Constructed between 1863 and 1867 and located on Moledina Road near M.G. and Ambedkar Roads, Ohel David Synagogue in Pune is the largest synagogue built in India.
The area around the synagogue became known as Pune Camp (or Cantonment) due to a military district being established to accommodate the British Indian Army in 1918. For over 150 years the synagogue has served the city’s Baghdadi Jewish community, and is known locally as Lal Deval (“lal” in Marathi means “red”, a reference to the distinctive colour of the building’s exterior brick).
Construction of the synagogue was made possible by David Sassoon (b.1792, d.1864), a philanthropist who was born in Baghdad and immigrated to India in the early 19th century.
He was a member of the great Sassoon dynasty that made its mark in trading, commerce and shipping in India, and funded the construction of many other religious, civic and institutional buildings in both the city and Pune and elsewhere in India. Initially Baghdadi Jews came to India on a seasonal basis, but eventually they settled in permanent communities in Pune as well as other major cities such as Kolkata and Mumbai, largely as a result of increasing persecution in their own counties. David Sassoon died in his country house in Pune in 1864, his very elaborate but somewhat overgrown and neglected tomb stands outside the entrance to the synagogue.
In many respects the building, distinctly of the Gothic Revival style, would not look out of place anywhere in the UK. It was designed by Henry Saint Clair Wilkins (b.1828, d.1896), a British army officer, architect, draftsman and artist, who served in the East India Company and was employed in the public works department of British India. In Pune alone Henry Wilkins is responsible for the architectural design of this synagogue, the Sassoon Hospital, and the Deccan College.
As an archaeologist I was also interested to read that he spearheaded the restoration of the ancient tanks in the Tawella Valley in the Yemen, which date back to 600 A.D.
Since the Mumbai attacks of 2009, access to the synagogue is generally not permitted and only possible if prior arrangements have been made. I was completely unaware of any of this, and was almost immediately confronted by a security guard when I entered the grounds of the synagogue. I have since learned that the synagogue has 24×7 security present. The guard claimed that entrance was not possible at all, but shortly afterwards he was making phone calls whilst I walked around the grounds. Within 10 minutes the main doors to the building were being unlocked, and I was allowed in. I think I was very very lucky !
At its zenith the synagogue would have accommodated over 100 families, and as a result the sanctuary is impressively large. I’m am not well versed in the internal architecture of synagogues, so my descriptions are likely to be somewhat superficial.
The central nave with its raised platform (bimah) is separated from the side aisles by a colonnade. Above the side aisles is a gallery where the woman sit, following the Orthodox Jewish tradition of separating the genders. Tall windows on both sides are filled with geometric patterns of stained glass, it’s the lighting and that splurge of intense colour that immediately grabs your attention upon first entering the space.
It’s a beautiful and peaceful space, a far cry from the busy streets just outside the compound. As I mentioned earlier, access to the synagogue is usually by appointment only, and I believe can be arranged via the congregational leadership on telephone number 91.20.26132048. Alternatively you could try and get access when you visit. although I was successful I have read plenty of reports saying that usually it is not possible at all.
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