Just outside the Chichpokli Railway Station in South Mumbai, there is a Jewish Cemetery built by Elias David Sassoon in 1878 in memory of his son Joseph who died in Shanghai in the 1860s. For the daily commuters on the Mumbai’s Central local line, the matching mausoleums that are seen from the Chinchpokli railway station are just landmarks that alert them about the next railway station.
It was that landmark for me during 4 years of my daily commute to work; a mysterious cemetery that decorated the south-west end of a usually dull and sleepy neighbourhood. I used to always look out of the train and be mesmerised by the chafa trees (frangipanis) that thrived bountifully amidst these ‘dead’ grounds, giving a striking contrast.
It took a good part of my time spent in the cemetery’s vicinity to finally get my curiosity kicking. After searching for it on Google and going through a few articles, most of my questions have been answered.
The Story of Jews in Mumbai starts with the arrival of Jewish traders who fled Baghdad due to persecution happening there. Many leaders of the Jewish community, such as Solomon Ma’tuk and David Sassoon were forced to flee to India.
By the early 19th century, trade between Baghdad and India was entirely in the hands of the Jewish community. Though Jewish traders from the Middle East had been crossing the Indian Ocean since antiquity, the deteriorating situation in the Ottoman Empire and the rise of commercial opportunities in British India saw many Jews from Iraq establish themselves permanently in India, at first in Surat, then especially in Calcutta and Bombay.
Though they arrived in the city only in the mid-18th century, they left a profound impact on its architectural and infrastructure landscape. They also played an important role in the construction of Mumbai’s docks. It’s hard to find a Jewish landmark in Mumbai that doesn’t have a Sassoon connection!
This cemetery is no exception. Two matching mausoleums that are easily seen from the Railway Station, house the remains of Sir Jacob Sassoon, and his wife Lady Rachael. Yet another mausoleum situated slightly to the left of these matching mausoleums is the burial spot of Sir Albert Sassoon. These Victorian style mausoleums are one-storey high have a high marble sarcophagus with inscriptions in Hebrew mounted on them and topped with a beautifully carved Cupola.
The Jewish Cemetery finds a mention on the BMC’s (Bombay Municipal Corporation) heritage list and is spread over two acres including over 1000 graves. The cemetery also stands as a unique and a loving remembrance to the Jewish Holocaust victims who are honoured on plaques here.
A plaque dedicated to Otto Mass reveals that he died in Buchenwald in 1938, while another lovingly remembers Ernst Mass who died in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Today, the majority of Mumbai’s Jews have resettled in Israel and many want to transfer the remains back to Israel to be buried in Jerusalem.
Looking out of the jam-packed trains; this cemetery always looks peaceful and quiet. Occasionally when a soft breeze whiffs the smell of the chafas, I can’t help but be overwhelmed by the graveyard. For a Mumbaikar who keeps running around the clock, in a serene and peaceful cemetery can only his fast-paced life come to rest…
© 2018 Ashwini Nawathe, Kaleidoscope of My Life
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