Saturday, 3 September 2011

Mysterious tiles of Paradesi synagogue

Any tourist stepping into Paradesi synagogue of Cochin is fascinated by the 250 year old handmade Chinese porcelain tiles, each tiles are unique.In Abraham Barak Salem (1882 - 1967)’s book, Cochin Jew town synagogue it is mentioned

“Many a visitor has carried away these things on their visits to adorn their own walls or drawing rooms. Lord Curzon is said to have carried away a tile from the Synagogue. A Manager of the National Bank of India Ltd., also secured one tile.”

Why is it so fascinating ? what is the specialty of these tiles 

These exquisite handmade “willow pattern” tiles were imported from Canton, China by Ezekiel Rahabi, paved in 1762 AD. There were 1,100 tiles consisting of basically four different patterns. These tiles are sharing a great love story to each of us, as narrated in an Old Chinese poem
Two pigeons, lover's flying high,
A Chinese vessel was sailing by,
Weeping Willow hanging o'er,
Bridge with lover's, father sore
Koong-Shee and Chang did fly,
To a small house not close by,
Happy lovers, ne'er a frown,
Little house was burn't to ground.
Ne'er no more were lover's seen,
Weeping Willows, sorrow, trees.
Empassioned love birds in the sky
Their love, true love, ne'er will die
Explained as :
 “In a bygone age a wealthy and powerful Mandarin of the Chinese Empire lived with his lovely daughter Knoon-se in a grand palace surrounded by ornate, exotic flowers and trees. Chang, a low born but intelligent and personable young man, was employed as secretary to the Mandarin and fell hopelessly in love with the exquisite and captivating Knoon-se.

But the father of Koong-Shee wanted her to marry Ta-jin, a rich man and because she wouldn't give up Chang her father sent her away to a little house at the end of the garden. Outside Koong-Shee's window was a willow tree, and just beyond that a fruit tree and Koong-Shee sat all day watching the fruit tree bloom. She was very lovely and unhappy, until one day Chang asked her to flee with him.

Chang dared not post the letter lest it should fall into the hands of Koong-Shee's father, but he found a coconut shell, dropped it into the lake, and watched it sail across.
Koong-Shee read the letter, and sent back her answer. She said she would go if her lover were brave enough to come and fetch her. Chang went boldly up to the little house and took her away. They had to cross the bridge to get out of the garden and as they were half way across Koong-Shee's father saw them, and hurried after them.

Koong-Shee went first with her distaff; Chang followed carrying her jewel-box, and behind them ran the father with a whip. But the father did not catch them, and they escaped to a little house on the other side of the lake, where they lived happily.

But Ta-jin was so angry that he set fire to the pretty little house. Tragically, the lovers perished in the flames. Revenge and bitterness had seemingly prevailed as the fire raged and engulfed all.

Cosmic winds howled as the ever-watchful gods took pity on the doomed lovers and blessed their undying devotion by granting them immortality. From the charred ruins of their home, the souls of Knoon-se and Chang soared into the sky as turtledoves and kissed again; beyond fear, beyond danger, forever free and symbolizing eternal love.”

But there exists other version of explanation for this willow pattern ie in relation with the Secret Shaolin Message: The Shaolin Monastery is burned by the Imperial troops of the Manchu rulers, called invaders by Chinese nationalist and later communist factions. Souls of the dead monks take a boat to the isle of the Blest. On the bridge are three Buddha awaiting the dead souls:
Sakyamuni, the Buddha of the Past;
Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future; and,
Amitabha, the Ruler of the Western Paradise.
Beyond them is the City of Willows – Buddhist Heaven. The doves are the monks' souls on the journey from human to immortal life.

According to expertise in this field of Glass and porceline Gonneke en Jaap Stavenuiter and Trudy Laméris-Essers ( he droves an art gallery in the Spiegelstraat in Amsterdam)

" The impressive floor is paved with some 1100 hand-painted Chinese porcelain tiles measuring c. 29 x 29 cm. It is composed of horizontal rows of tiles with a repeating design. There are four different designs, that of the first row being identical with the fifth, the second with the sixth, and so on.
The bottommost row depicts a lotus and a prunus, which symbolize summer and winter, and at the same time express a contrast such as that between man and wife in marriage. The tree peony on these tiles points to love and is considered a good omen. The row of tiles above shows a chrysanthemum together with a willow and boulders. Chrysanthemum and willow symbolize autumn and spring, another contrast between husband and wife in marriage. The rocks symbolize fidelity and a long life. In the third row we see a tree peony and a boulder, together representing the queen of flowers. It is a sign of good fortune, to be relied on for ever. Finally there is a row of rural scenes with the familiar willow pattern, which was adopted by Minton for his transfer print on English creamware and thus became world famous.
It is a moot point whether the images of the tiles in this synagogue were intended symbolically, considering that a synagogue is the place where marriages are solemnized".

Apart from the willow pattern's stories there is another story, that these tiles originally came from Canton in China, to embellish the palace of the Rajah of Cochin, that the Dutch built for him in the compound next to the Synagogue on its northern side. After their arrival some astute Jew who was familiar with the Rajah and who coveted these tiles, put it into the head of the orthodox Hindu Rajah that in the composition of these tiles there was an element of the forbidden blood of the cow. The cow of course, is a sacrosanct animal in India and it horrified the simpleton of a Rajah, to think that he should step upon a floor in which the blood of the cow that he worshipped was killed and mixed. He at once, told his friend, the Jew that he might remove them altogether and in this way, these tiles have found their way into the Synagogue. But this is an incredible story, and the internal evidence strongly militates against the acceptance of an otherwise clever invention.

Whatever the story be tiles were customized for the purpose of paving in Synagogue, the proof is blurred figures of the living things from the tiles as those are forbidden by Commandments. But inside the Pulpit there are a few tiles, much bigger than the ones on the floor and in these tiles the human figures are not blurred at all this is still a mystery…

Even if we look into the history of the Willow pattern it is even interesting.

Willow pattern (proceed reading after the referring the link)

So it is interesting to know that this willow pattern is one of the most authentic one. Because the person who is hailed as the patron of this design that is Thomas Minton (1765-1836) was born after three years from this tiles were paved in Paradesi synagogue, This might be a tip off to the history of origin of Willow pattern, isn’t interesting???


  1. that was an interesting post. You brought out the mystery behind something many people see but do not even spare a second thought on!!

  2. I believe each nd every stone and moss has a story behinds it, and it is known as HIS-STORY and we call it as HISTORY...... where unrevealed or unexplained are known as MYSTERY....
    We all are behind that, and I got inspired from you...

    Thank you Maddy,