Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue

There is certainly a distinct charm about Mumbai and the amazing surprises it throws up at regular intervals: The Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue is one such monument. Despite being around since 1884, it is one of the unknown heritage buildings in South Mumbai. Situated behind Khyber restaurant at Kala Ghoda, the synagogue is one of the most beautiful structures around the street. The synagogue was designed by Bombay architects Gostling and Morris and were paid for by the Sassoon Family and constructed by Jacob Elias Sassoon and his brothers in memory of David Sassoon, their father. The synagogue is about fifty feet long and about forty feet in height. Today, it is maintained by the Jacob Sassoon Trust. 

The synagogue was built in the Classic Revival style and originally had Minton tile floors imported from Stoke-on-Trent in England. The decorative interiors featured Victorian stained glass windows and rich Burma teak wood furnishings and an imperials staircase. The lower part of the building is of Cooria stone and the rest of it is brick. 

Painted in a light aquamarine blue colour, the place of religious worship comprises of two floors. The first consists of a spacious hall, for the men with a unique "Hekal" to house Sefer Torahs. It has carved wooden doors which reflect the craftmanship prevailing in the days of the Raj. The stained glass windows lend aesthetic class to the overall richness and grandeur of the interiors. There is also the customary "Tebah" (pulpit) at the centre of the hall for prayers and reading of the Torah by the Hazzan (cantor). The second floor of the synagogue is occupied by the ladies gallery. There is also the "Mikwah"( a well where Jewish women have their sacred bath). 

The synagogue also has provisions for a community centre and a school in the Habonim work room adjoining the synagogue. The land on which the building stands and also the surrounding area was purchased by Jacob Sassoon from the Land Mortgage Bank of India. The cost of the deal including the synagogue was around Rs. 150000. 

It is taken care by the Jewish community, whose population in the country has been steadily declining, thus leaving the synagogue without sufficient funds for conservation. However, it continues to be used as a synagogue is at the centre of Jewish cultural and religious life in Mumbai. 

The centenary celebrations of the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue were held on February 6, 1985. The occasion was graced by the then President Giani Zail Singh who inaugurated the celebrations. The historic occasion was inscribed by a special commemorative stamp that was issued to mark the occassion by the Post and Telegraphs Departments.

Water infiltration has damaged the roof, ceiling and wall surfaces and the stained glass panels have to be cleaned and restored at regular intervals. The windows, timber balconies and staircases yell for careful restoration. Therefore, in this regard, the World Monuments Fund recently awarded funding to the synagogue through their Jewish Heritage Programme. Their support would enable the creation of a comprehensive conservation plan for the synagogue, addressing structural and architectural integrity as well as the restoration of historic finishes and stained glass.

The Roman architect Vitruvius once said that architects must combine usefulness, strength and beauty in their work. At the time of writing this, the synagogue is undergoing restoration. However, as one looks upon the 129 year old synagogue, one realizes that the aims of architecture that Vitruvius described stand fulfilled elegantly combining the three. 

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