The trustee

Businessman and philanthropist, M.H.A Gaffar, reflects on his role as the trustee of the mosque at Kataragama, believed by many Muslims to be the home of their prophet Hayath Rabi. Photography by Kannan Arunasalam. Archive photographs from Studio Times, Colombo.

Join the discussion: 10 comments

  • Kannan Arunasalam says:

    I first met Mr Gaffar a few days into Ramazan, the Islamic month of fasting. I found his sitting in the entrance of his impressive home on Leyn Baan Street. He was wearing a simple sarong. The scar from his heart surgery was prominent.  Mr Gaffar had not fully recovered and the fasting had made his voice frail and at times indistinct. He looked contemplative. Often there were long pauses when he spoke, sometimes to catch his breath, but also to reflect on the things he had just uttered.

    Mr Gaffar spent his days sitting here or on the back veranda of the house, looking into his garden. He told me that he rarely went to the museum any more. When Mr Gaffar first started collecting antiques as a young man his family had mocked him, saying that he was wasting his time with these “palaya saaman” or “old things”. But Mr Gaffar’s instinct told him otherwise. He didn’t listen to them and went on to become a very wealthy man. He was a pioneer, long before the rush to collect “old things”, he was on to it.

    His interest in collecting took him to Europe.  He researched museums and from what he learned, he started his unique Historical Mansion Museum, across the street from his house.

    Mr Gaffar had a lot to be pleased about, but it was clear that of all his accomplishments, he was proudest of his role as trustee of the mosque at Kataragama. Pride is probably the wrong word to use, as Mr Gaffar explained, it was a selfless act, done without ego.

    The fasting had taken it’s toll and Mr Gaffar was too tired to continue. He suggested that we come back after Ramazan was over, and Insh’Allah, we could continue the interview then. We returned the following month and found out more about his and his community’s connection to Kataragama, the Hindu god of war.

  • Dominic says:

    Another great post – thank you.

  • Nancy Fernando says:

    Good post. Just remember that the Kataragama temple is visited not only by Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, but also by Christians. In fact by all people who have great faith in the Kataragama God. Faith can move mountains. God is God and there is only one God.

    • sam says:

      When have Christians visited Kataragama temple Nancy – besides as tourists? There are no Christian shrines in the temple complex. There are only Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim ones. It is a place of worship for Buddhists, Hindus and Sufi Muslims…but not Christians.

  • RD says:

    Fantastic, thank you so much Kannan.

  • yoga says:


  • Roshan says:

    Interesting to know that only Muslims and Hindus visited Kataragama, before 1967. Love the way he accepts change and makes a point to say that change is good. Very rarely do we find people of such disposition. Thanks for sharing. Enjoyed it very much.

  • Kusal Perera says:

    Content is not as impressive as the black and white visuals. Some are factually wrong too. Sinhala people had been visiting Kataragama, long before 1967. It was not Mrs. Bandaranayake who made the place a holy city in 1967. She could not have as the opposition leader. It was PM Dudley Senanayake’s government then.

    • Kannan Arunasalam says:

      @ Kusal Perera

      Thank your for engaging with the project. I wanted to address your comment about the incorrect date and a wider issue which arises in life history research i.e. people’s memories of events, especially those of elders, are not always going to be factually accurate.

      My researcher and I deliberated over the decision to include the date given by Mr Gaffar in his piece and also tried to find a source for the designation of Kataragama as a Holy City. Ultimately however, keeping with established oral history/storytelling practice, we decided not to change any memories of the storyteller and leave his version intact. Memories are admittedly flawed and nuanced. Yet these life histories are not so much a search for the truth (which can very easily be established), but more importantly reveals WHAT we remember and HOW we remember our lives. Taken as a whole, Mr Gaffar’s recollection was as someone who had been going to Kataragama ever since he was a child and who went on to become a trustee of the mosque. We felt his impression of the changes to the place were important. Of course, this site is also a forum for discussion and your comment will give people another impression of that time, as well as correcting the issue of the date. Thank you.

  • (@iam_project) (@iam_project) says:

    M.H.A Gaffar reflects on role as mosque trustee at Kataragama home of prophet Hayath Rabi #Ramadan


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