliasgher Jeevanjee who first became involved with community projects in the reconstruction of Al-Jami` al-Anwar in Cairo. Husaini Masjid is an impressive structure that reminds us of the grandeur of its Fatemi heritage.

Later on, part of the land facing the sea was acquired by the city to build Marine Drive and most of the remaining land is now taken up by the community centre, Burhani International School and sports facilities for the community youth among other structures.

2. Husaini Masjid, Jaffna
From Colombo our second masjid visit was the Jaffna masjid. We had seen the video and photos of Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin TUS inaugurating the newly rebuilt masjid and I knew I just had to visit it. For 30 years civil war in Sri Lanka had prevented people from visiting Jaffna city which is on the northern tip of Sri Lanka’s pearl shaped island, and an 8 hour trip by road from the capital Colombo.

It was 1987, after the civil war started when the LTTE (‘Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’ the guerrilla group who sought independence for their northern territory) ordered all Muslims living in Jaffna to evacuate their homes and leave within 48 hours. Forty Bohras defied this order and sought shelter in the masjid. They stayed there for several days with barely any food, water, or electricity and had no communication whatsoever with the outside world. It was all out war. Two young Bohra boys that ventured out of the masjid compound were killed and later buried there. The Indian army continued shelling the city in an effort to oust the Tigers. Four Bohras lost their lives and the masjid was partially hit. Two bodies were recovered later and identified as Bohra because they had Syedna’s photo on their person.

When a temporary ceasefire was put in place, these forty Bohras left for Colombo on a harrowing three-day journey walking through jungles and travelling by boat. Halfway through they were stopped by the Tigers, but eventually they were handed over to the Sri Lankan army who escorted them for the rest of their journey led by Mulla Moosajee Adamjee who carried a white flag. Meanwhile the Indian army that was responsible for the shelling, occupied Jaffna and made the masjid their headquarters. After they left, the masjid remained abandoned.

Jaffna’s masjid was originally built by the Abdulhussain Jafferjee family and when the war ended Syedna directed Bohras who had left the city to return. He also instructed the Jafferjee family to undertake the rebuilding of the damaged masjid.

Today, the masjid is beautifully rebuilt and Jaffna is home to twelve families living in nearby apartments. It has a water fountain for ablution that greets you at the entrance, giving an instant feeling of coolness in the hot Jaffna sun. Though built in the heart of the city there is a sense of peace as you enter. There’s a sudden calming of the noise and a vastness of space. Closing my eyes, I can just imagine all the people gathered there for the opening ceremony awaiting Syedna.

Husaini Masjid, Jaffna

3. Jamali Masjid, Galle
Our third city stop was Galle. The masjid here is named Jamali Masjid and the city is the first port of call on the south western side of Sri Lanka. This masjid was built by Careemjee Jafferjee who was forced to take shelter in Galle during his journey to the Maldives. He was a rich tradesman and is believed to be the first Bohra to set foot in British Ceylon back in 1830. Not only did he build the first masjid there, but he relocated to Colombo to become one of the foremost and most successful businessmen of that time, one who was the inspiration for many other Bohras from Gujarat who followed in his footsteps.

Jamali masjid looks like a little toy lego structure. My boys were amazed at its tiny size. A caretaker and two families still reside in its vicinity. Syedna has visited this masjid but due to its small size it would be impossible to hold any official functions in it. It may be small but during the devastating tsunami of 2004, it escaped unscathed even though the wave came inland and caused widespread destruction to the city. The same tsunami flooded the neighboring coastline in Colombo as well, but here too, Husaini Masjid escaped unscathed along with the neighbouring coastline. However, the sense of something miraculous having occurred is felt much more strongly here; this tiny masjid defying the might of the tsunami. Within its four walls, one can actually feel the history of the community in Sri Lanka unfolding. This masjid was the beginning of the country’s Bohra jamaat which has since grown and moved on to more spacious locations: first Pettah and then to Bambalapitiya yet leaving in place the symbolic pennant of ‘Ya Husain’ and the palpable sense of Syedna’s spiritual presence.

Jamali masjid after the Tsunami, Galle

4. Saifee Masjid, Pettah, Colombo
The final masjid on our unofficial masjid tour is in Pettah (Colombo’s version of Downtown). This masjid is Saifee Masjid. It is the first masjid to be built in Colombo as trade shifted there from Galle. It was constructed before World War One by the same Carimjee Jafferjee who built the Galle masjid. As more Bohras came to Ceylon for better prospects it was expanded thrice by other influential families. As Pettah became crowded and residences shifted to the Colombo suburbs, Husaini Masjid at Bambalapitiya became the center for religious activities. Nevertheless the majority of Bohra businesses still remain in Pettah and Saifee Masjid continues to be frequented by the faithful.

As occurred in Jaffna, this masjid too, has been touched by civil unrest. During the 1983 riots when Tamil homes and businesses were being burnt down, this masjid was nestled amidst Tamil owned businesses with Bohra families living in apartments above. During the riots, Bohra families sought shelter in the masjid to escape the raging fires and mob violence. Having personally been a witness to the madness of those three days of rioting and the frenzied mob that raged through the city, I can affirm that it is nothing short of a miracle that this masjid remained unscathed.

My abiding memory of this masjid is of Friday prayers. My father’s business is located nearby and this masjid was the place where he would go for his daily zohr (mid-day) prayers. On the occasions that I would visit his business, I would accompany him to Saifee Masjid for zohr. Today, my brother, Sheikh Turab Taherally, is a dedicated worshipper in the masjid, following in my dad’s footsteps of choosing to pray in a masjid whenever possible. Amidst the hustle and bustle of Pettah, this masjid stands as a sanctuary, a place of quiet for those working – to remember Allah and take a moment of rest.

By taking my boys on this masjid tour I hope to kindle their faith, and at the same time introduce them to their mother’s cultural history. The legacy that my father left me has enabled me to remain true to my roots. The inspiration for my trip today came from the tour of India he took me on as a teenager. This ziyarat tour was of our places of sanctity, the tombs, mausoleums and hallowed places of our saints and revered spiritual leaders including all of the Da`is buried in India. He also took me to my ancestral home of Bagasra, showed me his generations old property and, of course, Bagasra Masjid.

Today, no matter where I live or where I visit, I always seek out the nearest Bohra masjid so that I can pray there. By visiting the four masjids in Sri Lanka with my sons, I bequeath them my Bohra faith and cultural heritage. What my father passed to me, I pass on to them.

This article is dedicated to all who gave me their time in Sri Lanka, without whose stories, it would not have been possible to write this.