Lal Deval – The Forbidden Beauty of Pune

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As magnificent as it is, the red building on Ambedkar Road in Pune never fails to catch your attention every time you cross by that road. Built back in the 1800s by David Sassoon, this spectacular monument, popularly known as Lal Deval is also called Ohel David Synagogue. This 90 feet obelisk turned 150 years old on 2nd November 2014 and is also considered as one of the important tourist attractions of the country. The sheer size and scale of this beautiful synagogue make it the largest in Asia (outside Israel) and the second largest in the world. It leads one to think that there must have been quite a lot of Jews back in the 19th century that would have been filling up this humongous monument.

A synagogue is a place where Jews meet up for religious worship or instruction. They are Jewish by origin but are commonly known as Bene-Israeilis (the original children of Israel) in India. Unaware of such news, were you? Join the boat along with a lot others! Although very few in number, there is a bunch of them present in the city! They have accustomed themselves to all the Indian customs and the local languages of the city but their roots belong to Israel.

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George Judah, President of Synagogue Committee

Dig in deeper and you will know that there are some famous and prominent dignitaries who belong to the same community. One of them is George Judah, President of the Synagogue Committee, another is Lt. Gen R Mordecai, former Combat Engineer in the Indian Army, and one more is S. B. David, former department head of Botany in Pune University. Among them is also Samson Talkar, honorary secretary of the Succath Sholomon Synagogue in Rasta Peth, which is the oldest Bene Israel synagogue in the city. The Ben Israelis believe that original Jews are the ones who have great faith in the Bible and the ones who have always known that they are the original children of Israel.

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Succath Sholomon Synagogue in Rasta Peth
Succath Sholomon Synagogue in Rasta Peth

With an entire population of only about 5000 Bene Israelis in India, Pune city merely has less than half of them residing here. Being extreme minorities, it does prove to be challenging for them to keep their authenticity and originality alive for the coming generations. However, it is nice to see that the Bene Israelis are doing a good job trying to keep their culture intact; they know what they are and also where exactly they come from.

They ensure that they celebrate all their festivals properly, the most well-known among the festivals being Pesach or the Passover Festival. Passover is an eight-day festival celebrated in early spring, from the 15th through the 22nd of the Hebrew month of Nissan. It is said that by following the rituals of Passover, the Bene Israelis receive the ability to relive and experience true freedom, which their ancestors would gain in their years. The Rabbi, the jewish priest, chants the prayers in Hebrew, explaining the significance of the festival that marks the persecution and slavery of Jews in Egypt. The Jewish men wear Kippah, the Jewish skull cap; the women don’t specifically have any dress code. It is celebrated with a ritualistic dinner, which takes place late at night after reciting prayers and the story of how freedom was attained. There are many things that are eaten, but the main delicacy that is prepared is called Motzah, a type of flat bread which is quite hard.

Feast at the Passover Festival
Feast at the Passover Festival

It’s always hard to rebuild your home in a place where you hardly have anyone of your own community, but the Bene Israelis have done their best, fighting through all the difficulties and have created their own little secluded nest here which is spread in bits all over the city.

The Lal Deval premises were open to all until 2010 when the severe German Bakery blasts filled the city with terror. Since then the Lal Deval has been put on high-alert. The security in and around the gate is extremely strict. You can’t even lurk or try to peep inside without being showered with innumerable questions. Today, the entire compound is closed to the non-Jewish crowd. A non-Jewish tourist is allowed to appreciate the synagogue’s unmatched beauty and serenity only from outside and it is probably bound to remain that way.

Picture Credits: israel-india.info, Wikipedia, sakaaltimes.com

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