A story, less known

The first synagogue built in western India in 1796 – the Gate of Mercy Synagogue in Mumbai – has a Mysore connection. A Jewish soldier called Samaji Hasaji Divekar who belonged to the Bene Israel community was part of the Eighth Battalion of the Bombay Presidency Army that saw action in the British East India Company’s battles with Tipu Sultan. Divekar was captured by Tipu’s army in 1786, but Tipu’s mother, who was aware of Judaism, saved Hassaji’s life and ensured that he was enlisted in the Mysore army. “When he returned as a wealthy man to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1796, Divekar built the first Jewish place of prayer in the city,” said Pushkar Sohoni, an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune. An architectural historian by training, Sohoni was speaking at an event organised by the Bengaluru chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) on the Jewish heritage of the Deccan.

By the 18th century, when Divekar enlisted in the presidency army, Indians, and especially people living in villages in the coastal strip along the northern Konkan coast, were long aware of Judaism, as a native Jewish community known as the Bene Israel had been staying in the region for many centuries. “Community lore traces the Bene Israel’s origins in India to 2200 years ago, but we start getting documentary evidence from the tenth century onwards,” stated the affable Sohoni.

In medieval Deccan, the Jews were well integrated into village society and were known as Shanivar Telis (Saturday Oil-Pressers). They are mentioned in correspondences during the reign of Malik Ambar (1548-1626), the Habshi regent of Ahmednagar, and in the time of the Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji (1627-1680). In the 19th century, these Jews who identified themselves as members of the Bene Israel and had always been active in the military joined the armies of the East India Company.

The 18th century also saw the migration of the Baghdadi Jews (meaning Jews who lived in the Ottoman Empire) to Bombay. The Baghdadi Jews were primarily merchants and bankers and worlds apart from the native community of Jews in India. An early prominent member of this elite Jewish diaspora was David Sassoon (1792-1864) who embarked for Bombay in 1832. “He prospered as a merchant as he entered the opium trade with China which was the quickest way to make a fortune in India at that time,” said Sohoni with an excited gleam in his light eyes. “He also benefited hugely from the sale of Indian cotton in England and his sons and descendants went on to become completely anglicised and prosperous mill owners in Bombay,” Sohoni added. The contribution of this family to the urban culture of Bombay was immense as they built two synagogues and many educational institutions apart from the Sassoon Docks and the David Sassoon Library and Reading Hall.

Thus, by this time there were two distinct Jewish communities in India – the older, poorer community of Indian Jews called the Bene Israel and the more prosperous elite community of Baghdadi Jews who had transnational mercantile linkages and perceived themselves as European. (The older community of Cochin Jews was not part of this presentation). The built Jewish heritage that has been bequeathed to the north-western Deccan owes to both these communities as Sohoni explained. While the synagogues built by the Baghdadi Jews were large and are located in Mumbai, the ones built by the Bene Israel are smaller and less ostentatious and while some are found in Mumbai, are also present in villages along the north Konkan coast.

Sohoni’s presentation included a discussion of some of the prominent synagogues like the Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue in Mumbai which was built by Sir Jacob Elias Sassoon in 1884. An ostentatious and grand building, the interiors of this synagogue are painted a calming blue and there is a stateliness to the arrangement of the pews with all of them facing the raised platform in the middle which contains the scrolls of the Torah. The Gate of Mercy Synagogue which was built in 1796 by the aforementioned Divekar is modest in comparison and its interiors, while seeming to have a spiritual gravitas, are drab. The further one goes away from Mumbai, the synagogues, which were known as ‘Israeli masjids’ become smaller and utilitarian almost as if they were drained of the life blood of commerce that fed the metropolis of Mumbai.

In his presentation which lasted for almost an hour, Sohoni discussed the architectural features of these synagogues as well as other secular structures in detail even discussing the distinctive door knobs and highly intricate woodwork that is a prominent feature of many of these Jewish prayer halls. The remnants of this Jewish built heritage shows that there was a substantial community of Jews in India and this is corroborated by census data that shows there were 14,805 Bene Israelis in 1941 and over 5000 Baghdadi Jews. This number diminished significantly after the creation of Israel in 1948, and first, the Baghdadi Jews left in droves followed by the Bene Israelis in the 1960s. Currently, there are around 4000 Bene Israel community members who still live in Mumbai and along the Konkan coast.

Sohoni’s interest in the Jewish heritage of the Deccan was sparked by his deeper interest in the architectural history of the Nizam Shahi Sultanate of Ahmednagar on which he has published a monograph. “I kept stumbling on Jewish buildings while doing my work,” he explained. Sohoni belongs to a younger generation of scholars who followed in the footsteps of legendary historians like George Michell, Richard Eaton and Phillip Wagoner, all of whom have contributed immensely in enriching our understanding of the medieval Deccan. Having studied under the mentorship of another great architectural historian, Michael Meister, Sohoni’s future research should be followed keenly.

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 12:03:58 PM |

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