Walk into the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue in the bylanes of Kala Ghoda and you enter a gorgeous wonderland. It is a place of worship for the small Jewish community that was once a powerful force to reckon with, in the city of Mumbai. Now numbering just over 5000, there was a time when powerful Jewish businessmen like David Sassoon reigned over vast empires stretching from the docks of Bombay - still named the Sassoon Docks to Shanghai - where the Sassoons owned large tracts of prime land on the ‘Bund’, funded by the opium and cotton trade, they lorded over.
The Sassoons represented just one sliver of the Jews in Bombay.
India has historically been home to three distinct Jewish communities who came in waves, over hundreds of years – the Bene Israelis, the Baghdadi Jews and the Malabar Jews . While the Malabar Jewish community lived mainly in the coastal region around Kochi in Kerala, the Baghdadi Jews and the Bene Israelis had a significant presence in Bombay during the colonial period.
The earliest to land in the Indian subcontinent were the Bene Israelis, who came here in the 7th-8th CE. They trace their origins deep into history and believe that they are part of the ‘10 lost tribes’ of Israel. A large number of Bene Israelis settled in the cities of Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Pune.
The Baghdadi Jews, came much later. The term ‘Baghdadi Jew’ refers to any Arabic-speaking Jew, not only from Baghdad in Iraq but also from Syria, Yemen, Persia and even Afghanistan. The Baghdadi Jews left their native lands primarily to escape the persecution of the Pashas in the Middle East in the 19th century- and settled in major colonial trade centres in India, starting with Surat, and later making their way to Bombay and Calcutta
By the early 20th century, the Baghdadi Jews were extremely powerful in Bombay. Families like the Sassoons and Kadoories had become immensely prosperous by acting first as middlemen, and then as traders and merchants for cotton, jute and opium. The Sassoons, in particular, became so prosperous and powerful that they earned the moniker ‘Rothschilds of the East’ (after the powerful banking family which once had the largest private fortune in the world).
With a huge fortune generated by the 15 cotton mills that they owned in Bombay, the Sassoons presided over a vast empire that stretched from London in the West to Shanghai in the East. They were also instrumental in founding the ‘Bank of India’ in Bombay and the ‘Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation’ (now known as HSBC Bank) in Hong Kong. They also owned some of the most iconic buildings in Shanghai including the ‘The Cathay’’ and ‘The Metropole’ hotels.
As their wealth rose, the Sassoon family also became members of the ‘House of Lords’ in England.
The Sassoons were also active philanthropists and supported the creation of many institutions. In Mumbai, their stamp can be seen on landmarks like the David Sassoon Library, the Masina Hospital, the Sassoon Docks, Mumbai; and the Jacob Sassoon High School and E.E.E Sassoon High School. They also contributed generously for the construction of some of Mumbai’s now iconic institutions such as the Gateway of India, Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum and the Institute of Science in the city.
To cater to the spiritual and community needs of Jews in Bombay, the construction of many synagogues in the 19th and early 20th centuries were supported by the Sassoon family. The family constructed three prominent synagogues in Bombay and Pune – the Magen David Synagogue, built in 1864 in Byculla, the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, built in 1884 in the Fort area Mumbai; and the Ohel David Synagogue (also known as Lal Deval due to its red facade), built in 1863-67 in Pune.
The synagogues in Byculla and Pune were built by Sir David Sassoon himself, while the Fort synagogue was built by his grandson, Jacob Elias Sassoon, son of Eliyahoo David Sassoon. This synagogue was built in 1884 and is colloquially called ‘Killyachi Mashid’ (‘fort’s synagogue’). During the early 20th century, many prominent Baghdadi Jewish families used to live in the vicinity of this synagogue, with the Jewish Club and David Sassoon Library also being nearby. Jewish festivals, especially Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and Rosh Hasanah (New Year), used to be celebrated with great fanfare at the synagogue.
Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue
This recently restored synagogue is a fabulous example of the built heritage of the once powerful jews of Bombay. Built around 130 years ago it faces the west, towards Jerusalem. Like all orthodox synagogues, this too bears the traditional symbols of the faith. The Torah Ark, also called ‘Aron Hakodesh’, which contains the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) scroll, which is brought out for prayers, hangs on the wall. Above the Ark is a table with the Menorah (which represents the seven-lamp ancient Hebrew lampstand used in the portable sanctuary set up by Moses) made on it. Above this is a stained glass window that is arguably the crowning jewel of the synagogue.
Today, the synagogue is a Grade II-A monument under the Heritage Regulations of Greater Bombay, 1995. It was designed by the firm Gostling & Morris of Bombay in a mixed architectural style – its exterior boasts the Neo-Classical style while its interiors have been designed in a Victorian-Gothic style.
Prayers are conducted in the synagogue, on a raised central platform with a seating arrangement around it. The men and women sit separately. The first floor has the men’s section while the second floor has the women’s wing. Despite the small number of congregants, this is a functioning synagogue and still holds regular services and Sabbath prayers on Friday. It has a small congregation associated with it and is also popular with overseas tourists.
Many of the historic benches, that were once used have been preserved and are in fact numbered since the congregation would have to take numbers outside and sit accordingly on entering. The twisted columns which support the interior of the building are made of cast iron, which would have allowed for quick assembly and construction.
An exceptional feature of the synagogue is the exquisite Minton tile flooring, comprising clay tiles imported from Stoke-upon-Trent in England. These were some of the most popular flooring tiles for public buildings in 19th century Bombay and can still be seen in buildings like the Mumbai University Convocation Hall, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, Royal Bombay Yacht Club and the Bhau Daji Lad Museum.
The End of an Era
The other prominent Baghdadi Jews of Bombay included the Kadoorie family, who migrated to Hong Kong and is still one of the most prominent business families there. The Sassoons moved to England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and most of India’s Jewish population has migrated to Israel, Canada, the United States and other parts of the Western world. As a result, the Jewish population in India, including Mumbai, is believed to number just 5,000. The Baghdadi Jew population is even smaller, at around 250 people.
Their numbers may be tiny today and history has turned a few pages since they left these shores. But Mumbai will always remember the lasting contribution of the Jewish community through the synagogues and other institutions they left behind.
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