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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Jews of Konkan (Bene Israeli) – Alibaug and beyond

From times immemorial, India was considered to be a safe place for various religious groups facing persecution in their home lands. Jews are considered to be the earliest, seeking refuge and  settling in this hospitable country. Once, while at Kochi (Cochin), roaming in the Jews Street, we found a dead Jew waiting for 10 persons of their clan,  for the religious ceremonies to commence, for his burial. (You can find it here). This created an urge to know about this community, still found in various states of India.    

Samuel Halegua

Incidentally we learn that Mr. Samuel Halegua, the head of Kochi’s Paradesi Synagogue, a great story teller, passed away to his heavenly abode on the 17th September last year. He was 76 .Our homage's to him.

It was a mere coincidence that we got the opportunity to learn about the Jews settled and still found in the State of Maharashtra when we were on a visit to Mumbai during the second half of last year. We had knowledge that  Central Konkan was the area where they flourished and therefore Alibaug  became the preferred place from where we could make a beginning. Although the easiest way to reach Alibaug is to take a ferry from the Gateway of India, we decided in favor of the land route via Panvel, Pen and Wadkhal Naka. This way the distance worked out to be nearly 135 kilometers (one way).

We embarked on our journey in a Sedan and reached Pen, a small town en-route by 10.00 AM. In a Udipi hotel, we had our  breakfast. Alibaug was still an hour’s drive from that place. We were there by 11.00 AM.
Alibaug is a weekend getaway for Mumbaikar’s in general and for the fun loving in particular. Many affluent people of Mumbai including the film stars have got lavish villas constructed at vintage points. The town is said to have been established by one Muslim trader called “Ali” who got many gardens/orchards and wells constructed there. One Kanhoji Angre, a general in Shivaji’s army, feared by the Portuguese as well as the British, is credited for bringing fame to this beautiful place. He hailed from Alibaug where his memorial (Samadhi) still exists. It is only on reaching Alibaug that we learnt it to be the head quarters of Raigad District.

The Direction Board - The small board telling about the Synagogue was over looked
Driving straight through the town, we came across a direction board showing the way to the sea front. We followed it and within five minutes, were facing the Arabian Sea. A tiled platform with attractive lighting/seating arrangements and lined with trees has made the beach look more beautiful. The Colaba Fort, deep in the sea, was visible but  not approachable due to high tide during that point of time. During the low tide, i.e. mornings and evenings one could visit the fort hiring the horse drawn carts or even by foot.

The Colaba Fort as seen during High Tide
The platform on the beach
Colaba Fort - 1855
A closer view of one of the bastions of the fort
The Colaba Fort was got constructed and developed as a naval base by the great Chhatrapati Shivaji in 1652 to keep an eye on the movements of the Portuguese and British ships as also on the African Siddhis who were based nearby at Murud Zanjira. There are several temples inside the fort and the important one being that of ‘Siddhi Vinayak’ which was built by Raghoji Andre, the general of Shivaji, in the year 1759. Additionally there are temples dedicated to ‘Jai Bhavani’ and ‘Hanuman’. It would be interesting to learn that there are several sweet water wells inside the fort though it is surrounded by the sea. From a photograph of the fort taken in 1855 and available in Wikipedia, it appears that at that time the fort was very much on the coastal land but over a period of time the sea has made deep inroads. There was frustration amongst the lady members in our group for not getting an opportunity to visit the ‘Siddhi Vinaka’ temple inside the fort. They were pacified by a promise to take them to another equally important Vinayaka temple some 20 kms. South.

While returning from the beach, we decided to have a look at the Jewish Temple (Synagogue). We reached the very place from where we had taken a right turn towards the beach. In the corner there was a general store where we stopped and sought for directions to the place we intended to visit. We were delighted to learn from the owner of the shop that the road  adjoining the shop was the Israeli Lane and that the synagogue was very close, located in the 1st lane to the left. Incidentally the shop owner himself was a Jew, which we learnt later but he had given some Maharshtrian name which we forgot. We found that people were familiar with the synagogue if one asks for the Israeli Masjid.

Typical houses in the Israeli lane - Here we were required to turn to the left
We took the road as suggested to us and parked our vehicle at the corner of the 1st lane to the left and proceeded to  spot  the synagogue by foot. At a small distance on the left side of the lane there was an old well and some ladies were drawing water in buckets. We again sought help from  them and were told that the next building is the one we were looking for. Soon we were in front of the small gate which was at  the back of the synagogue. We peeped inside. There was an outhouse like structure within and by its side an old man was seen washing his hands in a tap. Though the main entrance was some distance away,  we led ourselves in through the small gate and confronted the old man. We asked him whether the synagogue is open to visitors . He smiled and asked us to make ourselves comfortable on the benches  at the main entry. We did so and within 10 minutes the same old man appeared well dressed  carrying a bunch of keys. He opened the main door and switched on all the lights inside and then invited us to come in. We desired to give full respect to their traditions and therefore requested the lady members in our small group to cover their heads with the Sari’s ends to which my wife retorted, No! we (South Indians) do not do that while entering our temples. The males, only two of us, covered our heads with the hanky's we had. We explained to the ladies that the temple belongs to a different faith and that we need to follow their system when we enter their place of worship. The message was well received and they obliged.

Front view of the Alibaug Synagogue
All of us entered the Synagogue and found it well maintained. There was a raised platform (Pulpit or the Altar) at the far end covered with a railing with a chair for the Rabbi (priest). Several wooden benches were also there for the people. The hall was not very much ornate as compared to the synagogue at Kochi. It looked like a Christian Church. We wanted to know about the “Tora”, their religious writings. The old man was surprised, perhaps he never expected us to know about it. He immediately opened the cabinet on the back wall in which were placed three cylindrical drums placed vertically. They contained the “Tora” scrolls. In front of the cabinet, a burning brass lamp shielded with a perforated covering was hanging by the ceiling. We were told that the lamp is kept burning all the 24 hours  using coconut oil.

Jacob Eliza in the Pulpit
While the other members of the group were busy going around, I engaged the old man to learn about him. He was very co-operative. He told that he is Jacob Eliza and is 72 years old. I wanted him to repeat his name but now he added ‘Dandekar’. When asked, if he is a Maharashtrian,  he said that he is a ‘Bene Israeli’ and that the surname is linked to the village to which he belonged, as is the practice in their community.  We were told that there are now only four families residing at Alibaug. He is the head of that Synagogue and offers prayers three times a day regularly, all alone. He has a son who has migrated to Israel but his wife lives with him. The shop keeper who guided us was also a ‘Bene Israeli’ whose son aged 16 is the youngest member in the community. He narrated their history.The community believes that they came to India even before the construction of the 2nd temple at Jerusalem i.e. around 500 BC. They left Israel to save their lives but due to ship wreck in the Konkan coast, they swam and found shelter at ‘Nagaon’. Only 14 people survived which included 7 lady members. The dead were buried on the sea coast. When their population rose, they started migrating to other parts of Konkan. For their livlihood, they became farm workers. Many of them became oil expellers/traders. They adopted the local dialect and surnames akin to other Maharashtrians. In all there are 142 surnames based on the names of villages they got settled. They prefer to call  themselves as ‘Bane Israeli rather than a ‘Jew’. However in Konkan area they are referred to as ‘Shanivari Teli’ since they never went to work on Saturdays (Sabbath). They were, however, ignorant of various rituals associated with their faith. During the 17th century, one David Rahabi, a jew from Kochi identified them as belonging to one of the 12 lost tribes on the basis of certain traditions followed by them.  He made them conversant with “Hebrew”, their ancestral language and also trained them  in religious rituals.It is believed that though Jews had animosity with the muslims, the Quran recognises Bene Israelis as the people close to Allah. This is one of the reasons that Bene Israelis did not prefer to be called as Jews so that they could live in peace with the muslims here. They also do not eat beef lest the Hindus get annoyed. Presently their number is reckoned at around 4000 in Maharashtra. One of the most beautiful synagogue is stated to be at Pune whereas the one at Panvel is said to be the most benevolent where wishes get fulfilled.

After thanking Mr. Jacob for the insight provided by him, we proceeded to a Gujrati Resraurant as we were feeling hungry. After taking lunch with liberal doses of butter milk, we were heading for the Birla’s Vinayaka Temple which was at ‘Agarkot’ near ‘Revdanda’ some 20 kilometers away. Initially the road was winding through rice fields and started passing through beautiful villages with good houses. There was greenery all around. Vegetation was very thick. Houses were surrounded by Coconut, Aricanut, Jackfruit and many other trees. We felt as if we are passing through the interior parts of Kerala. En-route we passed through ‘Nagaon’, the place where the Jews originally settled. Then there was ‘Chaul’ which was once a main centre of the Portuguese. An old church of their times still exists together with the ruins of the fort they had built. From the ramparts of the ruined fort one can have a captivating view of the ‘Revdanda’ coastline. We tried capture it in our Camera but the shutter refused to open up. Therefore a borrowed view is given here. It seems that we lost our way. After crossing a bridge we were to reach Revdanda and then to Agarkot but before we could consult the passers by, there appeared a medieval temple. We stopped there and visited the deity inside the temple which was Someshwar Mahadeva and the place was Chaul Sarai. The road beyond could have taken us back to Alibaug.

Revdanda Coastline
Revdanda Synagogue
Someshwara Mahadev Temple, Chaul Sarai
From Chaul Sarai we returned back and found our way to Revdanda where we could find one more synagogue which was tile roofed and appeared as a residential house . We could not spend much time there and proceeded to locate Agarkot where the Birla temple is located. Passed another bridge which was at the end of river Kundalika joining the Sea (Roha creek) . There were several barges/small ships laden with iron ore which was being loaded onto a conveyor belt system. Farther away the Vikram Ispat Co.(Birla Group) was in full stream. We presumed it to be rolling mill manufacturing steel plates/sheets as we also came across several trucks standing there laden with rolled sheets of steel. The Vikram Vinayak Temple is located few kilometers away from the plant on a small hill. On reaching the place we found that there were numerous steps leading to the temple and the ladies got scared. There was also an approach by road which was opened up after several pleadings with a condition that the vehicle should return back immediately after leaving us at the temple. Cameras and mobile phones with built in cameras were strictly prohibited. (We could not understand the rationale behind this as this is a modern structure) We agreed to all their conditions and proceeded. When we reached the top, it was really a marvelous sight all round. The temple was built of white marble with a Sydney opera like structure in the front. Apart from the Vinayaka (Ganesha) there were other deities in closed shelters on  the sides. The premises were kept very clean surrounded by a garden. In one corner there was a statue of Vikram Birla as well.

After the visit, we observed a deep sense of fulfillment appearing on the faces of members in our group, specially the ladies. Although there were several places to be visited at Revdanda and Chaul, we had to rush back to Mumbai as we were obliged to relieve the driver before 8.00 PM.