Two ancient synagogues, testimony to India's long-standing religious tolerance
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.
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 SynagogueChendamangalam 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.|
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 SynagogueParur (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.|
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.|
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.|
|Bniya Ben Eliyah kicked the bucket on 24th Heshvan (5)378, ie 22nd November 1617. Photo and translation by Thoufeek Zakriya.|
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.
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.