HISTORY STANDS TALL IN THE BLUE SYNAGOGUE
WORDS BY SHIVANI SHAH AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SURUCHI MAIRA
Mumbai's Jewish community is proud of its heritage, reflected in the Blue Synagogue.
It’s hard to miss the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue. For one thing, there’s the rather conspicuous police presence right outside it; for another, the building is painted a deep sky blue. The former is a necessity after the 2008 terrorist attacks that targeted Mumbai’s Jewish community. The latter is a mistake – the building was originally grey but accidentally painted blue by some painters several years ago. For better or for worse, the colour has defined the building, and most people now refer to it as “the Blue synagogue”.
It stands just off the Kala Ghoda parking lot in a narrow lane that today houses art galleries, cafés and designer stores. But the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue can rightfully be considered one of the original inhabitants of Kala Ghoda. Jacob Elias David Sassoon built the synagogue in memory of his late father Eliyahoo Sassoon, and construction was completed in 1884. It catered to the large Baghdadi Jewish community in the area that had begun to settle down in Mumbai in the 19th century, contributing significantly to Mumbai’s economy and architecture. The Sassoon family were leaders in the community. The Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue is the second oldest Sephardic synagogue in Mumbai, the oldest being the Magen David Synagogue in Byculla, completed in 1864 by the patriarch David Sassoon.
The Jewish community once thrived in India – and in Mumbai – and at the time of the formation of the State of Israel in 1948 there were an estimated 30,000 Jews in the country. But in the years since, a large number of Indian Jews left for Israel and other foreign shores, and the number of Jews residing in India today is around 4,650 and in the city is closer to 2,500. The community may be small, but it still practices its culture and customs, and the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue is a centre for Jewish religious and cultural life even today.
For me, and possibly most other residents of the city, the Blue Synagogue has been more of a landmark in Kala Ghoda than anything else. A building whose existence is familiar and comfortable in the landscape of the neighbourhood but one I’d never actually been inside – I had no need to. Was I even allowed in? But you can’t write a story about a building without visiting it for yourself, so I called the Trust office and enquired if I could visit. Yes, said the lady on the phone. Twice. So I found myself inside a synagogue for the first time in my life on a rainy Tuesday evening, tentatively walking up the wooden stairs, feeling a bit guilty for being a tourist in a place of worship for a community whose customs I knew so little about.
As I reached the landing, the first thing that struck me was how loud it was – the road outside may be narrow, but it is busy, and the sounds of the cars and horns travel inside. Then I turned into the main sanctuary, laid my eyes on the stained-glass window at the far end, and the noise vanished. It is breath-taking, a delicate mosaic in green, red, blue, white and yellow floral patterns that almost danced with life as the evening sun streamed through. The window is the most exquisite part of a room that has many beautiful elements – the teakwood benches, the high ceiling, the Victorian columns, the gallery, the blue (and white) walls that mirror the building’s exterior, the scriptures on the wall, the decorative floor tiles… It was a few moments before I could tear my eyes away from the window and take in all the other details.
The room was silent and peaceful, and although the synagogue was empty that evening I could almost envision Friday evenings when the Jewish community gathers for Shabbat, praying together, celebrating together. The community is proud of its heritage, and this is evident in the books and journals available for purchase in the synagogue on the landmarks, history, heritage and customs of the Baghdadian Jews and Bene Israel Jews.
The gallery is open only on Fridays, so I couldn’t go upstairs and admire the stained-glass window from another perspective. Visit complete, I walked down the stairs and out onto the bustling road. And I knew, as I walked to a café to meet a friend, that the 132-year-old synagogue I’d just left behind will outlive all the fancy cafés and stores and art galleries in the neighbourhood that will come and go.
Entry to the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue is free. There is a charge of Rs. 100/- for photography and Rs. 500/- for video. Photo identification is required at the entrance: foreign citizens must show a passport to enter; the writer presented an Indian driver’s license and was allowed inside.
Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, VB Gandhi Marg, Kala Ghoda, Fort, Mumbai 400 001.