Nov 15, 2012

Bead Bai: Satpanth Ismaili Das Avatar Ginan

Avatars of Vishnu circle Sultan Mohamed Shah (Aga Khan III) in red turban 
Notice Om above the imam's potrait.

Gujarati writing. 

Top લાંબી  ઇમામતના  જોમાંઘારી - Bearer (responsible one) of the long immate

Bottom: નુરમોલાના  સુલતાન  મહમદશાહ - Noor Mowlana Sultan Mohamed Shah

Bottom margin. Courtesy: Ismailia Association, Bombay, 15-1-1957


Chapter 17
Picture Darshan and the Song

After his morning chai, Dadabapa gathers all his grandchildren around him at Saheb’s framed picture at the shop’s corner altar. A slim garland of stale marigold roses and browned jasmine hangs on the picture that calls for veneration. Below the wilted loop are a handful of mung, a silver coin and a burnt-out incense stick in a peacock stand. A fresh tuberose. A broken tasbih. Some coins. Dadabapa replaces yesterday’s incense stick and lights a new one on the peacock’s head cast in silver on the incense holder. He lights another one holding it between his two fingers as if it were a long sewing needle.

“Remember life is a changing cycle of karma from yoog to yoog,” says Dadabapa measuring his words as he looks at each one of us in the eye. Thus begins the morning lesson, and the song.

“Satpanth stories are in the four colours of the yoogs. Each has its own persona in red or yellow, black or white.” I keep still, my eyes tightly closed. I thrill in the expectation of the rass of darshan seeping into my body, the devotional bliss in my ears, the magical picture in my eyes.

“I am at your feet. I offer this my aarti dua today,” Dadabapa speaks to the picture. Then he turns around and speaks to us. “Children! Sing with me! Let me hear your voices loud!”

I open my eyes gradually to the picture and my heart to the coming bliss. Dadabapa draws incense smoke in circles around the picture in which all the ten avatars of the creator as fish, animals and men stand before me. I look at each image, my palms pressed before me, my chants following Dadabapa, line by line. Shamshu mumbles by my side. He is impatient for his mind is elsewhere. Pictures of the avatars sing back to me. My eyes fall on them pleading darshan. Awe fills me when the chant of the fish-animal-human god avatar in the ten descriptions becomes one prayer to our unison universe. Behind the children, Ma Gor Bai and Kaki Bai auntie stand at a distance with their hands folded, eyes closed, all singing together. My father stands in the opposite corner, also with his hands folded, eyes closed and singing. Only Noordin Kaka uncle is not there.  Even Hawa joins us.

I am Vishnu’s machli avatar, the giant fish

I saved the Vedas from heinous demon

Behold! I am the Lord of the age

When he comes to ‘I am’ in the end verse, Dadabapa raises his voice.  Repeating after him, we would call out ‘I am’ in a chorus, shouting at the top of our voices. He would smile aside without looking at his grandchildren imitating him.

I am Vishnu’s kurma avatar, the turtle

I deliver life when oceans whirl

Behold! I am the Lord of the age

Awe grips me, so vast a divinity in the picture before me. So vast the story of Das Avatar. So vast the creation.

Sep 27, 2012

Bead Bai: Bandhani and Emankeeki details


This historical novel is drawn from domestic and community life of Sakina evolving around two objects of women’s art. Both are of considerable social and artistic values among two culturally unalike people living side by side as separate yet in some ways inter-reliant societies on the savannah. One art object is the bandhani shawl of the Khoja Ismailis, a trading settler Asian African community adhering austerely to a distinct faith tradition rooted in Sufism and Vedic beliefs that absorbs Sakina’s spiritual life. The other is the emankeeki, a beaded neck to chest ornament of the Maasai, a pastoralist African people to whom the savannah is the ancestral home and source of their art, spirituality and well-being that Sakina yearns for during moments of torments in her life.

  Celebration of Bandhanis
Mombasa Jamat Khana Imamat Day 1963

                                                      photo courtesy Ameer Bhai Janmohamed.

Sparkle of 31 bandhanis. This picture was one among several, a collection composed by Ameer Bhai Janmohamed in memoriam of beloved Malek Chachi (Malek Bai Somji) sitting in the front row, first from the left. 

Back Row Left to Right Malek Bai Rajabali Kassam Suleman Damji, Guli Bai Jivan, Dolu Bai Jaffer Haji Mitha

2nd Row Khati Bai (Mira Bai?) Kassam Suleman Damji,  Khatun Bai Rashid, Rehmat Bai Jivraj, Leila Bai Merali Mussa 

3rd row Shahsultan Bai Mohamedali Dhala, Mrs Merali Ramji, Gulshan Badru Musa, Mrs Haji Mitha 

4th row Shirin Bai Akbar A Janmohamed, Nurbanu Bai Nasser Alibhai, Fatma Bai Ramzan Dossa 

5th row Khatun Bai Kassamali Paroo, Dolu Bai Badrudin Alibhai Kanji, Roshan Bai Fatehali Dhala, Zainub Bai Akbar Moloo Alarakhia

6th row Mrs Hami, Gulzar Bai Mansur Satchu, Nabat Bai Lalani, Nurbanu Bai Satchu. 

7th row Gulbanu Bai Husein Jivan Kanji, Muhkiani Zeinub Bai Mohamedali Rashid, Kamadiani Zeenat Bai Ameer Janmohamed, Fatma Bai Abdulrasul Gulmani           

Front Row Malek Bai Umedali Somji (Malek Chachi), Mrs Jamal Habib Kara, Dolutkhanu Bai Ebrahim Tarmohamed, Nurbanu Bai Sultan Fazal Bhanji.

(Looking for first names of those marked in blue. If you can recognize the ladies, please let me know. Also if anyone is misidentified or her name spelt incorrectly please notify me at This list of names is created with the assistance of Ameer Bhai Janmohamed and Shariffa Khesavjee and continues to be updated with your help. Thank you all for your participation, ss).


photo courtesy Karim Ajania

An example of a classic bandhani and seven diamond nose siri, the two ritual objects of
Satpanth Khoja marriage. Shirin Bai Gwadery, Nairobi late 1930s.

photo courtesy Nizar Ramji

Rehema Bai Ramji wearing her wedding bandhani. Dar-es-salaam 1930s.

 Bandhani in historical consciousness of 
the Ithna Asheri Khoja jamat

  "In this account of Bead Bai, several aspects of cultural commonality are also portrayed that continued to be practiced for long by the Ismalili, Sunni and Ithna-Asheri Khoja. In fact some of the practices are common to all Cutchi and Gujarati communities, Hindu and Muslim alike. One such example illustrated is the use of ‘Bandhani’ a richly embroidered silk shawl that provides for as head covering for the bride and retained as a family treasure to be  eventually draped on the coffin of the lady. This has been common practice among both Khoja Ismaili and Ithna-Asheri for long.The Ithna-Asheri Khoja went a step further as they adorned the Alam  (banner) of Hazart Abbas during the months of Muharram with a Bandhani.  It was in such high esteem that the  Bandhani  was held in Khoja culture. This custom continued until 1974 when the Ithna-Asheri community in Mombasa convened an open forum to review rites, rituals and traditions in vogue. Among the changes brought about as a result, the use of  Bandhani for the  Alam and draping over the coffin were then discontinued. Such Open Forums had no less hilarious moments as the hard-core traditionalists, especially among the ladies, found it sacrilegious to let go of the long practiced traditions."

Extract from the review of Bead Bai by historian Hassan A. M. Jaffer.
Haasan A.M. Jaffer is the renowned author of The Endangered Species (2013), a book about how the Khoja Ithna Asheri jamat started to separate from the Khoja Ismaili Satpanth jamat from late 19th century onwards. 

Below emankeeki is the widest ring of necklaces
photo Sultan Somjee