Saturday, 5 April 2014

Jews of Palur

Less than a kilometer away from Chavakad there is an ancient trade town Palur, currently known as Palayoor. Well known for its Christian pilgrimage center, Palayoor St. Thomas church. Renovated Church, Thalikakulam, Boatkulam and newly constructed museum are major attractions. Tradition says St.Thomas the apostle came to Palur, in 52 AD. He constructed a small wooden church. The museum holds a rock foundation stone structure and few more stones which was found near the Thalikakulam, is believed to be the remaining of the church built by the apostle.

Lesser known but truth is that it was once a flourishing town which was one of the ancient Jewish settlements of Malabari Jews. Even though Christian tradition says that Jews were present in Palur during the arrival of St. Thomas, Malabari Jewish tradition say that the settlement was established in 70 AD or even later in 72 AD. Christian sources also refer to an early Jewish presence there and some say the remains of a synagogue and a Brahmin temple can be seen nearby the church.  (Brown, L. W., The Indian Christians of St. Thomas – an Account of the Ancient Syrian Church of Malabar, Cambridge, 1956, p.54, 62-63.)
From Kottakavu the Apostle proceeded to Palayur, one of the strongest Brahmin centers in Kerala. A prosperous Brahmin community was living there from ancient times. The place where the Jewish community had their residence at Palayur is still called Jewish hill.”Quoted from "A History of Christianity in Kerala" by Dr. C.V.Cherian
It is evident from Jewish Malayalam folksongs that this lost Jewish settlement was of some great significance, it is one of the frequent names in the song, which reveals that the first Jews arrived in Palur, and they later fled to Cranganore.

മാള പള്ളിയുടെ പാട്ട്, Song of Mala Synagogue1
കലൂർ അഴിഞ്ഞവർ കൊടുങ്ങല്ലൂർ വന്നതെ
They arrived at Palur and came to kodungalur
Kalur mentioned here is believed to be Palur

പൈങ്കിളിയുടെ പാട്ട് (പച്ചമണിമാടം) 2
പാലൂ കടലാരികെ                   അയ്യയ്യ
പാലുകുറ്റിമരങ്ങൾ കണ്ടെൻ                      അയ്യയ്യ
പാലൂ കടലാരികെ                 അയ്യയ്യ
എറങ്ങികുളിച്ചാൻ കിളി                  അയ്യയ്യ
by the side of Palur sea         aiyaiah
(the bird) saw “palukutti” trees         aiyaiah
 by the side of Palur sea         aiyaiah
went down the bird and bathed         aiyaiah 3

This view is strengthening from another version, i.e. from Ruby Daniel’s translation of the same song in English.
Near the seashore of palur
It saw the tree
Near the sea shore of palur
The bird flew and perched 4
Another version of the same song says

പൈങ്കിളിയുടെ പാട്ട് (Parrot song)5
പാലൂർ കടൽ അറിവെൻ                         അയ്യയ്യ
പനംകുറ്റിമരങ്ങൾ കണ്ടെൻ                        അയ്യയ്യ

(The Bird) figured it is Palur Sea by seeing the palm trees. *
By the Palur Sea (shore)                     aiyaiah
(The bird) saw the palm trees **                aiyaiah

Other song mentioning palur is
എവറായിയുടെ പാട്ട് (song of evarayi)6
കപ്പെൽ പായും വലിച്ചങ്ങു പൊകുമ്പ
മറുതലെ ആയ പൊറൊത്തികാർ കണ്ടുതെ
അവിടന്ന പെടിച്ചു മണ്ടിയവരപ്പ പാലുകടെയിലെ
ചെന്ന അടത്തുതെ
കൊണ്ടുപോയ ചരക്കെല്ലാം വിറ്റുപിരിഞ്ഞുതെ
അവിടന്ന പെടിച്ചു മണ്ടിയവരപ്പ
ശിഭുശ്നാട്ടിച്ചെന്നങ്ങ അടുതത്തെ

The ship withdrawn the sail as it went,
The hostile porothi land*** was sighted
Thence frightened they fled
And reached the paloor bay
Disposed of all the wares brought.
Thence too frightened they fled
And reached the land of shibushu****7

These songs give a hint that this community was never a long standing community and had moved to some other place and took their abode.  Jewish tradition say that chieftain of Palur was not favorably inclined to them because a Jewish girl of bewitching beauty had rejected his amorous advances3.1. So they have moved to Cranganore (as mentioned in Song of Mala synagogue). Still controversy exists, have they moved to Cranganore or Chennamangalam or any other place?
But all of these songs make a point clear that this was one of the ancient and possibly the first place they landed. But it is believed that some of the Palur Jews found peace only when they came to Cochin, where the Rajah befriended and protected them. Perhaps the families from the Palur would be the parental congregation of Kochangadi.  It is even clear that minor Diasporas and Aliyahs from Palur to Cochin, Cochin to Palur and again back from Palur to Cochin. Even though it is unclear how the ancient settlement was disappeared.  Re-establishment of this settlement and the synagogue is attributed to Ezekiel Rahabi8. (Probably Ezekiel Rahabi 1 who settled in Cochin 1646 A.D or his grandson Ezekiel Rahabi 11)  It is even mentioned that “remains of the ancient synagogue are seen near the Syrian Christian church of St. Thomas on the Chowghat – Enammakal road. There are no Jews left now in Palur.The settlement was abandoned decades back. But the local market is still known as “Jootha Bazaar” which means Jewish market in Malayaam”

But Palur synagogue is not counted among the list of existing community/synagogue in “Toldot Yehude Kutzin” by Abraham Ben Yahya Saraf Ha Levi dated 1781 AD, or even in Samuel’s Hebrew letter “History of the Jews in land of Malabar”, dated 1790 AD. But Moses Pereyra de Paiva in his “Notisias dos Judeos de Cochim” dated 1685 AD, It is mentioned that Palur has one synagogue and 10 well to do family.

But the strong evidence for the existence of a synagogue in Palur is a torah finial dated 1565 AD, from Palur synagogue is documented by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which was brought to Israel by the Cochin Jewish immigrants. Ruby Daniel says “But there is a rimon (a type of ornament) from Palur used for a Sefer Torah in the Nevatim synagogue in Israel today. This rimon was extricated from Palur synagogue long ago and brought to parur synagogue. Ernakulam synagogue brought it from Parur, and now it came to Israel”

                   These finials (pomegranate shaped ornament) are unique in their shape and are one of the earliest dated finials known until now. The finial has a circumferential dedicatory inscription, which reads:

השכ"ה שנת (ר)פלו הכנסת בית של הרמון זה
"This is the Torah finial (possession) of the synagogue of Palu (Palur), the year 5325 (1565)"
(The name of the synagogue of “Palu” engraved on them, possibly relates to the synagogue of Palur.)
Besides folk stories and oral traditions, this inscription is therefore the only historical evident mentioning the existence of the Jewish community of Palur and its synagogue. Other than “Notisias dos Judeos de Cochim”

Palur /Palayoor today
After a long drive we reached there, from the St. Thomas Church official we came to know about Jose Chittilapalli, a local historian. He gave details about the “St. Thomas Jew hill monument, Palayur” which was built a decade back. Interview with him and few localites had given more valuable points that had helped us to find out more about the Palur synagogue. He had thrown light on the location of the synagogue.

* (The poetic word അറിവെൻ aṟiven, is blindly translated as “figured out”)
** (The word അറിവെൻ aṟiven, is analyzed further.
അറിവ് aivu = knowledge, അരികെ arike = beside. Are two words but sounds similar
The word അരികെ arike would have orally transformed from the root word അരികെ arike  to അരിവെ arive > അരിവെൻ ariven > അറിവെൻ aṟiven. So finally
പാലൂർ കടൽ അരിവെൻ (അരികെ) പനംകുറ്റിമരങ്ങൾ കണ്ടെൻ
 Could make sense than പാലൂർ കടൽ അറിവെൻ പനംകുറ്റിമരങ്ങൾ കണ്ടെൻ.
*** പൊറൊത്തികാർ is translated as Porothi land by Prof. P.M Jussay were he doubts it is Persian. Portuguese in the commentary in Karkuzhali. It could be even simply as പൊറുതികാർ - which could be roughly translated as the “dwellers”.
So the line “The hostile porothi land was sighted” could be translated as “The (hostile) dwellers of the other shore was sighted”

****Land of  Shibushu, a similar usage is seen in “The Book of Buczacz”, by S.Y. Agnon(1887/8-1970) , In which Agnon in his fiction he playfully changed town of Buczacz name to Szybusz, the word  shibush in hebrew (שבוש) meaning “error” or “muddle”), Here in this song ശിഭുശ്നാട് the land of shibushu, the poet is telling  about a unknown or anonymous land,
1.       Karkuzhali, മാള പള്ളിയുടെ പാട്ട് song no: 6, 3rd line
2.       Karkuzhali, പൈങ്കിളിയുടെ പാട്ട് (പച്ചമണിമാടം) song no: 2, 18 to 22nd line)
3.       P.M. Jussay, The Jews of Kerala, The song of bird, page 87
3.1.  P.M. Jussay, The Jews of Kerala, page 109
4.       Ruby of Cochin, page 123, 125
5.      Karkuzhali പൈങ്കിളിയുടെ പാട്ട് song no: 1, 21and 22nd lines
6.      Karkuzhali, എവറായിയുടെ പാട്ട് song no: 3, 17th to 20th line
7.       P.M. Jussay, The Jews of Kerala, The song of Evarayi, page 85
8.       Adv. Prem Doss Yehudi, The shingly Hebrews, Page 104.


  1. There is some problem with location of Palayur as the Jew Hills. In fact, there is another ancient Church at Aarthat between Guruvayur and Kunnamkulam which is believed to have been located on the Jew Hills. Perhaps one should look for remnants of the synagogue/jewish settlements in and around Aarthat rather than at Paalayur.

    1. Palur has a very important place in the history of Jews of Malabar, it is one among the main four early Jewish settlement (ie Cranganore, Pullut, Palur and Madai). And appear in many of the songs with greater significance as mentioned above. So we cannot deny that there existed no Jewish settlement/ synagogue in present day Palur.
      Other school of thought says that
      • The Arthat St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church is believed to be the pioneer Christian Community/church founded by St.Thomas in the first century A.D, the Palur St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic church, identified wrongly, as some historians conclude, that the original town Palur is present day Arthat and it is the St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church which was established by St.Thomas, which are existing on a distance of roughly 7-8 kms.
      • The present Palur village is on the sea level, and during the formative years of Christian era, it was believed to be, under the sea. The nearness to the sea, the sandy soil, and the presence of oceanic fossils also bear witness to this fact. But Arthat is the first high land from the sea level in the Palur region, which was known as Jewish Hill or ‘Juda Kunnu’.
      • The Church at Arthat is dedicated to St. Mary like all other churches St.Thomas established, while that of present Palur, to St. Kuriakose, a Saint who lived around fourth century A.D, and was introduced to Malankara only in the fifth century,
      The claim of the present day Arthat being ancient Palur could not be neglected. If it is backed by geographical evidence we could consider it as a fact without any historical evidences.
      And without any proof one could conclude it as the ancient Palur was the present day Arthat where there existed ancient Jewish synagogue/ settlement. And the present day Palur near the Juden Bazaar, could be the reestablished Palur Jewish settlement attributed to Ezekiel Rahabi. And it is coming in contrast with my point “It is even clear that minor Diasporas and Aliyahs from Palur to Cochin, Cochin to Palur and again back from Palur to Cochin. Even though it is unclear how the ancient settlement was disappeared. Re-establishment of this settlement and the synagogue is attributed to Ezekiel Rahabi.”
      But is the ancient church exists on a Jew hill??
      Keeping other discussion on a side we have some more interesting facts…
      “A small village a few miles to the north of palur. Most of the local jews were emigrants from palur. A synagogue existed here. Prof P.M Jussay writes: “Mr Elias Mordecai, a Malabari Jew, now a resident of Jerusalem, told this writer how a few years ago, he was offered shelter in a house at Kunnumkulam, at the back of which he saw a heap of ruins and lamp burning over it. He was told that it was the ruins of a synagogue It was a practice for the owner of the land to light a lamp on the ruins on Friday evenings. One of the scrolls of Torah kept in the synagogue at Parur could have originally belonged to this synagogue and not to the synagogue at Cranganore.” (The shingly Hebrews, Adv Prem Doss Swami Doss Yehudi ,Page: 105)
      Here we can co-relate two lines..
      1. This rimon (ornament for sefer Torah) was extricated from Palur synagogue long ago and brought to parur synagogue. (Ruby of Cochin, page 123, 125)
      2. One of the scrolls of Torah kept in the synagogue at Parur could have originally belonged to this (ancient Palur) synagogue.
      So reading everything together the conclusion are,
      1. the ruins of the synagogue what Mr. Elias Mordecai saw in Kunnumkulam would be of the ancient synagogue of Arthat (Ancient Palur) and the striking link of the Torah of Palur synagogue (mentioned by Prof. Jussay) and Rimon of Palur synagogue (mentioned by Ruby Daniel) and those ending up in Parur synagogue is again giving some clues.
      2. The present day Palur and Jew hill monument would have been built on the Palur synagogue built by Ezekiel Rahabi.
      These facts/ fictions mentioned above need more research and studies, and your valuable feedback.

  2. Yes i ve been to Palayur and the place just west of the church is still called Jew Hill. Interesting exposition with songs and ballads.

  3. Thank you Ajay, hope you too had a wonderful time like me while visiting a lost Jewish settlement...

  4. I have a small Doubt There is a document called Vat Syriac22 written in 1301 AD. According to this document written by a Deacon named Zachariah bar Joseph

    1) “This holy book was written in the royal, renowned and famous city of Chingala in Malabar in the time of the great captain and director of the holy catholic church of the East.. our blessed and holy Father Mar Yahd Alaha V and in the time of bishop Mar Jacob, Metropolitan and director etc etc

    2)According to this same manuscript it was copied in June 1301 in the church of Mar Quriaqos in Chingly.

    Now i heard only about one church that is dedicated to Quriakos before 1500 and its Paloor.

    1. Two of the ancient Syrian Manuscript preserved in Vatican with its code name “MS Vatican Syriac 22 & MS Vatican Syriac 17” are considered as of Indian origin.
      Only MS Vatican Syriac 22, is our subject.
      You quoted “According to this same manuscript it was copied in June 1301 in the church of Mar Quriaqos in Chingly.”
      An Album of Dated Syriac Manuscripts, By William Henry Paine Hatch, Lucas van Rompay says:
      “The Scribe was a Deacon named Zachariah Bar Joseph Bar And he was a native or resident of the city of ܫܢܓܠ . The Manuscript was written in ܫܢܓܠ , in Malabar, India.”

      (ܫܢܓܠ sngl, with vowels it could be read as Shingly/ Chingala ie modern day Cranganore)
      According to Bishop Francis Roz (1604 AD) who succeeded Mar Abraham, based on a Chaldean book he has read, there were three Churches in Cranganore. One was dedicated to the Apostle Thomas, another one to Saint Kuriakose, and the third one was dedicated to Our Lady.

      We come to a conclusion keeping two points in mind
      1. We are not sure about the geological boundaries of ancient Shingly/ Cranganore. Palur/Palayur wound have been a part of Shingly/ Cranganore in then existed scenario.
      2. There was only about one church that was dedicated to Mar Quriakos/ St. Kuriakose before 1500 and its Palur/ Palayur.
      So reading everything together, MS Vatican Syriac 22 was written from an ancient Church dedicated to St. Kuriakose, which is located in Shingly/ Cranganore. Considering the above mentioned facts we may have to conclude that the St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in Palur/ Palayur dedicated to St.Kuriakose is “the church of Mar Quriaqos in Chingly” from where the manuscript was scribed.