For the 30 lakh-odd commuters on the Mumbai’s Central suburban line, the derelict sarcophagi and intricately carved mausoleums that pop up between Chinchpokli and Byculla are just the landmarks that alert them about the next railway station.
However, these mausoleums located in the midst of four-storey chawls and lanes teeming with rag-pickers sorting their daily pickings have a rich history, beginning with the arrival of Jewish traders who fled Baghdad due to persecution by the Governor there.
Though they arrived in the city only in the mid-18th century, they left a profound impact on its architectural and infrastructure landscape, building structures like the David Sassoon library and playing an important role in the construction of Mumbai’s docks.
Once, there were 8,000-10,000 of these Jewish traders in Mumbai. Now, there are just 100-odd of them, with many emigrating to countries like Israel while others having found their resting place in the beautiful sarcophagi and mausoleums that dot the cemetery.
The Jewish Cemetery, which finds a mention on the BMC’s heritage list, is spread over two acres and includes over 1000 graves, many of which are placed in intricately carved sarchopagi. But the highlight of the sprawling cemetery is the three intricately carved mausoleums that have been built to honour members of the Sassoon family.
These mausoleums have been constructed in the Victorian style. Each structure, which is one-storey high, encloses a space of 100 square feet. Atop them is mounted a four-feet high marble sarcophagus with inscriptions in Hebrew, in which the remains of the Sassoon family are interred. The entire structure is topped with a beautifully carved Cupola.
“The land for this cemetery was set aside as Jewish burial place by Elias David Sassoon in 1878 in the memory of his son Joseph, who had died in Shanghai,” says Solomon F Sopher, chairman of the Jacob Sassoon Trust that looks after the upkeep of the cemetery and other properties of the community.
Two of the mausoleums house the remains of Sir Jacob Sassoon and his wife Lady Rachael Sassoon who owned a number of business establishments in the city. The third mausoleum, located a few metres away, is built in the memory of Sir Albert Sassoon.
The cemetery also showcases the cruel fate that many of the Jews met at the hands the Nazis. It has small plaques and memorials for many Jews like Ernst Mass, who faced torture and died in concentration camps like Auschwitz.
“The cemetery is also unique for the number of memorials for those who died of persecution by the Nazis,” Sopher says.
Interestingly, the cemetery is also seeing growing instances of family members wanting to transfer the returns of their beloved to Jerusalem. “A lot of people come here to identify the grave of their relatives and make arrangements to transfer the remains to Israel for burial in Jerusalem,” Sopher says.
Like the living, even the community’s dead seem to be leaving the city, he adds, sardonically.