India has always welcomed outsiders with open arms as the country was frequently visited by many foreign traders ever since the pre-Christian era. Thus the country became home to many Jews and Parsis.
Many Jews from West Asia collectively known as Baghdadi Jews, arrived in the early 19th century as traders settled mainly in Calcutta, Pune and Bombay and over the years most of them eventually became fluent in Indian languages.
The most famous among these Baghdadi Jews was the celebrated merchant David Sassoon who made his mark as a trader, mill owner and philanthropist and created a formidable business empire in Bombay.
It was his grandson Sir Jacob Sassoon who built the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, popularly known as the ‘blue Synagogue’, in 1884, in memory of his father Elias Sasoon.
The Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue is the oldest Baghdadi synagogue in the city. It stands within the Kala Ghoda Art District of Mumbai and the building is a charming classical revival structure designed by the firm Gostling & Morris.
It was designated as a Grade IIA heritage building, under the Heritage Regulations of Greater Mumbai, 1995. Over the years it faced deterioration with age and after 134 years, the building fabric become vulnerable to leakages and damage.
As the local Jewish population of Baghdadi Jews dwindled over the years, they were unable to bear the expenses for its restoration and repair.
Finally the Trustees of the Synagogue approached conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah to prepare a grant application to the Jewish Heritage Fund of the World Monuments Fund in 2009.
A conservation report was prepared in 2009 and the World Monuments Fund pledged funds for the restoration of the stained glass, and while the local Kala Ghoda Association too pledged 30 lakh rupees towards its conservation.
The amount was not sufficient as this was not enough to cover the entire structural and roof repairs and the team was convinced that the project had to be done holistically and the roof and structural repairs addressed before the restoration of the stained glass, to be able to ensure its sustenance and preservation.
Finally, it was another local citizen Mrs. Sangita Jindal who moved by the plight, agreed to fill the funding gap, pledging through the JSW Foundation the Rs 4 crore required for the restoration of this iconic historic building.
So the project finally became a four way partnership, between the Jacob Sassoon Charitable Trust that owned the synagogue building, the JSW Foundation, World Monuments Fund and Kala Ghoda Association with each extending their support to the conservation.
As the trustees of the synagogue requested to keep the Sabbath prayers every weekend, undisturbed, the team had to achieve this by planning the works around this request.
Whilst the prayers continued on the ground floor of the building the works of the building were taken up along the main prayer hall, a double height beautiful space with brilliant Victorian interiors.
Being a living heritage site, care had to be taken that the user was undisturbed whilst the building was being restored back to its glory.
The intent of this conservation exercise was a holistic approach to reinstate life into this crumbling structure. The building showed major damages not only in terms of civil works but required urgent structural rehabilitation.
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From its sloping roof with traditional terracotta roof tiles to removal of layers and layers of oil paint to expose the historic Victorian gilding and stencilling works, the project was a labour of love guided by intelligent conservation.
The roof was completely dismantled and re-laid with reused Burma teak wood members being replaced as against the rotten ones.
Works commenced in January 2018 and were completed by February 2019. With heavy deterioration due to structural distress and heavy water ingress, the primary aim was to make the building stable and water tight.
The building had weakened over time, which was observed during the opening of floor edges where the rafters had lost connection with the primary timber beam running along the wall which was severely damaged.
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The roof works were the first to be taken up before the monsoon in 2018, followed by strengthening of all weakened slabs and addressal of cracks observed along the floors and the façade. Wooden members of the floor had decayed due to wet rot and water ingress.
Due the sagging on the north-west corner of the building a crack had developed horizontally as well as vertically along the façade for the length of the ground floor but not reaching the foundation.
A test pit of 1 metre depth was dug to see the effect of the crack on to the foundation but the same was only limited to the façade. All cracks were sealed with the help of the expert team from Helifix which used anti corrosive SS pins for stitching and a grout to fill the crack.
The structure employs cast iron columns for compressive loads and wrought iron girders and wooden trusses for tensile strength. The problems with these ranged from corrosion due to atmospheric weathering and prolonged contact of moisture to minor issues related to flaking over paint layers etc.
A range of interventions were needed to ensure that the structural stability of the building was restored. Structural stabilization included roof repairs, terrace waterproofing, basement waterproofing, balcony repairs and strengthening, addressal of water seepage and strengthening of staircases and balconies.
Restoring the interiors required a rigorous exercise of carefully peeling of layers of paint applied over the years to reveal the original colour palette of the building. During the removal of the paint layers, the conservation team discovered historic Victorian stenciling in the interiors and the original colour palette.
A lot of intricate details in lime incised plaster, especially along the façade were damaged over time and needed to be carefully restored. To respect the importance of the blue and white colour scheme of the façade a rich indigo colour was painted on the walls.
The restoration of the stained glass was taken up by Ms. Swati Changadkar, a stained glass expert who had previously worked on the restoration of historic glass in the University Library and Afghan Church. This was funded by the World Monuments Fund, India.
The stained glass of the Synagogue is a very beautiful three-light window, 10 feet x 2 feet each, with simple, elegant tracery that holds circular panels or medallions as well as small insets called ‘eyes’.
The medallion in the center of the tracery has a ‘sun-burst’ that is striking. The vertical lights below the tracery are ornate and punctuated with medallions again. These medallions carry Renaissance imagery that was a hallmark of the 19th century ‘Revivalist’ style: foliage, white laurel, roses, fruits – all poised in a formal, yet stylized arrangement.
The main hall and lobbies host intricate Minton tile flooring imported from Stroke on Trent in England, the upper ladies’ balcony has timber flooring as its floor, along with the outer balcony and staircase.
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Replication of a large part of the Minton tiles was an important job at hand and replacement of the damaged timber of the upper floors was also taken up. A wing attached to the building holds toilets on the first floor for the devotees using the prayer hall and second floor for the ladies’ balcony.
As part of improving the services, such as toilets, provision of hydro-pneumatic water pumping system, a new electrical meter connection for air conditioning and a modern air conditioning system was also taken up as a part of the project.
An all-woman team of conservation architects led the team involved in the Synagogue’s complete restoration. The building was restored with contemporary functional needs keeping in mind the aesthetic, historic and social value of the building.
The restoration has brought about not only the continued use of the synagogue as a vital centre for the Jewish community, but the subsequent opening of the doors of this religious building to non-Jews and people of all faith.
The very fact that this monument has been restored through funding from persons who do not belong to the Jewish faith, reinforces the spirit of humanity and empathy among religions and across faiths that the city of Mumbai stands for.