India: Minor Synagogues of Kerala - Yahweh's own country

What?
Two ancient synagogues, testimony to India's long-standing religious tolerance

Why visit?
There are several reasons to visit these two synagogues.

First, there's the novelty factor. A synagogue? In India? Two synagogues? But the reality is that Jews have called India home for more than a millennium and Jewish culture, although a minority, was part of the Keralan religious patchwork- until the creation of Israel, indirectly, destroyed it.

Then, there's the architecture.  Buildings are rarely listed among Kerala's top attractions- the state is more known for its luscious greenery and its luxurious houseboats. But these synagogues, 100s of years old, are satisfying in their simplicity, their massive walls adapted to the tropical heat, and surprisingly beautiful on the inside.

Where?
In the provincial towns of Parur (Paravur) and Chendamangalam, about 35km north of Cochin. Map.



ACCORDING TO EVERY single tourist guide around, Kerala is 'God's Own Country', but they never specify which of India's 330 million deities is the divine landlord. But could be it be the Jewish Supreme Being?

At some point, most visitors to Kerala end up in Cochin, where they make the obligatory stop at the city's Paradesi Synagogue- because, geez, a synagogue in India, how exotic! Must see!

But the Cochin synagogue is a relatively young institution, built by recent immigrants, as the name suggests: if you slur its name sufficiently, you'll find out who built it: 'se-par-ah-dees'- yup, Sephardic Jews, arriving in the late 16th century after the reconquista of Iberia. Ironically, having been kicked out of Portugal, groups of Sephardim settled in Portuguese-ruled Cochin and built themselves a house of worship.

Much to their surprise (or perhaps delight), they quickly realised somebody had gotten there well before them. Although there are no boarding passes to prove it, it is suspected that the first Jews arrived on South India's Malabar Coast after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. Turns out, Judaism has been part of South India's religious patchwork since, like, forever.  Much like Christianity, which, again according to hearsay, arrived when St 'Doubting' Thomas landed in Malabar in 52 AD, well before the Portuguese started there own wave of conversions in the 16th century.

The Malabar Jewish communities built synagogues long before the Sephardim got round to building theirs, and finding a 900 year old synagogue in a dusty little village in Bumfuck, Kerala, is one of those #IncredibleIndia hashtag moments...

There are two synagogues about 35km north of Cochin that are easily visited, located in the towns of Chendamangalam and Pavur (Paravur.)

Note that most Indian maps and literature refer to them as 'Jewish Synagogues'- this apparently to avoid confusion with the many Christian and Hindu synagogues...

Also note that you will not find any kippah-wearing locals in these hamlets. In spite of the absence of persecution and anti-semitism, Kerala's Jews emigrated en masse in the 1950s and '60s, back to their mythical homeland. One wonders how Indians raised among green palm trees and gently flowing backwaters fared in the Middle-Eastern desert, but so far, none have returned...


The Chendamangalam Synagogue

Chendamangalam is trying to build a name for itself on the tourist trail. And it's doing a great job. There are two princely palaces that have been meticulously restored and are well worth a visit when in town. In the same spirit, Chendamangalam's synagogue was the first outside of Cochin to be restored, and what a little jewel it is!
A man, a bike, a synagogue. 
From the outside it is slightly unprepossessing- think white colonial minimalism. The current building dates back to the late 1600s, although a gravestone in the courtyard is dated 1268- there were Jews here long before Vasco da Gama made his first backpacking trip to India.

Inside, the building has been meticulously restored. Many of the original elements, having been packed up and shipped to Israel, have been replaced by recent reproductions. Nevertheless, it's beautiful and peaceful.
There are lots of informative panels- courtesy of the local Department of Archeology, who manage the museum with tender love and care.
















In the courtyard you'll find several gravestones, but if you dig graves, there is even more in store for you a few 100 meters down the road. There you'll find the town's overgrown Jewish cemetery, for now sadly neglected by the restoration team, until the next batch of funding comes in. It's entirely overlooked by most visitors. Go on a little adventure of your own, and check it out...

To get to the cemetery, exit the (Jewish) synagogue, and keep on walking until you reach the mosque. Just to the left of the mosque (there's no irony here- peaceful co-existence and all that) there is a small footpath that will lead you to the mosque's backside. Keep walking, and just when you're about to give up (after 300 meters or so), look right, and there you'll find several overgrown gravestones.
Perhaps somebody whose Hebrew skills are better then mine can decipher dates and names- no information is available in situ.


The Parur Synagogue

Parur (or Paravur- nobody ever agrees on anything in India) is another, slightly larger town just south of Chendamangalam. After the runaway success of the Chendi synagogue's restoration, it was decided the same trick could be pulled off here.
Jew Street scene. 
In 2015, after several years of careful reconstruction, the synagogue re-opened to the public, this time as a museum rather than a house of worship. Legend has it there's been a synagogue here since 750, or maybe 1164- God only knows. Like in Chendamangalam, the current building dates from the 17th century. 

Located at the heart of Jew Street, it's a great example of the vernacular Kerala style. Thick walls, white plaster, cool porches- had this been in Fort Cochin it would surely have been turned into another 4* heritage hotel. Fortunately for us, it hasn't, and it's another delightful reminder of centuries of Jewish heritage in the South Indian boonies. 
Tomb stone of Yosef, son of Abraham, died on 7th Elul 5642, ie 22nd Aug 1882. Translation by Thoufeek Zakriya.
In the courtyard you will find a remarkable tablet, dating to 1620-21. It records the (re)construction of the synagogue, but it's also a poem. The poem cleverly contains the name of its author, Eliyah Adeni, A 17th century Hebrew poet from Cochin. 

Interestingly enough, the stone was, surely with the best intentions, restored by somebody who did not read Hebrew (not a big surprise, given the dearth of Jews in Pavur). 
Eliyah was here, 1620. 
For more on this remarkable stone, the poem it contains, and an analysis of the original text, read this article on the Jews of Malabar website. The courtyard also contains a smattering of old tomb stones, some of them dating back to the early 17th century. 
Bniya Ben Eliyah kicked the bucket on 24th Heshvan (5)378, ie 22nd November 1617. Photo and translation by Thoufeek Zakriya. 


Getting there:
If you're really, really adventurous you could take the public bus from Ernakulam to Parur, and charter rickshaws once there. Most people would probably opt for a car with driver, either from Cochin or from Cherai beach (where Minor Sights was beach bumming). Count on INR 800-1000 for a half day worth of Minor-Sightseeing.   

Useful links:
A remarkable source of information for Malabari Jewish culture is the work of Thoufeek Zakriya. Thoufeek is an Indian Muslim, and a Hebrew calligrapher. A living example of the rich, diverse, and tolerant culture of Kerala. For more on Thoufeek, read this article, or check his website JewsofMalabar.com

Everything you always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask, about the Synagogues of Kerala
Jews of Cochin: Restoration of the Paravur Synagogue.
Paravur Synagogue Museum website.


13 comments:

  1. This is such an interesting bit of information about the Jewish heritage in our country. Definitely going to see and enjoy these places on my visit to Cochin next time I visit Kerala. Thanks so much for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Aadil, glad you liked it! Thanks for letting us know!

      Do you already have your next trip to Kerala planned?

      Delete
    2. No, not yet planned but will surely visit on my next trip.

      Delete
  2. Hai,

    I had deciphered most of the above shown tombstone inscriptions (Excluding the tombstones inside the Chendamangalam synagogue), including the oldest among them which is of Sarah Beth Israel, it was quiet difficult to read the epitaph as most of the alphabets are illegible by now...

    I hope you will find my article on the error found in the epitaph of Parur synagogue...

    jewsofmalabar.blogspot.in/2015/11/the-hebrew-stone-tablets-of-parur.html

    Thoufeek Zakriya

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Many thanks for your comments Thoufeek, as well as the link to your fascinating article.

      I recommend that anybody who wants to know more has a look at your website.

      Best,

      Delete
    2. Dear Thoufeek, thanks again for getting in touch. I've used the information provided by you to update the article. I hope you approve!

      Have you ever studied the tomb stones in the cemetery in CHENDAMANGALAM? I wonder how old they are...

      thanks!

      Delete
    3. Thanks for upadating the article...I am so glad that you included informations provided me...

      Well, I am kicking of my studies on the tombstones of Chendamangalam...thanks for the initiating me to do so...

      Thanks..

      Delete
  3. This is very fascinating. I thought that there would be no Jews left in India after the exodus to Israel. But seems there are a few left.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. hi Shalu, there are, but not in the two towns mentioned above... all the Jews there did emigrate. But there is still a tiny jewish community in Cochin, as well as in in Bombay and Calcutta.

      Delete
  4. Hi, very good article. There are also a few unknown/abandoned synagogues in the vicinity of Paravur/Muziris, one such being in a small town called Mala. They have a Jewish cemetery with three tomb stones here. This synagogue was handed over to the local administration when the Jews using it migrated. The local administration used it as part of their office till they got a better building. Now it remains locked. (and neglected). The cemetery (with a sizable ground) was handed over under the condition that it will be preserved as it is and now is a subject of controversy as the local administration planned to convert it into a park, which was stayed by a court order.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Maurice, thanks for the information. We haven't seen the synagogue in Mala yet- any more information you can supply about how to visit it?

      Delete
  5. I've become fascinated by the Jewish diaspora in all its incarnations, so I really enjoyed this article. I am looking forward to visiting and hope that when I get there the restoration of those tombstones will have been funded. What a cultural gem! How did you find out about it?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Linda, glad you enjoyed it!

      I actually read about these two synagogues in my Lonely Planet guidebook. It was only a few lines, but it was enough to pique my interest. This happens often- i've come across plenty of Minor Sights that are casually mentioned in guidebooks- they're just not the big-ticket items where 90% of people go...

      Delete

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