Calcutta, now Kolkata, has always been a melting pot. Its riches, economic and otherwise, have attracted people from far and wide. In search of a fortune, many of them have made the city their home. So, in came the Armenians, Greeks and Portuguese. And they were soon joined by Indian business communities like Marwaris and Gujaratis. Jews were probably the last to enter the flourishing trade and commerce sector of Kolkata.
The first recorded Jewish immigrant to Kolkata was Shalon Cohen, who came in 1798 from Aleppo (in present day Syria). Kolkata was in its prime at this time. William Dalrymple, in his bestselling novel White Mughal, writes, “In 1806, Calcutta was at the height of its golden age. Known as the City of palaces or the St. Petersburg of the East, the British bridgehead in Bengal was unquestionably the richest, largest and most elegant colonial city in India.”
Although Jews were one of the last communities to arrive in Calcutta, they made their presence felt within a short span by controlling a large section of trade in Kolkata. As the community started growing, so grew the need for a place of worship. And in 1831, the Naveh Shalome Synagogue came up. It was soon followed by a larger synagogue, the Beth El, in 1856. As the community continued to grow, the small Naveh Shalome ran out of space. In 1884, it was demolished to give way for the grand Magen David Synagogue. Later in 1910, the Jews of Kolkata decided to rebuilt the Naveh Shalome Synagogue in the vacant plot within the Magen David complex.
Magen David Synagogue
The interiors of the magnificent Magen David SynagogueImage credit: Rangan Datta
The magnificent synagogue, with its red-and-yellow clock tower, stands at the crossing of Brabourne Road and Canning Street (Biplabi Rashbehari Road). Considered the most beautiful synagogue of Asia, the interiors are approached through a grand gateway lined with memorial tablets.
A chandelier adorns the ceilingImage credit: Rangan Datta
Literally meaning the Shield of David, the interiors are ornate, complete with black and white chequered marble flooring, gleaming chandeliers and stained-glass windows. The altar is crowned with an apse (half dome) studded with stars. It represents the heavens. The large plaque in the middle contains the Ten Commandments. At the centre is a raised platform. From where the Rabi (Jewish priest) conducted the services. Sadly, with the dwindling Jewish population of the city, the services have long been stopped. During the service, women would occupy the upper floor, with the women’s gallery wrapping around three sides of the synagogue.
Beth El Synagogue
The painted ceiling of the Beth El SynagogueImage credit: Rangan Datta
Located in the nearby Pollock Street, the Beth El Synagogue is heavily encroached upon, making it almost impossible to take a full photograph of the towering building. Literally meaning the ‘House of God’, the synagogue follows the same floor plan as the altar at the western end. The interiors are also grand with slender columns and stained-glass windows.
Naveh Shalome Synagogue
The interiors of the Naveh Shalome SynagogueImage credit: Rangan Datta
Located in the same compound as the Magen David, this synagogue lacks the grandeur of Magen David. Although the interiors are simple, the furniture and the chandeliers, along with the DC fans create an elegant ambience and reminds one of the glorious days of the Jewish community in Kolkata.
Note: The synagogues are open on all days except Saturday from 10am to 4pm. One needs to carry a photo ID card for entry.
Rangan Datta is a mathematics and management teacher by profession and a travel writer and photographer by passion. He has been addicted to discovering off-beat places since his undergraduate days at St. Xavier's College. Blogging and contributing to Wikipedia are his other passions.