"The Dharm Shala: From Pandit Ramsaroop Maraj to Harry Saran Ramsaroop" History This Week
By Tota C. Mangar
Stabroek News
May 3, 2007

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The Dharm Shala, a popular 'Home of Benevolence for all races' was founded by Pandit Ramsaroop Maraj, the father of Harry Saran Ramsaroop.

Pandit Ramsaroop Maraj was born on 3 November 1889 at Friendship, Wakenaam, Essequibo Island to Hookum Maraj and Sonia who came as indentured servants from India in 1886 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 there that Ramsaroop Maraj acquired the rudiments of the English Language. Owing to the family's precarious financial situation, Ramsaroop Maraj was forced to abort school and pursue a trade first as a huckster and then as a gold trader.

As practising and devout Hindus from the Brahmin or priestly caste, the Ramsaroops 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 the poor and followed with interest the social work of the short-lived Social Service League or Seva Samit. He also read about the work of various movements in India such as the Bramha Samaj, the Prathana Samaj, the Arya Samaj of the Vedic Mission, the Ramakrishna Mission and other organizations for the homeless, widows, orphans and the depressed. His desire to go and do likewise fired him with a holy zeal in which he combined Hindu philosophy and a Christian concept of life.
The Dharm Shala

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 afflicted, as well as financial assistance whenever possible.

So, determined was Ramsaroop Maraj in the area of social work that through his instrumentality the Hindu Religious Society was formed on 21 April, 1921, with the express object of coordinating the work of a temple, 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 visiting India delegation to British Guiana, 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 undoubtedly the driving force and 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. The building was officially opened on 30 August 1926 by Sir Cecil Hunter Rodwell, the then Governor of the Colony. English and Hindi were taught at the school free of charge and children of the poorer classes were provided with meals. At its opening 187 pupils were enrolled to do 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 Ramsaroop Maraj and his Hindu Religious Society embarked on a massive fund-raising appeal and collection drive through the 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 in the colony on a goodwill mission from India at the time.

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 communities officiated at regular intervals to cater for all. Many who died while at the institution were buried by the Society. Drugs were provided to the sick and ailing, while very ill inmates were taken to hospital. Discharged patients from hospitals were well-received and made as comfortable as possible during their periods of recuperation.

With the temple, school and Dharm Shala fully on stream, the ongoing impulse of social service drove Pandit Ramsaroop Maraj onwards.

On 15 June 1933, a new three-storey building was opened by Governor Sir Edward Denham at 125 King Edward Street. 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 did not go unnoticed. In 1935 he, very deservingly, was the recipient of the Member of the British Empire (MBE) award from His Majesty King George V. He was the first person of East Indian descent in the British West Indies to be so honoured. Indeed, Sir Edward Dehham, 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 which I opened, have been found too small". Colonial Secretary, the Honourable C. Douglas-Jones, also conveyed his congratulations in a telegram which read: "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."

Pandit Ramsaroop Maraj also received the Silver Jubilee Medal in the same year, an added testimony to the monumental social service of this remarkable man. The emergence of a temple, a school and the expanding Dharm Shala complex within such a short time was a remarkable achievement. These accomplishments came against the background of a worldwide economic depression following World War I.

Pandit Ramsaroop Maharaj continued his monumental role in the area of social service when he set in motion the construction of another three-storey building at 140 King Edward and Sussex Streets in 1938. This expansion became necessary due to congestion in the existing buildings. The new building was formally opened by the then Governor of the Colony, Sir Geoffrey Northcote.

The first floor of this building was occupied by the Pandit and his family, the second floor was used for meetings, including those of the Hindu Religious Society, and for various receptions, while the third accommodated more inmates. In addition, a part of the building was placed at the disposal of the Mayor and Town Council as a clinic for small children and babies of the Albouystown area.

The maintenance of the triple services of Temple, School and Dharm Shala was very demanding and both Pandit Ramsaroop Maharaj and his Hindu Religious Society responded admirably to the challenges. The Society also turned its attention to the needs of the county of Berbice and the cornerstone for a charitable home was laid in the Canje area by Sir John Waddington in 1940. This building was officially opened in the following year by Sir Wilfred Jackson, Governor of the Colony. The religious needs of the residents of the Berbice Dharm Shala were catered for with the erection of a small temple. Of significance was the fact that part of the building was used by Hindus and the other by Christians with their services conducted by Anglican ministers.

While the Georgetown operation from its early days had a temple to cater for its Hindu inmates, as the years progressed the needs of Christian residents were also met. To this end the Anglican Chapel of St. Francis was built.

Colonial administrators took a keen interest in the work of the Hindu Religious Society and the part played by Pandit Ramsaroop Maharaj. They made periodic visits to the Dharm Shala in Albouystown and expressed their appreciation in relation to what was taking place, for example, in April 1947, the then Governor of British Guiana, Sir Charles Woolley, visited the institution and remarked: "What has impressed me most of all is the good work that is being done here and to see that you refuse no one who is in need, or in want or in distress and that you endeavour to find a home for the homeless. You have some 300 of them and that I say, has impressed me most of all."

By the late 1940s Pandit Ramsaroop Maharaj had begun to focus attention on establishing another charitable home. This time the proposed venue was the Essequibo Coast as part of the network of his overall social welfare plan. Unfortunately this project never materialized through no fault of his, as he experienced failing health.

He was hospitalized for hypertension and a weakening heart on several occasions and his condition worsened. During this period his son, Harry Saran, gave him unflinching support. Eventually, the Pandit succumbed on 11 October 1950 following a heart attack. He was buried the following day at the Le Repentir Cemetery, a mere stone's throw from the residence he once occupied. Indeed, the country had lost a great soul.

In a comment on his funeral The Argosy of 13 October 1950 had this to say: "The depth of Pandit Ramsaroop Maharaj's charity was in evidence yesterday at his funeral. The lowly, the crippled and the hundreds of penniless paupers to whom he gave food and shelter during his remarkable lifetime turning up at the house of mourning formed a crowd of considerable proportion."

With the passing of the founder of the institution, Pandit Ramsaroop Maharaj, his son, Harry Saran Ramsaroop, took up the mantle. Harry was born on 28 November 1915 and received his early education at St Stephen's School, Charlestown and took private tuition for higher education. He was successful at Hindi-English Lower and Higher Examinations and even pursued studies in the field of Book-Keeping and Accountancy through a correspondence course from Chalmers' College. He was married on 24 February 1936 to Anna Callie Bansgopal and the marriage produced four daughters.

Harry Saran always evinced great interest in his father's work. Despite the fact that he joined the Government Service in 1939, working in the Immigration Section of the local Government Department, he was very active in the Hindu Religious Society. He eventually became Secretary of this organization which had responsibility for the administration of the Dharma Shala. Following the death of Pandit Ramsaroop, Harry Saran Ramasaroop relinquished his government post in order to follow in the footsteps of his father by providing dedicated social service to the poor and needy in Guyana.

Harry Saran Ramsaroop emerged as administrator of the Dharm Shala following the death of his father, Pandit Ramsaroop Maraj in October, 1950.

In his new role Harry Ramsaroop quickly realized that it was no easy task attempting to follow in his father's footsteps. He needed the confidence of the public in order to garner much-needed financial assistance for ongoing projects and the maintenance of the institutions, something which the founder Pandit Ramsaroop Maraj did with remarkable ease during his lifetime.

Immediately, the wooden Dharm Shala building was in dire need of repairs. To this end a Dharm Shala Building Repair Fund Committee was formed under the chairmanship of the then Mayor of Georgetown, Mr Rahaman B. Gajraj, and simultaneously help was solicited from the Government and in particular from Mr M B Laing, head of the Local Welfare Department of the Colony.

After careful consideration a plan of total reconstruction was pursued. The old three-storey structure was dismantled and in its place a well-designed ferro-concrete building measuring 86 feet by 44 feet, was constructed at a total cost of $40,000. This new Dharm Shala building was declared open by Governor Sir Alfred Savage on 3rd October 1953. It had the capacity to accommodate 100 persons comfortably and included most of the conveniences of modern civilized living. In the meantime the Society continued to pay attention to the spiritual needs of its Christian inmates and it was no surprise that a new St Francis Chapel was constructed through generous contributions from private individuals and business houses. The building was erected on six-foot reinforced concrete blocks and was formally rededicated and opened by the most Reverend, Dr Allan John Knight, Archbishop of the West Indies, on 20th July, 1954 in the presence of a representative gathering of citizens. The opening ceremony was described by the Daily Argosy as follows: - "His Grace the Archbishop of the West Indies last evening re-dedicated the restored Chapel of St Francis at 140 King Edward Street, Albouystown - a Chapel that will serve as the spiritual sanctuary for inmates of the Dharm Shala as well as for those residing in the district."The Chapel, though maintained by the Hindu Religious Society, was placed in full charge of the Anglican Diocese of Guyana. Services were then conducted by priests attached to the St Phillip's Vicarage, including Reg. Canon, L.J. Rowe, Father Welton Ward, Father E Herdson and Rev Canon H. Worlledge and other reverend gentlemen.

The Chapel was certainly a valuable addition to the institution. Indeed, its dedication stone aptly illustrates the situation as follows:- "To the greater glory of God this Chapel of St Francis was rebuilt by the Hindu Religious Society through the good offices of Mr Harry S. Ramsaroop and dedicated to the worship of God by Dr Alan John Knight, D.D. C.M.G., Archbishop of the West Indies on 20th July, 1954."

Harry Saran Ramsaroop and the Hindu Religious Society continued to work unceasingly for the improvement of amenities at the Dharm Shala. Members of the public contributed generously to the Building Fund and a Government loan was secured for the construction of yet another building in late 1954. This new three-storey building was declared open by the Honourable F.D. Jakeway, Officer Administer-ing the government, on 10th June 1955. The newly-arrived Governor, Sir Patrick Ren-ison, paid a visit to the institution on 11th May 1956. He was so impressed with developments there that he made a public appeal for continued assistance to this Home of Benevolence. With an increasing infant population in the Albouys-town area, the Superintendent of the Dharm Shala, Mr Ramsaroop and the Hindu Religious Society felt that there was need for expansion to the kindergarten school. As a result, he negotiated with the Ministry of Education and other relevant bodies and extension work was subsequently effected to the building. A dispensary was also built to serve residents of the Dharm Shala.

Both the school and dispensary were completed by June 1960. On these recent additions to the institution The Evening Post of 22nd June, 1960 in an editorial, reported:

"Another inspiring chapter was written in the History of the Dharm Shala yesterday, when the Minister of Health and Housing, the Hon. Janet Jagan, declared open an extension to the organization's nursery school and ispensary. According to Mrs. Jagan the dispensary is Mr Harry Ramsaroop's dream come true; it would not be surprising if it is just one of his dreams come true, for Mr Ramsaroop is surely walking in the footsteps and keeping up the tradition of his father in dedicating his life to the service of humanity." The editorial continued: "It is encouraging to know that there are men and religious and social organizations which are not prepared to sit down and leave the job to government alone, but are coming forward in the cause of their less fortunate fellowmen and putting their shoulders to the wheel. They fully bear out the contention that Government alone cannot mould a nation."

By 1960 it was quite evident that Harry Saran Ramsaroop had emerged as the live-wire of his great charitable institution. Despite the numerous demands of the Dharm Shala this gentleman still found the time to be associated with related social activities external to his organization. For example, he served as a Notary Probation Officer, a member of the Governing Body of the YMCA, Chairman of the Discharged Prisoners' Aid Committee and a member of both the Committee of Prisons and the Reconstructed Printing Industry Wages Council.

The Dharm Shala was honoured with a visit from her Royal Highness, Princess Royal on January 30, 1960. The Princess, at the time, was on a five-day official tour of the Colony of British Guiana. After being warmly welcomed and garlanded in the presence of leading Government dignitaries and other prominent members of the community, she was taken on a guided tour of the institution and it's Nursery School. The Princess subsequently presented a signed portrait of herself to the Dharm Shala through the then Governor of the Colony, Sir Ralph Grey.

While there has been no large-scale construction work at the institution within recent times, there is certainly ongoing maintenance and repair work to the impressive network of ten buildings in existence. The Dharm Shala is the permanent home of all its residents and some of these inmates have spent over twenty years of their lives there. The administrative aspect continues to be serviced by Harry Saran Ramsaroop and his immediate family. In keeping with the rules of the Society, committee meetings are conducted quarterly and the books are audited at the end of the Society's financial year by certified auditors. Harry Saran and a daughter are full-time voluntary workers of this institution.

The Superintendent of the Dharm Shala is proud that his dedicated service is appreciated by those to whom it is extended and acknowledged by many others in the wider society. He himself is the recipient of the following prestigious awards for dedicated social service:

(a) Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) as part of Queen Elizabeth II's New Year's Honours List, 1960.

(b) Guyana's Medal of Service (M.S.) in 1974.

(c) Guyana's Cacique Crown of Honour (C.C.H) in 1990

The History of the Dharm Shala is integrally linked with the Ramsaroop family from the time of its founder, Pandit Ramsaroop Maraj, and later with the emergence of his son, Harry Saran. This strong family inspirational chain with a great sense of compassion, lost a key link in August 1990, with the passing of Mrs Anna Callie Ramsaroop after 54 years of blissful marriage life. This loss was a serious setback, since over the years she was an ardent supporter of her husband, especially in his demanding role at the Dharm Shala. Fortunately, their daughters have risen to the occasion quite admirably to ensure the noble work continues.

Indeed, one has to agree with the Reverend Derek H Goodrich, former Anglican Dean of Georgetown, when he described the work at the Dharm Shala as "a labour of love aimed at relieving the sufferings of destitute and homeless people."

Some views on the Dharm Shala

Ever since its establishment many prominent figures have visited the Dharm Shala and have expressed their appreciation as to the crucial role this institution has been playing in Guyanese Society. The following are a few of those comments:-

1. Sir Alfred Savage, then Governor of British Guiana, in October 1953: "The most impressive social contribution my wife and I have yet seen in British Guiana."

2. Mr. F.D. Jakeway, Chief Secretary of British Guiana in July, 1954 "It has been a privilege and an education to visit this Institution".

3. Sir Patrick Renison, Governor of British Guiana, in May, 1956. "It was an experience which we shall long remember of my wife and myself to be shown all around the many activities of the Dharm Shala. We join all those who so greatly admire the charitable, educational and religious work which the Hindu Religious Society is doing for young and old of all races and creeds".

4. Mr Delmar R Carlson, United States Ambassador to British Guiana, in July 1965: "This evening Mr Ramsaroop conducted us on a tour of the facilities of the Dharm Shala. The mission which he and his family are carrying out so ably for those who have no home in the community is impressive. The spirit which prompts service of this kind is exceptional and inspiriting. With every good wish for the continued success of a truly good work".

5. Sir David Rose, Governor General of Guyana, in August, 1962: "It is inspiring and edifying for us to behold in this fine Dharm Shala … a living, an enduring and an expanding work of practical charity and home which refuses to recognize any barriers of race or religion. This is the really measure of charity, be it Christian, be it Hindu, be it Muslim. May it ever be so at the Dharm Shala".

6. Sir Kenneth Stoby, Chancellor of the Judiciary, in November, 1967: "Once again after many years I have been offered the opportunity of visiting the Dharm Shala. I was astonished to see how many improvements were made and how this great work of charity was maintained. Mr Ramsaroop is to be congratulated for the sacrifice he is making in carrying on this noble work."

7. Sir Edward Luckhoo, Chancellor of the Judiciary in July, 1969: "It is difficult to probe the depth of frustration which the destitute have to bear. But after a visit to the Dharm Shala I am left with a vivid impression that an abundance of faith and hope abide within its walls. May what is being done continue to prosper."

8. Mr Spencer M King, US Ambassador to Guyana in January, 1974: "The work being done at this wonderful institution is greatly inspiring and all too little known. Everyone should be eternally grateful for what the Dharm Shala is doing and for the dedicated leadership of the Ramsaroop family in their magnificent undertaking".

Through the dedication and determination of the Ramsaroop family the Dharm Shala or "Home of Benevolence for All Races" is certain to continue providing valuable service to our country's poor and needy senior folks as we march on in the twenty-first century of ours.