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The Synagogues of Kolkata

Of the three Jewish synagogues in Kolkata, the Beth El and the Maghen David synagogues have the distinction of being the only two synagogues in
Maghen David Synagogue, Kolkata
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Of the three Jewish synagogues in Kolkata, the Beth El and the Maghen David synagogues have the distinction of being the only two synagogues in India recognized by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) as Grade I monuments. They have garnered significant national and international attention for the beauty and grandeur of their architecture and are increasingly on the tourist map.  The immediate vicinity is part of a sacred geography marked by churches and cathedrals of several denominations, a grand mosque, a Parsi Fire temple and several Chinese and Jain temples. This sacred space, in what was once the center of the city, is the material manifestation of Kolkata’s multicultural and multi-religious past, an integral aspect of our rich cultural heritage.  

Neveh Shalome (House of Peace), the oldest of Calcutta’s synagogues, was established in 1826 when there were barely 300 Jews in the City. It was demolished in 1884 to make way for the Maghen David (Shield of David) Synagogue, the most ornate and majestic of the three.  It was built on the extended property of the Neveh Shalome by the wealthy Ezra family– the city’s merchant princes.  A protracted dispute arose regarding the naming of the synagogue which lasted decades. The Neveh Shalome was rebuilt in 1912 by the congregants in keeping with the lines of the old synagogue. It is typically Middle Eastern, with few Western architectural flourishes. 

Beth El (House of Peace) was built by Joseph Ezra and Ezekiel Judah in 1855-56 when the community was rapidly expanding as Jews from the Middle East flocked to Calcutta for trade. The basement wine cellar holds many large clay amphorae and several brown and ochre patterned vats from China. Kosher red wine was made locally in Calcutta till the early 1970’s, and the “sacred wine” was stored and sold to Jewish community members for ritual purposes.  A large clay oven, a tandoor, in the synagogue’s courtyard is where Matzas (unleavened bread eaten during the Passover Festival) was made.  A mikvah, ritual bath, was also built in the courtyard that was renovated during the 1940s to be more modern with amenities like running water.  

Beth El (House of Peace) was built by Joseph Ezra and Ezekiel Judah

Sir David Ezra established the Maghen David in 1884 in memory of his father, Elia Ezra. Clearly the donors were both influenced by and competing with the many cathedrals and churches in the city as they sought to make their mark on its landscape and culture.  The Maghen David was built by Mackintosh Burn and Co and designed by their architect Ormond in Italian Renaissance style.  Modeled after the old Telegraph office and other public buildings of the period, it is referred to locally as Lal Girja (Red Church).  The façade is prominently red brick and has a 142-foot steeple, clock face and bells that no longer ring.  As the Calcutta Jews looked for guidance to Baghdad for religious matters, they asked whether it would be halachic (in accordance with religious law) for the synagogue to have a steeple.  The Rabbis determined that it did not go against Jewish law to have a steeple if it was higher than the others around it.  A clock 64 feet high, imported from London graces the fourth level of the steeple.  It was then the largest public clocks on public spaces in the city.  

The Maghen David boasts soaring ceilings, sturdy pinkish-hued Mirzapur stone pillars with their pediments imported from London, and a large round stained-glass window opposite the sanctuary.  There was an elaborate chandelier that burned olive oil in the middle of the large hall atop the Tebah– electricity was installed in 1902.  In 1918, E.M.D. Cohen gifted a “cut-glass thirty light electrolier” that had been in the Grand Opera House in Calcutta.  High blue and white floral decorated arches with psalms in Hebrew lettering are indeed imposing.  The ornate apse has a floor of Castilian tiles created by Manton Holland and Company of London.  The star studded cobalt blue dome, a focal point in the house of worship, is adorned with Jewish mystical symbols.

Books of Moses encased in silver cases.

At one time the synagogues housed dozens of sifre torahs (encased scrolls of the law) and elaborate parochets (curtains or decorative hangings) gifted by families. Each scroll contains the Five Books of Moses, written on parchment by dedicated scribes in Baghdad.  The parchment was encased in wood and placed in large silver cases that are elaborately patterned by Indian craftsmen; each of these cases weighs over 10 or 15 kgs.   By the 1930’s  Neveh Shalome had about 50, Beth El had over 90, Maghen David over 80 and the two prayer halls between them had about 15.  Only three old sifre torahs remain in Calcutta, two of which are unfortunately spoiled by the damp and one that has been taken to London for repair. The parochets, gifted in memory of family members, were made of expensive cashmere wool, velvet or silk with the name and blessing embossed in gold zari threads in a rectangular inset. These religious items denote how the community fashioned ritual and religious objects with local jewelry, weaving and embroidery traditions.  

The synagogues of Kolkata underline the fundamentally religious nature of the community, the wealth amassed, their wide trading networks, and speak to the good relationships they enjoyed with the many communities around them.  It is really a shame that, despite decades of police complaints, the majestic Maghen David can hardly be seen as its entire boundary wall is overtaken by illegal vendors and their structures.  Even its impressive metal gate is encroached upon making it difficult to enter.  The Archaeological Survey of India has filed a police case but failed to bring down the barbed wire illegally mounted over the gate further vandalizing this heritage gem.

Images courtesy: Jael Silliman & Wikimedia Commons

Jael Silliman, born in Kolkata, was educated at Wellesley College, Mass., Harvard University, University of Texas, Austin. She received her doctoral degree in international education at Columbia University. She has written extensively on gender and economic development, and women’s movements in the developing world. ‘The Teak Almirah’, ‘Where Gods Reside: Sacred Places of Kolkata’, ‘Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames: Women’s Narratives from a Diaspora of Hope’ are some of her published works.

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