Sister Shuls: The Blue Synagogue in Mumbai

The Blue Synagogue [Credit: Dinodia Photos/Alamy via Atlas Obscura]

In “Sister Shuls,” we travel virtually to other synagogues whose exuberant architecture has a kinship with our landmark home, the Eldridge Street Synagogue.

So far, we’ve traveled to Prague and Budapest looking at beautiful synagogues that remind us, in some ways, of Eldridge Street. Today’s virtual journey was inspired by an Instagram follower, and it takes us halfway around the world to the Blue Synagogue (Keneseth Eliyahoo) in Mumbai.

A synagogue in India might at first seem a bit surprising – but it shouldn’t.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries in Mumbai (then called Bombay), a large community of Baghdadi Jews lived in the Kala Ghoda neighborhood near the Blue Synagogue. The synagogue was built in 1884, just three years before Eldridge Street. Sir Jacob Elias Sassoon backed the project. Sassoon was the owner of the biggest textile mill in Bombay and the family had interests in textiles, banking, real estate, hotels, and overseas trade. They were the unofficial leaders of the Jewish community in the city. 

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Inside the Blue Synagogue, left, and Eldridge Street, right.  Both sanctuaries are lined with stained-glass windows.  The balcony-level windows in both spaces have the same shape – an arched top filled with three circles.  

The Blue Synagogue was designed by British architectural firm of Gostling and Morris. The exterior is a Classical Revival style; the interior reflects Victorian decoration trends. Many of the decorative elements actually come from England – Minton tile floors, stained-glass windows, and cast-iron supporting columns were all shipped to India during construction.

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Left:  The Blue Synagogue’s supporting columns are cast iron, and its arches edged with decorative flourishes.  Right:  The supporting columns at Eldridge Street are reportedly ship masts, giant wooden columns that reach from the floor of the main sanctuary up through the balcony. Its arches are covered in painted decoration.

One major similarity between the Mumbai synagogue and ours on Eldridge Street? Orthodox practice required that women in both synagogues sit separately from men. In both spaces, a balcony rings the sanctuary, providing half of the congregation with a lofted place to sit and pray. Both spaces also feature a central bimah, the platform from which the Torah is read. As is customary, both arks – the cabinet that holds the Torah scrolls – are on the building’s wall that faces Jerusalem. But in New York, it’s the eastern wall; in Mumbai, the western wall.

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Both the Blue Synagogue (left) and the Eldridge Street Synagogue (right) have a central bimah (reader’s platform), and both have tall light fixtures at each corner to provide light for the reader.

The Blue Synagogue was a center of Jewish life in its heyday, packed to capacity especially during holiday services. By the 1940s, India’s Jewish population peaked at about 20,000. But those numbers declined rapidly after Indian independence in 1947, when the new government put restrictions on Jewish businesses. Those who could afford to leave immigrated to England, Canada, the United States and Australia. Some went to Israel.  By the 1990s, barely 200 Baghdadi Jews remained in Mumbai.  

The decline of the Jewish population in Mumbai led to the decline of the Blue Synagogue building, just as the steady shrinking of the Eldridge Street congregation led to the eventual deterioration of its building. Like our own historic building, the synagogue in Mumbai was saved by an extensive restoration. The Blue Synagogue’s renewal was completed in 2019 and funded by the World Monuments Fund, the JSW Foundation and others.  

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Keneseth Eliyahoo (Knesset Eliyahu) came to be called the Blue Synagogue because for many of its 136 years it was coated, inside and out, in a wash of pale blue paint (left).  After restoration (right), it wears a darker shade of blue.  

Keneseth Eliyahoo has long been synonymous with its neighborhood, Kala Ghoda, a hip arts and culture district in downtown Mumbai. It was its distinctive light blue façade that made it so recognizable. But they made a surprising discover during restoration. During paint analysis of the exterior, a darker color was revealed on the façade – a more inky indigo blue. Restorers had uncovered the original paint color! That dark shade now graces the façade, paired with white trim.  

The inside of the synagogue had also been painted light blue, but when seven layers of paint were scraped off, its original grey-green color palette was revealed. The interior paint at Eldridge Street went through a similar process during restoration. Evergreene Architectural Arts used scalpels to remove layers of paint that had covered the original decoration in the sanctuary. In both buildings, the original designs have been restored to their former glory. The stained glass was treated to a complete refresh in both synagogues as well.

At the Blue Synagogue (left), stained glass was painstakingly removed, cleaned and reconstructed, just as it was at Eldridge Street (right). In both cases, artisans used a paper pattern as a guide to place the glass.

Today, completely restored and breathtakingly beautiful, the Blue Synagogue welcomes visitors of all faiths, and it is still a house of worship for the small community of Mumbai Jews who remain. Like Eldridge Street, it stands as a marker of a time long past when a vibrant Jewish community was an active part of the business, cultural and spiritual life of its neighborhood and its city.

Do you know a Sister Shul for Eldridge Street?  Let us know in the comments. 

Nancy Johnson is the Museum at Eldridge Street’s archivist and exhibition curator.

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