(Harmonist) – A Rock Bearing Mystical Imprints Binds Jews and Hindus
by Harmonist staff
By Sharmila Ganesan Ram, originally published by The Times of India.
Of the 12 fans that were donated to this warm household near Alibaug over a decade ago, two remain. Rains have banished the rest over time so now, in this entryway shared by Lord Ganesha and a robed prophet named Elijah, hang only two ceiling fans, expecting unexpected guests. Ever since the Naiks moved to Konkan’s tiny Karle village in the 1990s, strangers have kept arriving in search of various things–knives, plates, glasses, water, information, matchsticks, mythology. “They say shalom. We say namaste,” says Ramchandra Naik about the Jewish visitors from Alibag, Thane, Mumbai, Pune and even Israel who come down to light candles at the flat, smooth nearby rock on which his family lights agarbattis.
Known locally as ‘Ghodyacha Tap’ and internationally as Prophet Elijah’s Chariot Site, Prophet Elijah’s Rock leaps out amid the synagogues, libraries, cemeteries and schools that are now part of the Jewish Route, a recently-inaugurated tourism initiative comprising 26 Jewish heritage structures across Maharashtra. “We call it Ghod Khatar,” says Ramchandra. “‘Ghod’ means horse, ‘Khatar’ means stone.”
Curiosity about the structure bearing mystical imprints of horse hoofs and chariot wheels typically peaks when a vehicle with more than two wheels takes the narrow, undulating path down from ‘Sagaon Maruti’, a well-known Lord Hanuman temple near Talvali, a village adjoining Karle. “But how come the horse footprints are so deep when it happened all those years ago?” asks our auto driver, backing up 20 centuries.
Ramchandra’s 75-year-old father Rohidas Naik aka ‘Bhai’, isn’t tired of repeating the legend, “Tuffy, sit down,” says Bhai, lowering the head of his excitable pet stray with a stick to clear our view of the Marathi text on his entryway wall detailing the mythology of ‘Eliyahoo Hannabi’.
Hebrew for Prophet Elijah, ‘Eliyahoo Hannabi’ refers to a miracle worker from 9th Century BCE who is exalted “almost to the status of a patron saint by the Bene Israels,” says Shaul Sapir, professor of historical geography at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and author of ‘Bombay: Exploring the Jewish Urban Heritage.’
When the Bene Israelis fled the northern kingdom of Israel and arrived at the Konkan coast in a boat 2000 years ag, Prophet Elijah is believed to have revived the unconscious members who had washed up on the beach. Shipwrecked at Nagaon, a fishing village, the community had sought help from the locals who employed them as oil pressers. “They were called Shaniwar Teli, Saturday Oil Pressers, because they did not practice their profession of pressing oil on Saturday, the Jewish day of rest,” says Israel-based photographer Stephen Epstein who was so moved by his visit to Prophet Elijah’s Rock ten years ago that he created an exclusive website for it.
“The Bene Israel legend narrates two occasions when Eliyahu Hanabi visited India and ascended to heaven. The first account recounts his stop at Talvali,” says Sapir, referring to the coastal village that tends to be conjoined with Karle, and confused with a hillstation thanks to its other name: Khandala. “It is said that Prophet Elijah took off from here into the sky on a chariot of fire. It is also believed that the chariots’ wheels and horses’ footprints which are visible today at this site, are imprinted on a large rock..” adds Sapir.
Ramchandra takes off his rubber slippers before ascending the large rock which he says used to be larger, covering not only the pond to the right where a woman is now washing clothes but also the one to the left lined by tall, picturesque cacti. Fresh rainwater has turned the two deep football-sized indents-believed to be horse hoof marks-into puddles. “That’s where the horse took off from after the chariot slipped from there,” he says, pointing us to the start of a powdery white line that runs down to the stone’s tummy. His family. has place d lilies over the line. “We break coconuts here too,” says the 48-year-old.
“We too break coconuts there as we have adopted local customs,” says Noel Chincholkar, secretary of the Raigad Jewish Association which has built a steel cabinet-like structure near the rock for the Bene Israelis who come down to perform ‘Malida’, a thanksgiving ceremony meant to celebrate new babies, anniversaries or other ‘Simchas’ (happy events) by invoking Prophet Elijah. “No one is certain where and when the Malida originated,” says Sapir about the celebration that entails offering prayers and bowls of fruits and flowers to Prophet Elijah.
Over the years, the Naiks–whose ancestors were farmers–have consumed a lot of ‘poha with dry fruits’ and kosher meat marinated in tomato puree. Their unexpected guest list has included “a rajdoot” from Israel who came with a convoy, says Ramchandra narrating a scene witnessed by his grandfather. Outside, in the space where ten donated ceiling fans used to ventilate strangers, cattle and motorbikes are parked. Inside the house, Malida prayer books in Hebrew and Marathi bring strangers closer. Bhai shows us tiny pictures of a painting of Prophet Elijah’s ascent.”I got these laminated,” he says.