DhanBai, the Goddess of Benedictions

The priest Zarathustra, known to the Greeks as Zoroaster, founded Zoroastrianism in Persia in the 6th century BCE. It had a large following and was an important world religion. It was the national religion of Iran. The origin of Islam in the seventh century caused the decline of Zoroastrianism. The Parsis or the followers of Zoroastrianism came to India in the 8th century. They first came to Gujarat and then spread all over India. The largest population of the Parsis in the world resides in India. The Parsis and Indians of the Vedic times had established very strong commercial relations with one another. There are a number of similarities between the holy book of the Parsis Zend Avesta and the Rugveda. In India, the number of Parsis is quite small when compared to the number of followers of other religions. However, they are the ones who have contributed largely to the development of trade, industry and commerce in pre independent India as well as in the post-independence period. This tiny community has contributed to the political and social movements that took place in India. 

Well-known Parsis of India like Sir Jamshedji Tata, J.R.D. Tata, Ratan Tata, and Dr. Godrej established industrial empires, General Maneckshaw, recipient of Paramvir Chakra, Colonel Ardheshar Tarapore, and Vice Admiral Rustom Gandhi were champions in the armed forces. Soli Sorabjee and Nani Palkhiwala were eminent solicitors. Internationally acclaimed cricketers like Poly Umrigar, Farukh Engineer and atomic energy scientists like Homi Bhabha, who were venerated by the entire world, all of them were Parsis. The ray of hope in the form of COVACCINE in the current pandemic situation comes from the much-recognized industrialist Adar Poonawala who also belongs to the Parsi community. The illustrious people who belong to the small community of Parsis are a boon to the world. The names are just illustrative because the list can go on. One distinct characteristic of the Parsis is their generosity. They are selfless people. They can go to any extent of sacrifice to help humanity because they love humanity. It is not always necessary that each of them is very rich. Even the poorest in this community are bighearted people. The moment this philanthropic bent of mind develops in you, it enriches you with a sense of fulfillment. The day this benevolence originated in Saint Tukaram’s mind, he was no longer a mere grocer. He  reformed and became as large as the skies…

अणु रेणू या थोकडा, तुका आकाशाएवढा ।

‘Tuka says, I am smaller than the smallest (atom)

Yet I fill the sky and space

Because my soul transcends this physical body’

Common souls like us are not as large hearted as Tukaram Maharaj. Yet in the midst of selfish, stingy, dwarfs there are a few magnanimous souls. They constantly pray for other’s overburdened lives to be brightened by the light of religiosity and generosity. If our prayers are honest, we can at least grow as tall as palm coconut trees. The Parsi community is known for its innate qualities of altruism, munificence and surge of kindness for humanity. Examples of such magnanimous Parsi individuals who have soared higher than the skies are so inspiring. We can witness in our daily lives such great men and women who have achieved such selfless heights who otherwise live life like a simple human being.

One such towering personality is that of a Parsi woman from Bordi, Bai Dhanbai Hakimji.

Bai Dhanbai Pestonji Hakimji (1870-1960)

Children like me who were born in Gholwad, in a hospital built by Dhanbai were made knowledgeable and worthy at SPH School. The school was established in 1920 with the help of a munificent donation given by her in the name of Sunabai Pestonji Hakimji. Thousands of students attended this school. Our revered Guru, Acharya Bhise breathed his last in Machina Hospital built with financial support from her. It was because of her broadminded approach that Acharya Chitre Guruji withdrew his resignation letter and continued with his determination to serve in Bordi School. Generations of students learnt under him. We who reside in Bordi have been blessed by his divine presence. This place was made heavenly and divine by people like her. We owe all this to a humanitarian, an epitome of philanthropy, saintly Dhanbai who transformed Bordi. For quite some time I have been feeling that, I should write in memory of Dhanbai to express our gratitude towards her. However, she lived such a mysterious and weird life that not an iota of information about her could be readily found. Neither a photograph nor even a portrait was found when I was researching Dhanbai’s life. 

 Nevertheless my guiding principle in life has been, “A WILL, WILL FIND A WAY…” I have experienced the power of determination on many occasions in life. Help came to me in the form of my uncle-‘Laxman Kaka’. I was standing outside late Manekshaw Masani’s bungalow ‘Ever Green’ and clicking photographs of the garden and the interior of the courtyard. My uncle used to work there. As I was taking snapshots, a person came out of the bungalow and stood at the gate. He asked me in a kind voice,” How may I help you?”  I felt he was suspicious about me and thus was asking me so. I told him what I was doing there and why. In fact, I was a little frightened when he spoke because I had shot photographs without seeking anyone’s permission. I eventually mustered up all my courage to reply. I was surprised by what he said.” Why are you taking photographs standing outside the gate? Come in, I shall take you on a tour of the whole of Manekshaw bungalow and orchard.” He actually took me around every nook and corner of that hundred-year-old building and grove. He also showed me a number of family photographs, collection of books, a radio and an old gramophone, which was quite well maintained. This information came in handy in my article about Laxman Kaka. The person who guided me around the bungalow helped me to gather details about Dhanbai too.  He mentioned that Late Mr. Manekshaw and Dhanbai were close friends. When I told him that the next article that I wished to write was on Dhanbai he offered to help me. He asked me to return at leisure and promised to give me all the details he knew and photographs he had.” Make good use of all that information”, he said to me. I was so elated. I had received more than I had expected. This person shared all the information that he had. Information about the donations made by Dhanbai was recorded in a document by an institution called ‘Parsi Panchayat’. He also gave me a cutting of a very old article on Dhanbai written by Shri Dinkar Raut Sir for the school magazine. I could not get any photograph of Dhanbai in his collection. However, because of the support rendered by Jamshedji, I was resolute about my wish to write about Dhanbai, which I am doing now. Jamshedji works as the manager of “Ever Green’ which is the name of Mr. Manekshaw’s bungalow and orchard .Its green ambience lives up to its name. I am deeply indebted to him for his help.

Soonabai Pestanji, mother of Dhanbai
The entrance of Dhanbai’s home. Kitchen on the left & worship room in the front.

Dhanbai was born in an affluent Parsi family. Her father traded in cotton and silk. He had established business ties with Chinese traders. He got a lot of money in this venture. He had four sons and two daughters. Dhanbai was one of them. When the father divided his property among his children, he offered Dhanbai her share. Initially she refused to accept her part of the possessions. Firstly, because she was unmarried and secondly she had put down a condition – in case she accepted the share she would like to donate it for the needy and downtrodden. She told her father that only if he agreed to her wish to contribute to a social cause, she would accept her share of the property. Had she used all her money to live a lavish, luxurious life who would have objected to that? However, she was made of a different mental frame. She vowed to live all her life for the betterment of others and she lived up to her mission until the end. She maintained that she was merely the trustee of the property she had received as an inherited share and not the master of that property. She utilised all the property for the cause of public welfare. I have already mentioned that generosity and philanthropy are the distinctive characteristics of the Parsi community. However, Dhanbai was the epitome of munificence and her selflessness and generosity surpassed all benevolence.

At the inauguration of the maternity hospital 1935. Even though Lady Brabourne and the Collector insisted, Dhanbai refused to have her photograph taken.

Dhanabai believed in the philosophy of simple living and high thinking. While following this principle during her lifetime nothing deterred her from it.  She owned a fortune but she dressed in simple clothes which were even darned at times. Manekshaw remembers her simplicity. Someone who met her for the first time would misunderstand her as very stingy. When I got the details of some of the donations made by Dhanbai, my hands folded in respect before her generosity.

Shri Jamshedji shared the following details of her charity:

  • ₹ 56,000 For Bordi High school for purchase of land and school building
  • ₹ 50,000 For Sunabai P. Hakimji Maternity Home,  Gholwad  
  • ₹ 1, 50,000 For building a two storey Boys’ Hostel at Gholwad, Donation made of a five acre piece of land near the beach
  • ₹ 6000 For Dahanu Municipal Hospital
  • ₹ 10,000 For building the Agyari at Zai, Bordi  
  • ₹ 20,000 For building a school for training Parsi Gurus, Dastur School at Dadar, Mumbai  
  • ₹ 40,000 For building Agyaris at Bandra, Mumbai and Belgaum  
  • ₹ 75,000 For B.D. Petit Parsi General Hospital
  • ₹ 35,000 For Masina Hospital, Byculla, Mumbai  
  • ₹ 65,000 Towards Parsi Panchayat Trust for helping the poor  

Besides this, she liberally helped numerous needy, orphaned and handicapped persons in Bordi on various occasions such as birth, death or marriage. These donations are not documented anywhere. The amounts quoted in the records belong to the 1920 and 1940s. You can calculate the actual value of the amounts during these decades. She has not allowed a single mention of her name while donating to the government or institutions. She has donated in the name of her father Pestonji Hakimji or her mother Sunabai. Shri Jamshedji very respectfully mentions that she would always seek the advice of her family friend Mr.Manekshaw Masani while offering these contributions.

This is ‘that’ famous Soonabai Pestanji Hakimji HighSchool!

Dhanbai was very fond of Bordi and Gholwad. When she donated land and funds for constructing the school building at Bordi in 1923, Dhanbai had taken the advice of Mr. Manekshaw. She trusted the dedication, honesty and efficiency of the revered trio, Acharya Bhise, Chitre and Save. While donating such a large amount to a newly opened village school Dhanabai’s singular aim was to help in the educational development of the region. She was convinced that these people would carry forth the mandate successfully. Today when one witnesses the exemplary transformation brought about in Bordi, Gholwad, Kosbad, Zai by the schoolteachers, one feels that Dhanabai’s trust in the trio is validated.

Public Health Centre (PHC), Gholwad, Donated by Dhanbai in the name of again SPH (S P Hakimji Maternity Home)

However, Dhanbai was initially staying in Mumbai. The reason why she came to Bordi and decided to settle in Bordi is a very amusing one. Dhanabai, being a Parsi, often used to travel to Sanjan from Mumbai, to pray at the fire temple there. A few railway trains used to ply from Mumbai to Gujarat. Dhanbai would usually board the Saurashtra Express that was a fast train, which took her to Kalyan. This train did not have a scheduled stop at Gholwad station. However, on three occasions when Dhanbai was travelling, due to some technical or other reasons the train stopped at Gholwad. Dhanabai felt this to be a strange coincidence. She was wondering why the train in spite of being a fast one had halted at Gholwad station. This happened not once but thrice. One of her aunts lived in Gholwad. Once when Dhanbai visited her aunt she mentioned this strange coincidence. The aunt being a staunch believer in God interpreted this happenstance as a message from the Almighty. She felt that God was suggesting that Dhanbai should give up Mumbai and settle in Gholwad. Dhanbai was leading a lonely life in Mumbai. The aunt said,” Come and stay in Gholwad. I will keep you company.” Dhanbai was convinced by her aunt’s suggestion and she moved lock, stock and barrel to Gholwad. She came to her aunt’s house. Her aunt supported her wholeheartedly and guided her. The aunt’s bungalow was situated next to Manekshaw Masani’s orchard. Thus as neighbors they developed strong friendly relations. Their association further developed into strong, affectionate familial ties. Manekshaw proved to be a very positive influence for Dhanbai.

As mentioned earlier. Dhanbai had given a large donation of one and a half lakh rupees to Kawasji Jahangir Trust for building a two-storey hostel for poor Parsi boys. This Parsi hostel has been the pride of Bordi and Gholwad. Many promising, poor, Parsi boys stayed in this hostel and built a prosperous future for their own selves. Dhanbai lived in the chawl opposite this hostel. It had rooms like barracks. Dhanbai lived in one of these rooms. Her kitchen was situated on one side and close by was a small prayer room. The room and kitchen were lodged in two ten by ten rooms and the prayer room measured five by eight feet. This was the bare minimum home in which Dhanbai lived for a lifetime. Dhanbai who donated lakhs of rupees anonymously to the needy, downtrodden people and deserving institutions, stayed all her life in such a modest home. I got the photographs, which I have included, in the article after great persuasion. The security guards at the entrance of the bungalow prohibited me from entering the premises and taking snaps. The entire surrounding is in a pathetic state, almost in ruins. Some miscreants tried to encroach upon the land and so the Parsi Panchayat had to take this step. The security guard deployed there, had no idea about the significance and sanctity of that humble place. For him it was a valuable piece of land to be guarded from thieves. When I saw the plight of the room and kitchen, I offered to clean it up. I even explained why I was so concerned about the miserable condition of the house. However, he refused to budge and asked me to seek permission from the trust office in Mumbai. Without arguing with him, I entered the campus, and touched the threshold of the holy room. In deep reverence, I smeared the dust of the threshold to my forehead. If I could retrieve some moments of gold by applying the dust from the house made holy by Dhanabai’s presence I would be most fortunate. I felt so blessed! Today, we can at least locate the room, the floor, the area; identify the surroundings and mark the existence of a generous past because of the remnants. In the near future, this location will be transformed into a commercial place, a multi storey mall. Would that place then remind of Dhanbai’s residence? May be this glorious evidence of human large heartedness would be forgotten very soon. How unfortunate is our generation who not only failed to retain and increase this splendor but also could not preserve it properly! That is the least we could have done!     

Dhanabai loved pets, especially dogs and cats. An elegant Alsatian dog would be guarding the verandah. He was there to protect Dhanbai and keep her company. This dog accompanied her until the end of her life.

Late Manekshaw with his wife. – The guiding force behind Dhanbai.

One of the most admired contributions made for a social cause by Dhanbai was the construction of the Sunabai Pestonji Maternity Home in Bordi, Gholwad. The hospital came up in 1935. The coincidence that prompted Dhanbai to build this maternity home is very moving. Early one morning, Dhanbai was going from her aunt’s house towards Gholwad station. On the way, she saw a woman of the Dubla community, lying by the roadside writhing in the pangs of labour. Some passerby women had prepared a makeshift curtain and helped her to deliver the baby on the roadside itself. Dhanabai was moved when she witnessed this. Women from better off families had recourse to the Dahanu Hospital. She thought that it was necessary to provide some facility in the village for the poor women too. She decided that she must do something about this and that was how a well-equipped hospital came up near the seashore at Gholwad. She named it after her mother Sunabai. Lady Brabourn, wife of   the Governor of Bombay, Lord Brabourn inaugurated the hospital. Many renowned people from Mumbai and senior members of the local community were present for the function. Manekshaw mentioned something in the context of this function that throws light on Dhanbai’s reluctance for publicity. I got the photograph of that event in Manekshaw’s house. I have included it in this write up. Dhanabai is nowhere to be seen in that photograph. When I asked about her, what I heard is too noble to be believed in today’s world of media publicity hawks. The District Collector Mr. Khan was present. A chair next to Lady Brabourn was kept empty for Dhanbai. Someone went to call her. When she arrived, they requested her to occupy the chair for a photograph. She humbly refused to be photographed even when the Collector’s wife requested her. The collector was a bit anxious because he had invited the Madam Brabourn to Gholwad. Dhanabai’s refusal to sit for the photograph could feel like an insult. Lady Brabourn guessed that the Collector was caught in a difficult situation. What she said is evidence of the appreciation and respect the British showed for uprightness irrespective of from whom it came from. Lady Brabourn said, “I compliment you for your principles. I have come across so many people who would struggle to be photographed with me. However, you are the only person who has respectfully refused to be photographed with me. In fact I am proud of you for being so true to your ideology.”  I experienced goose bumps when I heard of this incident.

I was reminded of yet another similar incident, which I had witnessed in school. Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the then President of India visited Bordi School in 1959. Acharya Bhise was the headmaster of the school. President Dr. Rajendra Prasad had come to Bordi on Acharya Bhise’s invitation. The stage was set on the playground opposite the school. A chair next to the President was kept vacant for Acharya Bhise. All people big and small were vying to get a seat on the dais. Therefore, there was a big crowd on the stage.   The security norms were not as stringent as they are today. Rajendra Babu was surprised to see an empty chair next to his. He must have suggested his aide to bring Acharya Bhise onto the stage. The aide got down from the stage and started searching for Acharya Bhise in the crowd. He asked the volunteers where he could find Acharya Bhise. To his surprise, Acharya Bhise was among the crowd trying to control the surge so that the programme would be held without any untoward happening. I was one among the crowd and distinctly recollect Acharya’s image. With folded hands and a sweating forehead, he moved among the crowd, requesting the people to make themselves comfortable. He was constantly dabbing a small napkin on his face. It was a very hot and sultry day. I heard about Dhanbai’s refusal to be photographed and that reminded me of this incident. Acharya Bhise like Dhanbai was not interested in publicity.  How magnanimous these people were, I wonder! Acharya Bhise humbly refused to accept the Rashtrapati Puraskar, which is given in recognition of the contribution made to the field of education on a national level. Not only did he refuse to accept it but also decided to recommend the name of Principal Sane who was the then headmaster of the school. In the world of today where fake claims to greatness is the norm it is necessary to preserve examples for posterity of such genuinely honest, upright people with uncompromising integrity like Dhanbai or Acharya Bhise.

Dhanbai built the maternity hospital after she witnessed the sorry plight of the adivasi mother. However, she did not leave the unfortunate woman and her child to their fate. She adopted the child and looked after the mother. She supported the child’s food ,education and other requirements. Unfortunately, this adopted boy became addicted and died very young. Residents of Bordi and Gholwad have seen this boy loiter on the streets in an inebriated condition. This was quite an unfortunate experience for Dhanbai. She had adopted another boy from a poor family in Mumbai. She helped him in his education. This boy turned out to be good. He became successful in life and became wealthy. However, I could not get any information about him or his whereabouts. Had I been able to contact him, I could have learnt more about Dhanbai.

The pictures of Dhanbai’s home and kitchen are included in this article. Dhanbai’s pet dog would be sitting in the verandah. Today, the sacred building is neglected and is in ruins. The photographs speak for its dilapidated condition. One can imagine how Dhanbai lived a very simple life. May times she would eat just once in a day. It used to be simple, vegetarian food. Good, delicious food would be cooked in the Boys’ Hostel, which she had helped to build. She humbly refused to eat food served in the hostel. She would cook her meals by herself until she physically could. Blessed was Dhanbai who followed her principles uncompromisingly all her life!

Dinkar Raut has been the most fortunate of us all. He got the opportunity of meeting Dhanbai when he was studying in the school. He tells us of how one day he and his schoolmates along with their teachers went to meet Dhanbai at her residence opposite the Boys’ Hostel. She was elated to see so many schoolchildren and their teachers at her house. She told the teachers,          ” Please teach my children well.” Dhanbai’s use of the possessive pronoun ‘my children’ speaks volumes for the love and affection she had for children. Her spontaneous words prove the amount of concern she felt for especially the less privileged children.

 Dhanbai had the rare virtue of respecting the other’s integrity as much as she did her’s. If she were convinced of her mistake, she would never hesitate to withdraw her say. Prabhakar Raut shared a very touching memory in this context. Dhanabai contributed largely to the establishment of the school in 1923. The school started functioning smoothly. One incident, which took place at that time, throws light on the selfless personality of Dhanbai. The son of an adivasi woman who worked in Dhanbai’s house failed in the final examination. Dhanbai deeply wished that the boy study further and succeed in his life. She approached Bhise Guruji to find out if something could be done about the boy’s result. Since Bhise Guruji was busy, he asked Chitre Guruji to look into the matter. He told him to inform Dhanbai accordingly. Chitre Guruji, the staunch disciplinarian that he was, he called for the boy’s answer sheets and rechecked them. He concluded that there could be no change in the result. He faced a moral dilemma. The one who had helped to build the school was making a request but his values would not permit him to concede to it. He could not bring himself to change the boy’s result from fail to pass. One day in the morning, he met Dhanbai at her residence. He explained to her all the efforts he had taken and added that unfortunately he was unable to make any changes in the result. Dhanbai did not say a word. She just watched Guruji. He pulled out a piece of paper from his pocket and placed it before Dhanbai. It was his resignation letter. Dhanbai read the letter and immediately tore it to pieces. She said to Guruji, “How can you ever think of quitting the school? The school needs upright and principled teachers like you. Let the child fail. Even I am convinced that he should fail so that he will improve. It is for his betterment.” This too is another instance of Dhanbai’s service to Gholwad and Bordi. Chitre Guruji stayed back and he was able to serve the school and develop Sharadashram that transformed many a children into cultured, responsible and honest citizens.

Dhanabai supported many, helped many, and guided many people’s lives. She lived a ninety years long and healthy life. She required doctors and medicines only during the last few years of her life. She died at the ripe age of ninety owing to old age. However, her charity, her benevolence of erecting a maternity home earned her the title of motherhood too.   

The story of Dhanbai, which I know, ends here. Nevertheless, I vow not to stop at this. While I was writing about Dhanbai or even before that about Acharya Chitre, Tarabai Modak, Acharya Bhise and my teachers I kept thinking about one thing. How did these extraordinary people, who had the option of living an easy, comfortable, worldly rich life, decide so resolutely to give up all worldly comforts? They sacrificed their riches, their secure, contented life for the service of humanity. They were uncommon because they dedicated their entire life and possessions for the cause of uplifting the downtrodden and then one day just left for their heavenly abode like any other common human being. They are the unsung heroes of our civilization. We know of saints and holy men in the Indian tradition of spirituality. However, these are the modern saints. We have witnessed their lives and even have been part of them. I have tried to explore the roots of the extraordinariness of these personalities. The exercise has disturbed me a lot. Suddenly I heard a mantra from the deep, dark vale of remembrance – ““अत दीपो भव…” “Be self illumined…” You must be your own light and brighten all the dark corners that surround you.” This was what Buddha said. He also relinquished his riches, gave up his beautiful wife and son, and went to the forest. Then the question arose,” Why did Gautama alone attain enlightenment?” Why can we not become self illumined? Sant Dnyaneshwar had said, “बहुत सुकृतांची जोडी, म्हणुनी विठ्ठल आवडी”. He who has done good deeds in the past life, whose has accumulated the grace of God, who has followed the path of righteousness, only such a person, wins the divine love of God. Kathoupanishad reiterates the same thought. ‘त्येन  त्यक्त्येन भुंजीथा…’ ‘You gain the most happiness when you give up the most.’ People like Shankarrao, Krushnarao Tarabai or Dhanbai who have understood this principle of ‘getting through giving’ very early in life  become Gurus like Acharya Shankarrao Bhise, Acharya Krushnarao Chitre, Padmabhushan Tarabai Modak, Dhanbai the Goddess of benedictions!

In the words of Saint Dnyaneshwar Maharaj,        

     ते वाट कृपेची पुसतु

     दिशाची स्नेहेची भरीतु

     जीवा तळी अंथरीतु ,

जीव आपुला।

These divine souls carry with them the most sublime human values, love and affection. They transform the world with the magic of love. They are eager to give up even their life for the cause of helping others. Their perceptive and compassionate mind can instinctively sense the sufferings of others and help them to lessen their hardships. They become kin to such miserable people. They hold them by their hand and guide them on the celestial path. Such divine people inhabited the land of Bordi and Gholwad. They held our hands and walked us on the path of human values. It is our good fortune that they led us on towards goodness. I offer my deepest gratitude to all these divinities.

I bow in respect to the memory of Dhanbai, the Goddess of Benedictions.

I am also obliged to Dr. Mrs Anjali Patwardhan Kulkarni, Principal, N B Mehta college, Bordi, for the excellent English translation offered of the original marathi article.