A century ago, a ‘Mohtarma’ took a wise decision which ensured a lasting legacy, that will go on to witness the bloody birth of 3 nations and endure as the social glue that unites these 3 nations up to this day. As Muslims around the world are celebrating Ramadan, let’s look at the popular crimson-colored sweet beverage called “Rooh Afza” and the strong lady who refused to give up this legacy her husband left behind.
Rooh Afza is a Natural Rose Syrup, a concentrated squash which is called “sherbet”. It is traditionally served during the month of Ramadan, by mixing in milk during Sehri (meal before Sunrise) and at Iftar, when Muslims break their fast at sunset . The specific Unani recipe of Rooh Afza has a cocktail of fruits, vegetables, roots, cooling herbs, and flowers, specifically a distillate of damask roses – which gives it a characteristic smell. In Arabic, the term “Rooh Afza” means an “Elixir for the Soul”. This ruby red syrup is associated with memories of lazy Summer afternoons for many of us. Ramadan is incomplete without Rooh Afza in most parts of South Asia and Middle Eastern countries. As the bottle itself declares, Rooh Afza is “the summer drink of the East.”
Rooh Afza was formulated in 1906 by Hakim Hafiz Abdul Majeed in Ghaziabad, British India. A Unani Medicine practitioner, Hakim Saheb wanted to create a cooling drink for the harsh summer of Delhi, and to alleviate heat strokes & water loss caused by “loo” – strong, dusty, hot winds common in India and Pakistan during summers. So he selected cooling syrups and herbs from Unani and created Rooh Afza with Ansarullah Tabani, another Unani practitioner. The labels of Rooh Afza were designed by artist Mirza Noor Ahmad, in many colors in 1910, and printed under special arrangement by the Bolton Press of the Parsees of Bombay (now Mumbai). Rooh Afza was prepared in the Hamdard Dawakhana, founded by the Hakim in house Qazi in Old Delhi in 1906. It was a modest clinic aimed at reviving, invigorating and improving the ancient system of Unani medicine and therapeutics.
As fate would have it, Hakim Abdul Majeed passed away at the age of forty. The responsibility of Hamdard landed on the shoulders of his wife, Rabea Begum in 1922 – an era of political turmoil.
She had to take care of two sons; one was 14, and the other still a toddler. But she also wanted to keep the business alive; so she made a decision that would turn Hamdard into an enduring legacy. Mohtarma Rabea Begum declared Hamdard as a charitable trust with herself and their two sons as trustees. The profits would go to public welfare. This became the blueprint for keeping the brand profitable through its welfare projects, during the politically volatile time of pre-Independence. One of the major initiatives that Begum spear headed was the establishment of a school in old Delhi, to fulfill her dream of bringing Muslim girls into the mainstream of education.
But the worst was yet to come. The year 1947 saw the Partition and the mass migration of millions to the newly formed country of Pakistan. It was not only the country that was split up; families were too – including Begum’s !
Hakim Mohamad Said, the younger son, moved to the other side of the border to the newly formed country. He established Hamdard Pakistan, continuing his father’s legacy to produce Rooh Afza from Karachi. He had also set up a branch in 1953 in Dhaka, then East Pakistan. In 1971, during the liberation of Bangladesh, the Dhaka branch became Hamdard Laboratories, Bangladesh. He rose to become the governor of Pakistan’s Sindh province in later years but was assassinated in 1998.
Hakim Abdul Hamid, the older son, stayed in India with his mother and took care of the business, which became Hamdard India. He became a celebrated academic and was conferred the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan. Hakeem Sahib founded Hamdard Public School and Rabea Girls’ Public School in 1973 in memory of his great visionary mother.
In Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, Hamdard Laboratories is registered as a Waqf, which is a nonprofit organization under Islamic law. As such, the company in each country is responsible for providing educational scholarships and medical care to needy patients. Currently, Rooh Afza is manufactured by the companies in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
What started as a small Unani clinic in one of the by lanes of Delhi, has now become famous for inexpensive Unani medicines like Cinkara, Safi, Roghan Badam Shirin. Abdul Majeed, a fourth generation family member is the current chairman of Hamdard Laboratories (Medicine Division) India. The drink brings about $45 million of profit a year in India alone; most of which goes to a trust that funds schools, universities and clinics. One batch of Rooh Afza takes four hours and makes 11,000 bottles. Ten batches, or 100,000 bottles, are produced a day, and in a month, more than 3 million are packaged to be shipped to 450,000 outlets around the country and others in the Middle East, Europe, and North America.
In her 2017 novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Indian author Arundhati Roy lamented, “the Elixir of the Soul was, like most things in the world, trumped by Coca Cola.” While Rooh Afza is an important presence during Islamic festivals, it is also drunk on Diwali, and with free meals in gurdwaras. All its drinkers, regardless of caste, class, or religion, are, for a moment, agents of the same culture that was kept alive by the efforts of a simple lady called Rabea Begum.
– Deepa Perumal
Author & Content Creator,
COO – PEAKS Academy eLearning Platform