Saturday, 21 January 2017

Kolkata (Calcutta)'s Jewish Cemetery - a heritage site

Jewish cemetery, Kolkata (Calcutta)www.jewishcalcutta.in

Kolkata  (Calcutta), the capital city of West Bengal, India was also the Capital of the British India until it moved over to Delhi in 1911.  Europeans in large numbers arrived here to seek job and business opportunities when the East India company became well-established and kept expanding their control over other regions as well . Obviously, the population of the European community had begun to grow larger.  

 Jews have been living in India, in particular, on the coastal Kerala and west coast even before the arrival of St. Thomas, the Apostle in 52 AD. However, the British East India company created a favourable atmosphere  for the Jewish community to explore business opportunities in India. The history of the Jews in Kolkata  (Calcutta)  dates back to the eighteenth century. The Jewish community of Kolkata was  mostly from West Asia -  Baghdadi Jews.   

Calcutta, in the colonial period,  had a flourishing Jewish community that was mostly engaged in small businesses and the population was  about  6,000 strong. Because of Jewish migation to Israel after its formation in the 1940s, the population had declined drastically. At present  there may be  fewer than 100 Jews in Kolkata. During the hey day, the Bagdadi jews outnumberd Jews from other places.
Jewish Cemetery, Kolkata. Rangan Datta.wordpress.com/2014
Naveh Shalom Synagogue. rangandatta.wordpress.com
To cater to their spiritual needs and other religion-related services in the later years, they had built the places of worship. At one time there were  five Synagogues in Kolkata and among them, Magen David Synagogue, Beth El Synagogue, and Naveh Shalom Synagogue, seem to be functional on a low key today. 
Elia Moses Chohen's headstone. www.jewishcalcutta.in
Geniza, at the Narkeldanga Cemetery, in Kolkata, India. en.wikipedia.org
Synagogues normally will have a Geniza (a word derived from Persian  ganj), a  special chamber where worn-out Hebrew religious
Calcutta Jewish cemetery. Charity box .jewishcalcutta.in
 
or writings  are kept before the burial of the burial of the body. The Geniza is mostly either built within the synagogue itself or in the burial ground.  Calcutta synagogues had two chambers - Genizot. If one chamber is full, it will be sealed and the other one is used for religious materials, texts, etc. In Jewish religion, it is forbidden to throw away the books or writings, containing God's name. In many cases, the Genizot are temporary repositiries and can be found in the attic or in the basement of a synagogue. In many places they may be in the walls or in the burial ground as mentoned before.
Jewish cemetery, Kolkata (Calcutta). jewishcalcutta.in
 Since the Jewish community had grown larger, it badly needed  a place, where the departed souls would be given  a decent burial in accordance with Jewish rites.  The very first burial took place in January 1812 in the city. As per the record, the first man to be buried was one Hacham Moses on a big plot bought in 1798  for building a graveyard.  The land owner happened to be a generous Bengali businessman, who accepted a nominal rate (simply a gold ring), from  one Shalom Cohen, the first Jewish immigrant to Calcutta from, Aleppo, Syria. Initially, the Indian gentleman was kind enough to offer his land free, but Moses refused to accept it as the land was meant for burial alone. Moses was also an active social worker and had a deep care for the welfare of the small, but growing Jewish community in Calcutta. 

The Jewish Cemetery at 45 Narikeldanga Main Road has lots of graves, but the place of burial of Cohen, the man, who built the Jewish burial ground, is difficult to track, though his headstone, etc are recovered. The reason being, the time factor, vagaries of weather, lack of maintenance and above all nature's weathering action, that can not be controlled. Most of the graves have 
Magen David Synagogue in Kolkata. en.wikipedia.org
similar design and appearance with no complex structure  and ornamentation. No embelishments whatsoever. More over, they are widely scattered and were not built in a definite pattern. Near the entrance gate, there is a Star of David sign mark on the wall, presumably, the place  used to be a prayer hall. The other private Jewish graveyard about one kilometre from here  was opened in 1870 on U.C. Bannerjee Road is not traceable now. It lasted  20 years only and later fell into disuse  There are signs of vandalism inside the graveyard, and it does happen  in spite of the warning board put up by the authorities.

Ref:
https://rangandatta.wordpress.com/2014/11/19/jewish-cemetery-kolkata-calcutta/

http://www.jewishcalcutta.in