Paradesi Synagogue

Many years ago at the other end of the world, I met an Indian expatriate preparing a shabbat meal in a house that I’d been invited to. As the long evening began to draw to an end, just before she left for her own family shabbat, we exchanged a few words. She was a Cochin Jew. The northern lights in the sky that night that evening were no more exotic to me than my first meeting with a piece of India’s past. There is a tradition that Judaism arrived in Malabar after the scattering of Jews following the destruction of the second Judaic temple in Jerusalem by Romans in the 1st century CE. The first European Jewish travelers visited India in the 12th centuries and were surprised by the pre-existing Judaic tradition. After the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Iberia in the 15th century, some came and settled in Kerala, and became known as the Paradesi Yehudi (foreign Jews). When their first temple in Kochi was destroyed by the Portuguese in the 16th century, they were given protection by the king of Kochi, and land next to the palace to build what is known today as the Paradesi Synagogue.

One morning we joined a stream of tourists walking down a narrow lane to visit this synagogue. After most of the local Jews emigrated to Israel in the 1950s and 60s, this remains the only synagogue in the region which is in regular use. The clock tower that you see in this photo stands at the end of the lane and dates from the 18th century. I would guess that the clock is more recent, perhaps only a hundred years old. We bought entry tickets at a window next to the entrance. I did not realize that the lady who sold us our tickets was one of the last people in this community. It is strange to realize that old customs are coming to an end in front of our eyes, and we are often oblivious to them.

Opposite the entrance to the synagogue was this old gate embellished with stars of David and symbols of the menorah. Perhaps the garden behind the gate also belongs to the synagogue. In any case, it was out of bounds for tourists. At the entrance lobby we were directed to first see a little gallery which gave the history of the destruction of the first synagogue and the establishment of this one under the protection of the king of Kochi. Only after we’d seen this display were we allowed to take off our shoes and proceed to the main synagogue.

Meanwhile The Family had found a famous plaque (featured photo) from the first synagogue to be built in Kochi. Oral traditions say that this was founded three years after the ancient port of Muziris was swept away in a massive flood of the Periyar river. Interestingly, during the colonial period a clear distinction was made between European Jews and others. Cochin Jews were allowed to worship at this synagogue, but not allowed to be members. Descendants of black slaves brought by the Europeans were allowed to sit outside the synagogue during prayers. It was only in the 20th century that these barriers were finally removed.

No photography is allowed inside the synagogue. The floor was tiled with blue and white Chinese hand painted tiles, and a pulpit with brass railings dominated the center. A very large number of chandeliers were suspended from the wood paneled ceiling. A steep staricase, almost a ladder, led up to a wooden upper gallery at the eastern end of the room. The way up was barred. Polished wooden slabs, dark with age, provided benches at the windows. We were glad to sit for a while. The sky was overcast and the air was extremely humid, so the little breeze from the window was welcome. Back outside I took a couple of photos of the simple white-washed building.

Author: I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

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