Still standing Synagogues of Kerala.
Gods own country, it is apt for Kerala and she has many reason to be called so. The nature and her greenery is the one universal reason but as we just go through the bygone eras, it is seen the first synagogue, church, and mosque of India was established in Kerala. She warmly received all the Semitic religion along with those existing Dravidian and Aryan religions. Talking about the Jewry hardly a few are aware about the Jewish population of Kerala as they were a micro-minority community here. Even being a minority group they had established many settlements around the vicinity of Kerala, known as Malabar to outsiders.
Most of the Jewish settlements were established near Maritime city, or near any rivers like any other foreign community. But the main two reasons for establishing new- new settlements would be either because of Trade or persecution. Whatever the reason be the Jews built their synagogue or so called prayer house in their settlement.
Currently there is only one functioning synagogue but 7 still standing synagogues and many lost synagogues in Kerala. Existances of some lost synagogues are clear with some literary evidence but some are without evidence but existence those synagogues can be elucidated without an evidence. More clearly the existence of some synagogues can be proved, but geographically the locations are not known or it is hard to identify. Similarly some are believed as part of tradition that where ever they establish their settlement the will built a small prayer house or a synagogue.
Almost all of the existing synagogue structures were re-built after its demolition. That is, history says the story of each synagogue that had faced the phase of destruction during Moorish and Portuguese attack. And most of the existing synagogue had a Dutch influence in the architecture of the main building i.e. unlike following the traditional Kerala architecture the synagogues are a two - three storey building height, a Beith Midrash (Jewish study hall) in the same structure or in another building interconnected with a skyway. The entrance to the women’s gallery and the entrance to the Beith Midrash are same as seen in most of the synagogue of Kerala. Existence of Asara or the ante room, which resembles the ancient temple mentioned in Bible, is another feature. The wooden Ark, (where Torah is placed) in the western wall will be a center of attraction with Theba (The Pulpit – made of Brass). The other feature is the Grand Pulpit situated in first floor level, used for the High festivals. The Yakim and Boaz two (brass) pillars below the Grand Pulpit is a replica of the Pillars of the Solomon’s temple.
The lists of existing synagogues are as below:
1. Parur Synagogue, Parur
2. Kadavumbagom Synagogue, Ernakulam
3. Thekkumbagom synagogue, Ernakulam
4. Kadavumbagom synagogue, Mattancherry
5. Pardesi synagogue, Mattancherry
6. Mala synagogue, Mala
7. Chennamangalam synagogue, near Parur.
1. Parur Synagogue, Parur.
Parur synagogue, Before restoration (Original Heckal and Theba can be seen)
It is located in North Paravur, largest of its kind, built in 1616 AD by David Yakov Castiel, but it is widely believed that an early structure existed there which was build in 1164 AD. The original Heckal (Ark of covenant) and the Theba (Pulpit) of the synagogue has been dismantled and restored in Israel museum, Jerusalem along with the interiors of Kadavumbagom synagogue, Mattancherry.
The Heckal and Theba of Parur synagogue. a view from The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Parur Synagogue under restoration
A foundation of old synagogue was found in the compound where half portion of the foundation is under the present synagogue. The synagogue is restoring under the Kerala government’s tourism project, Muziris Heritage Project.
2. Kadavumbagom Synagogue, Ernakulam.
Kadavumbagom synagogue, Ernakulam
Its located in Jew street, Broadway in Ernakulam. It exists in the vinicity of one of the major and busiest market. But these synagogues have a small difference apart from other synagogues with its single structure and absence of the Skyways. And it was built in 1200 AD, but present building’s date is not exactly known but it is assumed as 16th or 17th century. Currently it serves as a "Cochin Blossom" a aquarium shop.
3. Thekkumbagom synagogue, Ernakulam.
Thekkumbagom synagogue, Ernakulam
This synagogue is located near the Kadavumbagom synagogue in Jew street, Broadway in Ernakulam. It is also believed to have built in 1200 AD, but another source says this was built in 1580 AD in the land granted by Rajah of Cochin as a token of appreciation.but in 1930 AD existed small synagogue was replaced and present building was built so considered to be the last and most recent synagogue rebuilt by Kerala Jews.
4. Kadavumbagom synagogue, Mattancherry.
A rare colour picture of Kadavumbagaom synagogue, Mattancherry
A main tall building resembling Dutch colonial architecture style exists still. But Beith Midrash, and the Skywalk of this synagogue has been removed when the street was straighten in 1960 AD, or later. A rare colour photo of the synagogue took in 1956 AD, is the proof for that. The date of the synagogue is said to be 1400 AD but it was restored by Baruch Joseph Levi or his son Joseph David Halevi in 1539 AD and that was completed by Yacov David Castiel in 1549 AD.
Interior of Kadavumbagom synagogue installed in Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Later interiors of this Kadavumbagom synagogue was dismantled and restored in Israel Museum. The original Ark and the Theba were taken by the community to Israel and installed in other synagogue in Moshav Nehalim, Israel. so the Heckal (Ark of Covenant) and the Theba (pulpit) installed in the museum is of Parur synagogue. Building was used as a warehouse thereafter.
5. Paradesi Synagogue, Mattancherry
Paradesi synagogue, interior.
Paradesi synagogue decorated for Simah Torah festival, 2009
In early or mid 16th century, The Jews from Cranganore who had took their refuge in Cochin, again saw the influx of the Jews from further far points like Spain and Portugal (Probably would have arrived in Senhore Saudi near Fortkochi). And in 1567 AD Rajah of Cochin donated them the land for building their own town and prayer house near to his Palace. Thus the Jew Town was established in the year 1567 AD and in 1568AD the Paradesi synagogue was built. There is a traditional believed that four wealthy men, Samuel Castiel, David Belila, Joseph Levi and Ephraim Salem donated the money for building the synagogue and the Castiel Family played a significant part in reconstructing many synagogues of Kerala. Later this synagogue was put on fire by Portuguese in 1662 AD and it was rebuilt in 1665 AD.
There are some outstanding features owned only by Paradesi synagogue, they are
A. The Clock Tower
B. Chinese handmade porcelain tile
6. Mala Synagogue, Mala.
Mala synagogue under restoration.
The name ‘Mala’ might have originated from the Hebrew word “Mal-Aha” which means “Center of Refugee”. Mala still has a Synagogue and a Jewish Cemetery maintained by the Israeli descendents of those buried here. Mala is in Trichur district, Kerala, used to be an important trading centre, even before birth of Christ .The spices of the Western Ghats of India, attracted the Jews, who established a settlement here and had a synagogue too here. In the early times, Mala was a colony of Jews. Mala is more or less identified as Anjuvannam, granted by Cheraman Perumal to Joseph Ramban but there are many reasons to accept or deny this view. Advocate Prem Doss Yehudi Swami, a converted Dravidian Jew and historian, identified that in a Malayalam jewish song mentions about the incident of Cheraman Perumal donating wood to Joseph Ramban in 1000 AD. He also claims that this former synagogue was pulled down of an unknown reason and a new synagogue was erected in 1400 AD. Later it was renovated in 1792 AD after Tippu’s attack in 1780 AD. But from Tomas Dawson’s account it was ruined in 1817 AD. There is currently no Jewish community. They all left from Mala. Their synagogue and cemetery were handed over to the Mala Panchayat on April 1, 1955. It is restored under the Muziris Heritage Project.
Mala Jewish cemetery
7. Chennamangalam synagogue, Chennamangalam.
Chennamangalam Synagogue after restoration
A tomb from Chennamangalam jewish cemetery
It is built that it was built in 1614 AD, The Chennamangalam earlier known as Chenotta or Chennota, is believed to be one of the oldest settlements, a tomb stone dating 1269 AD found within the vicinity is a complimenting to this belief. Much data regarding the synagogues are not available. But historians had identified this settlement with the “Kunja-Kari” mentioned by Ibn Battuta, (1304-1368 or 1369 AD)
“which is on top of a hill it is inhabited by Jews, who have one of their own number as their governor, and pay a poll tax to the sultan of Kawlam.”
P.M. Jussay also analyzed Cochin Jewish folksongs in Malayalam, and identified Kunja Kari with Chennamangalam, on the basis of the location of the summit and the Jewish self rule.
In the Cochin Jewish Malayalam song, "The Song of Everayi", Jussay traces the migration of the Jews from Jerusalem through Egypt, Yemen and Persia to Palur, north of Cranganore, whence they moved to Chennamangalam.
In "The Song of the Bird", which recounts the transmigration of a bird to India in search of a guava fruit, the bird flies "to a green mansion…in an elevated spot", which Jussay identifies with the hill at KunjaKari in Chennamangalam. This interpretation would tally with the conclusion drawn by P. Anujan Achan, the Kerala State Archaeologist of Cochin, in 1930. In his discussion of the Hebrew inscription on the abovementioned tombstone of Sara, the daughter of Israel, he concluded that the Jews must have migrated to Chennamangalam from Cranganore around the date of the inscription in the midthirteenth century. At the entrance to the synagogue which has been renovated by the Kerala Government, stands this tombstone with inscription dating to 1269 A.D , the oldest Hebrew text in India.
Their palace is situated on a hill overlooking the places of worship of four major world religions: the Hindu temple, the Muslim mosque, the Christian church and the Jewish synagogue.
The Jews of Chennamangalam lived side by side with their neighbours in harmony and tolerance for years.
Social life was built around the community (yogam) and the extended family. All the Jewish children in Chennamangalam, boys and girls alike, attended the Talmud Torah (school for reading, writing and Torah), located on the upper floor of the synagogue.
Chennamangalam; in 1950, there were only 46 families in the village. In 1948, the State of Israel was declared. The Cochin Jews, who had always recited prayers for the return to Zion, decided en masse to immigrate to the new state. In 1949, when the first group of 17 Jews left the Malabar coast for Israel, it included members of the Chennamangalam community. By the end of the twentieth century, all the Jews of Chennamangalam had departed. This synagogue was restored and opened for public in 2005.
Most of the details regarding the dates of synagogues were quoted from www.cochinsyn.com
Mr. Jay A Waronker,
andDr. Shalva Weil.
Senior researcher, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.