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A Tinge of Jewish Legacy in Kolkata

A synagogue is the centre of the Jewish religious community: a place of prayer, study, education, social and charitable work as well as a social
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The title might have some of you wondering what are we talking about. Let’s know more about synagogues. So let us begin with a simple introduction to the word and the Jewish culture.

A synagogue is the centre of the Jewish religious community: A place of prayer, study, education, social and charitable work as well as a social centre. The word “synagogue” is actually, a Greek translation of Beit K’nesset meaning “place of assembly” (related to the word synod). Religions, throughout social history, have always been one of the most prominent social institutions that play an important role in regulating a person’s life. 

A synagogue where prayer services are performed is called a sanctuary, but an important part of the sanctuary is the Ark (the cabinet which holds the Torah scrolls). Slightly above the Ark, one can find the Ner Tamid, an Eternal Lamp which symbolises the commandment to keep a light burning.

Beth El synagogue

Some might be wondering where can such a place be found here? But welcome to the City of Joy which serves as not only a city but a melting pot of several cultures and religions over several centuries.

This city surprisingly houses some of the oldest synagogues in the country. Navigating one’s way through the busy streets of Territy Bazaar (Burrabazar), one can find the shortest of all routes to reach one of the three stunning synagogues in Kolkata- the Beth El Synagogue, which literally means the “House of God”. 

The Beth El Synagogue is dedicated to Abraham. Constructed around the year 1856, it is an absolute piece of architectural marvel, located in the busiest trade heart of the city. According to the norms of Jewish culture, no one is allowed to enter the place of pure bliss without covering one’s head, so yarmulke (a skullcap) is provided to the men especially before entering the pristine premises, in case one doesn’t have a skullcap. However, a person should avoid visiting the synagogues on Fridays, which are marked as their Prayer days and prayers are held every week for members of the existing Jewish community.

Magen David synagogue

After one has sunk in the beauty of the Beth El Synagogue, the City of Joy has more beauty and bliss to offer to its explorers. So, a few steps again through the busy streets of the city’s one of the largest trading centres, one will come across yet another breathtakingly beautiful architectural marvel of the Jewish community, the Magen David Synagogue. Constructed a little after Beth El synagogue, in 1884 by Elias David Joseph Ezra, an esteemed member of the Baghdadi Jewish community, who also constructed other majestic structures like the Esplanade mansion, Ezra mansion and so on. Following the marvellous structures of the medieval Italian architecture, the Magen David synagogue has a classic red brick finish. 

When one enters the building, the serenity and the bliss runs through the blood, despite its location in one of the rowdiest zones ofthe city. The sunlight penetrating the coloured glasses of the building makes various patterns on the marble floor and gives an ethereal feeling altogether and thus, is undoubtedly a photographer’s paradise. Adding tothe beauty of the place are the wooden staircases and the old chandeliers – providing an image of timeless beauty. The details of the architecture in the sanctuary are something worth taking note of- the intricate designs on the wooden structures are indeed a treat to the eyes. A visit to these synagogues definitely promises a spiritual awakening and a peaceful experience even though the locality remains busy all day.

Last but not the least, the oldest of these three synagogues is the Neveh Shalome Synagogue. This classic prayer hall was the first synagogue constructed by the Jews in Kolkata around 1831. Although it is not as grand in appearance as compared to the other two but this quintessential construction of marble is a classic treat for the explorers and is yet another example of the timeless beauty. This prayer hall is not opened frequently but a permission from the Jewish Girls High School might be helpful if one is interested in exploring more of these wonderful, eye-captivating, surreal architectural marvels of the Jewish community in Kolkata.

There is yet another astonishing fact regarding the synagogues in Kolkata- these Jewish prayer halls are all maintained and supervised by Muslim caretakers. They have been responsible for taking care and maintenance of these beautiful heritage sites in the city for ages now. Kolkata, indeed never fails to surprise in the aspect of being a melting pot of cultures!

It has been decades now that the majority of the Jewish community has left the city but our City of Joy continues to exhibit the rich cultural and historical legacy of several communities through these architectural marvels. As visitors continue to be left astonished by the beauty of these synagogues and palaces and are attracted to their beauty. Although tucked away in the middle of city traffic, these peaceful, surreal and spiritual prayer halls of the synagogues are a perfect destination to enjoy some serenity, spend some quiet time amidst the hustle of city life and rediscover spirituality. These three synagogues of Kolkata are hidden gems which deserve to make it to a Kolkata-explorer’s bucket-list!

All images by Krittabid Pandit, Priyanshu Karmakar

Atreyi Biswas is a student of Sociology from Kolkata, India. She has a keen interest in the prevailing social institutions and changing social relationships. Atreyi loves watching movies, documentaries, listening to podcasts, reading articles, short stories and exploring new things.

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