Saturday 11 November 2017

A Postcard from India 8 - Jewish Kerala

There have been Jews in Kerala for a very long time. Evidence places Jewish merchants here during the reign of King Solomon and it is believed that Kerala sandalwood was used in the construction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. It is known that Jews came here from Israel after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Evidence of these communities includes diaries and letters from travellers over various centuries and 72 rights set out on copperplates given by Hindu ruler Bhaskara Ravi Varman (962-1020) and given to Joseph Rabban, leader of the Cochin Jews. Further evidence is the existence, for several centuries, of  AnchuVanam, a prosperous, virtually independent Jewish principality in Cranganore under the protection of Hindu royalty. The principality ended when the community was attacked by Arab settlers allied to a neighbouring ruler. Most of the Jews fled to nearby Cochin and the protection of the Hindu Raja.

Aron Hakodesh, former synagogue at Chennamangalam
These early arrivals spoke Judeo-Malayalam and became known as the  Malabaris, sometimes referred to as the "black Jews". Later arrivals began coming from Europe in the 16th century, some of them fleeing the Inquisition. This community became known as the Paradesis and also as "the white Jews". The Portuguese occupation of Cochin brought problems for Kerala's Jews in the form of the Inquisition and more generalised persecution. The situation improved significantly in 1660 when the Dutch displaced the Portuguese and instituted a more tolerant regime. 

The departure of the Portuguese was not to be the end of the Kerala Jews' troubles. The Paradesi community refused for many years to accept the Malabaris as authentically Jewish, preventing them from entering the Paradesi synagogue and forbidding inter-marriage. This was despite rulings from various rabbis and is completely at odds with Jewish law. Concessions were painstakingly won over time but the discrimination faced by the Malabaris, caused lasting damage to relations between the two communities and in part contributed to the final decline of a Jewish presence in Kerala. When the State of Israel was re-established in 1948, many Kerala Jews decide to emigrate and within a few years, the community had declined significantly. Some of those that remained later chose to follow their fellow Jews to Israel identifying a lack of marriage partners and poor economic opportunities as the reasons why. These matters have been written about at length, but perhaps the best account which examines the position of both communities is that of Edna Fernandes in her book The Last Jews of Kerala.

Today there are few Jews in Kerala and only one working synagogue although others are now converted to museums. During my recent time in India I was able to visit several of these synagogues and to meet two of the remaining members of these small communities.

Paradesi synagogue, Mattancherry
The Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry, Cochin dates back to 1568 and is located in the appropriately named Synagogue Lane in the area known as Jew Town. It is the last of Kerala's synagogues to hold services although it is rare for there to be a minyan of ten adult Jewish men - the minimum required for certain religious obligations. There is no Rabbi here, but during the main Jewish holidays, rabbis are brought in from elsewhere in India or from overseas to lead the prayers and maintain traditions.

The simple white painted exterior complements the other buildings in Jew Town. At first glance the interior is relatively austere. There are two unfixed wooden benches placed in the centre of the floor, facing those arranged around the periphery. This arrangement, with seats facing each other is a feature of Indian synagogues and different from the front facing rows that I am more familiar with. The women's gallery was roped off when I visited but men and women are still pray separately in the synagogue.  

Nn two tiles in the Paradesi synagogue are identical
Detail, Paradesi synagogue
Detail, Paradesi synagogue
The decorative highlight of the interior may well be the Chinese willow pattern floor tiles.  Not original they are believed to have been  acquired by one Ezehiel Rahabi in the 1760's. No two tiles are identical. There are different theories about their origin. One is that they were imported from the Netherlands but I prefer an alternative story, that they were originally manufactured for one of the local Rajas who upon learning that animal products had been used in their manufacture declined to use them and sold them on to Cochin's Jews for their synagogue. Whatever their origin, they are beautiful and a major feature of this house of prayer.

The bright red, blue, green and clear glass lanterns hanging from the ceiling are a local feature found in both religious and secular buildings in Kerala. Some of them were manufactured in Europe, others more locally. Other items suspended from the ceiling include objects made from brass, pewter, silver and bronze, again reflecting local tradition. Most importantly in the heat of Cochin, a number of ceiling fans are used to cool the interior.

I visited the Paradesi synagogue twice during my stay, once to attend part of the Rosh Hashanah service and later to spend time looking at the craftsmanship involved in its design and to see ten stylised canvases illustrating the history of the Paradesi Jews. They are the work of Hindu artist S.S. Krishna and were commissioned by the community in the 1960's. 

Sarah Cohen
Former Jewish owned building, Mattancherry
Following my second visit I was able to meet Sarah Cohen. Sarah lives on Synagogue Lane, just a few steps from the synagogue. At 93, she is the oldest of the remaining five Paradesi Jews. During the day she sits by her window, reading the Torah, singing religious songs and talking to visitors who drop in on their way to and from the synagogue. We chatted for a while in both English and Hebrew. When I left she asked me to visit her again and to bring her a Hebrew book, "so that we can learn something together". Sarah is an accomplished craftswoman and her sewing can be purchased from a small shop, the proceeds of which help to pay for her care. It was interesting to meet her, and not a little sad to think that this once illustrious community is now nearing its end in India.

Until the 1950's there were many Jewish owned businesses in Synagogue Lane. Now there are none and the shops have been taken over to a large extent by Kashmiri traders. However, it is possible to see many signs of the former community as several buildings bear a Magen David whilst on one building the Jewish star is accompanied by the Sassoon family name and the year of construction - 1849. 

Sassoon building, Mattancherry, built in 1849
Magen David incorporated into building facade, Mattacnherry
The cemetery of the Paradesi Jews is a short distance from the synagogue. It is well kept but special arrangements have to be made to visit it.  Another Jewish cemetery in Mattancherry has been lost due to several houses having been built on the site. Some of the tombstones were removed by local people and used for other purposes but one tomb, that of Rabbi Nehemia Mota has been preserved.

In addition to being a rabbi, Mota was a kabbalist and a composer of songs. Thought to have been born in Aden, he settled in Cochin in the later part of the 16th century and married a Malabari Jewish woman. He spent the rest of his life in India and died at the lighting of the first Chanukah candle in 1615. After his death he achieved saintly status and the anniversary of his passing is marked by special prayers amongst the Malabari community.  His tomb is in a small lane between the houses and is cared for by some of the women who live close by. It is considered a place of pilgrimage by Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus. I met some of the women who care for the tomb and they told me its presence has brought them fortune and that caring for it is an honour. None of these women are Jewish.   

Tombstone of Rabbi Nehemia Mota
Some of the women who care for Rabbi Mota's tombstone
Erankulam is about 15 kilometres from Mattancherry and was once home to a substantial community of Malabari Jews. It is believed that they came here from Cranganore in the 12th century, fleeing conflict with Arab settlers over the spice trade, whilst others came seeking the protection of the Hindu Rajah after problems with the Portuguese. 

Ernakulam's Kadavumbagam Synagogue was built in around 1200 but the current building is believed to date from the late 16th or early 17th century. It can be found on Jews Street between Market Road and Broadway, in the heart of the town's busy bazaar and in the former Jewish quarter. As well as serving the religious needs of the community, the synagogue housed a Jewish school at the upper level. 

In Ernakulam, I was fortunate to visit the Kadavumbagam and to meet Elias "Babu" Josephai, the guardian of the synagogue. He told me much about the history of the community including that it decreased significantly in the 1950's and 1960's due to emigration to Israel. Despite this, services continued until 1972 when the synagogue finally closed. The Torah Scrolls were removed and taken to Moshav Nevatim in Israel where there is now a Cochin Jewish Heritage Centre.  In 1975 a major storm resulted damage to the foundations of the building which required the entire structure to be hydraulically lifted whilst in 1977 several items were lost in a burglary.

Elias "Babu" Josephai
Interior, former Kadavumbagam synagogue, Ernakulam
Babu took on the role of guardian in 1979. The building remained vacant until 1985 when he established an ornamental fish and plant shop in the front part of the ground floor. Since then he has worked extremely hard to carry out renovation work, including raising the funds to make this possible. He kindly showed me the interior of the synagogue, pointing out the restored tiled floor, the original ceiling detail and the red glass lanterns above the ground floor bimah. Uniquely, Keralan synagogues have a second bimah in the women's gallery to which the Rabbi would ascend during the Jewish holidays, and read the prayers from there. 

Babu's achievements should not be underestimated. As well as securing funding, he has had to act as works manager, continue running his business and in some cases do the renovation work himself. He is a man of many talents, originally training as a shochet - a kosher butcher. He told me that there are less than 30 Jews living in Ernakulam today but that there are also several hundred people claiming Jewish heritage who are hoping to convert and eventually make aliyah to Israel. A few minutes walk from the Kadavumbagam is another former synagogue. The Tekkumbagam synagogue has not been a working house of prayer for some decades although it has seen occasional use for community events. It is not currently possible to visit.

Former Chennamangalam synagogue
Interior, former Chennamangalam synagogue
I also visited two former synagogues that have been painstakingly restored and converted to museums. Most of the Jews of Chennamangalam left for Israel in the 1950's and 60's and although a tiny community remained until the 1990's their beautiful synagogue was little used and fell into disrepair. The roof and floors collapsed, vegetation engulfed the building and the windows and doors were sealed in order to provide protection from the climate and potential vandalism. Eventually the Indian Department of Archaeology assumed responsible for the building and in 2004 a skilled and sensitive restoration commenced. This in itself was an achievement since the building had deteriorated so badly that at first there was no certainty that it could be saved. A dedicated team of local craftsmen were so devoted to their task that on occasion they even slept in the building, preparing their meals on site. The synagogue museum opened in 2006 and now welcomes visitors throughout the year.

The exterior is painted white as are the internal walls but the ceiling, Aron Hakodesh and woodwork details are a riot of colour with floral decorative features in bright reds, greens and yellows. The ceiling is particularly impressive with brightly coloured lotus flower medallions. As with the Kadavumbagam synagogue in Ernakulam the Chennamangalam building was once home to a school at the upper level. It also has a second bimah in the women's gallery whilst the main bimah on the ground floor has a tiered railing. Outside the synagogue there is a tombstone dated 1268  dedicated to a Jewish woman called Sarah. It bears the oldest known Hebrew text in Kerala and is further evidence of the area's long Jewish history. Tradition has it that the stone was brought here from nearby Kottapuram.

Keeper of the former Chennamangalam synagogue 
Detail of the Aron HaKodesh, former Chennamangalam synagogue 
The Paravur synagogue is a short drive from Chennamangalam. It too has been restored and has a beautiful wooden interior and an interactive exhibition at the upper level. I received a warm welcome at all of Kerala's synagogues and at the Paravur, I met an official guide working for the state tourism board. He had recently completed his training and was keen to tell me about the history of the building. It is very encouraging that investment is being made in training young people to promote and explain this important part of Kerala's heritage.

The efforts made to preserve and promote Kerala's Jewish history are impressive and compare well with those in other parts of the world. However, there is still work to be done, an example of which is the former Kadavumbagam synagogue in Mattancherry. Long abandoned, the building is in poor condition, the only clue to its provenance being a plaque with Hebrew script above the entrance proclaiming it to be "the gate of the righteous". Urgent action is needed if this building is to be saved and help from interested communities and organisations would be most welcome.

Former Kadavumbagam synagogue, Mattancherry
I spent just four days in Kerala. In this short time I was able to see much of what remains of a once large and successful Jewish community. I was especially privileged to meet Babu in Ernakulam and Sarah Cohen in Mattancherry. For all of this I must thank my extremely knowledgeable guide, B. Thomas and  my excellent driver, Rejeesh. Without them it would not have been possible to achieve so much in such a short time. Mr Thomas is both an historian and a tour guide working for Incredible India.

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You can see more pictures from Kerala here.

This excellent website gives much more detail about Kerala's synagogues -  The Synagogues of Kerala, India

1 comment:

  1. The former synagogue at Chennamangalam must have been beautiful, before it fell into a bit of disrepair. Although the holy ark looked very elaborately decorated and almost free-standing, the walls, windows and floors looked quite stark.

    Since visiting India, I now prefer the light filled Indian synagogues over the dark, more sombre Eastern European synagogues.