The Dharm Shala: Its Earliest History
By Tota C. Mangar
January 23, 2003
The Dharm Shala, a popular “House of Benevolence for all Races” was founded by Pandit Ramsaroop Maraj, the father of Harry Saran Maraj. Pandit Ramsaroop Maraj was born on the 3rd of November, 1889 at Friendship, Wakenaam to Hookum Maraj and Sonia who came as indentured labourers from the sub-continent of India and were assigned to Plantation Friendship.
Subsequently, the Ramsaroop family moved to Georgetown and took up residence at Non Pariel Street, Albouystown in 1893. It was while residing in that locality that Ramsaroop Maraj acquired the rudiments of the English language. Owing to the family’s precarious financial situation, Ramsaroop was forced to abort school at a tender age and to pursue a trade, first as a huckster and then as a gold trader.
As practicing and devout Hindus from the Brahmin or priestly caste, the Ramsaroop family arranged a marriage for their son, in 1912, out of which four children were born. Pandit Maraj was widowed in 1918 and a second marriage, which lasted until his death in 1950, brought forth a further seven children.
As a young man absorbed in his work of earning a living, Ramsaroop Maraj was also deeply imbued with a religious sense. His thoughts went out to the poor and suffering. He genuinely believed in the social amelioration of those needy ones in society and he followed with considerable interest the social work of the short-lived Social League or Seva Samit. He also read about the work of various movements in India such as the Brahma Samaj, the Prathana Samaj, the Arya Samaj of the Vedic Mission, the Ramakrishna Mission and other organisations for the homeless, widows, orphans and the depressed. His desire to go out and do likewise fired him with a holy zeal in which he admirably combined Hindu philosophy and a Christian concept of life.
Hence, at an early stage Ramsaroop Maraj started to do social work. At regular intervals he visited hospitals and the Alms House to give spiritual ministrations to the poor, ailing and affected, as well as financial assistance whenever possible.
So determined was Ramsaroop Maraj in the area of charitable work that through his instrumentality the Hindu Religious Society was formed on the 21st of April, 1921 with the express object of co-coordinating the work of a temple, a school and Dharm Shala in the Albouystown area. A suitable site was purchased for nine hundred dollars at Lot 128, James and King Edward Streets and work began in earnest. The cornerstone was laid in 1922 by Pandit Ramsaroop Maraj himself, in the presence of members of the then visiting Indian delegation to British Guiana headed by Diwan Pillai, Deputy President of the Madras Legislative Council and Pandit Vencatesa Narayan Tiwari of the Servants of India Society.
In 1923 the first phase of the project - the temple - was completed and regular services commenced. Many of the poor and indigent congregated to worship and to listen to the scriptures. Pandit Ramsaroop Maraj at this initial stage was both Trustee and Managing Director.
The next stage was to get the school project initiated. In 1925, Sir Kanwar Maharaj Singh, a representative of the Indian government, arrived in the colony and he was appropriately invited to lay the cornerstone in the presence of a large gathering. This school building was officially opened on 30 August 1926 by Sir Cecil Hunter Rodwell, the then governor of the colony.
English and Hindi were taught free of charge and children of the poorer classes were provided with meals. The initial response was remarkable as 187 pupils were enrolled to pursue Hindi while 124 were listed for English. The school received a small grant from government to supplement the salaries of teachers.
The erection of the Dharm Shala or charitable home proved to be a more difficult task. Pandit Maraj and his Hindu Religious Society embarked on a massive fund-raising appeal and collection-drive through towns and villages. In the end his dream was realized in the form of two, two-storey buildings, each measuring 100 feet by 25 feet with accommodation for 200 inmates at 126, King Edward Street, Albouystown. The Dharm Shala was formally declared open by Reverend C. F. Andrews who was at the time in the colony on a goodwill mission from India.
In addition to providing food and shelter to the inmates, Pandit Ramsaroop Maraj ensured that their spiritual welfare was not neglected. Ministers from different Christian denominations and from the Hindu and Moslem communities officiated at regular intervals to cater for all. Many who died while at the institution were buried by the society and the sick and ailing were provided with drugs and medical care while very ill inmates were taken to hospital. Discharged patients from hospital were well received and made as comfortable as possible during their period of recuperation.
With the temple, school and Dharm Shala fully on stream, the ongoing impulse of social service drove Pandit Ramsaroop onwards.
A new three-storey building was opened on 15th June 1933 by Governor, Sir Edward Denham. This building offered additional accommodation for residents and it also provided a lounge for relaxation. In addition a section was used as a soup-kitchen as the Pandit’s aim was to feed residents and needy non-residents alike.
Pandit Ramsaroop Maraj’s unswerving sacrifice and dedication to a noble cause did not go unnoticed. In 1953 he, very deservingly, was the recipient of the Member of the British Empire (MBE) award from His Majesty, King George VI. He was the first person of East Indian descent in the British Caribbean to be so honoured. Indeed, Sir Edward Denham, former governor of British Guiana and one who had intimate knowledge of the Pandit’s role, expressed the following: “Lady Denham and I are very pleased to read in the cable of June of your being given the honour of an MBE which we feel is well deserved. You have done so much for the poor and suffering that they will all be very happy in the honour conferred on you. We shall not forget our association with your work. I expect the new wings I opened have been found too small.”
Colonial Secretary, Honourable C. Douglas Jones, also conveyed a congratulatory telegram, which reads:
“Very pleased that his Majesty the King has recognized your long and devoted service to the poor and needy. No one deserves to have services, so ungrudgingly given, recognized more than you do.”
The great yet simple man also received the Silver Jubilee Medal in 1953, an added testimony to his monumental social service to Guyana.
Clearly, the emergence of a temple, a school and an ever-expanding Dharm Shala complex within such a short time was no mean feat, especially in those difficult years of the post World War 1 period of our country’s history.