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India’s Synagogue Variety: Architecture, History, and Context

By Jay A. Waronker

Censuses commonly report today that eighty-one percent of the world’s 13.2 million Jews are concentrated in just two countries: Israel and the United States. This data also indicates that all but four percent of the remaining Jewish population is accounted for in a handful of other places:  France, Canada, the United Kingdom, Russia, Argentina, Ukraine, Germany, Australia, Brazil, South Africa, and Hungary. So it may surprise Jews and non-Jews alike that there are also countless other excluded yet active Jewish communities scattered around the globe. To people who commonly associate Jewish life with certain identifiable “Jewish” places, these less familiar or even unknown enclaves could on the surface seem extraordinary and exotic.

The current-day Jewish communities of India, estimated to number between four to five thousand people (from thirty-five thousand at its height in the early 1950s), represent significant “other” examples of the Jewish Diaspora. Too many of these clusters of Jews have for years been uncounted in Jewish population studies, or their statuses relegated to the sidelines except for the engagement of  a modest group of research scholars. Yet the reality is that Jews arrived in India at a wide range of times, organized themselves in an assortment of locations, and they in many instances led or continue to lead productive lives. To those living in these places and practicing their faith, being Jewish came to be natural and commonplace. This tradition of dispersion, which has been endlessly undertaken over many years, began no later than the sixth century BCE, when Jews shifted from Judea to Babylonia, Egypt, and other regional lands before moving even more afar. Through waves of immigration, Jews located themselves literally throughout the world, including to India and in neighboring Pakistan and Myanmar.

Once Jews established themselves in India, in time they formed communities and, for religious and communal needs, built many synagogues. Even though the original creators and patrons of these buildings were temporal, examples of the built form remain as evidence of the way things once were. India is today home to thirty-six buildings constructed as synagogues, about half functioning, whereas the others are inactive and sit idle or, decommissioned, serve other purposes. This architecture, realized not by a homogenous community of Jews but rather autonomous groups having diverse backgrounds and origins, dates from the mid-sixteenth through the twenty-first centuries. Erected on urban, suburban, or rural sites in different styles, sizes, and spatial arrangements influenced by an assortment of design precedents and construction traditions, these extant synagogues also vary considerably in their levels of maintenance and preservation.

The most well-known of the Indian Jews are the Bene Israel, Baghdadi, and Cochin communities. Also among India’s Jews is the Bene Menashe of India’s northeastern hill states, an obscure faction also referred to as the Mizo-Kuku-Chin who is believed by some to be descendants of ancient lost Jewish tribes. Not to be left out are the Bene Ephraim found in a handful of villages within central Andhra Pradesh, India, who recently embraced Judaism.  While some of the synagogues that were constructed over the centuries no longer survive, the present-day ones can be found within India in New Delhi and the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, West Bengal, Manipur, Mizoram, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala.

The oldest synagogues belong to the Cochin Jews of Kerala in southwestern India. Though Kerala’s early Jewish houses of prayer from the tenth through fifteenth centuries perished as a consequence of natural disasters, attacks by the Moors, and shifting congregations, including a synagogue authenticated to 1344 by a surviving inscription, those originating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries subsist. Albeit all altered or rebuilt over time, some following Portuguese aggression in the mid-seventeenth century or after Tipu Sultan’s army burned them in the 1780s and others from internal congregational doings, the surviving synagogues include not only the oldest in India but within the British Commonwealth. When placed in the context of Jewish houses of prayer globally, they stand out for their considerable age coupled with distinct architectural and liturgical qualities.

Seven synagogues once belonging to the Cochin Jews can be found in Kochi (formerly Cochin) and the towns of Parur (renamed Paravur), Chennamangalam (also known as Chendamangalam), and Mala. No one of these synagogues is identical to another, yet they share features that unify them, making the group aesthetically akin. Through the synthesis of Jewish and Keralan traditions refined over a long period of time, a synagogue style developed. Mutual characteristics were carried forth from one synagogue to another as Cochin Jews moved or rebuilt their houses of prayer for whatever reasons.

From a broad range of climatic and natural factors specific to Kerala coupled with religious, social, economic, and political considerations, a mode of vernacular architectural expression emerged. This is an architecture produced not necessarily by architects but rather by seasoned craftsmen trained in regional materials and construction techniques to confront local cultural and environmental conditions. It is also an architecture influenced by high-style forms and techniques afforded to the most important religious buildings or secular ones built by the ruling native or European-colonial elite. Details and components of these fancier structures were simplified and applied to more modest work, including Keralan synagogues.

Of these seven buildings that served the different congregations of the Cochin Jews for centuries, only the Paradesi Synagogue in the Mattancherry area of Kochi still operates as a synagogue, and it serves as a popular destination for Indian and foreign visitors. The Kadavaumbagam synagogue in Ernakulam (the mainland of Kochi), Parur synagogue, Chennamangalam synagogue, and Mala synagogues may no longer function as houses of prayer, but they survive as cultural venues that can be visited by the public. They stand as testament to Kerala’s long history of diversity and religious tolerance.

Compared to the Cochin and Bene Israel Jews of India, the Baghdadi Jewish community is recent. Known collectively as “Baghdadis,” and they arrived in the nineteenth century from that city, others came from Iran and various lands of the Ottoman Empire. The majority of the synagogues built by the Baghdadi Jews, who as urbanities settled in Kolkata, Mumbai  and Pune (along with Yangon in Myanmar), are imposing structures compared to the more modest ones of India’s other Jewish communities. These Baghdadi synagogues, designed on sites allocated by the British as per colonial policy, are in pure or eclectic English or other European revival styles – Classical, Gothic, Renaissance, or Baroque – as per requests of the communities. Although their ethnicity was Near Eastern, the Baghdadis, who viewed themselves as white non-Indians, sought a special status under the Raj. Having arrived in India during British colonialism, they neither considered themselves “natives,” nor did they wish to assimilate with or conform to ways of the indigenous population, which to them included the Bene Israel. Aware of the English air of superiority over the locals, the Baghdadi Jews stood firmly in the colonial camp, with many remaining allegiant to the British crown to the end.

When the time came to erect synagogues beginning in the mid-1800s, the Baghdadi Jews built stately and expensive buildings with no intention of drawing from Indian or their own West Asian precedents. Instead, a synagogue in Pune, as an example, resembles an English Gothic church and others in Mumbai and Kolkata are decidedly neo-Baroque, neo-classical, and Renaissance Revival edifices. Ultimately, the Baghdadis choose Greco-Roman and other revival orders, church-like spires, Renaissance arches, Baroque flourishes, and Gothic details devised in Europe and revived in the nineteenth century as primary design components for their houses of prayer. When seeing these synagogues, foreigners and nationals alike may be surprised by what they regard as their seemingly un-Indian and decidedly Christian appearances. Yet in the British colonial landscape, these Baghdadi buildings were in keeping with tastes of the time. This reveals much about the social standing and aspirations of this Jewish community. In building as they did, the Baghdadi Jews decided not to draw from religious and secular architectural traditions engrained locally but turned to precedents created by colonial visitors. Considering that synagogues have rarely conformed to stylistic rules anywhere in the world or, as building type, been resolved in unique or recognizable terms – due in part that Judaism has never had a central authority or text dictating organizational or aesthetic requirements – this tradition of borrowing embraced by the Baghdadi was common. Two Baghdadi synagogues in Mumbai, one in Pune, and three in Kolkata remain standing (along with one in Yangon, Myanmar) and, with local permission, can be visited.

Some of the synagogues of the rural Bene Israel Jews, who for centuries arrived in the Raigad District of coastal Maharahstra and eventually erected  more than a dozen synagogues beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, include vernacular buildings traditions expressed through materials, plans, details and construction techniques. The result was simple yet distinct and memorable place making. More recent synagogues built by the Bene Menashe of Manipur State and Bene Ephraim Jews of Andhra Pradesh State are unassuming buildings that reflect little of the particular identities of these communities, yet they likewise incorporate regional vernacular building traditions.

It is important when studying Indian synagogue architecture that not only the grand in scale, richly decorated, or spatially complex examples be included, but also the more modest and less architecturally distinctive ones as well. Beautiful synagogues with lavish details, elaborate and costly materials, and progressive and bold designs have certainly been built over the years throughout the region, and these can be feasts for the senses. Yet they should alone not define the synagogue as a building genre. The origin of the word synagogue is Greek for a gathering space, which has little to do with the scale and the eminence of the space. A synagogue space can be, and sometimes is, about simplicity. To their respective congregations, the buildings were their religious homes, and they were much loved.

Throughout history and the world, Jews were often not able to afford, chose not to on their own volition, or were restricted by political, social, or religious forces to build large, well-marked, and fancy synagogues. This particularly applied to the exterior of buildings, which were on public display and more restricted. Many ended up as small, simple spaces with minimal detail or architectural flair.  More about construction versus architecture, these buildings rarely expressed any clear stylistic or aesthetic intent or agenda. They are, nevertheless, still synagogues in the truest expression of the word.  These more ordinary buildings, such as the synagogues erected by Bene Israel in the Raigad District within the Konkan Region of coast Maharashtra, the medieval-to-early modern period synagogues in central Kerala, and the late twentieth century Bene Ephraim synagogues in Andhra Pradesh , served or continue to serve the religious, social, and communal needs of their respective congregations as well that the more lavishly monumental and highly decorated ones of the urban Baghdadis (and, with more restraint, the Bene Israel houses of prayer) with their imported products and skilled craftsmen.

Author:

Dr. Jay A. Waronker is an American architect and architectural historian. In 1990, he began the study and documentation of India’s thirty-five synagogue buildings. This has lead to various publications of his work, including a chapter in India’s Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art, and Life-Cycle (Marg Publications, 2002), and an article in Journal for Indo-Judaic Studies (2010). Waronker has also extensively exhibited his watercolors of India’s synagogues throughout the United States and abroad. He and colleagues Shalva Weil and Marian Sofaer were founders of India’s first Jewish museum in the restored synagogue in Chendamangalam, Kerala in 2006, and together he is serving as an advisor for the 2010 restoration of the Parur Synagogue, also in Kerala. He was awarded a Fulbright to study and paint synagogues in sub-Saharan Africa in 2005, and seeks to preserve Jewish history, especially in areas where local Jewish culture is disappearing.

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

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