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50. Ismail Gangji, Varas - page 207

Gangji, the father of Ismail was one of the famous and dedicated social workers in Junagadh jamat. He had never gone to school, his family members called him gang i.e., unlettered, and became known as Gangji, making his original name disappeared in the records. He was however a man of middle class. His son Ismail is supposed to have been born around 1788 and his fame soon reached incredible heights as the Varas of Junagadh.
Varas Ismail Gangji, crowning the towering name of the Hero of Kathiawar, was a petty spice trader on foot with a bag on his shoulder and wandered from one village to another and was a cheater to give less in weighing. He sold spices in place of the bales of cotton and disposed off in the market. He passed almost 25 years in this trade, which he started at the age of 6 to 7 years.

He was regular in the Jamatkhana, and would attend wherever he went for his sale. He acquired his religious education from Rai Rahmatullah of Bombay. Once he attended the Bantwa Jamatkhana and heard following stanza of the ginan:-

False thine scale and balance uneven,
Measures and weighs heavily counterfeit;
Gave away less and creature grabbed more,
And didn't care for his self.

He heard above verses attentively and gazed at the boy who recited. It moved him so much that he had tears in his eyes. He came to Mukhi Rai Rahmatullah with a firm determination not to cheat his customers and sought forgiveness of his sins. He approached his mother nervously, expecting to be scolded, and revealed his final decision. She spoke softly and uttered words of encouragement.

The ancestors of the Nawabs of Junagadh have a long and glorious legacy of heroism through out the Mughal period. It was Sherkhan Babi, who after consolidating his foothold in Gujrat, assumed the fame of Bahadur Khan Babi and declared himself Nawab of Junagadh in 1748. His Highness Sir Mahabatkhan II Babi Bahadur (1851-1882) was the fifth in the lineal descent from Bahadur Khan I, the founder of the ruling house in Junagadh. His Highness Sir Mahabatkhan II was the 7th Nawab of Junagadh in order of succession. The Junagadh State was also known as the Sorath Sarkar.

Junagadh State was comprised of an area of 3193 sq. miles in those days. According to the census taken in 1871, the population of the State was 389021. The Ismailis in Junagadh State lived mostly in Junagadh city, and not in Verawal, Kutiyana, Mangrol or Wanthali. The Nawab in the Junagadh State was the final and absolute authority and the administration conducted under his direction by a Dewan assisted by heads of various State departments.

His father Gangji was an employee in the wardrobe (jamdarkhana) of Junagadh State. The wardrobe on those days had a wide testimonial of opulence and magnification of Nawab Shahi. Gold, rich gem stubbed ornaments and jewellery, valuable garments and clothes were stored in the wardrobe. Gangji was working as an assistant keeper of a certain Javerbhai. Varas Ismail Gangji also joined the wardrobe in 1819 as an ordinary worker without salary.

During the festivals and other occasions, the visitors brought gifts in the court for the Nawab in Junagadh. Lavish foods were served to the guests, resulting wastage of huge sugar, cinnamon, betel nuts, cardamom, etc. and these were scattered on the floor. The sweeper collected the stuff, but Varas Ismail disliked the wastage. He would sort out each item on the floor and store them on every occasion. When he had collected a fair amount, he delivered them to his supervisor, who was perplexed to see his honesty and loyalty. Very soon, he was made an assistant keeper of the wardrobe.

Once the wife of the Nawab lost her precious necklace. He found it and returned to the Nawaba. His honesty and loyalty were appreciated, causing the Nawab to promote him to a very elevated post. He was confided the Revenue Department and soon afterwards, he became the head of the departments of the Treasury and Mint in 1821.

Varas Ismail Gangji visited different villages and collected inestimable revenues. For the purpose of land revenue administration, the Junagadh State was divided into 12 districts with a total of 842 villages. He also took leading part in the welfare programmes of the State. It was he who initiated a plan to start a railway line in Junagadh. Eventually, the main railway line from Jetalsar to Verawal for the first time in Junagadh was begun and was opened for traffic in 1888 after his death. He was also appointed the head of the provisions and supplies of the State. Varas Ismail Gangji became a best model of an honesty in the Junagadh State.

Once he had to go outside the State to buy some valuable articles for Mr. Lint, the then political agent. He was given a letter of introduction, insisting all those concerned to treat him with honour due to a high official. The Nawab also gave him a piece of land in appreciation of his 50 years services in 1869. He was granted a land in the village of Anandpur, where he built quarters for the destitute. This is on the records of the Junagadh State, and the extract of the Document No. 11 reveals: 'You have been loyally serving us in person for the last fifty years. You have carried out all the responsible jobs entrusted to you with exemplary honesty, and unswerving loyalty. In the state purchases of jewellery for the Heir apparent, we have received huge saving almost a lac of rupees. Besides, you have executed all the orders of Queen Mother with respect, honour and love, and you have never abused the confidence or power vested in you.' (This Document has been signed and sealed on the fourth day of Kartak (Vad) S.Y. 1925, or 1869 A.D.)

The Duke of Edinburg, the future king Edward VII (1901-1910), as Prince of Wales, visited India. The Rajas, Maharajas, Nawabs, Feudatory nobles from all parts of India gathered in Delhi in 1877, where the Prince of Wales was holding a darbar. The Nawab of Junagadh intended to be invited in the darbar. He told to Varas Ismail Gangji, who arranged his invitation through the influence of Imam Hasan Ali Shah. The Nawab of Junagadh was among the Indian Nawabs to be graced with the honour of the very first audience with the Prince of Wales

Imam Hasan Ali Shah hosted a royal banquet to the Duke of Edinburg and Edward VIII in 1877 at the Aga Hall, Bombay. The entertainment of the guests was consigned to Varas Ismail Gangji, who arranged for expert cooks from Ahmedabad, closely related to Wazir Alibhai Bhoora (1900-1996). Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898), Nawab Mohsin al-Mulk (1837-1907), Sir Nawab Mahabat Khan (1851-1882) and Hasan Ali Effendi (1830-1895) were the distinguished guests in the banquet. Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah related the event in his 'The Memoirs of Aga Khan' (New York, 1954, p. 35) in these words: 'When the Prince of Wales paid his state visit to India, he was entertained at Aga Hall by my grand-father, and commented with interest on the number of tiger skins displayed.'

Imam Hasan Ali Shah visited Kathiawar in 1853. Varas Ismail also went for didar and served the jamats for three without any rest. In the same year, he also came to Bombay for didar in Wadi. The tradition has it that when Imam Hasan Ali Shah came down from his bungalow to grace an audience to the jamat, he saw Ismail Gangji at his first sight. He said in a burst of anger, 'Ismail! you have bothered my son Ali Shah in Kathiawar. I know how you misbehaved with him.' The Imam returned, without gracing didar - the jamat was confused and had tears in their eyes. Varas Ismail Gangji did not say anything, he just bowed his head in humility . On the second and third day, the same thing happened and the Imam rebuked him with severe words, but he spoke nothing. The perplexed jamat now began to talk that how wicked he was that they got no didar during last three days and the Imam went away in anger.

Despite mental agony, he worked hard and continued his duties unmindful of the disappointment, which had enveloped his heart. On fourth day, the Imam summoned him in audience in Wadi and said, 'Ismail! I tried your faith harshly, but it proved unwavering like Mount Girnar. You possess an ocean of patience and the gravity of your tolerance is remarkable. With this sense of tolerance and patience, you are the right person to look after the welfare of our jamat, and now, you are the Wazir of whole Kathiawar. I am much happy with you and give you much blessings.' The tears trickled down from the eyes of Varas Ismail Gangji and he stood before the Imam with his head bowed servilely. Imam Hasan Ali Shah vested him the title of Wazir. He expressed his inability for the magnitude of the work that was assigned to this post. Imam Hasan Ali Shah said, 'Ismail! you do not worry. You will handle the job with full responsibility. You will be guided in your work by my blessings and you will carry out the work. Success and glory shall be your reward. This is my wish, Ismail.'

Swift in thought and action, he could formulate his plans on the spur of the moment. He was indeed one of those individuals who combined theory with practice. On that night, Varas Ismail Gangji was greatly worried for the responsibility of the jamat of Junagadh vested in him. He wept and passed sleepless night. His two servants, Abu Samji and Mitha Ismail also did not sleep and watched the worries of their master. He gained patience very soon and started his services in Junagadh as Imam's Wazir.

The economical and social conditions of the Ismailis in Junagadh was the most deteriorated in the whole of India. The social sphere of life was no less than a hopeless condition. The weak were buried under the machinery of the unjust economy. It was a chronic disease spreading day by day in the Ismaili society. The lower strata of the Ismailis were the diggers of graves, barbers, porters, tiffin carriers, manual labourers, domestic servants and road construction workers. Sufficient reliable data is accessible in the voluminous writings that Varas Ismaili Gangji reacted sharply to the ailing state of the Ismailis.

To embark upon the mammoth task of reforms, one needs strength of resolution. Self-confident to face the challenge of the time, having insurmountable obstructions, he felt with ever more conviction that the reforms of his fellow beings had fallen to his lot with the blessings of the Imam. Being a profound and learned scholar, he was also blessed with the remarkable insight of a saga, he had no difficulty in locating the source which had shattered the social and economical conditions of the Ismailis. His first step was to find a solution for those who were at the most lowest class. He had to unite them on their traditional platform, i.e., their regularity in the Jamatkhana. He renovated the Jamatkhana of Junagadh. He allotted the duties to the fleet of field workers, including himself.

On that occasion, the grand procession of the Nawab Mahabat Khan passed near the Jamatkhana, and the Nawab was shocked to see his high minister working as a labourer. He told to Varas, 'Do you lift the bags of sands?' He replied, 'Yes Sir. I am a priceless slave of this jamat, and today it is my turn to work.' The Nawab was impressed beyond measure.

Varas Ismail Gangji united them and knitted together with his well dressed personality with glorious manner and habit. He played an important role for the services of the Ismailis of Junagadh and Kathiawar, he was in charge of settlement and their steady progress. He worked veritably like a brave lion in the community.

Varas Ismail Gangji then turned to improve the worst conditions of the Ismailis and he took few more firm measures to get to the root of their economical condition. The Ismailis were destined to dig the graves. He himself was well aware, of this fact, therefore, he too once dug a grave. When this was reported to Nawab Mahabat Khan that his high minister had dug the grave, Varas Ismail Gangji was summoned to the Nawab.

Varas Ismaili Gangji said, 'None except the Ismaili Khojas are reserved for digging graves. I am also an Ismaili. What's wrong in it?' The Nawab said, 'Well, I agree it, but I cannot allow my minister to take part in this.' To this, Varas Ismail Gangji boldly said, 'But I will either do it as your ex-minister or give me your word that no Khoja will dig graves from today.' Nawab Mahabat Khan acceded to his proposal and issued his decree that the Khojas specifically would not dig graves and it would be consigned to the depressed class in the state.

After performing the spade works, Varas Ismail Gangji centered his attention towards the common folk in the community. This problem was resolved different measures. There were few affluent persons in the community, whom he exhorted to venture into the wholesale business of vegetables, and supply to the Ismaili retailers. Gradually, the labour class joined the business. Once he saw a poor Ismaili porter struggling under the weight of a heavy stone, which he was carrying on his back. Moved by pity for his inferior condition, Varas Ismaili Gangji ordered him, 'Drop the stone' and he did so. Varas Ismail Gangji set him up as a vendor for vegetables.

These new reforms brought the Ismailis of Junagadh slowly into the middle and the higher economic classes of the society. It certainly marked the turning of the tide for them. The old proverb, 'Khoja uthao boja' (Khoja! lift the load) denoting the Ismailis of Junagadh gradually came to an end.

Varas Ismail Gangji was regular in the attendance of the Jamatkhana and came before the Mukhi and Kamadia. He was a high official of the state and then a veteran leader of the community, but where the question for the service of the community arose, he would consider himself as lowest of the low. He unrolled daily the mats and spread on them floor. He started the recitation of the ginans before prayers. He also delivered waez. After an end of the evening prayers, his servants searched daily into the Jamatkhana the new visitors or travellers and brought them for dinner. This tradition of hospitality continued till the death of his son, Varas Kassim.

Once on Friday, he was offering prayers in the Jamatkhana, a messenger came in haste and said, 'Nawab Saheb summons you urgently.' He told, 'Tell him that I will come after an end of the prayers.' The messenger returned with another message of the Nawab to come very soon. This time, the Varas gave him the keys and told, 'Go and tell to the Nawab that I resign from the post, since I cannot serve two Lords at the same time. I am a servant of the State during the day, and a servant of my great Lord at night and on that hour, none can order me.' Varas then appeared before the Nawab after his religious service,. Quite amazingly, the Nawab embraced him with his breast, felicitated and thanked to learn the worth of the divine worship.

The great untapped reservoir of Junagadh's wealth was Gir and the Girnar forests. They formed the greatest natural attraction for all classes of first class tourists, sightseers, wild game hunters and lion killers. As one enters the State from the north-east, the rock of Mount Girnar rises up from the plains around in one black granite block of phallic shape. The slopes, valleys and glades of Mount Girnar form the block known as the Girnar forests. While the Gir forest lies several miles to the east. This is a region of densely covered plains and low jungle-clad ranges of hills and constitutes what is called the Gir forests. The Girnar forest is 70 sq. miles in area, while the Gir forest covers about 500 sq. miles of Junagadh territory. The dense Gir forests are the only abodes of lions, and were a pet hunting ground for the nobility and native chiefs. Imam Aga Ali Shah was fond of hunting lion and tiger and visited Gir forest and Mount Girnar with Varas Ismail Gangji.

In 1876, the State had only 25 Gujrati schools, 5 girls' schools, one Sanskrit Pathshala, one Urdu Makhtab and one high school. Under such condition, Varas Ismail Gangji started some schools for the education of the Ismailis. He also waged war against cruel customs, which had entailed ignorance upon females, and created prejudices against them in the minds of parents, who were grinding their daughters in the millstone of illiteracy. He strongly opposed to the artificial barriers, which debarred women from taking their rightful position in life.

Varas Ismail Gangji was the undisputed leader of the community beyond any doubt, and his humility knew no bounds. He would treat everyone with equal dignity and uniformity. He would offer due respect to the Mukhi and Kamadia. In those times, the Mukhi of Junagadh Jamatkhana was a certain Najubhai, a humble roof and tiles worker by profession. On the occasion of the marriage ceremony of his son, Ibrahim, Varas Ismail invited and gave him a front seat with the dignitaries of the state and the Nawab Saheb. They queered to mark besides them, a man dressed in simple rustic clothes, and asked the Varas to introduce this man to them. Varas Ismail told them with pride that, 'He is an elder of our community, the Mukhi of the Junagadh jamat, and as such he is the representative of the Imam and I stand before him every evening with folded hands, seeking pardon for all my guilty acts.'

It was Varas Ismail Gangji who liberated the Ismailis in Junagadh from the labour works not suiting to their status. His sense of justice was proverbial. Every jamat would offer him ready response and utmost cooperation. He was a strict disciplinarian too. If he would find the small children smoking, he would put them into the lock-up. To the elderly offenders, he would give them stricker punishments, and the relatives of the offenders would support his corrective methods. During his lifetime, the Junagadh jamats were free from such debasing habits.

Varas Ismail Gangji was also commissioned to collect the religious dues in Sind and Kathiawar for some times. Kamadia Nazar Ali in Sind and Kamadia Sabzali Damani in Kathiawar executed the responsible office under his control.

He was a lover of knowledge and gifted man of literary genius, notwithstanding the pressure of work, which his duties entailed upon him, he always found time to read book, which included a wide range of subjects. He had a good collection of the farmans of the Imam. He attended the annual majalis of Ganod, where he arranged an elephantine crowd and imparted the Ismailis the ginans and the farmans. It was a significant quality of his oratory that once who heard him attentively, he became so impressed that he desired for next gathering with him. During his visit to Ahmadabad on October 13, 1903, Imam Sultan Mohammed Shah said, 'Wazir Ismail interpreted the ginans and was very courageous. The other persons in the jamat also became courageous after listening his waez, and as a result, thousand of individuals began to deliver waez after him.'
N.M. Dumasia writes in his 'Short History of the Aga Khan' (Bombay, 1903, p. 262) that, 'Ismail Gangji was doing hard works to impart the Khoja jamat the philosophy of their Ismaili faith and the farmans. He himself commanded the status of a rich man, even then he organized majalis every year at the shrine of Hasan Pir in Ganod, inviting the jamats of Kathiawar. He delivered waez for five days on the Ismaili faith. Making them aware of the religion, he imparted them to follow the path of truth, thus he served the Ismaili jamat.'

Varas Ismail Gangji had two sons from his two wives. His first wife was the mother of Wazir Kassim Ismail Gangji, who continued to work on the footprint of his father and died on February 9, 1910 in Kathiawar. His another wife is said to have belonged to Lucknow, the mother of Itmadi Ibrahim.

In the path of devotion and worship, Varas Ismail attained the height of spiritual greatness. His soul was in communion with God. Divine love was intermingled in his blood. Once the topic of his worship and devotion came up for discussion and comparison with another personage, of his times, when Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah was implored to give his verdict: 'Mawla! what is the difference between the person and Varas Ismail?' The Imam said, 'Oh, that personage would be standing behind Varas Ismail.' On another occasion, the Imam is reported to have said that, 'When God Almighty commanded the souls to offer salutation, the second to offer salutation was Salman Farsi and third in order was Varas Ismail.'

It is related that Imam Aga Ali Shah gave a tawiz (locket) in 1882 to Varas Ismail to be tied on the shoulder of his ailing son, Itmadi Ibrahim with an instruction to read it soon after the recovery of his health. When he recovered, the tawiz was opened, wherein was written into Persian, 'darja'e pir sadruddin' (the status of Pir Sadrudidin).

Varas Ismail Gangji died On August, 1883 in Junagadh and a large number of the Muslims and Hindus joined in the funeral ceremony and paid glorious tribute. Nyalchand, the State Chief Officer expressed on that occasion that, 'Saurashtra hero was waking Saurashtra void of an indispensable asset by his passing away.'

In accordance with the commands of Imam Aga Ali Shah, the last rites of Varas Ismail were performed in the majalis in Ganod. The Imam also in person attended the last rites, and during the luncheon, he sent for a sweet-meat ball and ate a part of it with relish and showered his blessings on the gathering. Thousands attended the luncheon which was inexhaustible by virtue of the divine blessings.

It was through his own exertions that he rose from a very humble position in life to the summit of greatness. His oft-repeated words were: 'Imam's love is everything for the Ismailis, nothing is more than it. Procure love with the Imam if you want to enjoy happiness of life and death' and 'Live like a lion and surrender before the angel of death as a lion.' He also used to utter the words, 'My life is not mine. It is an asset of the Imam.'

Imam Aga Ali Shah visited Junagadh at the end of 1883 and offered prayers at his grave. He gave his verdict on the occasion and said, 'Another hero like Varas Ismail would never be born.'

On that occasion, the Imam is also reported to have gave the posthumous title of a Pir to Varas Ismail Gangji. It appears that the elder group of the Ismailis considered it a private farman and never divulged it publicly. This was kept as a secret for over 70 years till Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah mentioned it in his farman. In a question of Count Kassim Ali R. Paroo (1906-1998), the Imam said, 'To become a Pir, it is not necessary to be Ahl al-Bait as all Imams' examples prove. Men like Wazir Ismail of Kathiawar was declared Pir after his death by Imam Aga Ali Shah.' (vide, 'Private and Confidential Subjects Discussed' by Religious Study Group of Mombasa, Kenya, 1953-1959, p. 45). The conferment of the title of Pir was an unprecedented honour to glorify his meritorious services. Under his wide leadership, the Ismailis in Junagadh came up with flying colours, and were given legitimate protection in the State with their cultural, social and religious interests sufficiently safeguarded and their principal importance as a Muslim community adequately secured. Indeed, he piloted the ship of Junagadh with talent, skill, courage and brought it safely ashore.

Imam Aga Ali Shah appointed his elder son, Kassim as his Wazir with the younger son, Itmadi Ibrahim as a Kul Kamadia. The Junagadh State however appointed Ibrahim to the office of his late father. When Itmadi Ibrahim died on June 24, 1897, the Imam appointed Habib, the elder son of Varas Kassim as a Kul Kamadia in 1900, and when he died on February 9, 1910, the Junagadh State bequeathed the office of the treasury to Varas Kassim.

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah is also reported to have said that, 'Varas Ismail converted sixty thousand believers, and taken ten thousand with him.'

Itmadi Ibrahim served as the Kul Kamadia, while Varas Kassim was enjoined the office of his father. Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah made following farmans for them:-

'Varas Ismail had been serving too much to my house from beginning to now. Gangji, the father of Varas (Ismail) had been serving us since the time of my grandfather. My father Aga Ali Shah assigned the office of Varas to Kassim after the death of Varas Ismail and the office of Kul Kamadia to his brother Ibrahim; and put on the robe by his (Aga Ali Shah) hands. He (Varas Kassim) had served too much during these ten years.' (Mangevadi: 30.12.1893). The Imam also said, 'Obey like Varas Ismail and Varas Kassim. Varas Kassim had been appointed by me in Kathiawar.' (Ibid)

'It is enjoined upon all jamats, young and old to listen properly the orders of Varas Kassim and follow what he commands. Varas Kassim commands authority on my behalf over the whole Kathiawar. One who disobeys Varas Kassim, it means he disobeys my farman. One who commits hostility with him, it means he commits hostility with me. I will be very happy with him who acts upon the orders of Varas Kassim.' (Junagadh: 19.4.1900)

The Imam then presented the robe of honour to Varas Kassim and said, 'You always served the Imam and do it again. You advise the jamat in religious matter to attend the Jamatkhana.' (Ibid)

'Wazir Kassim is the head of you all the Varas. Keep listening all the times the orders of Wazir Kassim and do not exceed it. This is an obligatory act I am enjoining upon you.' (Mangevadi: 2.11.1903)

'The jamat of Junagadh remained firm in faith since the time when Aga Hasan Ali Shah arrived in India. The whole jamat and Wazir Ismail, Wazir Kassim, young and old, men and women, all have served to my house too much.' (Bombay: 19.12.1933)

Imam Aga Ali Shah is reported to have told to the Junagadh jamat to recite daily the tasbih of Ya Ali Ya Muhammad and salwat for 14 times in the Jamatkhana in the name of Varas Ismail Gangji and pray for him. Later on, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah included the names of Varas Kassim and Itmadi Ibrahim in the tasbih. This practice is still operative only in Junagadh Jamatkhana. It indicates the great and incredible services of the Gangji family for the Imam and the jamat.

Ismail Gangji, Varas
Junagadh Jamatkhana, Gujarat, India

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