Haven For The Elderly: Shikarpur's Pre-Partition Budha Ashram

Haven For The Elderly: Shikarpur's Pre-Partition Budha Ashram
Shikarpuris were not only skilled businessmen but also famed for their philanthropy and social service – building schools, hospitals, wells, and many other community welfare projects in Shikarpur city. Aside from hospitals and schools, Hindu merchants of Shikarpur built an old-age home or Budha Ashram. This building now lies in a bad state of preservation and is located near Lakhi Dar opposite the Government Islamia High School. In the Budha Ashram of Shikarpur lived elderly people who could not travel long distances and those who had lost their loved ones. It was actually built by Hindu merchants for the older members of the family who could not travel long distances.

View of the facade of the Budha Ashram

The Shikarpuri Hindus had business not only in Central Asia but also in European countries. They kept expanding their business networks from Asia to Africa and Europe. So it was sometimes difficult for senior citizens or elderly people to accompany family members to their newly established business centres in other countries. This was one of the main reasons that some eminent merchants from the Chhabria family established the Budha Ashram. Before this Ashram was built, there used to be a few rooms reserved for senior citizens in the temples and darbars of Shikapur city, which were also called Budha Ashram. Such facilities existed also in temples in smaller towns of Shikarpur district. Even today, there is a Budha Ashram in the Samadha Ashram in Shikarpur.

Shikarpur was the first city in upper Sindh – if not in the whole of Sindh – to have a Budha Ashram (old age home) for senior citizens. There was an old age home in Karachi, which was perhaps built before the Budha Ashram of Shikarpur. There was even one in Larkana city where elderly people were provided shelter, food and other facilities.

Inscription in the Budha Ashram

One gets to know from the English inscription on the outer wall of the Budha Ashram in Shikarpur that it was built in 1936. The inscription reads that it was built “in memory of Tourmal Mulchand Chhabria, General Iron Merchants by (their sons) Radhaskishan Das, Parsram and Hassanad” in 1936. The Chhabria family was a famous business group of Shikarpur that had interests across Sindh particularly and in Indian cities and towns more generally. Some of them even had their businesses in other countries.

According to Hisam Memon, a scholar who has been working on the history of Shikarpur for several years, after the 1947 Partition, the Budha Ashram was used as a commercial college, food office, excise and taxation office, and camp office of the Assistant Administrator of the Evacuee Trust Property Board in different years. After it was vacated by the Assistant Administrator of the Evacuee Trust Property Board, the building went into disrepair and was vandalised by land grabbers. It was badly damaged during the rains of 2022. As such, it is a protected monument under the Sindh Cultural Heritage Preservation Act 1994. Despite the protection afforded to the site under the Act, damage to this historic building is ongoing and needs to be stopped. It is necessary for the building to be restored to its past glory and converted into a museum.

A damaged portion of the Budha Ashram

The Budha Ashram is a two-storey building. Its façade is decorated with wooden windows and floral ornamentation. The main portico of the building opens to a courtyard around which are located about 12 rooms. There were placed wooden benches in the verandah where elderly people used to sit and discuss their lived experiences with one another. Both single and double bedrooms were available in the Budha Ashram. Every room and hall was carefully planned to get proper ventilation and natural lighting to the interior. The rooms were all naturally lit during the day and oil lamps were lit at night. Cupboards were made outside the rooms in the verandah, where occupants of the rooms placed their belongings. Each of the cupboards had the same number as that of the room.

There was also a room that served as a reception where the details and other expenditures were maintained by the receptionist. According to Dada Reva Chand, a notable of Shikarpur city, on special occasions, entertainment and recreational activities were arranged at the Budha Ashram for the senior citizens. Musical programs were also held for them. There was also a small library for the senior citizens in the Budha Ashram.

Apart from the main entrance, another entrance to the building also opened from the southern side. According to Dada Reva Chand, there are approximately 14 rooms in the Budha Ashram. 12 rooms are located on the ground floor, whereas the rest were on the first floor, which collapsed in the rains of 2022. Stairs led to the upper storey, which is also partially demolished. This historic building is a victim of vandalism now.

There was a small temple in the Buddha Ashram where old residents used to worship. There were also two halls in the building which were probably used for special occasions if there was a function organised by the management of the Budha Ashram. The facilities in the Budha Ashram included a small dispensary where a doctor regularly visited for routine checkups of the residents. There also used to be a kitchen, a laundry, a small well and a hand pump in the Budha Ashram.

Unfortunately, all now lie in a bad state of preservation. People have taken away the iron, wood, bricks, and other building material from some of the rooms of the Budha Ashram. According to Naseem Bukhari, members of civil society and notables of Shikarpur city protested and voiced their concerns about the neglect, destruction, and damage to the Budha Ashram before the authorities concerned.

Two important steps should be taken into consideration immediately to protect the historic Ashram from further destruction. The Shikarpur city administration should immediately form a committee of notables and civil society to provide suggestions to the authorities concerned on how to protect and convert this Ashram into a museum. Secondly, various cultural heritage preservation organisations and departments should jointly collaborate to save this historic Budha Ashram from vandalism and plunder. In this regard, at least a collaboration by the Culture, Tourism, Antiquities and Archives Department of the Government of Sindh and the Endowment Fund Trust for the Preservation of the Heritage of Sindh (EFT) could go a long way in helping to preserve this historic building for posterity.

Before the restoration of the Budha Ashram takes place, the Shikarpur city administration should at least appoint a security guard to protect it from further plunder and vandalism. Shaikh Ayaz University at Shikarpur may also play an important role in highlighting the importance of the Budha Ashram by drawing the attention of national and international scholars, as well as the concerned government officials, by holding a series of seminars and webinars.

The author is an anthropologist. He tweets at: @Kalhorozulfiqar