Kolkata

Stories of a syncretic past from Kolkata’s synagogues

Maghen David Synagogue   | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

Among the many stories about Kolkata’s synagogues which Jewish scholar Jael Silliman is fond of narrating is one about a plan in 1970s from members of the community to move the magnificent Maghen David synagogue brick by brick out of Kolkata.

The drastic plan was thought of as there were not enough people to take care of the synagogues due to the migration of Jews out of Kolkata.

However, the Maghen David synagogue, now protected under the Archaeological Survey of India, has survived the ravages of time and still stands as an awe-inspiring monument in one of busiest parts of Kolkata.

On a November afternoon, the Kolkata Circle of ASI organised a heritage walk, celebrating the Jewish architecture of the city.

The less than 200-metre walk from the Beth-El synagogue located on Pollock Street to the Maghen David synagogue at the junction of Brabourne Road and Canning Street amidst the sound of azan from a nearby mosque and bells of the centuries old Portuguese Church not only highlights the cosmopolitan culture of the metropolis but also splendid non-British architecture of the city.

Beth-El Synagogue

Beth-El Synagogue   | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

 

“Synagogues are not just beautiful monuments, they are the heart and soul of our community,” Ms. Silliman said, describing the history of the Jewish settlement in Kolkata.

The first Jews arrived in Kolkata in 1799 from Syria via Surat, and in less than 30 years, they built the city’s first synagogue — Neveh Shalome in 1826. It was demolished in 1884 to give way to the magnificent Magen David synagogue but was later rebuilt in 1912 in the same compound.

For Ms. Silliman, if the Maghen David is the King of Synagogues because of its architecture, then the Beth-El synagogue is the Queen. She describes the Beth-El as the “most complete synagogue” with a Mikveh, a place for a ritual bath, a place from making matzah (unleavened flatbread used during Jewish Passover ritual) and a wine cellar.

Pollock Street, where the Beth-El synagogue (built in 1855-56) is located, was a Jewish neighbourhood and many important institutions including the Jews Girls High School were located just on the other side of the street next to the synagogue. A plaque highlighting location of the school which stood till few years ago, has gone missing now.

The different architectural elements of the Maghen David synagogue also tell the story of 19th century Kolkata which was part of a cosmopolitan world.

Designed by a British firm, Macintosh Burn, the Maghen David, unlike many synagogues has a steeple about 142 feet high and it had a clock imported from London. The floor in front of Sefer Torah (a handwritten copy of the holiest book of the Jews) sanctuary was designed by a Dutch firm and is made of castellon tiles.

Ms. Silliman, who has worked on the Jewish heritage of the city for the past two decades, also points out that when the Magen David synagogue was built in 1884, there was no electricity in the city and the beautiful chandelier in the synagogue was lit by olive oil.

“After electricity came to Kolkata, a benefactor of our community bought a beautiful electrolia — basically a big chandelier with 30 cut glass lamps with electric bulbs — and it was brought from the Grand Opera House in Kolkata,” she said, emphasising that such developments indicate how the Jews thrived in Kolkata.

Jael Silliman at a wine cellar at Beth-El Synagogue.

Jael Silliman at a wine cellar at Beth-El Synagogue.  

 

Shubha Majumdar, superintending archaeologist of the Kolkata Circle, said there are about 3,693 monuments and sites which are protected by the Archeological Survey of India in the country. Of these only two are synagogues — the Magen David synagogue and the Beth-El synagogue — both in Kolkata

Dr. Majumdar said at one point there were five synagogues in Kolkata. But the Magen Aboth synagogue established in 1897 and the Shaare Rason constructed in 1933 no longer exist.

“The monuments Magen David synagogue and Beth-El synagogue came under our protection in 2003 and since then the ASI has been regularly involved in maintenance and conservation of these two synagogues. Both of these monuments which are among the city’s oldest structures are in very good shape,” the ASI official said.

These structures not only provide magnificence to city’s sky space but are also part of Kolkata’s unique composite culture. For many years these synagogues evoked awe among a section people of the city when they learnt that many of its care takers are Muslims.


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Printable version | Jan 20, 2022 8:16:50 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kolkata/stories-of-a-syncretic-past-from-kolkatas-synagogues/article37738417.ece

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