From next week, you’ll be able to peek inside one of Mumbai’s prettiest and most rarely accessed places of worship. The restored Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue, in Kala Ghoda, will be open to visitors Monday to Friday, from 9am to 5pm, so long as you have valid photo identification.
The synagogue is a landmark that connects to several others in Mumbai. It also marks the Jewish community’s long association with the city. In the mid-1500s, Bombay (then just a handful of malarial islands) was the home and the private botanical preserve of Garcia da Orta, a Portuguese-Jewish physician.
The Jews along the Konkan coast, the Bene Israelis, trace their ancestry to 14 families that survived a shipwreck and settled near Bombay 1800 years ago. These are the people that erected the city’s first synagogue in 1796 – the Gate Of Mercy, which gives the railway station Masjid its name.
But it’s the last big wave of Jewish arrivals that transformed the city. David Sasoon, a Baghdadi Jew, landed in 1828, prospering, paving the way for more like him, and creating a Jewish business class in Bombay over the next century. Sassoon traded in opium, property and textiles across Bombay, Calcutta, Shanghai, London and New York, heading one of the richest Jewish family businesses in the world.
Sassoon gave back too. He built Byculla’s Magen David synagogue in 1861; the complex housed a hostel, a ritual bath, and a religious school. He also funded several educational, medical, and social institutions that were open to all communities, and he contributed to the construction of the Gateway of India. In 1863, when the workers of the Royal Mint and Dockyard wanted to set up a centre for mechanical models and architectural design, it was this Sassoon they turned to. David contributed to build a Mechanic’s Institute, now the David Sassoon Library.
Of Sassoon’s eight sons, Abdulla (who styled himself Albert), took the business forward with cotton trade and shipbuilding, and was a leading advisor to the British government. He’s the Sassoon after which Colaba’s Sassoon Dock is named – Albert promoted and financed Bombay’s first wet dock. In 1875, he also built a statue to honour the Prince of Wales’s visit to India. You‘ve probably seen it. It’s the black horse that gives Kala Ghoda its name – though the Prince no longer sits astride it.
Abdulla’s brother, Solomon, helped run the family empire in China and Bombay, but it’s his wife who’s more famous. Born Farha, she took over the family business and philantrhopic activities after his death in 1884, while making a name as a Jewish scholar. When Jewish bacteriologist Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine developed an effective vaccine for the plague in the last years of the 19th century, she was the one who campaigned for mass inoculation. One historian says she “walked like a queen, talked like a sage and entertained like an Oriental potentate”. This is the Sassoon, who took on the Western name Flora – the Flora Fountain is named after her.
Abdulla and Solomon’s other brother, Elias, broke away from the family business to start an even more prosperous company, ED Sassoon, covering textiles, hotels, banking, trade and property. His son Jacob (David’s grandson) expanded the textiles business to a point where 15,000 people were employed in 11 mills in Bombay. This is the Sassoon who built the Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue in 1884 in memory of his father, Elias. It literally means Assembly of Elias.
It opened with a crash. Jacob’s wife is said to have broken a bottle of champagne against the stone walls once the ceremonies were complete. It’s oriented west, towards Jerusalem. Men sit in the prayer hall below, the upstairs running balconies are for women.
There’s much to see after restoration. The stained glass on the main wall is possibly Mumbai’s most dramatic one. As restorers scraped away layers of paint on the interiors, long-forgotten vine motifs were discovered. New paint shades have been created to mimic the colours used more than a century ago. The vaulted roof, delicate teal-cream-gold details, soft light and grille work may remind you of another Mumbai landmark – Byculla’s Bhau Daji Lad Museum built in 1857. But the exterior, for decades that distinctive sky blue, is now white with deep blue accents, as originally intended.
In a fitting tribute, funds for restoration have come through philanthropy too. The World Monument Fund contributed Rs 20 lakh. The Kala Ghoda Association pitched in Rs 45 lakh. But the bulk of the Rs 5 crore bill has been footed by Sangita Jindal’s JSW Foundation. She calls it “a great boost to secularism”.