Panoramic view of Lake Ashtamudi from Hotel Raviz, Kollam, where the team had dinner during the trip.
The Kollam Connection
ML Sultan was born in Quilon (now referred to as Kollam), Malabar District, Kerala State in South India.
He left Kollam in 1890 heading off to Ceylon, and on his way to Ceylon had a change in his plans due to the ship's mechanical troubles, and so decided to migrate to South Africa instead. Ceylon's loss became a Natal's gain, for a great Philanthropist.
Once settled in South Africa, many years later, he traveled back to Kollam to attend to family matters and is reported to have spent some 6 months, with his family in Kollam.
During his lifetime in South Africa, he maintained contact with his extended Indian family, and after his demise his son Mohammed Ebrahim had continued to communicate with the family in Quilon. Shortly after his passing there was a brief period of correspondence with the youngest son Aboobaker until his passing in 1987.
Since then, there was a period of 30 years during which there was no contact between the Indian and South African parallel families.
Other than ML Sultan himself having communicated with and visited, there was no actual physical contact or introduction between the families in South Africa and India since 1890.
The Ancestral search
Some 130 years later, the next generation of Sultan's began the search to find their ancestral roots. Several attempts were made but to no avail.
Then in 2014, one of the grandsons of ML Sultan, Dr Abdul Hameed Sultan, a London based Gynaecologist, found a diary amongst his late father, Abdul Razack's belongings, and the search resumed.
The Diary contained names of places and addresses in Kollam, and this sparked a renewed interest.
One morning during a conversation over morning tea with a medical colleague at his London based Hospital, he found out that she hailed from Kollam, the same town as ML Sultan's birth.
The colleague had a attorney relative Mr. Joe Kutty based in Kollam, who was contacted and he tasked a friend and employee Firoz Khan to begin his search. The sketchy details from the diary were provided to Firoz
What followed was an amazing sequence of events, details of which are described later, and is a story on its own.
Amazingly he was able to locate a certain elderly gentleman, ML Shamsudeen in Kollam, a grandson of the brother of ML Sultan.
This was the first time the South African family actually realised that they really still had a parallel family in a continent far far away.
This find was exciting news for the South African family and prompted the planning of a trip to Kollam.
This trip dubbed 'Operation Kerala' by the group took some planning and coordinating. By now the Sultan family had members in South Africa, London and in Australia.
The eagerness and desire to find their ancestral roots brought the group together, and they traveled from different parts of the world to meet in Kollam in March 2016.
The group consisted of:
Grandsons of ML Sultan
The group met at Travancore Airport (Thiruvananthapuram), and traveled together to Kollam on the 25th March 2016 and spent an exciting and eventful 5 days in Kollam.
The 'man on the motorbike'
Once checked in and settled into the Quilon Beach Hotel, the group met on the first evening, with Firoz Khan and Joe Kutty to get a first hand account of their finding.
The story goes ....
Armed with addresses and some sketchy information from the diary, Firoz trolled the local community and mosques in search of the link to the Sultan family. First he went to the local mosques, then was directed to the Sultania Building (unrelated) by an elder in his search, then to the street close to the Mohamedan School as recorded in the diary.
As related by Firoz, who became known as the team's PI (private investigator) and "man on the motor bike", his search took him to an elderly gentleman standing on the footpath outside the front gate of a home on the street, close to the school, and he asked him if he knew of someone called ML Sultan, to which old man's eyes lit up and he replied "yes, I have family in Africa".
Amazed and astounded and literally falling off his motorbike, at this reply, Firoz was blown away and wanted more. The most unbelievable then happens, when the old man admitted to Firoz that he had two boxes of letters and correspondence from ML Sultan and his sons from Africa safely stored.
He took Firoz into his home and pulled two shoe boxes of correspondence.
The response from the man, ML Shamsudeen, as to 'why he kept the correspondence?' was "deep in my heart I knew one day someone from Africa will come looking for me".
Firoz was over the moon to say the least, he immediately took photos of the correspondence and within minutes these photos and photos of ML Shamsudeen were sent to Abdul Hameed.
This confirmed the hand writing and correspondence as known to have been sent from ML Sultan, ME Sultan, Yunus Sultan and Aboobaker Sultan over many years, till 1987.
The jigsaw puzzle ... it all fits in ...
Listening to Firoz relate the details of his discovery, was as amazing and unbelievable as the rest of the trip for the family team.
The plan was for the "Operation Kerala" team to meet the ML Shamsudeen family over lunch the next day.
The excitement from the team and the possible apprehension they thought may be forthcoming from the Shamshudin family, at this group of people suddenly fronting up after literally 126 years was overwhelming for us a family.
So we very guardedly got Firoz to contact Fathima the grand daughter and our contact in the family, and invite her and brother Ajmal over for tea, at our hotel, The Quilon Beach Hotel, that evening.
This invitation was graciously accepted and Fathima, Ajmal and two cousins joined us shortly for a beautiful warm reunion of two parallel families from continents apart, and the meeting extended to a dinner at the Quilon Hotel.
This evening dinner was the re-opening of a century and a quarter of relationships and history, and paved the way for a warm and welcoming lunch with ML Shamsudeen and his family the next day.
On day 2, we met with the ML Shamsudeen family, over a traditional South Indian lunch at their home and met his entire family and spent several hours catching up and looking through his boxes of letters, including the earliest correspondence being a postal receipt dated 2 April 1898, for a letter addressed to ML Sultan whilst he worked at the Masonic Hotel in Johannesburg.
We proceeded to a slide show and introduced them to the ML Sultan family in South Africa.
We then learnt that ML Shamshudin had a sister, Suhara Beevi living some 70km away. A sister whom he has not seen for the past two years. As excited as 'kids in a candy store' we bundled him and some members of his family into our people mover (which we had at our disposal for the duration of our trip) and headed off to visit the sister and her family. (Suhara Beevi passed away on 10 August 2017)
This meeting again was exciting for them, as was for us and we met family many of whom were actually based in Dubai with their work. We met with his sister and her four sons, a daughter, grand children and great grand children.
At the end of the long and meaningful day of discovery of our family history, we settled down to a lovely meal at the Hotel Raviz, Kollam (Photo above), to unwind and take in all the days events, whilst we enjoyed the delicacies of South India.
On day 3, we planned a boat trip to the Obama back waters for the afternoon, and since it was a Sunday we thought we'd stop by the Shamsudeen home to thank them for their hospitality and say our Goodbyes since Dr Iqbal Sultan was flying off in the early hours of Monday morning. The rest of the team had one more day at Kollam.
We did this and just as we were about to leave, the photos of the dairy were looked at again as we wanted to know about the Mohamedan School in the diary, only to realise that the school was in the next street, and the mosque mentioned in the diary was in the same street, and another address in the dairy was actually a home across the school.
We stopped at each of these places including he graveyard alongside the mosque where it is believed that members of the family were buried in, and believed that the parents of ML Sultan may even be buried at the cemetery.
There was no one home at the house, but the neighbour noted our presence.
We concluded this part of the trip and headed off for the boat cruise, with lunch on the boat.
That evening we had delicious dinner at the Rameez Restaurant, which we'd highly recommend for anyone visiting that part of the world.
During our dinner we received a phone call from an excited Mohammed Shah, who lived in the home we visited earlier that day and thanks to his neighbour he tracked our contact details and called us. He wanted to meet with us as well.
Not knowing what his relationship was, we agreed to meet him later that evening.
This was the beginning of another chapter in our trip.
Mohammed Shah arrived at the Quilon Hotel and was extremely excited about meeting with us, and revealed that his mum was related to us and he also had letters from ML Sultan and was aware of ML Sultan from stories related to him by his mum, who was still alive although in poor health. He was based in Dubai and had the some letters in Dubai, with the hope that one day he would travel from Dubai to South Africa in search of the ML Sultan family.
Trying to get more information from him, he explained that his daughter may be able to understand the contents of the diary better. He called over his daughter Jennifer Shah, to join us at the hotel, explaining that her ability to read the diary and explain details would be easier.
Within minutes it became apparent that his home (the home address in the diary, which we had visited earlier that day) was actually the family home of ML Sultan and that he probably lived in that home and it was the home he helped save financially during his trip back to India during his lifetime around 1936.
It was now almost 10:30 in the evening and with this breakthrough in our discovery that we could actually visit our grandfathers home, we were just speechless. This was far from what we expected in our wildest expectations, when we initially set out to see ML Shamshudin.
With Dr Iqbal Sultan due to leave Kollam at 2am, Mohammed Shah and daughter Jennifer welcomed him to visit their home, which offer he graciously accepted and was able to catch up with the rest of the Shah family, and get an insight of the family home of his grandfather ML Sultan.
The pieces of discovery of this puzzle just began falling into place, giving so much more value to the trip and added a sense of closure in the huge gap we had in our ancestral background.
On day 4 the rest of the crew had a the opportunity to meet the ailing mum of Mohammed Shah and members of the family.
At the end of this trip we were able to find 168 members of our family which until 5 days ago we arrived expecting to meet ML Shamsudeen only.
No amounts of photos and explanations can ever explain the unfolding of our ancestral past other than being there and making the find and discovery almost on an hourly basis.
This trip gave us parallels between ML Sultan's ancestry including names of his children, his passion for Ayurvedic medicine and farming, all of which he pursued in his new found country.
Since the trip we have maintained contact and received copies of correspondence from Mohammed Shah in Dubai, which included a letter in 1897 from ML Sultan to his sister.
Mr Shamshudin's son-in-law visited Durban in 2017.
Clarifying the urban myth of his name ML Sultan ....
This trip also gave us closure regarding his name as registered in South Africa.
The urban myth which we were given to believe was a tale of how his name was recorded at time of registration with the Department of Home Affairs in South Africa.
That myth goes as such that when he was asked for his name at the time of registration - he said in that in his village (Muluk) he was Mohammed and now here (lappa a Zulu term for here in Durban, which was also his new village) he was known as Sultan. And so he became registered as MulukMahamed Lappa Sultan.
This needed clarity for us as well to help dispel or verify this urban myth.
Whilst chatting to his cousin ML Shamsudeen during our meeting at his home in Kollam, the mystery unraveled itself.
The family first names in his village for the male descendants were "Maluk Mohamed Lebba" (as we see in the photos below)
We were given to believe that "Lebba was related to Muslim traders in South India and the type of business being "traditional medicine" that the family pursued.
And when he registered in South Africa the "Lebba" was recorded as "Lappa", hence the name became Mulukmahomed Lappa Sultan, and the myth of the Zulu term in his name became folk story for the next generation of the Durban community.
The other myth was regarding some sources having "Kannu Pilla" as one of his names. Mr. Joe Kutty explains that this was what Indians refer to as a 'calling name' or we refer to as a 'nickname'. It was term of endearment for young boys playing the streets in the village. I guess not unlike his youngest son Aboobaker was known 'Bobby'.
and more ...
After the trip, all the members who did the trip held a follow up subsequent South African family reunion in July 2016, to share the fantastic trip and give the rest of the family a glimpse of their Indian family.
This prompted ML Sultan's grand daughter, Dr.Razzia Karim and her husband Dr Yusuf Osman later visited Kollam in 2017.