The photos are from the archives of Mr. Anwar Virani of Ottawa, Canada. Details have been compiled from Mr. Virani’s recollections and other sources, as noted.
In speaking at the dinner of the Aga Khan Student’s Union in London in June 1951, Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, advised his followers in Asia and Africa that the countries they chose to make their homes were the ones they owed their loyalty and affection. They must, he, said, identify themselves with those countries if they wished to prosper in the years to come. He then gave the example of the Burmese Jamat:
“Take as an example for your patriotism, your brothers in Burma, They have identified themselves 100 percent with Burma. They don’t look across the border. Whatever country you choose to live in, work for it, mix with its people, achieve its outlook and keep religion in its proper place – in your soul. If you do this, you will find many of your problems solved. When you live in a country you become a member of that country.” (reported in The East African Standard, Nairobi, 8 June, 1951).
The photo shown above is of the 48th Ismaili Imam, Aga Khan III, with leaders and some members of his Burmese Jamat (community). It is most probably from his visit to the country in February 1914, when the Imam would have been around 36 years of age. About this visit to Burma, the Imam wrote as follows in his “ Memoirs of Aga Khan” (London, 1954):
“The early months of 1914 found me on another visit to Burma. I then took a step of some importance in respect of my Ismaili followers. I advised them to undertake a considerable measure of social and cultural assimilation. Burma, although annexed to the British Empire, and at this time under the control of the India Office, was a country in which national, patriotic sentiment was strong, and nationalism a spontaneous, natural, and continuous growth. I was convinced that the only prudent and proper policy for my followers was to identify themselves as closely as possible with the life of Burma socially and politically, to give up their Indo-Saracenic names, habits, and customs, and to adopt, permanently and naturally, those of the people alongside whom they lived, and whose destiny they shared.” (p. 130)
This would suggest that the photograph is from 1914.
By the 2nd World War many Ismailis had already assumed Burmese names. A great tragedy befell the Jamat when the British launched heavy bombardment on Rangoon. The resulting outcome was heavy damage to the Jamatkhana located at Mughal Street, which resulted in the loss of 31 innocent Ismailis on April 15, 1943. The Imam crowned the martyrs with the title of Shahids. When the war ended, one of the leading Jamati members, Wazir U Kan Gyi, undertook the responsibility for the Jamatkhana renovations which were completed in 1949.
The official opening ceremony of the renovated Jamatkhana was performed on January 5, 1950 by Thakin Nun, the then Prime Minister of Burma.
The photo above is a more recent photo, but shows how the Jamatkhana has stood since the earlier renovations.
Later, the Imam sent a message saying how much he thought of the persons who were martyred during the war and recommended that a memorial plate bearing their names should be placed outside the wall of the Jamatkhana or in the library.
The photo above shows the plate bearing the names of the 31 persons who died in the bombing as well as (9) others who died during WWII. Note the Burmese names adopted by Ismailis, with their aliases. The transcript at the top of the plaque is as follows:
“IN SACRED MEMORY OF OUR HEROIC MARTYRS WHO LOST THEIR PRECIOUS LIVES IN THE SAHADAT OF OUR HOLY MOSQUE ON THE 19TH APRIL 1943 AND ALSO DUE TO ACTIONS OF WORLD WAR II IN BURMA”
The last visit by Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah to Burma was made between January 20, 1951 and January 26, 1951.
Note: Burma is officially known as Myanmar since 1989. The former capital, Rangoon, is now called Yangon.
Also, read below an interesting feedback from a reader who resided in Burma.
A note to all readers:
Other articles in the special Series on Aga Khan III: