Somewhere in Basra, c. 1831
The room was dark and the only light, feeble as it was, came from a flickering oil lamp placed in a corner of the room. But it was enough for the fortune-teller to recognise the man being ushered in by his son.
“Salaam, Master,” the fortune-teller greeted the robed man.
“You know who I am, ” the robed man said. It was a statement and not a question.
“Who doesn’t know you, Master?” said the fortune-teller. “Everyone knows you and about you.”
“Then you also know why I have come here.”
“I can guess, Master,” the fortune-teller bowed.
“I have no choice but to leave this region. Where should I go? London? China? Where does my future lie?”
The fortune-teller was silent for a long time. Just when the man was about to ask him again, the fortune-teller said.
“Your should leave immediately for Bombay in Al-Hind [Arabic for India]. A bright future and fortune lies awaits you there.”
The robed man was surprised with the response, but he knew better than to ignore the fortune teller’s advice. After paying him handsomely and thanking him, the robed man left. His mind was already planning for the move to Bombay.
And sometime later in 1832, the man arrived in Bombay and over the next 32 years made a phenomenal contribution to the city that Bombay was developing into. That man was David Sassoon
David Sassoon was a Baghdadi Jew and a very prominent member of the community. He was the treasurer to the Governor of Baghdad, Dawoud Pasha. Due to increasing persecution of Jews in Baghdad and increasing tension between Pasha and himself, David Sassoon decided to leave Baghdad. He first moved to Basra, but soon realised that the treatment of Jews was no better there than in Baghdad. That was when he decided to leave the region altogether and based on the fortune-teller’s advice shifted to Bombay.
David Sassoon was a shrewd man and was aware that he would have to contend with the English when he came to Bombay. In a strategic move, he arrived in Bombay with two commodities guaranteed to endear him to the English — horses and opium. As Sassoon had expected, this was the right move and it put him in a favourable position with the English. Within no time, Sassoon had set up his businesses and with his connections enjoyed a complete monopoly in the textile industry.
David Sassoon, almost single-handedly brought about self-respect and visibility to the Jewish communities residing in the region — the Bene Israel and the Baghdadi Jew. He maintained that for a community to grow and sustain, all it needed was a school, a hospital and a place of worship — literally food for the mind, body and soul. By building schools, hospitals and synagogues, Sassoon ensured that the Jewish community in Bombay prospered. He also donated generously towards the construction of various landmarks, educational institutes, libraries in the city — the clock tower at Byculla, the Gateway of India, the David Sassoon Library and Reading Room… are just a few of them; the complete list is quite long.
While I had heard of David Sassoon before and had an idea of the his and the larger Jewish community’s contribution to the history of Mumbai, it was pretty vague and sketchy till I went on a heritage tour of 4 of Mumbai’s 9 synagogues on October 20, 2013 (I didn’t even know that Mumbai had so many synagogues !). Organised by the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, I was lucky to be on that tour thanks to my friend Rupal, who heard about the tour and then got us registered for it. The tour was conducted by Ralphy Jhirad, who not only walked us through the various synagogues and Jewish customs, but also introduced us to the history of Jews in India, David Sassoon’s immense contribution, and much more.
It was a fascinating tour and while I remembered most of what he said about the Jewish community (and have shared the more interesting bits here), the synagogues got a bit confusing. Unfamiliarity with Jewish terms, rituals, customs and the religion itself ensured that I was left dazzled, overwhelmed and a little mixed up about the various details shared. Therefore, I am only presenting what I am reasonably sure of.
The Magen David Synagogue in Byculla is one of the two synagogues built by the Sassoon family in Mumbai. It was completed in 1861 and cost of its construction was borne entirely by David Sassoon. This synagogue is a single storied structure with the upper gallery reserved exclusively for ladies.
The Tiphaereth Israel Synagogue, in Jacob Circle, is a Bene Israel synagogue. It began in 1896 as the Jacob Circle Prayer Hall to cater to the growing population of Jews in the area and got its present name a decade later in 1896. The Synagogue moved to its current premises in 1923 and was consecrated on 23rd March 1924. Here, though segregated, the men and women are seated on the same level.
The “Shaar Harahamim” or “The Gate of Mercy” Synagogue, in Samuel Street, is the oldest synagogue in Mumbai. Samaji Hasaji Divekar (or Samuel Ezekiel Divekar) from the Bene Israel community took the lead in the construction of this synagogue in May 1796.
The Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue at Kala Ghoda is, without doubt, the most beautiful synagogue in Mumbai. Built by the Sassoon family in 1884, it is also the only synagogue to have some stunning stained glass windows. A two-storied construction, it has a spacious hall on the ground floor and provisions for a community centre. As the photo below shows, it also had very tight security.
At every stop we made, Ralphy Jhirad would share a little more information about the community. Information that touched upon the present day lives of his community.
He told us about the droves who migrated to Israel or the UK or the US; he also told about those who returned to India.
He told us about the uniformity in prayers in all synagogues across the world; he also told us about the little local touches that each synagogue adopted.
He told us about how diminishing numbers have often led to prayer services being cancelled; he also told us about how the community rallies in keeping synagogues running.
This heritage tour has set me on a quest to read up on and know more about the Jewish heritage of Mumbai. I have started reading up on the Jewish community in Mumbai and am discovering just how vast their contribution has been. I look at this post as the first of the many that I hope to write on this blog. There is a walk on Jewish History being organised by the Kala Ghoda Association this week and I hope to be on it. If I do manage that, you can expect another post. 🙂
Hope you enjoyed this post.
PS: Though David Sassoon is supposed to have consulted a fortune-teller about a place to relocate, the dramatisation at the beginning of the post in entirely mine.