Constructed in 1884, the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue was designed by the architects Gostling and Morris. It was built under the commission of Jacob Elias Sassoon in memory of his father, Eliyahoo Sassoon. The Synagogue is situated in the central area of Mumbai, the oldest Sephardic synagogue in the city. The building was initially constructed in the classical revival style, and its decorative interior shows Victorian stained glass windows and rich Burmese teak wood furniture and stairs. The site’s architecture combines both neoclassical and Victorian aspects, and these styles can be attributed to the two British architects, both of whom are known for their work in building and rebuilding establishments in countries under British colonial rule in the 19th century. The synagogue is under the care of the Bombay Jewish community, which has decreased in recent years, leaving the synagogue without adequate funds for its preservation.
The synagogue’s preservation plan
In 2010, the WMF (World’s Monuments Fund) supported creating a preservation Plan for the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue. This plan covered structural and architectural integrity as well as the restoration of historic finishing and stained glass windows. The external facade of the synagogue is painted turquoise, so the synagogue is popularly known as the Blue Synagogue of Mumbai. The building was restored to its original colour of white, with bright blue borders, during a restoration process carried out by conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah in 2018/19. It also required complete treatment as water infiltration had damaged the roof, ceiling, and wall surfaces. Also, the stained glass panels needed to be restored, while the windows, wooden balconies, and stairs required careful treatment. “It’s very much a Classical Revival building, and it has been planned like a typical Baghdadi Jewish synagogue,” says Abha Narain Lambah, the principal conservation architect of the project. This restoration work was only completed in January 2019. And in October of the same year, the project was honoured with an Award of Merit at the 2019 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation.
A fundamental religious centre
When one enters the synagogue, one is immediately captivated by the altar in the hall, with its three panels and many more circular windows above it, filled with intricate stained glass windows. These stained glass windows, which represent plants, flowers, and fruits native to India, symbolise how deeply the Jewish community has integrated into the country over the millennia. Although no more extended home to several hundred members of the Baghdadi Jewish community in Mumbai, the “Blue Synagogue” still attracts the number needed for its regular services, unlike many other Jewish religious centres worldwide. Tourists play an important role in keeping the services alive. The site’s bath, dedicated to immersion and ritual purification, has been a particularly popular aspect of the synagogue for Asian tourists. In addition, the Synagogue has a group, the Sir Jacob Sassoon Synagogues and Allied Trusts, which has devoted itself exclusively to the maintenance of this site and similar ones. Jacob, who commissioned its construction, was concerned with assuring that the site’s location in the centre of the city would allow it to be accessible to as many people in the Jewish community as possible.
The unique interior design
The massive prayer hall inside has sky-blue walls with white details and a white ceiling. Arched windows border the side walls, and the women’s gallery surrounds the side and rear walls of the sanctuary with Victorian blue and white panels and dark wood railing. The gallery is sustained by elegant spiral columns with Corinthian capitals that extend from the ceiling to the floor. The intricate, well-crafted supports and Victorian details are evident all over the sanctuary. The “bema” is located in the centre of the prayer hall, with a wooden floor surrounded by a white baluster and a dark wood railing. The tivah (reader’s desk) is placed inside, and a chandelier comes down from the ceiling. Synagogues have never conformed to stylistic rules anywhere in the world, and the same is true in India. Here they differ from each other mainly in size, extent, and design. The building has imposing interiors, with a double-height prayer hall and a ladies’ balcony. The high-ceilinged prayer hall houses large windows and is set in an east-west orientation, with the entrance doors facing east and the Ark containing the Torah scrolls facing west toward Jerusalem.
The sanctuary and its symbolic and social meaning
The sanctuary has a central podium, a Jewish tradition from which the service is held. Surrounding the podium, there are several wooden benches placed on the floor covered with Minton tiles imported from England. Various religious symbols have been beautifully embedded in the fabric of the synagogue’s interior. These items are part of many Jewish religious ceremonies that are celebrated in the building, such as the grape wine, which is used as a form of benediction during weddings; the Star of David, a universally known symbol of Judaism; and the design of the stained glass windows, whose panels are beautifully adorned with cedars, pomegranates, pears and roses, symbols used in Jewish ceremonies. Magnificent arched and round-headed stained glass windows rise above the Aron Kodesh, above which are two tables with the Ten Commandments written in Hebrew. Wooden pews rest on a historic Victorian floor. A busy elementary school and community centre are also located within the synagogue. In 2009 the Synagogue celebrated its 125th anniversary, and even though many members of the Jewish community emigrated to Israel after 1948, the Synagogue is still operating and well-maintained.
Words Monuments Fund (2019) Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue [Online] Available at: https://www.wmf.org/project/keneseth-eliyahoo-synagogue [Accessed date: 2023/06/01]
Synagogues 360 (2023) Keneseth Eliyahoo [Online] Available at: https://synagogues-360.anumuseum.org.il/gallery/kneseth-elyahoo/ [Accessed date: 2023/06/01]