Jewish Cemetery, Kolkata (Calcutta)
Phoolbagan, Narkeldanga Main Road, Kolkata (Calcutta)
Also See: Kolkata (Calcutta ) Jews
“The synagogue’s members followed a custom ……… of depositing their writing in a special chamber in the synagogue so that they could be disposed of with special rites later. The chamber in which the documents were kept were known by the term ‘Geniza,’ a word that thought to have come into Hebrew from a Persian root, ganj, meaning ‘storehouse’ – a common element in place – names in India and Iran, …. like ‘Ballygunge’ and ‘Daltongunj.'”
Amitav Ghosh, In An Antique Land
It may seem strange that common localities in Kolkata (Calcutta), like Ballygunge and Tollygunge, have derived their name from Geniza, the store house of abandoned Jewish religious text!!!!
Although Kolkata (Calcutta) once had an active Jewish community and had five synagogues, three (Magen David Synagogue, Beth El Synagogue and Naveh Shalome Synagogue) of which are still active today, but none ever had a geniza. But genizot (plural for geniza) are not necessarily located in a synagogue they can also be located in Jewish Cemetery.
The Jewish Cemetery in Kolkata (Calcutta) houses two genizot, the older one is sealed off, as it was filled to capacity, but the new one still towers above the graves of the Jewish Cemetery.
The Jewish Cemetery in Kolkata (Calcutta) is located on 45 Narekeldanga Main Road and right on the Phoolbagan crossing. The cemetery has an interesting history.
According to historical records, the first recorded Jewish immigrant to Kolkata (Calcutta) was Shalon Cohen in 1798 from Aleppo in present day Syria, soon the Jewish community in the city started to grow. The first recorded Jewish death in the city happened on 1st Jan. 1812 and the community needed a cemetery as the deceased Hacham Moses needed to be buried.
Shalom Cohen approached one of his business associate, a Bengali gentleman for land.
He offered him a large plot of land, near the Phoolbagan crossing, completely free of cost.
But Cohen refused to accept the land for free as it was supposed to be used for religious purpose.
The Bengali gentleman told Cohen to pay what ever he wish, Cohen took out a gold ring from his finger and offered it as the payment for the land and the deal was sealed.
Today the Jewish Cemetery on the Narkelgdanga Main Road is still active and contains hundreds of graves but sadly the graves of Moses or Cohen can no longer be traced. Some records suggest the presence of another private Jewish Cemetery in the nearby 24, U. C. Banrejee Road, but it probably no longer exists.
Just on the left of the entrance is a pavilion marked with the star of David, which also served as a prayer hall. A marble plaque indicates that the pavilion was erected by Mrs. Galla David Gubbay, in memory of her late father Mr. Saul David Lanyado.
Another plaque on the outer walls of the pavilion says that all the water and electric work of the Jewish Cemetery was done by Mrs. Flora E. E. Ezra in 1927.
But the most interesting plaque, put up in 1922 says “Anyone found loitering within the graveyard either before or after sunset without the boards knowledge will be considered as a trespasser and dealt with acording to law.”
The graves are scattered all over the cemetery and are similar in structure, most of them rising only to a height of about three feet and devoid of any ornamentation, a sharp contrast with the towering obelisk of the South Park Street Cemetery. But the heart breaking similarity between the Jewish Cemetery and the South Park Street Cemetery is the presence of large number of child graves. Some of these graves in the Jewish Cemetery measures less than a foot in length.
The structure that stands out in the Jewish Cemetery in Kolkata (Calcutta) is the new geniza. Although only about 12 feet in height, it towers above the three feet high graves. The geniza was erected in honor of Joshep Rahamin Judah Leveroy by his widow and sons.
Just next to the pavilion is another interesting structure. It stands on a pentagonal base and rises to a height of about 5 feet.
It has a locked door and inscription in both Hebrew and English, which indicates that it serves a a vault for donation. During the time of the burial, people drop money in the vault, which is annually cleared and donated to the poor.
Although most of the graves in the Jewish Cemetery in Kolkata (Calcutta) are devoid of ornamentation, there are a few exceptions.
On the south – western corner is the grave of Elias Moses Duek Cohen, with its elaborate epitaph, written in Hebrew and English.
The epitaph indicates that he was a respected member of the Kolkata (Calcutta) Jewish community and served as a senior minister of the Neveh Shalome and Magen David Synagogue.
He also played an active part in the establishment of the Jewish Boys and Girls School and was the commissioner of Calcutta Corporation.
Located next to the geniza is another decorative grave belonging to Rahma Mitana, whose epitaph is in the shape of an open book. Solid cast iron decorative pillars are found on the four corners of the grave. Probable the grave was once surrounded by iron chains fixed to the pillars, but the chains have long vanished.
Sadly many of the epithaps have long gone missing and most of those that survived are in Hebrew, making it impossible to identify the person.
At the very end of the cemetery, near the western wall, is a grave with an epitaph both in Hebrew and English with the name David Nahoum, a name said to bring sweet memories to every Calcuttan.
David Nahoum, a name associated with Nahoum & Sons, the famous bakery at Kolkata’s (Calcutta’s) not so new ‘New Market.’
- The Jewish Cemetery at Phoolbagan on Narkeldanga Main Road can only be visited with a prior permission from Ms A M Cohen, General Secretary, Jewish Community Affairs from the Jewish Girls School, Kolkata
- Ms A. M. Cohen, General Community Affairs, Jewish Community Affairs for providing valuable information on the Jewish Community of Kolkata (Calcutta)
- Ms Jeal Suliman, an active member of the Kolkata (Calcutta) Jewish Community for providing valuable information on the Jewish Community of Kolkata (Calcutta)
- Deepanjan Ghosh, fellow blogger and Kolkata (Calcutta) enthusiast, who not only accompanied me during the visit to the the Jewish Cemetery but also provided me with necessary information on the cemetery. Do read Dipanjan’s blog on the Jewish Cemetery, Kolkata
- Mr. Debasish Ghoosh (Deepanjan’s Father) and Vikram Bose(Deepanjan’s Friend) for acoompaning me on the Jewish Cemetery tour