Jivabhai Bhanji traced his lineage from a certain Bhagat Virabhai Devasi, who lived in the beginning of 15th century in Kathiawar. Paraptani is said to be his only son, and his son was Parpiya. Karim was the younger son of Parpiya, and the son of the former was Bhima, who also lived for some time in Mundra, Kutchh with his son Hamid. The next generation followed by Hamid was
Bhanji, who passed a hard life in Kathiawar in poverty with his two sons, Jiva and Kassim.
Jiva, the son of Bhanji was born on Monday, January 1, 1866 in Upleta, Kathiawar, where he acquired a formal education. Reduced to an extreme poverty, he was determined to try his fortune in different places. He roamed from one city to another till he reached Calcutta after three months. In the meantime, a certain tourist from Burma advised him to proceed to Rangoon for better prospect. He sailed for Rangoon at an early age of 14 years in 1880.
No sooner had he reached at Rangoon sea-port than he feared to enter in the city. He passed three days in dilemma around the port. His pitiable condition soon disappeared when he made contacts with some Indians, who arranged his lodging in the city and helped to find his job. Jivabhai Bhanji first worked at the shop of a certain Memon merchant for three years.
Upon termination of contract, he opened his own small grocery shop, toasting pulses and grams in 1883. He worked
hard till steady progress in Rangoon. Like other Ismailis and Indians, he gradually dominated the retail business, which has been also mentioned in “The Encyclopedia of Islam” (London, 1960, 1st vol., p. 1333) that, “Ismailis (Khojas) and Gujratis dominated the retail trade in Burma.”
The British occupied Burma in 1885, and annexed it with Indian empire as a province on January 1, 1886, and appointed their own Commissioner. With the political upheavals, most of the Indian merchants left Burma. In those days, there were handful Indian Ismailis in Burma, who started the first Jamatkhana in Rangoon in 1889 at Mughal Street.
Having laid a firm foundation in his retail business, Jivabhai Bhanji called for his brother, Kassim from Kathiawar to
help him. He ventured into a wholesale transactions of different varieties of grain, and imported them from India. He became a business magnate and began to be counted in an affluent class of Rangoon. He also established a flour mill in
1918, known as The Bombay-Burma Flour Mill, which was renamed as The Union Flour Mill after 1946. Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah also made a gracious visit of the mill in the end of 1922. Besides, he was also an importer of the grains,
ghee, oil and spices from India. He was also a commission agent of Liver Bros. for the soaps and Zeeyawadi Sugar Mills for sugar. He was also an owner of two other grocery shops in Rangoon.
It is said that Jivabhai Bhanji visited Kathiawar for the first time after his arrival in Burma in the middle of May, 1900 to see his family. Meanwhile, he heard that Imam Sultan Mohammed Shah was leaving Bombay for Rangoon on June 1, 1900. He rushed back to Rangoon, where the Imam graced his first didar on June 6, 1900. This was Imam’s first visit to Burma, which he referred to in his “The Memoirs of Aga Khan”
(New York, 1954, pp. 91-92) that, “From India I made a brief tour of Burma and met my followers there for the first time.” It is further added that when the Imam was accorded a rousing ovation at airport, the Imam addressed to his followers that, “I can never forget the keen interest taken in your welfare by the leading British statesman whom it was my good fortunate to meet, and the best advice I can give you is to be devoted in your loalty to our gracious sovereign and to do all you can. Your interests are always my first thoughts and I hope under the Union Jack, we shall be able to rise to that higher level of civilization which the beneficial rule of England has placed within our grasp.”
Jivabhai Bhanji was appointed as the Mukhi of Rangoon Jamatkhana in 1904 in place of Mukhi Ramji with Ibrahim
Virji Ismail as his Kamadia.
The first Ismaili Council for Burma came into existence at Rangoon on January 8, 1910, whose first President was Mukhi
Jivabhai Bhanji with Khatau Fadhuani as its vice-president. It comprised of six other members – Mohammad Jasraj, Alijah Ali Mohammad, Mohammad Ku’narji, Ismail Hakimji, U’Kan Gyi Nanji and Ibrahim Kamadia Virji, who represented the
then 500 Ismailis spread in Rangoon, Mandalay, Prome, Bassein, Pyaubwe, Toungoo and Tavoy.
Jivabhai Bhanji held two key posts at the same time, i.e. he was the Mukhi of the Jamatkhana and the President of the Council. The Constitution of the Council however was enforced on February 16, 1914.
After becoming the President, he launched his first scheme to move from the old worn out Jamatkhana, situated in Mughal Street, Rangoon. He also acquired another new premises in the same location for the Jamatkhana by the end of 1910.
Imam Sultan Mohammed Shah made his second auspicious visit to Burma and gave first didar on February 7, 1914 to
about 400 Ismailis. On that occasion, Mukhi Jivabhai and his Kamadia Ibrahim Virji Ismail submitted a humble request that they had been serving as the Mukhi and Kamadia for a long time and wish to retire from the posts. The Imam asked to give the names of the new Mukhi and Kamadia. Mukhi Jivabhai humbly proposed Kassim Mohammad as a Mukhi and Ismail Hakimji as a Kamadia. The Imam made these two persons stood in the audience and congratulated them and said that they would be the Mukhi and Kamadia for the next three years, effective after the departure of the Imam on February 18, 1914.
Mukhi Jivabhai presented his mehmani on Sunday, February 8, 1914. The Imam graciously blessed him, and in appreciation of his meritorious services, the Imam vested him the title of Wazir and he stood first in Burma to be merited with this grand title. The Imam said, “You have worked hard. I invest you the title of a Varas, means (the office of the ) Vizirate. It indicates that I make you Vazir of whole peninsula of Burma.” The Imam also said, “You are the Mukhi till February 18, 1914, and then you execute the office of a Varas after my departure.” On that day, the jamat was entertained with a lunch on behalf of Mukhi Jivabhai.
On Tuesday, February 17, 1914, a day before departure, Imam Sultan Mohammed Shah graciously presented the shawl
and khilat (robe) to Mukhi Jivabhai and other leaders and told them to wear. Referring to this visit, the Imam writes in his “The Memoirs of Aga Khan” (New York, 1954, p. 161) that, “The early months of 1914 found me on another visit to Burma. I then took a step of some importance in respect to my Ismaili followers. I advised them to undertake a considerable measure of social and cultural assimilation.”
In 1916, Imam Sultan Mohammed Shah conferred him to be responsible for office of the Estate Agent, whose official power of
attorney he received from Bombay. He made another record of becoming the first Estate Agent of the Imam in Burma, which he continued to hold till his death in 1938. The office of the Estate Agent was vested in Rai Mukhi Hussain Ali Ibrahim
Mention should be made of Alijah Ali Mohammad, one of the members of the Council in Rangoon, arranged a dinner party at his bungalow on March 27, 1921.
He mostly invited the elder leaders, – Mukhi Jivabhai Bhanji, Alijah Alibhai Hakimji, Baghwan Mukhi Mehr Ali, Walji Ahmed, Fajula Mukhi Nanji, U’Kan Gyi Nanji, Ismail of Goa & Sons, etc. Alijah Ali Mohammad addressed the audience and spoke of the measures to be taken for the progress of the Ismailis in Burma. Mukhi Jivabhai seconded his proposal and after a long
discussion, it was resolved to establish The Burma Ismaili Trading Company to help the small dealers and
poor Ismailis. Each leader declared their individual contribution and a sum of Rs. 4,00,000/- was raised as an initial capital, wherein the contribution of Mukhi Jivabhai was Rs. 75,000/-
Imam Sultan Mohammed Shah commissioned him to promote education among the girls in 1922. With this new mandate, he embarked on his mission. He was also appointed the President of the H.H. The Aga Khan Vernacular School in 1923.
On December 28, 1928, Imam Sultan Mohammed Shah arrived in Bombay from Europe and proceeded to Delhi on next day to preside over the All India Muslim Conference. This conference was held on January 1, 1929 with 600 delegates and
3000 guests. The Ismaili leaders in India of different parts were also invited, including Mukhi Jivabhai Bhanji from Burma. This was Imam’s short visit in India and left Bombay for Europe on January 5, 1929.
Prince Aly S. Khan arrived at Burma for the first time on January 7, 1933. His plane landed at the Migaladone Aerodrome in Rangoon. The Ismaili leaders, including Varas Mukhi Jivabhai accorded him a rousing welcome. Prince Aly S. Khan stayed in the bungalow of Alijah Ali Mohammad, known as the Noorani Bagh, where a group photograph was taken. Mukhi Jivabhai remained at the services of Prince Aly S. Khan with other Burmese leaders during the visit of Rangoon. It should be noted that a deputation of Burma, comprised of Alijah Ali Mohammad and Mukhi Jivabhai presented a humble service of the Burmese jamat
at Hasanabad, Bombay on December 19, 1933. Looking them, Imam Sultan Mohammed Shah said, “You have entertained Prince Aly S. Khan too much when he had been in Rangoon. You have served him and were very hospitable to him. I give you best blessings.”
After a long wait of five years, the impatient Indian jamats received a glad news of the gracious visit of the Imam in India through a
telegraphic message from Paris dated November 27, 1933 that, “Reaching Bombay December. Happy see good spiritual children on arrival. But do not want them spend money temporary building for reception. Just wish see them arrange
reception open space near port.”
The news of Imam’s visit spread rapidly all over the Ismaili world and the jamats were extremely restless for the didar.
Representing the Burmese jamats, a deputation led by Alijah Ali Mohammad, the President of the Ismaili Council for
Burma and Mukhi Jivabhai, the Estate Agent of the Imam and other 40 persons, arrived at Bombay to make humble request in a mehmani for the didar program in Rangoon.
Imam Sultan Mohammed Shah with Mata Salamat and Prince Aly S. Khan arrived on Thursday, December 14, 1933 at 3.oo p.m. by the steamer, Rajputana of P & O. Co. About 5000 Ismailis had gathered at Belardpier Mall to greet the Imam, where a simple tent was erected as per Imam’s instructions for the reception.
Alijah Ali Mohammad and Mukhi Jivabhai were fortunate for getting a chance to stand behind the Imam’s chair on the stage inside the tent. Imam Sultan Mohammed Shah made his holy appearance in the steamer at 3.30 p.m. and walked towards the tent. The Ismailis accorded a rousing welcome to the Imam. When the Imam began to climb on the stage, he saw two leaders of Burma behind his chair. Looking at Varas Mukhi Jivabhai, the Imam said, “I have just met your son in Europe.” The
mention of the “son” did not refer to the “real son” of Mukhi Jivabhai, but he was Abdul Rasul, the son of Wazir U’Kan Gyi Nanji, who held a very high respect for Wazir Mukhi Jivabhai as his own father, and Mukhi Jivabhai also loved him like his own son. After becoming a barrister in London, Abdul Rasul returned to Rangoon and became the President of the Supreme Council for
Burma between 1945 and 1947.
The Burmese deputation got a chance of the mehmani on December 19, 1933 at Hasanabad, Bombay including Mukhi Jivabhai. The Imam blessed them and told to go back to inform the jamat that he would visit Rangoon in the beginning of March, 1934.
On March 2, 1934, Imam Sultan Mohammed Shah departed from Calcutta for Rangoon with Mata Salamat by the steamer, Khandala and reached Rangoon on March 6, 1934. Mukhi Jivabhai, Mukhi Ismail Hakimji, Kamadia Kassim Bhanji, Alijah Ali Mohammad and others warmly accorded a rousing ovation to the Imam. The first didar was arranged on March 7, 1934. The Imam bestowed the jamats with paternal maternal best loving blessings. Pir Sabzali translated the Imam’s farmans into Gujrati with his loud voice The occasion of Thursday, March 8, 1934 must be marked a historical day for the Bhanji family when the marriages in Bhanji family were also performed in the Jamatkhana after didar. It was the marriages of Rai Abdul Aziz and Rai Jumabhai, the sons of Mukhi Jivabhai and Akbar Ali and Noor Banu, the son and daughter of Kamadia Kassim Bhanji. Pir
Sabzali recited the nikah ceremony as per Imam’s order.
In 1935, Pir Sabzali made his second visit to Rangoon to raise the funds for the Golden Jubilee of the Imam. With the cooperation of Mukhi Jivabhai, he also visited Mandalay and generated a sum of Rs. 32,000/- in Burma, in which the contribution of Mukhi Jivabhai was significant. Mukhi Jivabhai however could not attend the Golden Jubilee. His award of the “Gold Medal” with Straight Bar” was however declared during the Golden Jubilee. Mukhi Jivabhai married Fatimabai in Rangoon in 1921. She was born in 1903 in Poona, India and died in Karachi on March 18, 1973. His another wives were Monghibai (1868-1904) and Santokhbai (1880-1921).
Mukhi Jivabhai Bhanji expired in the early morning of Thursday, September 15, 1938 in Rangoon. The Imam prayed with paternal maternal loving blessing for eternal peace of the departed soul in reply to the mehmani presented by the family members and the Council. He left behind 12 sons, – Varas Ghulam Hussain, Varas Hasan Ali, Varas Hasan, Rai Abdul Aziz, Rai Juma, Alijah Razak, Rai Rahmat Ali, Habib, Abdul Mohammad, Sadruddin, Alijah Mansur Ali and Badruddin. He had also 9 daughters, – Mithibai, Saambai, Noorbai, Fatimabai, Alijiani Sakina, Khatijabai, Safat Khanu, Mehr Banu and Nabat Khanu.