|Tajddin, Mumtaz Ali Sadik Ali: 101 Ismaili Heroes, Vol.1, Islamic Book Publisher, Karachi, January 2003, p 281|
He was born in 1842 in the village of
Kapaya, Kutchh. His name was Lalji and his father Devraj came to Bombay when he
was hardly few months old. The loss of his mother in 1844 forced his father to
hire a woman to nurse the 2 year-old child.
Mukhi Laljibhai Devraj learnt Gujrati upto grade four, and acquired little knowledge of English. He was betrothed to Lailabai in 1860. Two years after his marriage, his father Lalji died in 1862.
He visited Hong Kong, Canton, Shanghai and China between 1860 and 1863 to gain experience in the business field. He opened his small shop of umbrella in 1864 at Kalbadevi in Bombay. Later on, he concentrated himself in the business of glassware and kerosene and therefore obtained its agencies from British India. His business flourished and became one of the leading glassware merchants and commission agents. He also made his business trips to the Middle East, Gulf and Iran. He also extended his business field in Goa, Margau and Mapasa in 1884. He was blessed with obedient sons, who also joined their father's business.
He sprang from a family well known for their piety; he was also as dedicated and manifested unwavering faith. During a mehmani on March 2, 1900 in Hyderabad, Sind, the Imam said to him, "The shaitan cannot beguile a steady person such as yourself."
Let us go back to 1882, when the population of India was about 200 million, the number of the school-going children was hardly 300 lakh. The Municipal Corporation of Bombay afforded only 1.17% of funds to education from its revenue. With the help of Rahimtullah Muhammad Sayani (1847-1902), Imam Aga Ali Shah established the first Khoja Ismaili School in 1882 in the city of Bombay. Two Hindu teachers taught 50 to 60 students. This school marked a small but veritable beginning of a renaissance in the Indian community. Later on, Kamadia Ismail Kassimani (1853-1909) founded His Highness the Aga Khan Anglo Vernacular School in the hall of the Khadak Jamatkhana with the Imam’s permission. It was opened on August 26, 1901, providing education starting from the Kindergarten level. Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah formed an education committee of two persons, Mukhi Laljibhai Devraj and Nainsibhai Pir Muhammad Ruwala (1852-1924) to promote religious and secular education. The Imam strongly encouraged them to knock on every door to promote education. Soon afterwards, Master Hashim Bogha (1863-1912) also joined the committee.
Laljibhai Devraj resolved to focus his energy on educational field, therefore, confided his business to his sons in 1901 and centered his attention onto the noble cause. He gathered more than 500 students in the school within a period of two years. He also raised His Highness The Aga Khan Girls School at Khadak, Bombay, where 11 teachers taught 300 girls. It must be noted that an Ismaili girl, Gulbanu Ismail Jan Muhammad, who was the first Muslim girl in Bombay to pass Matriculation in 1904, acquired her formal education in this school.
In 1903, the Ismaili Literature Society came into existence to enhance the notion of religious education. Mukhi Laljibhai Devraj became the society’s President with Wazir Virji Premji Parpiya (1881-1946) as its Hon. Secretary. Master Hashim Bogha was appointed as its Supervisor. This small institution played a vital role in publishing religious literature.
He was also appointed as a member of the newly formed Ismaili Council for Bombay on April 9, 1906.
Ibrahim Jaffer Somji and Kassim Ali Ladha established the first Ismaili Dharmik Library in the compound of the Darkhana Jamatkhana on August 20, 1905. Karim Rahim Zain al-Abidin was appointed President with Ramzan Ali Rajab Ali as Hon. Secretary and Manji Ghulam Hussain as Hon. Auditor. The Imam became its patron with Mukhi Laljibhai as the vice-patron and a treasurer. It was some time later that he was appointed its Chairman. The library was also coordinated by a committee, called “Utejak Mandal”, whose mandate focused onto propagation of the importance of literature. The library rented a big room in a residential place in order to host a collection of over 500 books. It also published two periodicals, viz. Ismaili Sitaro, the first monthly journal, whose first issue came out on Sunday, August 21, 1908, followed by The Khoja Mitr. For financing these papers, he also formed the Ismaili Hidayat Funds, in which he shared a handsome contribution.
Laljibhai Devraj formed a Text-Book Committee to provide text-books to students. Master Hashim Bogha and Manji Ghulam Hussain assisted him in his initiative. Master Hashim Bogha published “Ragmala” in 1906 to enable the students to learn the raga of the ginans.
In 1908, Missionary Jamal Megji performed an impressive waez in the main Jamatkhana of Bombay, insisting the jamat to come forward to start annual majalis in Kutchh. Laljibhai Devraj and Nainsibhai Pir Muhammad offered their services and pledged handsome funds. The first annual majalis started in Nigar, about 3 miles from Nagalpur in Kutchh on March 10, 1907, where he delivered a waez. He also raised a donation of Rs. 30,000/- for the majalis funds. In addition, he became the Mukhi of the majalis and since then, he became known as Mukhi Laljibhai Devraj.
His contribution to the first Ismaili Dharmik Library was matchless. Dr. Ali Mohammad Naser Karamsey, the President of the library humbly presented a report in a mehmani in Poona on January 7, 1911, enunciating the incredible services of Mukhi Laljibhai Devraj. In response, the Imam said: "You are doing excellent work, helping the first Ismaili library and other institutions, missionaries, schools, etc. You are providing power to the Ismaili faith. Your work is highly virtuous, such as a major general and colonel’s work would be. I give you blessings for it."
The Imam visited the Ismaili Dharmik Library on January 9, 1908, March, 1911, January, 1914 and March 1, 1915. The Imam said during his visit in March, 1911 that, "I am much happy to see this library and congratulate those persons who helped this institution. I am also happy to know the help advanced by Mukhi Lalji Devraj, Jafferbhai and Alijah Haji Ahmad. Since this institution is an important centre to promote education in our jamat, I wish you all the best for it."
In the interim, he made a collection of religious books, and raised a small library inside his printing press in 1914 to permit Ismailis to have free access to the available literature.
In 1915, the Imam formed a new committee of five individuals, viz. Dr. Rajab Ali Ramji Lakhdir, Ismail Ibrahim Ukka, Mohammad Jaffer Mukhi Alarakhia, Nainsibhai Pir Muhammad Ruwala and Mukhi Laljibhai Devraj. In 1916, the Imam introduced two other persons in the committee, yielding to a total of ten members. In 1917, the school came under the control of Central Board of Education. The foundation stone of the new school was laid on March 23, 1924 with the hands of Mukhi Laljibhai Devraj at Sandshuster Road, Bombay. When Ghulam Ali Ghulam Hussain, the President requested him to make a speech, he showed his inability due to an old age, therefore, his son Alijah Hasan Ali Devraj addressed the audience.
Mukhi Laljibhai also established a Banu Shala (Ladies Industrial Home) in the compound of the Darkhana Jamatkhana, where the Ismaili girls were given basic training of sewing, embroidery works and cooking. About 12 formed tutors were employed to train 300 girls on Imam’s grant.
He also financed other schools in Kandi Mola, and spread his yeoman services in other parts of India. It became a significant feature of his career to assist the Ismaili schools irrespective of reward or fame. Later on, these schools came to be supervised under the newly formed institution, called The Khoja Ismaili Education Board in 1922.
Imam Aga Ali Shah is said to have bequeathed him to unearth rare and old manuscripts of the ginans. He launched a campaign in Sind, Kathiawar, Gujrat and Kutchh and collected a bulk of old manuscripts. Most of the Ismailis willingly delivered him their collections, some sold them to him, and others gave them to him on the word that he would return them. For about six months, he employed few scribes to make copies of the ginans and farmans in Khojki script and then distributed them among the Ismailis. When the demand increased, he started a litho print to supply more copies. When the demand increased further more, he made up his mind to prepare the Khojki types for printing purpose. He travelled throughout India, but none could design the Khojki font type. Meanwhile, he read in the newspapers that there existed a facility in Hamburg, Germany capable of preparing the printing types of any script.
He visited Germany in 1903 for a period of three months and succeeded to prepare the Khojki types for the first time. He returned and established the Khoja Sindhi Printing Press on June 27, 1903 at Palkhi Mola, Bombay. It boosted his courage when the Imam stressed upon publishing religious books in Khojki. He mobilized his capital in the project. The Satveni was the first publication of the press.
The Khoja Ghulam Hussain Press, operated by Alauddin Ghulam Hussain (1858-1914) and his son Hussain since 1880, published the ginans and farmans into litho print. These books were so costly that all the Ismailis could not afford them. The advent of the Khoja Sindhi Printing Press had a major impact on the literary field. With his hard exertion and firm determination, the Ismailis could afford the publications at a lower cost. He continued to print the religious literature into Khojki for 17 years. When the Imam made a farman to publish the religious literature into Gujrati in 1919, he started the Gujrati publications. He indeed played an important role in facilitating the switch from Khojki to Gujrati. With the development of the printing type, the printed form gradually replaced the lithographs. Mukhi Laljibhai bore the loss from his own pocket and distributed the profit thereof to the Ismaili library and the schools.
The Khoja Sindhi Printing Press was a boon and basic brick of the Ismaili literature. It paved a way in the growth of journalism within the community. Suffice it to say that it gave a new drift to the Ismaili journalism.
The Indian Ismailis are indebted to him for publishing the ginans before it decayed. It ensues from his editions that he did not indicate the criteria he had followed to edit the ginanic literature. When he noticed its adverse reactions, he made an advertisement in the “Ismailis Satpanth Prakash” (Bombay, April 12, 1918), which reads: “We hereby appeal with due respect to the missionaries, devouts and the persons, well rooted in the study of the ginans that the ginans lying in our press have been copied from the accessible hand written manuscripts. We make an appeal to bring to our notice with evidences the errors and shortcomings in the ginans we have brought forth after a labour of seventeen years. We will make amendments in the new editions provided we had truly committed mistakes. We have however copied in two to three editions, and none among the community has yet raised an objection for any alteration, which is an ample evidence of the doubtlessness of our publications. Nevertheless, the reason to make an appeal is to make ourselves free from committing errors, and it is the duty of the scholars of the ginans to respond to our appeal.” He seems to have become victim in modern critics, but the scholars must take a look upon the foregoing declaration before drawing their conclusions.
The library also organized essay and lecture competitions. The winners were awarded prizes and their names published in the Ismaili periodicals. His name was undoubtedly immortalized as the real founder of the Ismaili journalism in India. He also became a patron of Ismaili Literature Society in Bombay in 1910.
In 1915, he also started "Ismaili Satpanth Prakash", whose editor was V.N. Hooda and Harjibhai Poonja, but discontinued in the year 1927.
He was the President of The Ismailia Sahitya Utejak Mandal, Bombay and extended his inestimable services. He however resigned from the post on February 19, 1918 by virtue of his old age.
In January, 1919, N.M. Budhwani, the editor of the “Ismaili Aftab” (Dhoraji) had a meeting with Mukhi Laljibhai Devraj and wrote that, “I had an opportunity to see Mukhi Laljibhai Devraj. He is now about 75 years old, resides near the main Jamatkhana and renders honorary services to the jamat. He is an old man, but his thoughts are modern. He gives much priority to education. He has done a lot of work to spread education within the community. He himself supervises the printing press without profit motives and bears its loss. He is regular in the attendance of morning and evening Jamatkhana. He was an unsparing man, and there is not a single institution in the jamat where his generous hand has not penetrated.”
The monthly Ismaili Satpanth Prakash continued to be published for seven years in Ahmedabad. When he retired on February 19, 1918, the publication of Ismaili Satpanth Prakash came under the Ismailia Sahitiya Prakash Society.
Mukhi Laljibhai Devraj handed over the Khoja Sindhi Printing Press to the Recreation Club Institute with the first Ismaili periodical, “Ismaili Sitaro” in 1922, which discontinued after a span of 14 years. Instead, the Recreation Club Institute started the publication of the weekly, “Ismaili,” whose editor was Wazir Ali Muhammad Jan Muhammad Chunara (1881-1960). Its first issue came out on October 7, 1923.
On March 3, 1924, the Imam visited Khadak Girls School, and said while looking at Mukhi Laljibhai that, "I am much happy to see you. When this educational institution had been started, there was not a single person to work for it. You alone have worked hard at that time and performed an excellent work. You were however alone, but rendered an excellent work."
His intimate colleague, Nainsibhai Pir Muhammad Ruwala deceased on October 3, 1924 at the age of 72 years. He was born in Rataria, Kutchh in 1852. Soon after his formal education, he entered in the petty business of cotton waste in 1868. Later on, he moved to Bombay and started his own cotton business. He had rendered incredible services for 35 years along with Mukhi Laljibhai Devraj.
The unfurling ceremony of the Ismaili flag was performed for the first time in India on June 19, 1927 at Thana Jamatkhana. Soon afterwards, it was followed in other parts of India. Mukhi Laljibhai Devraj had an honour to unfurl the Ismaili flag on Bandra Jamatkhana, Bombay on July 4, 1927.
While addressing in the Central Health Board on January 15, 1928 at Bombay, the Imam said, "I am much happy to know that the Bombay school has made tremendous progress during last several years. When it first started, its initiative was insignificant. At that time, Mukhi Laljibhai Devraj and others worked hard, resulting in the opening of its branches in the locations of Bombay. This school serves excellently to the community. I wish for its high success and prosperity."
Overpowered with pain and fatigue, there was not an ounce of energy left in him. But even in the state of bodily frustration, his mind was alert and active with unwavering faith. Once Wazir Ghulam Hussain Thavar (1907-1963) went at his residence with few friends when his health was impaired. When the matter of the literature grossly discrediting the image of Ismailism in a hideous form came into the discussion, he exclaimed at once, “Alas! I am too old. My hands and legs are shaking in weakness. I have now no energy, otherwise, I will have taken measures against the derogatory literature.”
Mukhi Laljibhai Devraj, who was also known as the Grand Old Man and the Father of Education and Father of Ismaili Journalism, expired in Bombay on October 6, 1930 at the age of 88 years. He had five sons, viz. Rehmatullah, Hasan Ali, Issa, Abdullah, Hussain and a daughter, Kulsoom.
At the Aga Hall in Bombay, the Imam said to his sons during the Ruhani Mehmani on December 22, 1933 that, "Your father had served my house too much, and wherever his children are - whether in Goa, Madras, Bombay, etc., in the Recreation Club, Council or Panjibhai Club, they are serving me. I give you many many blessings."
The Imam also called his sons and their children near the chair and heard of their activities. The Imam graced them dastboshi and told to Alijah Hasan Ali Devraj that, “Alijah, you are also serving my house and keep it continued.”
His son Rahmatullah Lalji (1876-1918) introduced Persian classes in the Vidhiya Vinod Club (Bombay) and also wrote many important articles in Ismaili periodicals. He financed the religious night school of Kandi Mola, Bombay. As well as raised a group, known as the Valkesar Panjibhai to present the fruits of every season to the Imam at the Valkesar bungalow. Ultimately, it took the formation of the Valkesar Panjibhai Majalis in Bombay. Later on, he moved to Goa and helped the incoming Ismailis in their settlement. He also served as Mukhi of the Goa jamat. He had 4 sons and 5 daughters.
Hasan Ali Lalji was the first Hon. Secretary of the Recreation Club Institute since 1922. He was appointed the Mukhi of Bombay Darkhana Jamatkhana in 1934. He also executed the function of President of the Council Committee in Kutchh with Mukhi Hashim Bhimji as Hon. Secretary. He left behind 2 sons and 3 daughters. His son, Mahdi rendered incredible services to the jamat as the Mukhi. Mukhi Mahdi died in November, 1949 and the Imam sent following telegraphic message:
Marscillee : 12th Nov., 1949
My most loving blessings to the memory of our beloved Mukhi Mahdi. Loving blessing and condolence to his family. His life long devotion and service like his father, uncles and grandfather are always in my thoughts. Renewed blessings to the Laljee family.
The third son of Mukhi Laljibhai Devraj was Issa Lalji, who was born on August 3, 1891. He was appointed as the Mukhi of Madras Jamatkhana on January 4, 1934 and served for eight years. He then migrated to Bangladesh, and died in Karachi on November 2, 1976. He had 6 sons and 5 daughters.
Abdullah Lalji also served as the Mukhi for Goa jamat and was crowned with the title of Wazir in 1960. He left behind 2 sons and 4 daughters.
Hussain Lalji was the fifth son of Mukhi Laljibhai Devraj, and also served as the Mukhi in Goa and Poona Jamatkhanas. In 1922, the Imam appointed him as a member of H.H. The Aga Khan’s Ismaili Central Board for Education for Bombay. He was given the title of Wazir in 1970. He had 7 sons and 4 daughters, and died in May, 1971. It must be known that his son, Jaffer presented a mehmani at Wadi, Bombay in 1970 and asked a name for his newly born son. The Imam named his son Lalji. Soon afterwards, the Imam attended the mehmani of Issa Lalji, where he said, “Lalji is a Hindu name, but I gave this name to Jaffer’s son, because your late father Mukhi Laljibhai Devraj had rendered tremendous services, and I gave this name to revive his memory.”
Kulsoom was the only daughter of Mukhi Laljibhai Devraj. She was also a social worker and married to Vali Mohammad Haji Ladak.
In 1951, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah is reported to have asked to Ibrahim Jaffer Somji, “Who is the richest person in Bombay?” To this, he said, “Dewan Muhammad Rawjee is most affluent.” The Imam said, “Not Dewan Rawjee, but the family of Mukhi Laljibhai Devraj. His son Hasan Ali in Bombay, Hussain in Poona, Issa in Madras and Abdullah in Goa served as the Mukhis. Indeed, the family of late Mukhi Laljibhai Devraj is the richest one.”