Synagogues in India
There are currently thirty-three synagogues in India, although many no longer function as such and today vary in their levels of preservation. These buildings dating from the mid-sixteenth through the mid-twentieth century once served the country's three distinct Jewish groups of: the ancient
Bene Israeland Cochin communities as well as the more recent Baghdadi Jews.
The Jews of India waited centuries to build their first synagogues, praying in temporary structures or private houses. The buildings that were eventually built vary greatly in their scale, style, and visual orientation. Some, particularly those belonging to the Baghdadi Jews based in
Mumbai, Kolkata, and Pune, are grand and built in various Western styles using fine materials and elaborate detail. Constructed by the Baghdadi Jewish community who first came from Iraq, Iran, and a handful of other Near Eastern countries and settled in India permanently beginning in the eighteenth century is a neo-Baroquesynagogue in the Fort section of Mumbai, a Renaissance revivalone in central Kolkataand, in English tradition, a neo-Gothicstructure in fine condition sitting within an open site in the Camp area of Pune.
Baghdadi synagogues, some built with the support of the
Sassoon family, all have particularly large Holy Arks where the Sefer Torahs are stored. From the Ark's outside, the doors appear to cover a standard-sized cabinet typical to most synagogues around the world. Once the doors are opened in Indian Baghdadi synagogues, however, a sizeable walk-in room is revealed that is ample enough to store as many as one hundred Torahs.
Bene Israel synagogues
Synagogues used by the Bene Israel Jews who settled in Mumbai,
Ahmedabad, and Pune in the very late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries tend to be smaller. Since the Bene Israel Jews were by far the largest of the three groups of Indian Jews, they built the most synagogues. The first dates from 1796 in Mumbai, although this building, Shaar HaRahamim, was rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century. The architecture of most Bene Israel synagogues is rarely stylistically pure and hence hard to define or label, although there are examples of buildings built in the 1930s by the Bene Israel communities of Mumbai and Ahmedabad that are pure Art Deco. A few, particularly those built by the Bene Israel Jews in the coastal KonkanRegion of Maharashtraduring the 19th century, are interesting blendings of colonial influences, vernacular building traditions, and Jewish liturgical requirements. At one time more than a dozen synagogues existed in these small coastal communities where communities of Jews lived, including at Pen, Alibag, Panveland Mhasala, but today many are closed or marginally operating due to the much dwindled Jewish population.
Synagogues have rarely conformed to stylistic rules anywhere in the world or, as a building type, been resolved in unique or recognisable terms. Most of the buildings in India are no exception. In contrast are the synagogues built by the Cochin Jews of south-western India. Influenced by Indian building traditions coupled with the influences of visiting traders and imperialists over the centuries, the Cochn synagogues constitute wonderful examples of the vernacular thachusasthra design of kerala. Until the 16th century and the arrival of the Portuguese in India, roofs of local buildings were often bamboo framed and covered with thatched palm leaves -- this technique still seen in Kerala’s villages. The roof system would have been set on mud walls or atop simple masonry walls that were finished in smooth veneers. In time, this construction technique was replaced with wood framed roofs (often teak) covered with flat terracotta tiles together supported by thick laterite stone walls (a local material) veneered in chunam, a polished lime plaster. The local components were thus fused with foreign building techniques introduced by outsiders, namely the Portuguese and later the Dutch. These influences also impacted synagogue architecture and were combined with the Jewish ritual and liturgical requirements.
Cochin synagogues are unique in the world in that they feature two
bimahs. The primary one can be found within the sanctuary's main level where men have always sat. The second, used during holidays and special events, is found on the gallery level adjacent to the space dedicated for women's seating.
Found within all Indian synagogues is a central bimah (platform where the religious service is led), a Sephardic Jewish tradition. Other features of Indian synagogues are free-standing wooden benches, a profusion of hanging glass and metal oil lanterns, large shuttered windows with clerestories, a chair for the circumscion ceremony and one for the prophet Elijah, and separate seating areas for men and women.
ynagogues in the State of Maharashtra
The State of Maharashtra, which includes
Mumbai(Bombay), its suburbs of Thanaand Kurla, and the neighbouring Konkan region (a string of small towns and villages a day trip outside of the city) is where the largest number of synagogues were built. There are also two synagogues in Pune, one in New Delhi, one in Ahmedabad, and four in Kolkota(Calcutta). Not all of these structures are open today. Kerala, in far south-western India, has six remaining buildings. Only one, in Kochi's (Cochin's) Jew Town, is a functioning house of prayer. It dates from 1568, although portions of the compound of parts were added later or altered over the years.
The synagogue in Chennamangalam
Following a seventeenth century plan devised by a local and tolerant leader in the town of
Chennamangalam, four religious structures were built: a church, mosque, Hindu temple, and another Cochin synagogue. All still stand today, altogether rebuilt or much altered. By the turn of this century, this synagogue, which sat unused for many years with no Jews to use it, was in dire need of attention. In 2005, the Indian Department of Archaeology with funds mainly from the Department of Tourism restored the small white-washed structure. An international team made up of Professor Jay Waronker of the USA, Dr. Shalva Weil of Israel, and Ms. Marian Sofaer of the USA were responsible for the planning of a permanent exhibition in the spaces of the synagogues. These highlight the history and architecture of the Chennamangalam Jewish community and other Cochin Jews. The museum, which opened in February 2006, is open daily, except Sunday. [ [http://chensyn.com/info.shtml Information on the Chennamangalam synagogue] ]
The current Jewish population is likely less than 4,500. Number of Cochin Jews remain in India is approximately 50, Baghdadi Jews number no more than a few hundred, and the balance are Bene Israel.
Gate of Mercy Synagogue
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