Mumbai Diaries: The Keneseth Eliyahoo – Restoring of a piece of history ©Sangeeta Venkatesh

The Kala Ghoda precinct in South Mumbai is clearly a favourite with me – what with the art galleries, the exhibitions and cafes, it is a cultural hub. It also has the finest set of heritage buildings with varied styles of architecture. You have the Prince of Wales Museum (now renamed as Chatrapati Shivaji Vastu Sangrahalaya) in the Indo-Saracenic style, while the adjacent Cowasji Jehangir Art Gallery is in the Edwardian Neo-Classic style.

Right opposite the art gallery is the David Sassoon Library that is built in the Victorian Neo-Gothic style. This was the brainchild Albert Sassoon, who was the son of David Sassoon, a Baghdadi Jew who emigrated to Bombay (now known as Mumbai). David Sassoon and his family were among many Jews who escaped from Baghdad in 1828, seeking refuge from the Iranian Pasha, who was persecuting the Jews. Having set up a successful business, he also became a philanthropist, passing on this legacy to his sons and the next generation.

Night view of the Kenseth Eliyahoo Synagogue

David Sassoon’s grandson Jacob Sassoon later took it upon himself to build a synagogue in 1884, which was called Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, for the local Baghdadi Jewish community. It was built in the memory of his father Eliyahoo Sassoon. The British architectural firm Gostling & Morris, that built the David Sassoon library was hired to execute this project too. The Kala Ghoda area was chosen as many Jewish families lived around this area. This synagogue is the second oldest Sephardic, eastern Jewish synagogue in Mumbai ( Sephardi/ Sephardic/ Sephardim Jews are originally from Sepharad, Spain, or the Iberian peninsula)

It was painted blue just over a decade ago on a whim of a contractor and hence got the name as the Blue Synagogue. By 2016, this grand old structure was in need of an urgent makeover. It was surrounded by scaffolding for a year-long restoration project that was undertaken by the JSW Group, Sir Jacob Sassoon & Allied Trust, the World Monument Fund and Kala Ghoda Association. The restoration work was carried out by Abha Narain Lambah Associates, who has been associated with many restoration works in Mumbai, including the Royal Opera House.

Early this year (2019) in the month of February, the restored synagogue came out of the scaffolds and was open for visitors. The first thing you notice on your visit to the synagogue is the heavy police protection it is under. After the 26/11 attack on Chabad House, a Jewish outreach centre in Colaba, no chances are taken for Keneseth Eliyahoo and it is under surveillance round-the-clock.  

The restorers have returned the original colour back using white Porbandar stone, but it also has generous amounts of blue too. Like some of the other heritage buildings in Mumbai, it has neo-Classical and Gothic-Victorian architectural components.

There are Corinthian columns typical of Gothic architecture. The roof is a triangular pyramidal one with segmented fenestrations. The original stained-glass panels have been painstakingly cleaned and restored. They have motifs of flora and fauna that are native to India. The floor has Minton tile floors that were imported from Stoke-on-Trent in England. We are told that the original religious symbols such as grapevines, citron fruit and the Star of David, have also been restored after being covered under the blue paint for a long time.

Service is conducted every Friday evening (Shabbat) and Saturday morning by a Rabi. It is conducted from a centralised podium known as Bimah with everyone surrounding it. Only men are allowed on the podium.

There is a special enclosure for women that is separated by a glass and wooden partitions. There is also a balcony for the women who attend the prayers. The prayer hall is arranged in the east-west orientation and the Bechal or Ark, containing the Torah scrolls, faces west towards Jerusalem. The synagogue is now designated as a Grade IIA classical revival structure and is protected under the Heritage Regulations for Greater Bombay, 1995.

The other synagogues in Mumbai built by the Jewish family are the Magen David Synanoguge and Shaar Harahamim Syangogue.

Address: 55, Dr. V.B. Gandhi Marg, Fort Mumbai – 400 023. (Ph.91-22-22831502 22839617)

Website: http://www.jacobsassoon.com/

Information: Entry is free. You are required to carry a proof of identity such as passport or Aadhar card. Charges for photography is Indian Rupees 500. Visiting hours are between 11:00 – 17:00 hrs, Sunday to Thursday. On Friday & Saturday, prayer meetings are held where entry is only for Jewish community.

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