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Artist reveals the beauty of India’s historical synagogues

Anna Game-Lopata
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Published: 31 May 2022

Last updated: 4 March 2024

A new exhibition of watercolours captures India’s rich Jewish heritage through its more than 40 synagogues

Jay Waronker remembers the exact moment his interest in the synagogues of India was sparked.

“Browsing the library shelves one afternoon as an architecture student at Harvard University, I came across a small book titled, The Synagogue. Within its pages was a list of countries where synagogues existed, and to my surprise, India was included.”

At the time, Waronker overwhelmingly associated India with the Taj Mahal, turban-wearing Sikhs, Mahatma Gandhi and of course, curries, not to mention the birthplace of Buddhism.

Now a practicing architect and architectural historian in Atlanta and a professor of architecture at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, Waronker says he knew that someday, his attention would be consumed by these “curious religious buildings in a distant and unfamiliar land”.

Waronker grew up in Atlanta as a member of one of the largest conservative congregations in the United States, Ahavath Achim. He says its modernist synagogue dating back to 1958 is still his spiritual home.

Magen Aboth Synagogue, Maharashtra, Built 1840, Rebuilt 1910 (Jay Waronker)
Magen Aboth Synagogue, Maharashtra, Built 1840, Rebuilt 1910 (Jay Waronker)

Not surprisingly, when he started to travel as an adult, Waronker sought out synagogues wherever he went. “As an ancient category, synagogues over history have very rarely conformed to stylistic rules anywhere in the world or, as an architectural genre, been resolved in unique or identifiable terms,” he enthuses.

However, Waronker can’t easily explain his preoccupation with synagogues in India. Despite no ethnic connection to the faraway subcontinent, he was curious about the seemingly incongruous Jewish houses of prayer set in an Indian landscape. This led to several efforts to preserve, maintain and share the importance of these buildings. He has also published widely on the subject, including The Synagogues of India: Architecture, History and Communities.

Awarded funding from a variety of sources, Waronker made several trips to India between the late 1990s and early 2000s to document the synagogues that had fascinated him for so long. This culminated in a body of eighty watercolours to be showcased in the Journeys in Watercolours - Synagogues of India exhibition

Self-taught, Waronker’s watercolours set out to meticulously reveal the exteriors and interiors of these houses of prayer, “not in their original pristine conditions, but as greatly-used, often imperfect and much beloved buildings.”

“I had never painted using watercolours before but selected the medium since it seemed to best capture the essence and character of the often aged, soft-edged, weathered, worn, sometimes soiled and gritty, marginally maintained and derelict synagogues that I visited in India,” he says.

Parur Synagogue Interior, Jew Town Paravur. Built 1164 (Jay Waronker)
Parur Synagogue Interior, Jew Town Paravur. Built 1164 (Jay Waronker)

India’s oldest synagogues were built by the Cochini Jews from central Kerala in the country’s south-west. Cochini synagogue structures, some originating in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, can be found in a handful of locations near the Arabian Sea coastline of Kerala. The oldest confirmed synagogue, in the village of Kochangadi, was destroyed in 1795 by natural disaster, but a surviving inscription dates it to 1344.

Estimates of the Cochini Jewish population in the early 1950s are thought to be about twenty-five hundred people. Currently, there are seven standing synagogue buildings in Kerala that belong or once belonged to the Cochini Jews.

Bene Israel, another of India’s Jewish groups, and by far its largest, arrived as ancient traders from the Middle East. The time frame of their first settlements is unknown, but eventually, they inhabited dozens of towns and villages in the Konkan Coast’s Raigad district where they followed Jewish customs and practices in isolated enclaves among larger Indian communities. In the mid-1800s, several of the Bene Israel relocated to nearby Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Pune, as these British colonial cities were expanding.

Meanwhile, the Baghdadi Jews, traders from Iraq, also had sustainable communities by the early-to-middle 1800s in Kolkata (Calcutta), Mumbai and Pune. Today in India they number less than a hundred people, yet their synagogues remain open, and visitors are welcome. In recent years, Baghdadi synagogues have been carefully restored. 

As a result of the political and economic changes ensuing from Indian independence, many Jews opted to emigrate. In 1954 at its height, India’s Jewish population was around thirty-five thousand people, but by the closing years of the twentieth century, it was fewer than five thousand.

Recently, a growing appreciation of India’s cross-cultural, multi-religious identity has seen a greater awareness and appreciation of its synagogue architecture and Jewish history.

Increased tourism by Israelis and other nationals of Indian descent wanting to celebrate their heritage has helped. The synagogues of India are becoming increasingly recognised as historical and architectural landmarks and destinations.

“Many congregants recall and cherish their experiences growing up in the India synagogues, where the country’s three more well-known and historically-rooted communities – the Bene Israel, Cochini and Baghdadi – and more recent groups, the Bene Ephraim and B’nei Menashe, gathered and prayed, became a part of a mutual whole, joyously and solemnly celebrated holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Simchat Torah and Yom Kippur,” Waronker says.

“Collectively, the synagogues continue to have relevance architecturally and aesthetically, emotionally as well as communally and privately. Since little has been published to date on India’s synagogues, the foremost purpose of the exhibition is an attempt to fill a gap in existing research and awareness on this singular building type.”

In the watercolours, the synagogues hum with life. People hang out in front of them, chatting. Cyclers pedal by, street hawkers sell their wares amid sidewalk clutter and vegetation, while those working in or visiting the houses of prayer go about their business as usual.

Journeys in Watercolours - Synagogues of India exhibition commences 1 June at the Emmanuel Synagogue in Sydney, in association with the Indian Jewish Association of Australia and New Zealand (IJAANZ).

Photo:Paradesi Synagogue Interior, Synagogue Lane, Jew Town, Kochi, Built 1568 (Jay Waronker)

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