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Bombay: Exploring the Jewish Urban Heritage

By Saul Sapir

On 12th November 2013, the book: Bombay, Exploring the Jewish Urban Heritage, written by the present author, was released in a distinguished ceremony which took place in the David Sassoon library and Reading Room Garden in Mumbai. This volume reveals the captivating saga of the Jewish Community in Bombay/Mumbai and their unique contribution to the city’s urban landscape and heritage.



Presentation of the Book

The book, in an impressive format published by the Bene Israel Heritage Museum & Genealogical Research Centre, provides fresh insights into the city’s design, based on extensive research of archival sources, field studies, and comprehensive and intensive surveys, as well as countless interviews with as many community members as we could trace.


Magen David Synagogue

The Jewish community in Bombay contributed to the city’s urban heritage mainly by adding structures in almost every field of urban life. Some of these structures evolved into famous sites and landmarks in Mumbai’s landscape today. Of these structures, there are included: Synagogues: Magen David, Byculla; Keneseth Eliyahoo, Fort.



Hill Grange School

Schools: Sir Elly Kadoorie High School, Nesbit Road, Mazgaon; Sir Jacob Sassoon High School, Byculla; Elisha Ezra Ezekiel Sassoon School, Byculla; Hill Grange High School, Cumballa Hill; David Sassoon Industrial and Reformatory Institution, Matunga;



Reformatory Institution

The David Sassoon Building/Elphinstone Technical High School, Dhobi Talao; Royal Institute of Science, Esplanade Road; David Sassoon’s Mechanics’ Institute/David Sassoon Library and Reading Room, Esplanade Road.

Hospital: Sir Sassoon David Hospital, within the J.J. Hospital Complex, Byculla.

Finance and Commerce: Bank of India, Esplanade Road;



Sassoon Docks, Colaba.

Industry: The many Sassoon Cotton Mills. Office Buildings: The E.D. Sassoon Building, Ballard Estate, Fort; The  Sassoon (Joseph) David and Co. Building, Fort; Sassoon Building, Horniman Circle, Fort; Sassoon Building, Rhythm House (Chetana Building), Rampart Row, Fort.

Residential Buildings:


Sans Souci – David Sassoon’s Mansion (Masina Hospital), Byculla

Sir Albert Sassoon’s Mansion, J.J. Road, Byculla; Ashley House and Somerset House, Colaba; Elisha Ezra Ezekiel Sassoon Mansion/Monica Bungalow, Cuffe Parade.

Sites and Monuments:



Flora Fountain

David Sassoon’s Clock Tower – Victoria Gardens, Byculla; The Victoria and Albert Museum – Victoria Gardens, Byculla; The Prince of Wales Equestrian, Kala Ghoda, Esplanade Road (today, in the Victoria Gardens); Statue of the Prince of Wales – Prince of Wales Museum, Esplanade Road; The Gateway of India, Apollo Bunder. 


Kala Ghoda

The highlights of researching and revealing this unique heritage were enormous and the emotional impact of visiting the city of my birth was very strong. I got involved and excited about my research when visiting Mumbai for the first time, forty four years later, since I had left as a child. I would like to refer to a few of the precious moments from my first visit that impacted the beginning of my research.

While visiting the David Sassoon Library and Reading Room, I was very moved by the life-size statue of the Library’s donor, David Sassoon, which adorns the main hall.



Statue of David Sassoon

This probably was my inspiration behind the raison d’êtres in getting involved with this enchanting saga. Furthermore, while working on my research at the British Library, I came across an interesting anecdote referring to the bas relief of David Sassoon’s portrait fixed in marble, on a heavenly blue background of the gable above the main entrance of the building. In this work, it was discovered that this image was sculpted by John Lockwood Kipling (the father of Rudyard Kipling), who during the years 1865-1874, served as professor of architectural sculpture in Bombay’s Sir Jamsethji Jeejeebhoy School of Art.


Image of David Ssassoon

Visiting the Magen David Synagogue in Byculla was another exciting moment for me, while locating the seat which my father possessed in the Synagogue. I asked my wife Ann to sit there for a memorable photo.


Ann in the Magen David Synagogue

Stopping by Jew Garden in Byculla created another emotional affect. At this site, the last photo was taken of my sister Rachel and me before leaving Bombay for Israel.



Photo with Rachel

Another photo to be taken of me at the same spot had to wait forty four years!

Finally, there were quite a few obstacles standing in the way of my research. It was very difficult to get permission to take photographs of many of the sites I was interested in. Sometimes it took hours to get the needed permission. “No photo!” was the motto I had to overcome almost everywhere.

These issues made me think of my next book, which will deal with how I wrote the present one, which may probably be a bestseller…

In the sphere of historic preservation, building restoration can refer to the action of the process of accurately revealing, recovering or representing the condition of a historic building, as it appeared in a particular period, while protecting its heritage value. Unfortunately, almost no efforts were, or are, made to preserve most these unique buildings of Jewish cultural heritage.


Keneseth Eliyahu Synagogue

Furthermore, this issue affects the heritage of Mumbai’s other sites and landmarks as well. One has to keep in mind that some of these structures are among the finest examples of their kind around the globe. Most of these edifices in Mumbai bear motifs and elements drawn from the various architectural styles that were in use during the latter period of the British Raj. One may notice elements from the Classical period (such as the Old City Hall) that were in practice before and after the Common Era in Greece, in Rome and as well as other cities of those long forgotten Empires.


Old City Hall

Another style used quite often in Bombay’s edifices, is the Gothic style, imported from Medieval England and France throughout the 11th-14th centuries. As it seems, during the 19th century, at the time of Queen Victoria’s reign, there was a Gothic revival in England, which was termed the neo-gothic or the Victorian style. Many architects used this style when designing their buildings in Bombay (David Sassoon Library and Reading Room, which is one of many structures).


David Sassoon Library  

Finally, some of Bombay’s significant buildings and institutions were designed by integrating elements from the local architecture which characterized Mogul architecture, commonly known as the Indo-Saracen style (The Gateway of India). Towards the last quarter of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, we can notice the combination of various styles, with emphasis on Saracen elements.


The Gateway of India

Needless to say, the cultural heritage inherited from past generations is irreplaceable and places the responsibility of conservation on the shoulders of the current generation so as to guard it for the benefit of future generations.


Professor Saul Sapir is the author of Bombay: Exploring the Jewish Urban Heritage (Mumbai: Bene Israel Heritage Museum and Genealogical Research Centre, 2013). He has been teaching Historical Geography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem since 1975 and at the David Yellin Teachers’ College, Jerusalem, where he headed the Department of Geography for several years.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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