ASSEN ALIYAR MUHAMMAD NAGOOR MEERA
Assen Ali Muhammad Nagoor Meera, the indefatigable "Nuwara Mudalali" and his brother, Assen Ali Muhammad Merra Lebbe, affectionately known as "Meeyanna Mudalali", were two enterpreanours who made a determined effort in successfully entering the closed and well-protected citadel of trade in Colombo wherein the British had firmly entrenched themselves.
Nagoor Meera and Meera Lebbe were born at Kongaraya Kurichchi, a predominantly Muslim hamlet close to the Mofussil township of Eral in the Tirunelvely District at the Southern tip of Tamil Nadu in South India. Many were the Muslims of South India who came to ceylon in pursuit of trade as well as for the purpose of imparting the Arabic language and also spreading Islam. Meera Lebbe was barely 14 years old and Nagoor Meera a few years younger when they first arrived in Ceylon around the second half of the 19th. Century. Their father, Assen Ali, had already settled down in the central hills of Ceylon several years back and was successful trading in household goods and merchandise. He is believed to have spent most of his time in a place called Kithulgala and had eventually died there.
The two brothers, having arrived in Colombo, travelled to Rambukkana by train, and, from there, walked all the way to Kandy. Meera Lebbe joined a bakery run by a kind-hearted Sinhala village Mudalali. His renumeration was five cents per day considered a handsome salary in those times. It was this beginning that paved the way for the two brothers to set up their own vegetable and supplies business in Kandy after a few years when they were almost in their early twenties. They were readily assisted by the wealthy Kandyan Sinhala traders who recognized the enterpreneurship amongst the young lads.
In 1886, Nagoor Meera set up vegetable wholesale business under the business registration of A.M. Nagoor Meera & Company, at a sprawling complex at Gas Works Street in the Pettah, opposite the old Town Hall. The establishment continues to exist, even until today (1998), having shifted its focus from vegetables to ship chandelling and shipping agency.
Although the British merchants were the chosen favorites of the Colonial Government, they could hardly compete with the dynamic Nagoor Meera who outbid them almost everywhere possible. Soon, through hard work and commitment, Nuwara Mudalali emerged as the largest supplier of vegetables to key government institutions and private enterprises in Colombo. The Grand Orient Hotel (GOH), one of the few star class hotels in Colombo at that time, entry into which was forbidden for dogs and natives, was one of the prized customers of Nagoor Meera.
Encouraged by the success in this wholesale trade in the Pettah, A M Nagoor Meera expanded the scope of his business to launch a ship chandelling agency a few years later.
A.M. Nagoor Meera was a person who was meticulous in his attire, wearing a long Surat cap and sporting a well trimmed beard, riding majestically in his twin horse carriage. He was also a great lover of sweet meats for which his home district of Tirunelvely, in Tamil Nadu, is still famous for. He had a close friend in Colombo who was also from his hometown of Kongaraya Kurichchi called cader Mohideen, popularly known as “Neykara Mama” (Ghee Uncle), who lived at Kehelwatte in Colombo’s Hultsdorf area. Nagoor Meera’s business complex was only a stones throw away from Neykara Mama’s house who supplied him with Indian and local sweets manufactured at his residence. Nagoor Meera used to help Cader Mohideen to clear his imported sweets at the port free of charge. It is said that Muslim businessmen in Colombo who found it difficult to settle their debts to Nagoor Meera used to use the kind services of Cader Mohideen to intervene on their behalf and request for more time.
Nagoor Meera was a great philanthropist and gave liberally to both Muslim and Non-Muslim religious and educational institutions and the needy without any discrimination and hesitation whatsoever. The Minan Mosque at Dematagoda Road was built by him and was maintained by his family members after him. The office block at the Kuppiyawatte Muslim Burial Grounds was a donation by Nagoor Meera in memory of his eldest daughter, Ozeela Umma, who died at the young age of seventeen having suffered an attack of typhoid. One of the houses at Dematagoda Road, where Nagoor Meera lived, was named after Niyaz, the only son of Ozeela Umma, as “Niyaz Villa”.
A wise and far-sighted person he was, Nagoor Meera invested his savings in real estate in Dematagoda, Maligawatte, and Maradana. Vast tracts of land, stretching from St. John’s College, Dematagoda Road to Reservoir Road – almost half of Dematagoda – were owned by the Nuwara Mudalali.
Nagoor Meera died in 1923 and left behind an estate valued at 2.1 million Rupees – a vast and unbelievable fortune at that time. He also had three sons, Muhammad Haniffa (1893-1949), Muhammad Ishak (1901-1965), and Muhammad Zakariya who died at the age of nineteen, two daughrters, Oseela Umma and Faleela, who both died young. His wife, Zainambu Natchiya, died at the ripe age of 95 in 1967.
Nagoor Meera’s elder brother, "Meeyanna Mudalali" Meera Lebbe was the father of thirteen children, comprising five boys and eight girls. Meera Lebbe’s eldest son, Muhammad Ismail, was the first Muslim to rise to the rank of Senior Superintendent of Police and was also the Sergeant-at-Arms of the first Parliament of Sri Lanka in 1947. Muhammad Ismail’s sons were:-Professor Mahroof Ismail, first Muslim to become the Professor of Parasitology of and the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Sri Lanka, Colombo Campus, Director of the Medical Research Institute, and Chairman of the Post Graduate Institute of Medicine of Sri Lanka, Dr. Ifthikhar Ismail, Muhammad Ghazzali Ismail, M.R. Ismail and Dr. Samad Ismail of Kandy.