By Lakhram Bhagirat
The term Dharmshala is associated with a building dedicated to charity and serving humanity and for the past century, the Dharm Sala (Home of Benevolence for all Races) in Guyana has been doing exactly that in two of the three counties.
Pandit Ramsaroop Maharaj founded the charity in 1921 after travelling the length and breadth of Guyana. He was a gold dealer in his earlier years so that allowed him to travel the remotest parts of Guyana where he encountered the plight of his countrymen. He noted that there was a pressing need to improve the state of the people he saw on those trips.
Being a person that was deeply religious and lived by the virtue of serving humanity, the pandit decided that he needed to do something to help alleviate the suffering of his countrymen. He got some like-minded persons together and they agreed that they must play their part to help.
In commemoration of the Dharm Shala’s 100th anniversary, I sat down with Pandit Ramsaroop Maharaj’s granddaughter Pamela Ramsaroop who now takes care of the charity with her sister Kella Ramsaroop.
As we sat at a dining table in the Pandit’s King Edward Street, Albouystown home, Pamela told me that her deeply religious grandfather first decided that he needed to attend to the religious needs of the people and then the need for shelter, food and medicine.
She said that the Dharm Shala was birthed from the resilience of her grandfather and his deep love for service.
“Many persons who feel isolated and who feel that they are beyond help, they look to the church and my grandfather built the Albouystown Hindu Temple which is now one of the heritage sites in Georgetown since it is the oldest temple in the city. He then would build a school for the Albouystown area and then he decided that he needed to find accommodation for the people so the Dharm Shala homes of residence was built in Albouystown. Being the liberal-minded person that he was, my grandfather said that he would serve not just the Hindu community but everyone from every race as well.
“At first it was all just wooden structures where he set up a feeding space and they set up a little place where he had some cooks and above that, they build a little stone flat and kept Anglican Service every Sunday. When they first started, they accommodated 200 persons because the need was very great,” she recounted.
Pandit Ramsaroop Maharaj was very keen on spreading his wings and most of the work he did was funded by himself. He also received some monies from the then colonial Government and decided to expand to Berbice. There he also built Dharm Shala residences.
However, before he could have extended to the Essequibo country, Pandit Ramsaroop Maharaj died of a heart attack on October 11, 1950. The pandit was a regular and authorised visitor to the Leper Asylum, the Mental Asylum, the Penal Settlement and settled disputes at Utivlugt, De Kinderen and Tuschen. The pandit was later awarded the Silver Jubilee Medal and later the MBE honour in 1935.
At the time of his death, the pandit was pleased that his work would be carried on by his son Harry Ramsaroop, who at that time, was heavily interested in the charity.
Harry took over when he was at the age of 35 and decided to quit his civil service job.
“Always at his side was his elder son (my father) and he shared the same views. He was very spiritual-minded, he was very humane, he had the same aspirations as his father to further the work because he saw the need for it. He was a Government servant at the time, he was married and had a family of his own but he always conversed with his father about what should be done and all of this helped to boost my grandfather’s confidence.
“He would take over the reins and the management of the institution. He had also seen that the buildings were in desperate need for repairs. He was very realistic in his approach and he embarked on a rebuilding exercise,” Pamela told me.
She remembered that her father sought the services of one of the top architects in the Caribbean and best contractor in Georgetown and they designed the current building that houses the Dharm Shala. He also went on to ensure that the mandir was in pristine condition, the school repaired and the Berbice Dharm Shala reconstructed.
“He did everything he could to further the reputation of the Dharm Shala and to get all the help he needed to manage it financially.”
A Chapel – the Chapel of St Francis of Assisi would also be built, next to Harry Ramsaroop’s home for Christian residents of the Dharm Shala at Georgetown. Later Berbice Dharm Shala would be rebuilt.
The Georgetown and Berbice Dharm Shala total 11 Dharm Shala buildings and Harry would also find time to serve as Chairman of the Prison Aid Fund for discharged prisoners and later Chairman of the YMCA for Albouystown. He would also hold other positions. The Dharm Shala would become an icon of private charities, a household name and be visited by royalty and visiting dignitaries.
Harry Ramsaroop would be honoured on 3 occasions – MBE, MS, CCH for service to Guyana by the colonial as well as Governments of Guyana.
In 2009, Harry Ramsaroop became ill but by that time his eldest daughter, Kella, was interested in the day-to-day operations of the charity. She had retired from her post as a banker and was residing overseas but saw that her father needed assistance in managing the charity so she returned home and began taking care of it.
In 2013, the same month that his father died, Harry Ramsaroop took his last breath in October.
Pamela, who was a lawyer residing in England, returned and joined hands with her sister Kella and took over the charity. Their other two sisters, Ula and Pauline engage in rendering voluntary service whenever time permits.
Now the Georgetown Dharm Shala Complex comprises 6 buildings. The interior and exterior of the buildings are constantly being updated, repaired and repainted. Ceilings, windows and floorings in some parts of the buildings have all been replaced.
The kitchen has been refurbished and repainted. More storage cupboards have been installed, gas and kerosene stoves have replaced the old mud firesides. A fridge and microwave oven are available (both items were donated by members of the public) The dining room is on the ground floor near to the kitchen allowing easy access to residents. Sanitary facilities located on the ground floor are constantly being updated and replaced thanks to individual donors and well-wishers of the Dharm Shala.
The Berbice Dharm Shala is located at Fort Canje Berbice (site of a Dutch fort) and is a subsidiary of the Georgetown Dharm Shala, erected in 1941 and later rebuilt in its entirety. It comprises 5 buildings. Homes of residence comprise 2 buildings joined and accommodate males and females in separate sections, there are separate entrances – ground floor accommodate the immobile residents (males only). The first floor houses the female residents and the other section male residents.
Both Kella and Pamela have maintained a hands-on approach when it comes to the management of the Dharm Shala.
“We cook every day and 3 meals per day. We get a very minimum subvention from the Government of $1.5 million and at the moment we are getting it in parts which we find not very satisfactory and we hope that things will improve, that we will get a bigger subvention in time because we pay all our bills and have to give stipends out of our own money to staff.
“We feel that this is something that we need to be here for and that we need to have a hands-on approach and we must do everything possible to enhance the comfort of those in need. We hope to continue for as long as we can,” Pamela told me.
They are hoping to pass the charity on to another family member when the time is right.
Now, one century later, the Dharm Shala has grown into exactly what Pandit Ramsaroop Maharaj envisioned and his legacy is being carried on by his family.