The Rothschilds of India

'Bombay: Exploring the Jewish Urban Heritage' tells the story of the Baghdadi Jews of Bombay, more specifically those of the Sassoon family, through the buildings and monuments they built and left behind.

A man reads from a prayer book at a synagogue in A man reads from a prayer book at a synagogue in Bombay ombay  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man reads from a prayer book at a synagogue in A man reads from a prayer book at a synagogue in Bombay ombay
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When Prof. Shaul Sapir, an Israeli of Indian Baghdadi origin, came to my office and asked me to release his book entitled Bombay: Exploring the Jewish Urban Heritage, I was skeptical. Did he really mean urban heritage? As I went through his meticulously researched and visually appealing book, I realized that he did. The book tells the story of the Baghdadi Jews of Bombay, more specifically those of the Sassoon family, through the buildings and monuments they built and left behind.
Sapir says that urban historians have neglected the Jewish connection to Bombay’s landscape and he hopes his book will fill this gap. How many Mumbaikars know, for instance, that the famous Flora Fountain, a landmark in the heart of today’s Mumbai (Bombay), is probably named after Flora Sassoon? The Sassoons, who trace their ancestry to Spain, came to be known as the “Rothschilds of India” because of their wealth and philanthropy. The first Sassoon came to Bombay from Baghdad in 1832. The family flourished in the tolerant environment of Bombay and amassed a fortune, initially through their involvement in the opium trade between the British and China.
The Baghdadis became loyal subjects under British rule in India. The photographs in the book show how the family adapted to Western dominion and shed its Arab associations. While the patriarch David is pictured wearing robes and galabiyas, his sons appear in ties and threepiece suits (most unsuitable in Bombay’s humid climate). David’s son Abdullah became the prominent businessman Albert Sassoon, eventually to become Sir Albert Sassoon.
The anglicization extended to the architectural styles they favored. The Ohel David Synagogue in Pune, for instance, is built of red brick and is a high church-like structure in the English Gothic style. The Sassoons’ spacious mansion in the city was influenced by the Renaissance style and was even named Sans Souci (“no worries”) – in deference to the local ethos! Despite this identification with their colonial masters, the Baghdadi Jews also cohabited with the Indian milieu, where different faiths and communities coexisted with dignity and honor. They joined other minorities, notably the Parsees and Muslims, to develop the social and economic life of the city for all its residents.
Sapir’s account shows how it was the Baghdadis and Parsees who were instrumental in building the textile industry in the city. When the American Civil War broke out in the 1860s, the mills in Manchester could no longer depend on US cotton imports. Indian entrepreneurs quickly filled the breach and a number of cotton mills sprang up in Bombay. The first cotton mill was set up by a Parsee and the second by a Jew. Later, business leaders of the two communities established the Bank of India. Sir Sassoon David, who was not from the original Sassoon family, became its chairman – a position he continued to hold till his death 20 years later in 1926.
The Royal Institute of Science was another collaborative effort. The three main buildings of the original institute, established in 1920, were built through donations by a Parsee, a Jew and an Indian Muslim. Today it is one of the premier scientific institutions of the country, though it has abandoned the imperial prefix.
The Sassoons used their wealth and influence to build Baghdadi Jewish neighborhoods, with hospitals, schools, Jewish youth clubs, cotton mills and synagogues.
However, Sapir does not detail how the synagogues were designed and whether they were influenced by local Jewish community or other Sephardi traditions.
The philanthropy of the Sassoons took them to other parts of the city as well as to other communities. They built an industrial and reformatory institution for juvenile delinquents, in the northern quarter, which continues to this day. The inmates of the school were trained to be carpenters, smiths and tailors. The book cites the State Archives which record that in 1867 71 students graduated from the institute.
Of these, only two were Jews.
The fortunes of the Baghdadi Jewish community declined when India became free and the British returned where they came from. The Baghdadis left India in search of greener pastures. Yet, unlike most colonial-era buildings, many of the Jewish buildings and landmarks, such as the Flora Fountain, the Sassoon Docks or the Elly Kadoorie High School, have retained their original names. This living heritage is a testimony to their pride of place in the history of Bombay.
The Baghdadi Jews were only the most recent Jewish immigrants to India. The older and larger population of Jews in Bombay were and are the Bene Israel. They came to India’s west coast many centuries ago and later became a well-knit community in Bombay. Annie Samson, a Bombay Jewess, was the founder principal of the Anjuman Islam School for Muslim girls.
Hebrew was taught as a second language in schools and Bombay University even had a Chair for Hebrew Studies. But culturally and socially, the Bene Israel were more fully integrated into Indian society than the Baghdadi Jews. I was surprised to learn that the Bene Israel community in Israel has been producing a periodical in the Marathi language, decades after they had made aliya.
The story of the Jewish community in India is one of peaceful coexistence over many centuries. They were never persecuted or discriminated against. Their beautiful synagogues in India testify to the strength and vigor of their religious tradition. Shaul Sapir’s book expresses this proud history, while raising interesting questions. What was the contribution of the Bene Israel to Bombay’s landscape? How did the Bene Israel and the Baghdadis relate to each other? Was there just an urban heritage or also an architectural heritage that encompassed both communities? These points of historical interest should be the subject of another discerning labor of love involving one of the most fascinating Jewish communities in the world. ■
The writer is India’s ambassador to Israel.