Friday, September 18, 2009

The Oldest Synagogue in Mumbai

- By Deepa Krishnan

I went to Bhendi Bazaar recently with Freni, walking through the areas surrounding Minara Masjid. We were looking for Shaar Harahamim, the oldest Jewish synagogue in the city.

It was Ramzan, and everywhere there were interesting stalls selling all sorts of things.

This is seviyan, right? Is it for kheer?

I was starving, and it was lunch time...then I realised everyone around me was fasting! Normally, I can't stand being hungry, it gives me a migraine...but when I thought about everyone else I saw, and realised they would all not eat until the evening iftar, it gave me the backbone to walk further.

In all my 40 years, I have never been to this side of the city, so everything was new and interesting to me. I photographed an old building, Dawoodbhoy Fazalbhoy School (the Trust provides scholarships for Muslims to study abroad). I wondered who the Fazalbhoy family was, and what their history is...perhaps they are one of the early trading families that came to the city of Bombay under the British. Or maybe someone in shipping? Are they Memons? This is the sort of history I'm always curious about, so if any of you know, then do post a comment!

Dawoodbhoy Fazalbhoy School

Eventually, we found ourselves on Samuel Street. I spotted a bhelwala, and gave up on starving myself. So munching sukha-bhel, Freni and I strolled on, chatting, peering through side lanes, looking at old homes, small trading shops, enjoying the bazaar buzz that is very typical of old Bombay. I'm addicted to this sort of thing, and Freni is so wonderful to walk with...sigh...everyone should have a friend like that!

After about 30 minutes, we finally came to a little door, painted blue, with the sign we were looking for - the Star of David!

Shaar Harahamin, The Gate of Mercy. In Marathi, it is Dayeche Dwar.

Entry to the synagogue is through a still smaller side door, the sort that you have to bend to enter.

Exterior view of synagogue with smaller side-door. On the higher floor is the ladies gallery.

We went inside, and found the old caretaker, who gave us a wonderful tour of the place in Marathi. This is a Bene-Israeli synagogue.

Freni chatting with the caretaker.

The Bene Israel are the oldest Jewish community in India. Their ancestors were shipwrecked and washed ashore the Konkan coast, south of Bombay. The survivors - seven men and seven women - buried their dead in a site near the village Nawgaon, which later became the Bene Israel cemetery.

The survivors were offered shelter by the local inhabitants and decided to settle permanently in the Konkan villages. They adopted Hindu names similar to their Biblical first names, but became known by their “-kar” surnames, which indicated the village in which they lived in, or sometimes, their occupation. So for me, the most fascinating thing about the synagogue were the name boards!!

What an interesting collection of first names and surnames! Moses Talegawkar, from Talegaon of course!

The synagogue itself is very quaint. I loved the old mezzuzah that was affixed to the doorway, and the beautifully carved door that housed the Torah. The furniture is all old wood, and the benches are solid, with no nails. I tried to move a bench, but it was too heavy. The gallery for women is separate, on the first floor, and there are steps on the outside that you can use to go upstairs. The caretaker told us some interesting tales, and explained his daily routine. I found it very interesting that the lamps in this synagogue are lit with coconut oil. And he showed us how he makes the lamps and places the wicks.

If you are anywhere near Bhendi Bazaar, I would recommend going to this synagogue, for a glimpse of an interesting community that has played an important role in Bombay's history. On the Mumbai Magic Jewish Heritage Tour, my guides have been taking people to this synagogue. But I wanted to see it for myself, and I'm glad I did!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

A feast, a feast!! (and a glorious saree)

Last week, Mom and I went to Matunga to buy a saree.
Not any old saree, but an ombudu-gajam, that Queen of Sarees, all of nine yards long, the ultimate, definitive, TamBram garment.
We got there a little early, and the saree shop hadn't opened yet. So in keeping with our TamBram roots, we decided to have coffee at Manis Lunch Home. As we went in, both Mom and I stopped in our tracks - there was this giant 10 foot poster outside:

Mani's Lunch Home - Invitation to the Onam Feast on Sep 2
Talk about authentic food! This is about as good as it gets!
I wanted to go eat there today, but the morning was manic, so I was stuck at my desk. I have to be content instead, with posting a picture of *another* feast I went to yesterday.
Palakkad Wedding Meal - and this is only the first course!!

My cousin Ravi got married at Bangalore, and this is the photo of the main muhurtham meal. Very similar to the Onam sadya, in fact, most of the items listed in the menu above were served. We all ate until we burst.
As for the ombodu-gajam saree, here is mom, looking resplendent in it! I don't know how to drape this saree, so I have promised myself I am going to learn it. I want to look like this some day!
Mom and Dad with Aishwarya.

The ombudu-gajam is from Lakshmi Silks, another venerable Matunga institution. My grandmother used to buy there, and so does my mom. My sister and I have been sensibly following in their footsteps. The South Cottons at Lakshmi Silks are fantastic.

By the way, if you overhear a conversation between two TamBram women in Matunga, it will likely go something like this:

"Nalla irrukey! Enga vaanginai podavai?". This saree looks good! Where did you buy it?

"Iyengaaru-kadai daan, vera engai!" (this said with a smile). At Iyengaar's shop, where else!

If you are part of the inner coterie, then you'll know that 'Iyengaar' refers to the owner of Lakshmi Silks, a man responsible for much female happiness in the Matunga area.
Lakshmi Silks is a tiny shop near the kabutarkhana in Matunga Market. Business is done the old fashioned way. You leave footwear outside, step into a small airconditioned area. You sit on the floor, on mats. You explain what you are looking for. Soon, the sarees emerge, silk and cotton, exquisite Kancheevarams, beautiful Mangalagiris, checked Chettinaads...your head reels with pleasure. You take your time. You examine everything.
Perhaps it is that arresting maroon that calls out to you, the one with the temple motif and the glorious golden pallu. Or perhaps it is that beautfiful mango yellow, the one with the green and gold border.
Eventually, you make a selection. You fork out money, watch as the precious saree is wrapped...and then you walk out, clutching your bundle of silken happiness, plotting when to wear it.

Ah, Matunga, Matunga! Long may your shops thrive!