By Nivriti Sewtohul
Born Ratilall Manishankar Naker on 8 June 1929, later named Swami Purnanand by Swami Satyamitra in India, he was on his way to Mombassa in Kenya by boat from his home port of Jamnagar, Gujrat, when he fell overboard.
His mother spotted his absence and alerted the crew. Boatman Yakub jumped into the deep water and saved him after a struggle of 80 minutes. The year was 1942. While in the water, he vowed to add a roof to a shrine called Girishwar Mahadeo dedicated to Lord Krishna, if he was saved from drowning. His long hair and beard reminded him of his promise. At 14 years, he was over-age to attend school in Kenya and became a salesman in Nairobi. Two years later, he opened his own shop in Maragoa. Married in India in 1950, he started his life as a swami one month before the birth of his fourth child.
Known as a Bhagwatee Swami, Purnanandji held his first Bhagwat in Mombassa at the end of 1957. He was going to hold scores of such events over the whole of East and South Africa where there were important colonies of Gujratis. His bhajans and kirtans such as “Ab sompdiya iss jiwan ka,” “Aum bhagwate vasudevaya,” and others would become very popular. Soon he was short of money as he was a Swami with a family to look after. In Nairobi, a friend of his Jayen Pandit, who was in the air-booking business, told him to go to Mauritius where there were many Hindus. He was offered a free ticket worth 2,300 rupees. As he knew nobody here, his friend advised him to contact the Hindu Maha Sabha for help.
It was 1962. Beekrumsingh Ramlallah was the president of the Hindu Maha Sabha. That year would be exceptionally eventful. The Sabha received the pond of Grand Bassin and the land surrounding it on lease for a period of 99 years (1962-2061) from the colonial government of the day at the hands of the Conservator of Forests, Mr Edgerley. Secretary Parsad Ruhee accompanied by Balram Beeharry and Hookoomsingh from the Maha Sabha went to receive Purnanandji at the Plaisance airport by car. The latter who knew only Gujrati was brought to St. Denis Street in Port Louis and given shelter in Vishnu Kshetra Mandir.
People came to the temple and touched his feet as he was a swami. Harryparsad Davey, a Gujrati, came to meet him. Upon inquiry, he found that he had a language problem. Swamiji wept during three days because he had to say and explain 18,000 slokas without knowing any local language. He went to Grand Bassin where Pandit Vishnu officiated as priest, and held a 21-day fast (maun vrat) with mouth, ears and eyes shut. He repeated the Gayatree mantra 125,000 times. According to him, a miracle occurred to him when he removed the puttees as he started speaking Hindi fluently without having learnt it before. The same year, he laid the foundation stone of the first Hindu Maha Sabha temple at Grand Bassin offered by Mrs RK Boodhun in the presence, amongst others, of B. Ramlallah, Soorooj Balgobin, B. Bisnathsing and Balram Beeharry. Some 6000 devotees had turned up when he broke his fast.
He held his first Bhagwat in Mauritius in 1963 upon the request of Mongima, the wife of Appajala, at St Denis Temple, in Gujrati. 8,000 people attended. Among those present were Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, Sir Satcam Boolell, H. Ramnarain, D. Basant Rai, S. Jugdambi and L. Badry. He held his last Bhagwat that year at Triolet. In all, he held 15 Bhagwats that year. Sukhram Sukai and Soogrim Jhurry had him in a very large pavilion, and the event is still fresh in the minds of the people. The inhabitants continue to speak about it with admiration because of the bhajans, which continue to be sung during all Bhagwats even today.
Sir Seewoosagur wanted him in Mauritius to revive religion and culture. Indenture had made these ancestral values dormant. Sarvodaye Ashram in Triolet was his idea. Harryparsad Davey, Soogrim Jhurry and others had met at the place of Balram Beeharry for the purpose. The project was set up in the house of H. Bunwaree, near the Champs de Mars, where Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam brought along with him Sukhram Sukai and Ramlagun of Morcellement St Andre. 67 persons were present at the place. They set up the Sanatan Dharma Association and gave the name, Sarvodaye, to the new ashram. A sum of 500 rupees was deposited with the Baroda Bank on the names of Balram Beeharry and Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. The Hindu Maha Sabha, through Parsad Ruhee, gave 35,000 rupees to be sent to India.
Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam laid the foundation stone of the ashram in 1970, which was to be completed in 1972. The ashram was realized through the voluntary contributions from Bisso Ramphul, Ramnarain Roy, Lall Dinassing, Deokinanun Pandey, Soogrim Jhurry, Balram Beeharry, Ramdoorsing, Reesaulsing’s son, Guru, Sowumber of Fond du Sac, the Gowreesunkur and Goburdhun families. Sukai and Jhurry had bought the land along Shivala Road for 8,000 rupees from Totaram. Santabehn Ramdin of Beau Bassin and they gave swamiji a mini-Austin car to facilitate his movement. In fact, there were donations from many Mauritians. Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam inaugurated Sarvodaye Ashram in 1972 upon completion.
Swamiji continued his socio-religious activities and newer ashrams were built. The one at Le Hochet, Terre Rouge, was acquired by Padma Baichoo for 12,000 rupees from a Tamil family. The Bundhoo family got the land at Vacoas for 18,000 rupees. At Grand Bay, the land was received free of charge and the ashram cost 20,000 rupees to build. All the properties are dedicated to the Sanatan Dharma and are intended to stay so forever. A staunch believer in the Hindu faith, Swamiji’s motto is to work for the family, have respect for others, believe in religion and, above all, love one’s country. His ashrams have guest houses where many religious and socio-cultural workers stay for short and long periods of time. Swamiji gives particular attention to our suffering womenfolk.
A father-figure to hundreds of families, he pays them visits and brings Thakurji to bless their homes. In joy and in grief, he is always with them. He has been to every nook and corner of the island teaching the great values and virtues of Hinduism. He has dedicated himself heart and soul over the last half century to make the Hindu society rooted in its culture and tradition. The government has granted him Mauritian citizenship for his services to the country.
A national committee is being created to celebrate the Golden Jubilee event in the months ahead.
* Published in print edition on 27 April 2012