Shalom Israel, the former caretaker of Beth El Synagogue and undertaker of the Jewish cemetery, wearing the Tefillin during a weekday morning prayer in August 2014. He left Calcutta for Israel that December.
Shalom Israel, the former caretaker of Beth El Synagogue and undertaker of the Jewish cemetery, wearing the Tefillin during a weekday morning prayer in August 2014. He left Calcutta for Israel that December.Ashok Sinha
Shalom Israel, the former caretaker of Beth El Synagogue and undertaker of the Jewish cemetery, wearing the Tefillin during a weekday morning prayer in August 2014. He left Calcutta for Israel that December.
Shalom Israel's family photographs.
The Jewish cemetery in Calcutta is over 150 years old and consists of about 2,000 Jewish tombs along with those of Russians and Polish Jews. Usually the more elaborate and rectangular graves are those of Ashkenazy Jews. That could represent a prayer book and some have flower motifs. Bagdadi graves are rounded and have no decorative features.
A few locals come to the grounds of the cemetery to fly kites in August 2013.
Jo Cohen and Mitana Alexander, a committee member of the Jewish Girls School Board, at the Beth El Synagogue in August 2014.
Sk. Nassir, 75, is one of the two Muslim caretakers of the Beth El Synagogue. Here holds one of the parokhets (Torah ark curtains) that once hung inside the synagogue.
Old chairs at Beth El Synagogue
(Left to Right) Khalil Khan and Sheikh Nassir, two of the Muslim caretakers at the Beth El Synagogue.
Mortecai Cohen is 72 years old and spent his career as a broadcaster for Radio Pakistan in present-day Bangladesh.
Family photographs, Indian and Israeli flags at the Cohen residence
Jael Siliman (right), 58, is a former women’s studies professor at the University of Iowa and is compiling a digital archive that will preserve documents, photographs and other memorabilia from the community. She is pictured here with her mother, Flower, as they examine an old marriage certificate in August 2014.
An old prayer book and photographs of the community in its heyday, one of them featuring Mahatma Gandhi.
Nrusingha Charan Swain and Anwar Khan, one of the four caretakers of the Maghen David synagogue, lighting the Ner Tamid inside the ark. Nrusingha is Hindu and Anwar is Muslim.
Some of the women of the Magen David Synagogue had chairs exclusively reserved for them.
The interior of the Magen David Synagogue, the largest and most ornate in Asia was built in 1884. The chequered marble floor, gleaming chandeliers, stained glass windows and ornate floral pillars were shipped from Paris. The synagogue had once hosted over 3,000 British, American and Indian troops for a Yom Kippur prayer service in 1945 during World War II
Nrusingha Charan Swain, 35. His father worked at the synagogue for 48 years until his passing.
The Magen David Synagogue on Brabourne Road in Calcutta in August 2013.
A view from the newly restored Neveh Shalome Synagogue, located in Calcutta's trade hub of Brabourne Road in August 2014. The Portuguese Church (currently, the seat of the Archbishop of Kolkata) is in the distance.
Students of the Jewish Girls School.  More than 80% of them come from orthodox Muslim families.  None of the students are Jewish.  They were school uniforms in class but once outside some of them put on traditional salwar kameez and burkhas.
Historical photographs and documents of the Jewish Girls School
Students at the Jewish Girls' School in August 2014.
Picture and tablet of David Cohen, a prominent member of the Jewish Girls School's administration, in August 2014.
The exterior of the Elias Meyer Free School and Talmud Torah in August 2014. Currently, none of the students are Jewish; the majority are Muslim.
Shalom Israel, the former caretaker of Beth El Synagogue and undertaker of the Jewish cemetery, wearing the Tefillin dur

Ashok Sinha
1 of 23

Meet the Last Jews of Calcutta

This article has been enhanced with interactive sound clips. To hear the voices of the surviving community members, click the phrases highlighted in red.

From the late eighteenth till the mid-twentieth century, there was
content=a thriving “Bagdadi” Jewish community in Calcutta. Jewish traders from the Middle East prospered in British India. Originally Judeo-Arab in identity, they attained a Judeo-British one. Calcutta Bagdadi Jews settled in a cosmopolitan urban environment, met no prejudice, and excelled in all spheres of endeavor. They played a key role in the city’s mercantile development, engaged in governance and civic affairs, built impressive synagogues, established schools, and constructed magnificent buildings. Though never more than 4,000 in number, the community was influential and thoroughly integrated in the fabric of Calcutta.

The 1940s were tumultuous years, when Baghdadi Jews from Burma, and many European Jews fleeing Nazi oppression found safe haven there. With independence, when Nehru proclaimed his Socialist leanings, some wealthy Jews became uncertain of their economic prospects in an “Indian India.” Many Jews opted to emigrate to the UK, US, Canada and Australia, and some to Israel. This rapid movement of people destabilized the tight-knit, religiously conservative community. By the 1960s, only 400 to 500 remained in Calcutta, making it difficult to sustain Jewish community life. Today, there are barely 20 left, many old and infirm.

My mother, soundFile=|
content=Flower and I returned to Calcutta, five years ago. With Elisha Twena, Jo and Mordy Cohen, Danny David, and Ian Zachariah, we help administer community affairs. We maintain the three synagogues and cemetery, and supervise the schools. Shalom Israel, caretaker of the cemetery, soundFile=|
content=left for Israel in October 2014 . Though there has been no Jewish girl in the girls’ school since 1975, it provides quality education to neighborhood girls, mostly Muslims. Our synagogues are well taken care of by generations of Muslim caretakers.

I am documenting the community’s impact with the help of a Nehru Fulbright grant. Last year, I self-published The Man With Many Hats, a novel set in “Jewish Calcutta.” This year I launched a digital archive, Recalling Jewish Calcutta, in collaboration with the School of Cultural Texts and Records, Jadavpur University, Trinity College, Dublin and NUI, Maynooth.

The archive showcases the Jewish presence in Kolkata, illustrates its rich cultural and social life, and features the many significant contributions of this colorful community. While best known for its business acumen, the First Miss India was from our community. Jews starred in Bollywood and silent films, there was a globally renowned magician, a stalwart of India’s documentary film association, and a general in the Indian army who was later Governor of Goa and then Punjab. A Bagdadi Jewish woman was the first woman in India to file a case for women to be plaintiffs (1915), Jewish women defended women in purdah in the High Court, and were leaders in education, medicine and dentistry.

The archive at once celebrates the Jewish legacy and the city of Calcutta (Kolkata today). An example of multiculturalism at its best, the city and the community enriched each other and both flourished through this interaction: soundFile=|
content=a model partnership in today’s increasingly intolerant world.

LightBox NewsletterSign up to receive the latest from TIME's photo editors. View Sample

Jael Silliman is an Associate Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Iowa and the author of the new book Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames: Women's Narratives from a Diaspora of Hope published by Brandeis University Press, 2002.

Ashok Sinha was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India but lives and works as a photographer in New York City. He has founded the nonprofit Cartwheel Initiative that uses creative media to empower youth living in the aftermath of conflict and disaster. Follow him on Twitter @ashoksinhaphoto.

Mia Tramz is a Multimedia Editor for Follow her on Twitter @miatramz.

TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.