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Mumbai Rewind: Jewish Cemetery, a vestige of the city’s once-thriving Baghdadi trading community

The cemetery also pays tribute to many members of the community who faced torture at the hands the Nazis.

Written by Zeeshan Shaikh | Mumbai |
Updated: December 18, 2021 12:57:07 pm
Jewish Cemetery at Chinchpokli (Express File Photo)

For lakhs of commuters on Mumbai’s Central suburban train service, the unkempt sarcophagi and mausoleums that pop up between Chinchpokli and Byculla serve as landmarks ahead of railway stations.

Nonetheless, these mausoleums located in the midst of four-storey chawls and lanes cramped with rag-pickers sorting their daily pickings are also the vestiges of a once-thriving Baghdadi Jewish trading community in Mumbai.

Members of the community who were forced to move out of Baghdad due to persecution by the governor were relatively new entrants in Mumbai. They arrived in the city in the mid-18th century but left a profound mark on Mumbai’s architectural and infrastructural landscape, building structures like the David Sassoon Library and playing an important role in the construction of Mumbai’s docks.

Erected in the Victorian style, each of the mausoleums are a storey high and contain an enclosed space of 100 sq ft within which is mounted a four-foot-high marble sarcophagus with inscriptions in Hebrew. (Express File Photo)

At their peak, the community members numbered between 8,000 and 10,000. Their strength is now pegged to be less than 100 with many emigrating to countries like Israel, while others have found their final resting place in the beautiful tombs and mausoleums that dot the cemetery.

Spread over two acres, the Jewish Cemetery finds mention on the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) Heritage List and houses over 1,000 graves, many of them encased in intricately carved sarcophagi. Three sculpted mausoleums, built to honour members of the Sassoon family, form the highlight of the sprawling burial ground.

Erected in the Victorian style, each of the mausoleums are a storey high and contain an enclosed space of 100 sq ft within which is mounted a four-foot-high marble sarcophagus with inscriptions in Hebrew. The remains of the Sassoons have been interred in these structures which are topped with a beautifully engraved cupola.

At their peak, the community members numbered between 8,000 and 10,000 (Express File Photo)

Two of the mausoleums are placed close together and 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, was built in memory of Sir Albert Sassoon.

The land was set aside as a Jewish burial place by Elias David Sassoon in 1878 in memory of his son Joseph who had died in Shanghai. The Jacob Sassoon Trust currently looks after the upkeep of the cemetery and other properties of the community.

The cemetery also pays tribute to many members of the community who faced torture at the hands the Nazis. Small plaques and memorials have been put up in remembrance of Jews, including Ernst Mass, who died in concentration camps like Auschwitz.

Interestingly, the graveyard has of late seen growing instances of family members wanting to transfer the remains of their beloved ones to Jerusalem which the Jewish community perceives to be its homeland.

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