The Bohras are a small but important Muslim community of Sri Lanka. Like Memon community, the Bohras too came over from India and settled in our beautiful island to call home about three to four generations ago. They are hard to miss.

The men are unmistakable in their snow-white robes, luxuriant beards, and caps of gold lace, and the women in their dainty dresses of pastel hue. The Bohras stand out everywhere, but not just because of their appearance. They have made a mark for themselves as business barons. In fact, business is in their blood. Their very name bears out this fact. It derives from the Gujarati word Vohru meaning ‘trader’.

The Bohras, in spite of their many achievements here, are relatively recent migrants from India. Although they have now made Sri Lanka their home, their origins lie in India. In fact, the largest concentration of Bohras anywhere in the world can be found there. It is also the seat of their spiritual leader who has a strong hold on his flock, wherever they are.

The Bohras are basically Shia Muslims who have their spiritual origins in Egypt. Shias stress on descent from the Holy Prophet’s (Peace Be Upon Him) noble bloodline as a condition for the Imamate (leadership of the community). To keep a long story short, the ancestors of the Bohras settled on a long line of Imams (leaders) that culminated with the Fatimids, a medieval Arab dynasty that ruled Egypt.

The Fatimids took their name after Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, from whom they claimed descent. Despite being Shias in a largely Sunni Muslim country, they achieved a lot during their reign, including founding the Egyptian capital Cairo and building the famous Al Azhar University (which again takes its name from the daughter of the Prophet, Fatima Az Zahra {Fatima the Luminous}, now a bastion of Sunni Islam.

In the 12th century, the Twenty First Imam Tayyib mysteriously disappeared from public view, a sacrosanct state which Bohras call ‘seclusion’. Bohra belief holds that Imam Tayyib’s lawful heir, inerrant, infallible, and immaculate, walks the earth today as any good Bohra. It could even be any ordinary person on the streets, to put it bluntly. That is until such time he decides to reveal himself and claim his rightful place as the ruler of the community.

Bohras worldwide look forward to the day this messianic figure stakes his claim to usher in a rule of justice and peace on earth. The spiritual leader of the Bohras today, Seyed Mufaddal Saifuddin, like all those before him, is merely a vicegerent of this secluded leader, which is why he bears the title Dai Al Mutlaq (unlimited missionary) rather than Imam (Leader).

The office was instituted by the legendary Queen Arwa of Yemen, the Grand Emissary of the Fatimid Caliphate, to look into the affairs of the community after the seclusion of Imam Tayyib. The first Dai appointed by her, Dai Zoeb, was succeeded by a long line of Dais that continues to the present day. It was during the Daiship of Yusuf Najmuddin that the seat of the community, known as the Daawat (mission), was shifted from Yemen to India. To this day, the spiritual leader of the worldwide Bohra community resides in Bombay.


The Bohras strangely discovered Sri Lanka by accident. Yusuf Mamujee, a local Bohra historian and record keeper of the community told us with much relish that the first Bohra entrepreneur who set foot in Sri Lanka, Jafferjee Esajee, was on his way to trade in a sailing vessel from India to the Maldives, when it was struck by a gale that took him all the way to Galle: seeing the opportunity there, he set up business.

That was around 1830. He lost no time in getting down his family and business partners, from his hometown of Mandvi in Kutch, to set up shop here. News travels fast and soon Bohras from other parts of Western India like Surat, Bagasra, and Jamnagar in search of greener pastures were flocking here.

Interestingly, their first settlement was Galle, where they also built their first mosque (which still stands) and it was later, when Colombo became a popular port of call around the middle part of the nineteenth century, that they drifted towards Pettah, the bustling business hub of Colombo.

According to Mamujee, these pioneer Bohra settlers brought with them their families, whom they housed in the upper floors of their business premises. He avers that these early Bohra pioneers introduced Maldive fish to the country, by barter trading it in exchange for the rice which Sri Lanka produced in abundance.

Thus it could be seen that very early on, the Bohras were involved in the country’s import-export trade, exporting local produce and importing foreign goods, which is still very much the way Bohras operate today. In fact in the olden days, they even owned large and hardy shipping vessels known as ‘buggalows’, that transported goods across the seas. Such was their enterprising zeal even in those times.


An idea of how business runs in the blood of the Bohras could be gleaned from the memorable words of Tudor Jones, who wrote about this enterprising community in an article titled “These People Make Ceylon” contributed to the Times of Ceylon Christmas Number, 1935: “I was once looking for University College, Colombo, and drove into an impressively large building which I thought must be it. But I found that it was the residence of a Bohra, and that university College was the meaner building next door”.

He continues that although they originally hailed from India: “They are settled down here, being the owners of much property. Making money is said to be not only their occupation, but their hobby and recreation as well. Their hive is 4th Cross Street, Pettah, a dusty avenue congested with vans, omnibuses, lorries and carts.

At the end of the day, they drive back to their palatial residences. ‘Borah’ means trader, and Bohras always become merchants. ‘It is in our blood’, I was told by one of them, a man with laughing eyes and a melodious cultured voice. ‘We live well and enjoy life and don’t take our troubles seriously’”


The Bohras, like the Memons are a very cultured community who have jealously preserved their traditional way of life. The men have a peculiar costume of long white shirt and white trousers with their closely cropped heads topped with vibrant gold laced caps.

The womenfolk wear a most charming dress of pastel hues comprising of two pieces, a long gown and a sort of mantel usually fringed at the lower portion with intricate lacework and hood that could be used to cover the hair, all of which is collectively known as rida. This is a relatively new introduction by order of the Bohra head a couple of decades ago. Formerly Bohra women used to wear Salwar Qamiz and such Indian attire with a shawl being used to cover their heads.

They are also a very tenacious community jealously preserving their traditional way of life which to them is a very proud one. Some time ago when some NGOS started campaigning against the Islamic duty of female circumcision, the community lost no time springing into action arguing that what that they practiced was the proper Islamic form of removing the clitoral foreskin, which had been shown to confer numerous health benefits, a procedure which even American women were getting done. Bohra girls are usually circumcised when they are seven years old.

The women even formed a women’s organization called Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom to preserve the practice which in a few months had a membership of as much as 70,000 and is still very active.

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