By Zahir Dharsee
After moving to Nairobi, Kenya, as a young boy in early 1964, I can vividly remember this Jamatkhana, as it was where my family attended prayer services for over 10 years, before immigrating to Canada. It was the “Darkhana” of Kenya at that time.
On my arrival in Nairobi, just a few weeks after the independence of Kenya in December 1963, I can still recall the independence decoration banners, displayed in the colors of the new flag of Kenya –- red, green and black with white stripes and the Coat of Arms depicted by the shield and spears, that our Ismaili community had built, outside the Jamatkhana building on Government Road, to symbolize its solidarity and commitment to the newly independent country.
In Canada, when I meet many fellow Ismaili and non-Ismaili immigrants from Kenya, the “Khoja Mosque” becomes the reference point to discuss many recollections. Many non-Ismailis still remember the majesty and glory of the building on the evenings when all the light bulbs, that were placed all over its exterior walls and on the clock tower dome, were switched on to commemorate many a festive occasion. The Jamatkhana shined like an illuminated palace in the Nairobi night skyline. This illumination of the building was prominently featured in a rare black and white 1962 documentary about His Highness the Aga Khan called “The Living Camera.” Produced by Drew and Associates, the documentary contains footage of the building from the side of Government Road as well as a highly charged and emotional recitation by the Ismaili congregation inside the prayer hall of the ginan “Sahebji tu more mane bhave.”
In the context of location, the Jamatkhana building was strategically located at the corner of the old Government Road (now Moi Avenue) and River Road and right across the old Indian Bazaar Street (now Biashara Street). In the colonial days, this location could be considered almost the axis of the old city centre core if one marks the boundaries by Government Road, Indian Bazaar Street, Hardinge Street, Victoria Street and Delamere Avenue. It is interesting to note that the Daily Nation newspaper, established by His Highness the Aga Khan in 1960, was first situated in the premises of a former bakery on Victoria Street and was only a very short walk from the Jamatkhana. There was a small road, behind the Jamatkhana, named Jenabai Street/Lane that led to the parking area.
As one notes while reviewing the foundation stone plaque, the Jamatkhana construction commenced in January 1920 and the building was officially opened in January 1922. The completion of this solid stone Jamatkhana building within two years must have been an engineering and construction feat considering the equipment that was then available. It should also be noted that the Ismaili community, mostly migrants from the Kutch-Kathiawar area of present day State of Gujarat in India, had only settled in large numbers in colonial Kenya for approximately 20 years. Their population could not have been very large by any measure. In addition, we should also keep in mind many historical and economic factors relating to this time period. The First World War had just ended in 1919. The war, as it was fought in East Africa too, had probably drained the colonial treasury. The Kenya-Uganda railway, that was the mainstay of the colonial economy was only completed around 1902. Nairobi town, situated at an altitude of approximately 1,795 metres (5,889 ft) above sea level, was only established 20 years earlier in 1899/1900, as a base camp to facilitate the construction of the railway across the Kenya highlands and Rift Valley.
Therefore, for a newly established community, to have constructed such a majestic building would have been considered an impressive accomplishment by other residents of the colony! From a traditional and historical perspective, the Ismaili Imamat and the Ismaili community, wherever they have settled, have always placed importance on supporting the establishment and creation of Jamatkhanas. Then, as today, the contributions made by members of the community played an important role in building this Jamatkhana. The names of some of the major donors are inscribed on the plaque marking the opening ceremony.
This is a very historical Jamatkhana for many reasons -– first, it was prominently situated in the city center area of colonial Nairobi – its construction and opening made it a “high profile” building for its time; second, it symbolized the permanent settlement of the Ismaili community in colonial Kenya; and third, of course our present Imam, Shah Karim al Hussaini, used to visit this Jamatkhana and recited the Idd Namaz in 1945, as a young nine year old boy, during his residence in colonial Kenya over the World War II period.
I was always fascinated by this building and its exterior and interior design. The exterior design of solid stone blocks made it appear like a huge majestic palace with massive front entrance doors and with a huge clock on its dome. The clock tower is a British tradition that is found in almost every town/village in Britain. The clock and the dome of the Jamatkhana building symbolized a fusion of different forms of architetural styles. From a practical point of view, the clock on the dome, was probably the main focal point for the surrounding residents and passers-by in the 1920’s to answer the question “What time is it?”
The interior design comprised three levels — the ground, first and second. On entering the ground level there were benches against the wall — there was a library to the right, on the left was a display that commemorated the March 1937 Golden Jubilee celebration in Nairobi, of our 48th Imam, Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah Aga Khan and there was an office for Diamond Trust Company. On the wall, near this office, was the foundation stone plaque (shown above) that always intrigued me as a young boy, as it highlighted significant historical information about the foundation and opening ceremony dates, dignitaries who performed the ceremonies, the architects, the donors and so on. The inscription at the top of the plaque was particularly significant. It stated:
“The Sole Owner, Master & Proprietor of this Jamatkhana is H. H. Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah Aga Khan…”
There was also a wooden board listing the individuals who had served as Mukhis and Kamadias of the Jamatkhana. As one walked to the gents shoe stands, one passed the Mehmani (food offerings) receiving counter behind which there was a small elevator to send them to the higher floors.
As one entered the Jamatkhana from the main entrance doors and looked straight ahead there was an old fashioned elevator, similar to those seen in 1930’s and 40’s movies. Directly above the elevator was a red and green mural tracing the lineage of the forty-nine Ismaili Imams. Again, the 1962 Living Camera documentary has footage of the ground floor where there is a scene of Mawlana Hazar Imam stepping out of this elevator, walking past the scouts and volunteers lined on the ground floor hallway, and exiting from the main entrance front door after a visit to the Jamat. I also remember the Somali askari (security guard), who was always smartly dressed in his khaki uniform and turban, and sporting the red and green colors of the Ismaili Flag (often referred to as “My Flag”) in his attire. He was a devoted askari, who closely watched everyone who entered the building, greeting all the children and elderly jamati members jovially, and watching closely for strangers.
On the second level was the main prayer services hall and the third level was for the early morning prayers. Sudents majlises were also held here. On festive occasions, these two levels were beautifully decorated by the Jamati volunteers to reflect the spirit of the events. Many visiting dignitaries were impressed by the décor and paid high compliments to the volunteers for the decorations.
The Jamatkhana, which remained a Darkhana for several decades, was a hub for all Ismaili activities in the Nairobi of the 1960’s and 70’s. On Fridays there would be a full house with hundreds of Ismailis convening outside the Jamatkhana building after prayer services which often led to traffic jams and crowds of people on the adjacent streets. There were many Ismaili owned restaurants in the vicinity of the Jamatkhana that did a roaring business on this evening –- names that come to mind were –- the Ismailia hotel, Curry Pot, Chicken Inn, Iceland Milk Bar, Kebys, Exotica, Sans Shique, Tropicana and Sno Cream.
The Jamatkhana was also where many a memorable didar took place. I can vividly remember the didar of December 1973 when Hazar Imam was invited by the Government of Kenya to attend the country’s 10th Uhuru (Independence) anniversary celebrations. Again the Ismaili community constructed the same banners as they had done for the independence celebrations in 1963, displaying the colors of the flag of Kenya –- red, green and black with white stripes and the Coat of Arms. The number “10” marking the first decade of independence was now prominently placed on the banner.
Since the 1970’s, the demographics of Nairobi and the area surrounding the Jamatkhana have changed significantly. These changes along with security issues affected the attendance levels at this Jamatkhana. Thus in the 1990’s, there was a re-designation of Kenya’s Darkhana. The Parklands Jamatkhana became the new Darkhana and the former historical Jamatkhana was re-named the ‘Town Jamatkhana’. However, the memories of the former Nairobi Darkhana Jamatkhana are etched in the minds of thousands of Ismailis who can recall its majestic and palatial presence and setting in the 20th century history of the Ismaili community of Kenya.
Although built for the Ismaili community, the “Town Jamatkhana” has with the passage of time come to be regarded as a cultural monument outside the community for both the residents of Nairobi and visitors to the city from other parts of Kenya as well as abroad. Indeed, its special status and standing among the rich tapestry of religious and cultural heritage buildings is recognized by the pronouncement that “a cultural tour of Nairobi is incomplete without a visit to this lovely building.” Another significant milestone that the Jamatkhana has achieved is its designation as a historic heritage landmark building in accordance with the Antiquities and Monuments Act of Kenya. These recognitions and above all the Jamatkhana’s impact on the cultural and spiritual life of the Ismaili community over a period of several decades will certainly enhance the spirit by which the iconic building’s centenary is celebrated in 2022.
Date article posted: June 16, 2011
Date updated: June 16, 2011
About the author: Zahir Dharsee grew up in East Africa. He spent some of his childhood years in Tanzania and then moved to Nairobi, Kenya, where he completed his high school education. He is a CGA and lives in Toronto, Canada, where he works in the accounting field. He is a keen reader, and takes interest in history.
Please also see Dharsee’s 13th-14th Century “Avatar” Discourses; 1885 – Aga Khan III Investiture; 1907 – Aga Khan III in New York
Jamatkhana – Ismaili Muslim place of worship/prayer congregation. The Darkhana can be considered as the chief or main Jamatkhana in any given country where Ismailis reside. The decision to designate a Jamatkhana as a Darkhanais made by the Imam of the Time, presently His Highness the Aga Khan. As more Jamatkhanas were built in East Africa in the 20th century, the word Jamatkhana assumed more common usage – it gave rise to its translation in Swahili - “Jamatini” – over the years usually many a time when Ismailis were asked in Swahili – “na kwenda wapi?” where are you going ? – they would reply “na enda Jamatini” – I am going to Jamatkhana – and this would help end the questioning in tense moments!
Khoja (correct is khawaja) – means honorary convert in Persian – a term generally applied to identify Ismaili Muslims originating from the Indian sub continent. Pir Sadardin is believed to have given the title khawaja (lord, master) to his followers. The term Khoja is a corruption of this title.
Khoja Mosque – In Nairobi, the Ismaili Jamatkhana on Moi Avenue came to be identified as the Khoja Mosque. Also, see preceding note.
Ginans – Ismaili Muslim holy hymns composed by Ismaili Pirs and Syeds.
Mukhisaheb – the person designated to be in charge or officiate matters inside the Ismaili Jamatkhana.
Kamadiasaheb – the mukhi’s assistant.
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