A piece of history in the bylanes of Kalaghoda

Most of you who blog would agree with me when I say that blogging is really a tedious job. While sometimes the topic comes to you easily while on other days, its just hard to come by. While researching for my posts, some days have been so hard that I’ve thought of giving up this hobby.

There are somethings that are available to you easily. All you have to do is to walk in, take some photographs, talk to people and there you have your posts. But some times, the subject is so hard to come by. They are right in front of you but you are not able to identify their importance. Then as if by sheer luck or magic, they pop up when you least expect them to. When you are researching for another topic.

The reason for this lengthy prologue is that the monument that I’m going to write about today is one of the oldest in Mumbai and has a piece of history associated with it. And this beautiful building was available for everyone to see. But not everyone knew about its importance, it seems. At least I did not know about it until it landed up in my feed while I was researching the historical landmarks of Mumbai.

Kenneset Eliyahoo Synagogue

Right from the earlier times, Mumbai (then Bombay) has played an important in the history of the country. From being just a cluster of 7 islands to the commercial capital of India, the history of Mumbai is synonymous with that of the country.

Many different communities settled here largely because Mumbai was a port city and the business center. These communities not only established themselves as a business community but also contributed to the growth of the city. They helped the growth of the city to the point that it came to be known as the commercial capital of the country.

The most prominent amongst these communities were the Jews, who had come to India from different parts of the world and made Mumbai their base. They contributed to the growth of the city through their philanthropic activities.


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.

The Jewish merchant community, which played a significant role in the commercial development of then Bombay (now Mumbai), consisted of Jews from Iraq, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries who immigrated in the late 18th century under the threat of persecution. They found the environment conducive to continuing their trade and settled in the city, becoming prosperous in business ventures such as textile mills and international trading. In 1784, the British government took over the East India Company. With this change, many business opportunities emerged in India, and Bombay in particular, encouraging immigrants to set up businesses. In 1790, one such business magnate was Shalom ben Ovadiah HaCohen, a Baghdadi Jew who had migrated from Aleppo (Halab), in Syria to Bombay; other Jewish businessmen from Baghdad, Basra, and Yemen followed him.

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.


Hindustan Times


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