history in images

The 2,200-year history of India’s Bene Israel Jews began with seven ship-wrecked couples

A new book examines the community’s heritage and origins through a series of stunning photographs.

Kenneth Robbins, a South Asian art collector who has documented several expatriate communities in India, and Pushkar Sohoni, a specialist in the Islamic architectural traditions of the Deccan, have teamed up with Surendra Kumar, a photographer specialising in topographic panoramas, to produce a compact yet exquisite guide book on the rich Jewish heritage of the Deccan.

While there are now several books on the Bene Israeli and Baghdadi Jewish heritage of Mumbai that are more extensive in terms of research and even visual documentation, Robbins and Sohoni’s Jewish Heritage of the Deccan: Mumbai, The Northern Konkan and Pune combines luminous photography and brief commentary.

It is a wonderful resource for anyone wishing to take the few days necessary to explore Mumbai, a few villages in the Northern Konkan and a visit to Pune to witness the rich history of the Jewish presence in this region.

Origin story

The Marathi-speaking Bene Israelis lived in the villages and towns of the Konkan coast for hundreds of years. Their lore traces their history to seven couples being ship-wrecked off the Konkan coast at Navgaon some 2,200 years ago, when Jews faced persecution by the Seleucids in Palestine. The minuscule number of Bene Israelis in these villages assumed names indicating their places of residence by adding the suffix kar to their village names.

The Bene Israelis were called Shanivar telis (Saturday oil pressers in Marathi) because, in accordance with Jewish ritual practice, they did not work on the Sabbath.

In the 18th century, they emigrated to Mumbai, Thane and Pune seeking service in the British administration and army and the community became financially successful. They held military and administrative positions while living under the control of various regimes, including the Portuguese, the Marathas, the Siddis as well as the British. The Portuguese controlled the towns of the Northern Konkan where they lived, such as Navgaon, Alibag, Revdanda and Korlai, until the Marathas seized them at the end of the 17th century only to be overcome by the British.

Though Baghdadi Jews were engaged in trade during the Abbasid Caliphate from the 8th to 10th centuries and travelled by ship and overland to India for trading purposes, a few Jews from Baghdad and other port cities of the Middle East came to settle in Mumbai in the late 18th century. The most famous and wealthy of the Baghdadi Jews was the Sassoon dynasty. They profited from the opium trade with China, and later benefited from selling Indian cottons to the Lancashire mills, when the supply of American cotton was disrupted during the 1860s.

David Sassoon Library. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Under the CC Attribution 3.0 Unported licence].
David Sassoon Library. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Under the CC Attribution 3.0 Unported licence].

The Sassoons owned factories, the Sassoon dockyards and were involved in the administrative apparatus of the city. They were also philanthropists who built synagogues, monuments, and endowed public institutions in Bombay and Pune that remain important urban landmarks.

As the book is organised around three geographical areas – Bombay and its suburbs, the villages of the Northern Konkan and Pune – the landmarks of both Bene Israel and Bagdadis are presented together in each section. The most substantive section relates to Mumbai and its suburbs that boasts many double-leaf photographs of synagogues that belong to both communities, graveyards, statues, mansions and other public buildings.

As the location of the 19th century city was the southern part of today’s metropolis, there is a concentration of early Jewish sites and monuments there. These include the Gateway of India as Sir Jacob Elias Sassoon donated one third of its cost, and the Sassoon Docks, one of the oldest port projects in the city. The David Sassoon Library and Reading Hall, built by Albert Sassoon in memory of his father in High Victorian, neo-Gothic style is a city landmark.

There are glorious pictures of the Knesset Eliyahoo snagogue, also known as the Fort Synagogue, built by the Sassoons. Constructed in 1884, it has Minton floor ceramic tiles imported from Stoke-on-Trent, gorgeous stained glass windows and elaborately designed Burmese teak wood furnishings.

Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue. Credit: Surendra Kumar. Courtesy: Jewish Heritage of the Deccan, by Kenneth Robbins and Pushkar Sohoni, Jaico Books.
Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue. Credit: Surendra Kumar. Courtesy: Jewish Heritage of the Deccan, by Kenneth Robbins and Pushkar Sohoni, Jaico Books.

Centres of Bene Israeli life

Mandvi, Byculla and Mazgaon have an Israeli mohalla where a large Bene Israeli community settled in the 18th century. Featured in the book are several synagogues and a cemetery from the area, as also several buildings in the Byculla Jewish compound, many of which were built by the Sassoons, including the Lady Rachel Sassoon Dispensary, Sassoon Guesthouse and the Sir Jacob Sassoon High School. There are also places of interest like the Jewish cemetery in Worli and the Kurla Bene Israeli prayer hall that was opened in 1946 in response to the shift in the community to the northern suburbs. Thane, where the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue is located, boasts the largest surviving Jewish community in Maharashtra. The synagogue is the most vibrant centre of Bene Israeli life in the city.

The book describes two trails of Jewish sites in the Konkan, the first of which extends southwards along the coast to Navgaon, Alibag and Revdanda. There is the Navgaon cemetery, and Israel Alley in Alibag where the Magen Aboth synagogue is located. Recently restored and painted, this synagogue is representative of Bene Israeli religious architecture.

Magen Aboth. Credit: Surendra Kumar. Courtesy: Jewish Heritage of the Deccan, by Kenneth Robbins and Pushkar Sohoni, Jaico Books.
Magen Aboth. Credit: Surendra Kumar. Courtesy: Jewish Heritage of the Deccan, by Kenneth Robbins and Pushkar Sohoni, Jaico Books.

Revdanda has a synagogue and cemetery, and the cantor of the synagogue, Benjamin Waskar, has a house in the nearby village of Theronda. It has a traditional oil press, though it is no longer powered by oxen.

Borli, Nandgoan and Murud are also on the itinerary, as they have cemeteries and synagogues too. East of Mumbai lie Panvel and Mhasla where there is are synagogues and cemeteries to be visited.

Beth Ha Elochim, Pen. Credit: Surendra Kumar. Courtesy: Jewish Heritage of the Deccan, by Kenneth Robbins and Pushkar Sohoni, Jaico Books.
Beth Ha Elochim, Pen. Credit: Surendra Kumar. Courtesy: Jewish Heritage of the Deccan, by Kenneth Robbins and Pushkar Sohoni, Jaico Books.

Pune, as the second capital of the Bombay Presidency, has a few grand architectural sites as well as monuments. Foremost of them is the splendid neo-Gothic-styled Ohel David synagogue in the cantonment area. Built of brick and painted bright red, it is popularly called the Lal Deval in Marathi. The synagogue has a steeple and a clock tower and resembles a church. Its interior with stained glass and high ceilings is magnificent.

Ohel David. Credit: Surendra Kumar. Courtesy: Jewish Heritage of the Deccan, by Kenneth Robbins and Pushkar Sohoni, Jaico Books.
Ohel David. Credit: Surendra Kumar. Courtesy: Jewish Heritage of the Deccan, by Kenneth Robbins and Pushkar Sohoni, Jaico Books.

On the grounds of the Ohel David lies the tomb of Sir David Sassoon. On Lakerya Maruti Road, originally called Jew Lane, is the more modest Succath Schelomo synagogue. Among the other monuments, buildings and cemetery is Garden Reach, the grand mansion that was built by Rustamji Jamshetji Jeejeebhoy, a Parsi merchant who made his fortune in cotton. When Jeejeebhoy’s business collapsed, this splendid mansion, situated on the southern bank of the Mula river, was bought by Sir Albert David Sassoon. As it is currently in private hands it cannot be visited.

Garden Reach mansion, Pune. Credit: Surendra Kumar. Courtesy: Jewish Heritage of the Deccan, by Kenneth Robbins and Pushkar Sohoni, Jaico Books.
Garden Reach mansion, Pune. Credit: Surendra Kumar. Courtesy: Jewish Heritage of the Deccan, by Kenneth Robbins and Pushkar Sohoni, Jaico Books.

The short text, photographs, glossary at the back of the volume, as well as a concise bibliography, makes the book a handy guide to this unique slice of India’s multicultural past. It is a wonderful addition to the materials on Bombay’s tourist sites. It will be a treasure for members of the substantial Bene Israeli community now settled in Israel whose members are still closely connected to India.

Shaar Hashamayim. Credit: Surendra Kumar. Courtesy: Jewish Heritage of the Deccan, by Kenneth Robbins and Pushkar Sohoni, Jaico Books.
Shaar Hashamayim. Credit: Surendra Kumar. Courtesy: Jewish Heritage of the Deccan, by Kenneth Robbins and Pushkar Sohoni, Jaico Books.
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