Remnant of the Erstwhile: Jews of Kochi

Remnant of the Erstwhile: Jews of Kochi 

Text: Raina Paul

Reaching there

With around 600 to 1000 footfalls a day, the Paradesi Synagogue, also known as Jewish Synagogue, Mattancherry is one among the major tourist attractions of Kochi. Located over 40 kilometres away from the Cochin International Airport at Nedumbassery, it takes a road trip of almost an hour and a half to travel to Mattancherry, which is connected to the mainland, Kochi (Ernakulam), through a bridge. Kochi city has ample transport options, with frequent public and private transport services that makes connectivity to Jew Town hassle-free. Reaching the Synagogue from Mattancherry town is a mere 10-minute walk through the winding Jew Street in the historic quarter called Jew Town. The streets from various directions converge into a single walkway, that lead towards the entrance of the Synagogue. 

“Jew Street received its name from the existence of Jewish community within these areas during the 16th century,” said Thaha Ibrahim, who has been a resident in Jew town for the past 36 years. He is also a trusted employee of 96-year-old Sarah Jacob Cohen, who is one among the only five Jews alive in town. She runs a shop in the street that sells traditional Jewish articles used during their holy service at the Synagogue.

The walkway that leads to the door of the Synagogue, which once used to be crowded with Jewish shops is now lined with Kashmiri and Jaipuri jewellery shops along with outlets selling antiques ranging from wall hangings to showpieces on either side of the walkway. Chic cafes and restaurants strewn along the street side add visual appeal to the vista, while serving some exotic delicacies.

The walkway that leads to the door of the Synagogue, which once used to be crowded with Jewish shops is now lined with Kashmiri and Jaipuri jewellery shops along with outlets selling antiques ranging from wall hangings to showpieces on either side of the walkway. Chic cafes and restaurants strewn along the street side add visual appeal to the vista, while serving some exotic delicacies.

As the gathering of visitors swelled at the entrance with locked doors at 1 pm on a weekday, a security guard who is in charge of the restaurant nearby informed “The Synagogue closes at 1 pm and will open only at 3 pm.” 

As was written on the instruction board hanging on the wall outside the Synagogue which indicated visiting hours from 10 am to 1 pm and from 3 pm to 5 pm. The Synagogue is closed on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays as they are Jewish holidays.

Jewish culture that adorns the interiors 

The heavy iron latch on the wooden doors of the Synagogue was unlocked at three in the evening giving relief to the two-hour wait for many of the visitors curious to enter the Synagogue. The caretaker of the Synagogue sat on a chair instructing the visitors to pay Rs.5 as entrance charge. 

“We do not allow photography as it is prohibited by the government due to security reasons,” repeated the caretaker. 

The prayer hall of the Synagogue is placed across an open hallway. The blue printed tiles that carpet the floor, are an architectural marvel brought in from China in the 18th century. Keenly observing the tiles reveal that each tile is unique in itself. A series of coloured lamps and Belgian glass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling embellish the prayer hall. The pulpit is surrounded by shiny brass railings placed along the centre of the hall lending a golden glow to the setting.

“It is in this pulpit that the Rabbi leads the service during special days,” said Joy, the caretaker. “Special days will have light emanating from the hall due to the lit up chandeliers,” he recalled. 

He said that services are rarely organized due to the dwindling numbers of Jews in Kochi. “But the synagogue will have service if we can assemble a minimum of 10 Jews” he added. 

The natives said Mattancherry now has just four Jew families and five members of these families who live in the town who often visits the Synagogue. 

The Synagogue houses carved teak ark which contains four scrolls of first five books of the Old Testament (Torah) of Bible, that are encased in silver and gold, two gold crowns considered gifts from the Kings of Cochin and Travancore. It has an altar-like structure similar to that of traditional Catholic churches, which is covered with a red velvet cloth. Large wooden windows with coloured window panes let in ample sunlight that adds to the elegance of the interiors of the Synagogue. 

Its preserved Jewish artefacts and objects used in the 15th-16th centuries that embody old Jewish culture practiced in the city.

HISTORY'S MARVEL 

Paradesi (foreigner) Synagogue gets its unique name after it was established by the descendants of Spanish, Dutch and other European Jews. Although considered the oldest Jewish Synagogue in the state crossing 450 years since its inception, according to Thaha who has been collating data and researching on synagogues in the state, this Synagogue established in 1568 is the oldest functioning synagogues in the state. 

Paradesi Synagogue is the fourth and the last of Synagogues established in Kochi. Mattancherry hosted at least two more Synagogues, out of which one does not exist while another dilapidated one is in a pitiable state of ruins. 

“There is one more Jew Synagogue in the city which is not popular, which is located near broad-way at Ernakulam,” he added. 

The clock tower adjacent to the Paradesi Synagogue houses a giant bell which rings every half an hour. It was an addition made to the Synagogue in 1760.