Sunday, 22 May 2011


Most of the Jewish settlements in Kerala are located either on the bank of a river or near a port. Traditions identify Cranganore (also known by names of Muziris, Shingly, Mahodayapuram, Thiruvanchikulam or Kodungallur), Pullut or Pullush (near Kodungallur), Madayi (near Ezhimala or Mount Deli, Kannur) and Palayur (near Chavakkad, Thrissur) as the four earliest Jewish settlements in Kerala. Archaeologists have identified in 2007 the ancient port city of Muziris in a place called Pattanam not far from Kodungallur (7 km) and Paravur (2 km). Muziris had a key role in the early historic Indian Ocean trade with Mediterranean and West Asian regions and the earliest settlement at Pattanam dates back to the first millennium BC. According to popular Jewish traditions, Kodungallur is also the first Jewish settlement (at least from 70 AD) in Kerala. The other three places still exist in modern Kerala; however almost nothing of Jewish significance remain from any of them. There are reliable reports documenting Jewish colonies in Quilon (Kollam), Kayamkulam and Calicut (Kozhikode). Records and traditions also suggest presence of Jewish settlements in Chaliyam (on the banks of Beypore river near Kozhikode); Panthalayani Kollam (near Quilandy); and Kothaparambu and Kottappuram (suburbs of Kodungallur).  Geniza (store-room of a synagogue) papers at Cairo from the 12th century AD, mention about a brass factory of a certain West Asian Jewish merchant Abraham Yiju at a place called Dharmapattanam or Dharmadam, South of Kannur what was then called Dahfattan by Jews and Arabs. Today, Dharmapatanam is more famous for its 100 year old Government Brennen College.

The Syrian Christian community in Kerala widely believes St: Thomas, one of the Apostles of Jesus Christ brought Christianity to India. The island of Malankara, near Cranganore, is revered as St: Thomas’ landing site in Kerala. After his arrival in Cranganore (52 AD) St: Thomas established seven churches across Kerala. Interestingly, locations of these seven churches viz. Cranganore, Paravur (Kottakavu), Palayoor, Kokkamangalam, Niranam, Chayal (Nilackal) and Kollam (Quilon) were near earlier Jewish settlements. All these churches, except Nilackal, were located near the coastal area and connected together by rivers and backwaters. According to Ramban Pattu (the traditional songs said to be written by Thomas Rambaan, the first Brahmin convert to Christianity in first century; which is handed down through generations and written down in 1601 AD), St: Thomas reached on the wedding day of Cranganore King’s daughter and recited a Hebrew bridal song that only a Jewish flute girl understood. After the wedding, St. Thomas went to the Jewish quarter in Cranganore where he took up his residence and subsequently converted 40 Jewish inhabitants including the Jewish flute girl. Every Saturday the Apostle used to go and read and explain the Old Testament for the Jewish congregation. As the folksong goes on, the Rabbi of the Cranganore Synagogue named Paul and one of a Jewish prince by name Kepha (Peter) were converted and later ordained as bishops of Mylapore and Cranganore, respectively. 

Tradition attributes Palayur having a Jewish settlement even before St: Thomas arrived Kerala in 52 AD. Some of the ancient Christian communities of Niranam claim their ancestry from a Jewish trading community that existed at the time of St: Thomas. These folklore and oral traditions are proofs for the existence of Jews on the Malabar Coast before the first century AD. Similarly, Kokkamangalam where St: Thomas established one of the seven churches, is very near to the Jewish colony of Muttam. Jewish settlements in Paravur and Kollam are well known. However, whether Muttam, Paravur and Kollam had a Jewish colony at the time of St: Thomas is debatable.  It appears quite logical that St: Thomas himself a Jew by birth would have preferred to preach Gospel and establish churches near where his people already settled. For unknown reasons, the date of his arrival is precisely remembered as 52 AD by Christians of Kerala. Throughout Kerala one can find several Syrian Christian families tracing their ancestry from Jews or Brahmins baptized by St: Thomas or from the Jewish and other Middle Eastern groups migrated later. The most interesting case is that of the ‘Knanaya Christian Sect’ or Thekkumbhaghar (Southists) as commonly known in Kerala, who claim their ancestry from the Jewish Christian migrants from Urha (Edessa). According to Knanaya traditions, their ancestors first arrived in the ancient port city of Muziris (Kodungallur) in 345 AD and constituted of 400 members from 72 Jewish Christian families led by a Knai Thoma of Cana and a Bishop named Uraha Mar Ouseph. Similar to Orthodox Jews, this ethnic community has successfully maintained their unique identity by being very staunch adherents of endogamy and following certain Jewish rituals for the last 16 centuries!


The present Kodungallur was called Mahodayapuram, Makothevarpattanam, Muyirikkodu and Muziris by the Greeks and Romans; Shingly by the Jews; and Cranganore by the Portuguese. If archaeological findings are to be believed, the 3000 years old port city of Shingly or Muziris is more close to Paravur than the popularly accepted location in Kodungallur. Interestingly, Muziris, had the first Jewish (961 BC?), Christian (52 AD) and Islamic (629 AD) settlements of India. The Cheraman Juma Masjid of Kodungallur is thought to be constructed during the lifetime of Muhammad in 629 AD and is considered as the oldest mosque in India and the second oldest mosque in the world to offer Jumu'ah prayers! Shingly was one of the epicenters of Judaism in Kerala and from here Jews branched out into different parts of Kerala. Cranganore was known as the ‘Jerusalem of East’ or the ‘Little Jerusalem’! J B Segal (1993) records a tradition where Cranganore is said to have no fewer than 18 synagogues at the height of its glory ('A History of the Jews of Cochin', 1993, p.11). Tradition has it that in 68 AD, when the second Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Romans, some 10,000 Jews or 1000 families (including men and women) fled to Cranganore. An interesting folklore describes how they brought two of the original silver trumpets used in the Second Jerusalem Temple to Cranganore and were blown by Levites on the eve of every Sabbath. Once when the Levites were late, the non-Levites usurped their privilege resulting in a quarrel that ultimately led to the destruction of the trumpets. 

According to Syrian Christian traditions, St: Thomas converted 40 members of the Jewish community in Cranganore (1st century AD), but a good number continued to follow their ancestral religion and gave Christians the name “Nazaranis”. We know from the writings of the Arab traveler Ibn Wahab (880 AD) that a Jewish community existed in Cranganore in the 9th century AD.  Benjamin of Tudela (12th century) refers to it as Shinkali or Ginjalek. If legends are to be accepted, from 4th to 15th century AD, the Jews of Kodungallur had an independent kingdom ruled over by a Prince (Mudaliar) of their own race and choice. Words of the 14th century Spanish Hebrew poet and traveler Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven (1320-1376) shares that feeling: “I heard of the city of Shingly, I longed to see an Israel king, Him, I saw with my own eyes!" Thus, Joseph Raban (4th Century) the first Jewish Mudaliar of Kodungallur and the recipient of the famous ‘Copper Plates’ (more details later) was followed by 72 leaders. The last leader Joseph Azar (14th Century) fled with a few faithful followers to Cochin after he had a fight with his brother and established the Kochangadi synagogue in 1344. Legend has it that Joseph Azar swam to Cochin with his wife on his back! This was the first major split inside the Jewish community of Kodungallur. David Reubeni a Qabbalist of Rome and Lisbon, have cited many Jews living in Cranganore in 1524. Similarly, a letter sent from Israel to Italy by one David di Rossi in 1535 records Shingly with a large Jewish population who followed the 12th century classic ‘Mishneh Torah’. Di Rossi calls Shingly as Sindschell and cites that the town was exclusively inhabited by Jews who sold the king of Portugal, annually, 40,000 burdens of pepper! (details taken from ‘Who are the Jews of India (2000)' by Nathan Katz,  p.34). The Jewish settlement in Cranganore was finally abandoned in 1565, when Jews permanently shifted to Cochin and neighbouring areas. 

Until recently all Jewish homes in Kerala kept soil from Shingly, with the soil from the Holy Land, and were thrown into the coffin of every deceased Jew!  A recent (September, 2006) funeral ceremony of Paradesi Jew, Shalom Cohen also witnessed this ritual according to Edna Fernandes:“Shalom’s body has been purified through the cleansing ritual before being dressed in a simple white shroud. Earth from Jerusalem and from Cranganore, the ancient Jewish Kingdom of Kerala, was placed in his eyes and mouth. His head was swathed in strips of white linen, his corpse sprinkled with rose water, an old Sephardic custom, and then he was laid in a wooden coffin bereft of all adornment” (The Last Jews of Kerala, 2008, p. x). Jews in Kerala have even drawn parallels between the destruction of Jerusalem and that of Cranganore! The late historian PM Jussay as quoted by Nathan Katz and Ellen S. Goldberg: "Jews will not spend a night in Cranganore. But they used to go to Cranganore and take a handful of earth for burials, scooping out what came to be know as 'Jews' Pond’ (Jewish Apartheid and a Jewish Gandhi, 1993, Jewish Social Studies, 50:157). To this day, the Jews of Kerala, follow the Sefardi liturgy, but pray according to the "Shingly rite". Some trace the names of Kadavumbagam (“by the side of the landing place or bay”) and Thekkumbahgam (“by the side of south”) synagogues in both Ernakulam and Cochin with the names and locations of earlier synagogues that existed in Kodungallur.


The importance of Kodungallur declined after a flood silted the port in 1341 and a new port was emerged in Kochi. The natural disaster was followed by internal conflicts, invasions from Moors and later by the Portuguese (16th century), resulting in Shingly Jews adopting Kochi as their new safe haven.  Gradually in Kochi their number increased so rapidly that the Portuguese historian De Barros (1496-1570) refered to the King of Cochin as the "King of the Jews". In fact Jewish warriors became so prestigious that the King (Raja) of Cochin and the Zamorin of Calicut, each had a brigade of Jewish soldiers in their forces! The Portuguese period starting in 1498 was the Dark Age for Jewish settlement in Kodungallur. They destroyed the Jewish population in Kodungallur, damaged their synagogue as well as historical documents. Around this period, Jews established colonies and synagogues in Paravur (Parur), Mala, Chendamangalam (Chenot) and Muttam-all near their first settlement in Kodungallur. Nothing remains from Muttam, but the other three synagogues prevail. Muttam was also known as Muttom, Muttath or Madatankil. Jewish Muttam is often identified with Muttom near Cherthala in Alappuzha District. The famous St.Mary's Forane Church in Cherthala has a tradition that Jews established Muttam and later St. Thomas came there for evangelization. Interestingly, Kokkamangalam where St: Thomas established one of the seven churches in Kerala is only 5 km east of Cherthala. There is also a Muttam on the banks of Arabian Sea midway between Uppala and Kumbalam in the northernmost district of Kerala called Kasaragod. 

In and around Kochi, Jews had 9 synagogues from different periods! However, four of them Kochangadi (1344 to 1795), Saudhi (1514 to 1556), Tir-tur (1750/1756 to 1761) and Fort Cochi (1848) are now extinct and even their locations are unknown. The first synagogue in Cochin, the Kochangadi Synagogue, was built under the leadership of a Jew Joseph Azar most likely after the Jews abandoned Cranganore. The synagogue was destroyed initially by the Portuguese (16th century) and then later by the army of Tipu Sultan (1780s). Some even identify the Jewish settlement Kunja-Kiri described by the medieval geographer Ibn Battuta (1304-1369) with Kochangadi.  Thus the word Kunja-Kiri is a derivation from the Indian name ‘Konchi Ghari’ (Town of Konchi’) which in turn is said to denote Koch-angadi. The synagogue in Tir-Tur Island near Cranganore was built by a Paradesi Jew, Ezekiel Rahabi for the 10 Jewish families  and was probably abandoned while Tipu Sultan attacked the area. I believe Tir-tur is the modern Thiruthur or Thuruthoor-a border village in Ernakulam District located very near Kodungallur (1-2 km south). In such case, Tirtur is the farthest synagogue among the nine.  The synagogue at Fort Cochin was a private home in the ‘Lily Street’-an initiative by the Meshuhararim Jews to secure equal rights with the Pardesi Community, but the synagogue building remained incomplete and religious services were never held there (most of the details on the lost synagogues of cochin are taken from, courtesy Prof. Jay A. Waroker).

Jewish colonies are also reported in Chavakkad and Cherthala, perhaps a broad area referring to the nearby Palayur and Muttam. Blogger Jay Kotek claims here that his ancestors were Ethiopian Jews who settled in Anjuthengu (Anjenco) in 1624 and the family name Kotek (Kotekkazhikom) is of Jewish origin! He identifies Anjuthengu with the first century port city of Balita. Modern Anjuthengu ('five coconut palms’) is a coastal town between Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram near Varkala. It is a historic place tagged with the Portuguese, the Dutch and finally the British. It is still debatable if there was Jewish presence in Anjuthengu,  as no convincing evidences have emerged. The relatively modern (20th century) Jewish settlement of Aluva was mainly used as a summer resort by the Hallegua and the Koder families of Kochi’s Pardesi Jews. I shall be much delighted to have information on any other Jewish colonies that I have not included.


Benjamin of Tudela’s (1130-1173) itinerary contains one of the earliest statistical inference on Kerala’s Jewish population. During his visit to the Malabar Coast in 1170, he found about 1,100 Jewish families living in two places on Malabar. A few centuries later around 1520, in a legal inquiry regarding the status of the Black Jews and Meshuchrarim of Cochin made to David ben Solomon Ibn Zimra- the Chief Rabbi of Cairo, the number of Cochin Jews was given at about 900 householders (100 Pardesi and 800 Malabari). The Dutch Jew Moses Pereira da Paiva who visited Cochin in 1687 mentions in his ‘Notsias Dos Judeos De Cochim’, 470 Jewish families distributed in 10 synagogues: three in Cochin (for 150 families), two in Anguikaymal (Ernakulam) for 100 families, one in Parur for 100 families, one in Shenot (Chenamangalam) for 50 families, one in Mala for 50 families, one in Maden (Madayi) for 10 families, and one on the island of Tirtur for 10 families. Nearly a century later, the Dutch governor A. Moens (1781) observes 422 families, or about 2,000 persons. 

Almost at the same period, the leader of Pardesi Jewish community Ezekiel Rahabi (1694-1771) records 410 families: “We, who are known as White Jews, number some forty families with one synagogue. There is no other White Jewish colony in Malabar. There are colonies of Black Jews at six centers. In Cochin there are 150 families of these people with three synagogues. In Anjikaimal, just opposite Cochin, there are about 100 families with two synagogues. Five parsangs further north is Shenoth where there are fifty families with one synagogue. Two parsangs from Shenoth lies Mala where there are fifty families and one synagogue, while further south is situated Mutan with ten families and one synagogue, and the island of Tirtur, with ten families." (1 parsang is 3.5 miles or 5.6 km).

The Jewish Encyclopedia (1906) reports 21,000 Indian Jews in 1901: “the white Jews numbered fifty families, and these are divided into six stocks: the Zakkai, who are the oldest, and are said to have come from Cranganore in 1219; the Castillia, exiles from Spain in 1492, who arrived at Cochin in 1511; the Ashkenazi and Rothenburg, who came from Germany in the sixteenth century; and the Rahabi and Haligua families, who came from Aleppo about 1680. There are three hundred families of the Blacks”. The encyclopedia fails to mention any Malabari Jewish families by names. Today, perhaps only the Eliases, Nehemias and Abrahams remain among the surviving Malabari Jewish families in Kerala.

The most detailed record on Indian Jewish population is compiled by H.G. Reissner in his seminal work on Indian-Jewish Statistics (1837-1941), published in the ‘Jewish Social Studies’ (Vol. 12, No. 4; 1950). According to Reissner, in 1837 there were  6,951 Jews in India (5,255 Bene Israeli, 1,039 Kerala Jews and 657 Baghdadis), and in a century their population tripled! Reissner enumerates a Jewish population of 22,480 (14,805 Bene Israeli, 2,000 Kerala Jews and 5,675 Baghdadis) in 1941 (21,245 in India; 1,199 in Pakistan and 36 in Bangladesh). The list however does not include the 1,300 Jews who migrated to India from Hitler’s anti-Semitic Europe. A decade later in 1951 their strength reached to a maximum of 26,512 (20,000 Bene Israelis, 5,000 Baghdadis and about 2,500 Kerala Jews).  

The current Indian Jewish population (2010) is around 5,000 (200 Baghdadi Jews, around 40 Kerala Jews and remaining Bene Israelis). However, this does not include the population of Bene Menasseh and Bene Ephraim groups.  One can imagine how minutely negligible would be 5,000 Jews in a country with a population of 1.2 billion. The majority of Indian Jews have migrated to Israel since 1948 and an estimated 75,000 Jews of Indian origin now live in Israel (60,000 Bene Israelis, 7000 Kerala Jews and remaining Baghdadis). 

The 2001 Indian census recorded only 51 Jews in Kerala. In 2011, less than 50 Jews: 9 Pardesi Jews (6 women and 3 men) and 37 Malabari Jews remain in Kerala. After the demise of 83-year-old Isaac Judah Ashkenazi in July 30, 2011; only 9 Jews are left in Mattanchery from 6 families Sarah Jacob Cohen, 87; Joseph E. Hallegua (current warden), 86; Juliet J. Hallegua, 69; Yael J. Hallegua, 41; Gumliel Abraham Salem, 83; Reema G. Salem, 82; Queenie S. Hallegua, 65; Keith  I. Hallegua, 52; and Rachel S. Cohen, 65.


There are several theories about the origin of the Jews on the Malabar Coast. Very strong, continuous and reliable traditions transferred orally through generations by both Jewish and non-Jewish (especially Christians) communities in Kerala assign much earlier dates for their arrival. It should however be mentioned that most of the dates on the Jewish history of Kerala are based on ancient traditions, folklores, oral histories etc. and may not be convincing for many who approach history with documented and critical evidences. For many modern scholars, there is no documented evidence on the Jewish presence in Kerala before 10th or 11th century AD. William Logan (1841-1914) in his Malabar Manual speculates the existence of commerce between Kerala and the Promised Land from the time of Moses the great Jewish law-giver (14th Century BC)! Logan’s conclusion is based on a biblical passage mentioning Cinnamon and Cassia that played a part in the religious services of Jews during exodus (Exodus 30:23, 24)! Since it’s well known that many spice products were indigenous to India and for that reason cinnamon and cassia were abundant in Malabar Coast from ancient times, such a probability cannot be discarded completely!

According to other traditions, the first Jewish group arrived in Kerala during during King Solomon’s period (10th Cent. BC). Some speculate that the Hebrew names of sandalwood (almug or algum), ivory (shenhabbin), apes (kofe) and peacock (tukki) that arrived at Israeli ports at the time of King Solomon (1 Kings 10:11-12; 2 Chronicles 2:8; 9:10-11; 1 Kings 10:22 and 2 Chronicles 9:21) are actually derived from Indian languages. Thus, Ibha and kapi are Sanskrit words for elephant and ape, respectively; togai and aghil (valguka in Sanskrit) are Tamil words for peacock and sandalwood, respectively. Taking into consideration that India’s southern peninsula was rich with these products, existence of an ancient trade route between both the regions are highly probable. Many scholars argue that the biblical port of Ophir was located in India. One should also not forget that India is mentioned twice (as Hodu in Hebrew) in the Holy Bible (Esther 1:1 and 8:9; 5th cent. BC) and in the Apocryphal books of I Macabbees (6:37; 2nd cent. BC) and the Book of Jubilees (8:21; 9:2, 4; 2nd cent. BC). 

Another suggestion is that the Jews of Kerala are from the Lost Tribes after the kingdom of Israel was destroyed in 722 BC by the Assyrians. Jewish migrations to Kerala are also believed to have occurred in 586 BC after the Babylonian exile. The most popular and widely accepted date is between 68 to 70 AD, that is after the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple. The earliest documented external evidence of Jews on the Malabar Coast is found in the writings of Eusebius, the third century bishop of Caesaria, who mentions about an Alexandrian named Pantaenus seeing a Hebrew copy of the Gospel of Matthew in India around 181 AD. If Eusebius was right, then we have evidence for the existence of a Hebrew speaking people, who could only be Jews or Jewish Christians, in India in the second century AD. There were subsequent waves of major migration in 369 AD and 490 AD from Mesopotamia. Traditions attribute Jewish migrations to other parts of India as well. The Bene Israeli community for example claims that their ancestors were shipwrecked off the coast near Navgaon, Mumbai while fleeing from a persecution in the second century BC in Galilee. Many more migrations followed during later centuries. 

Among the popular ancient writers who describe about Indian Jews include Aristotle (384-322 BC) who even believed that Jews were descended from the Brahmins! India was also familiar to Jewish writers from the first century AD. The great Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD) wrote about the courage and fearlessness of Hindus; while the eminent Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (20 BC-50 AD) idealized Indian philosophers. The Rabbinic literatures, especially the Talmud (3rd to 5th cent AD) contain several references to India. Arab travelers left us the most detailed accounts of Jews in India. The Persian geographer Qasim ibn Khordadbeh (820-912 AD) mentions about a unique Jewish merchant guild called the Radhanites who were active in India.  Many Arab travelers like Hasan Ibn Yazid Sirafi (9th century), Ibn Wahab (880), Amad al-Biruni (973-1048), Muhammad al-Idrisi (1099-1166) and Muhammad Ibn Battuta (1304-1369) record Jewish presence in India. Benjamin of Tudela (1130-1173) the famous medieval Jewish traveler who visited India finds Jews in the Malabar Coast. Almost at the same period (1292), Marco Polo (1254-1324), the great Christian traveler from Venice identifies Jews in Kerala. One of the greatest Jewish philosophers from the 'Middle Ages', Rambam or Maimonides (1135-1204) argued that his 14-volume masterpiece, 'Mishneh Torah' (one of the greatest Jewish legal texts of all time) was studied in India too.


The monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam arrived India much before they reached the West. For instance, it is widely believed that Christianity reached the subcontinent only after Portuguese, the first European colonists arrived India in the 15th century. However, long before Christianity reached many parts of Europe, it came to India. According to strong, continuous and unanimous traditions among the ancient Syrian Christians of Kerala, Christianity was introduced to India by St: Thomas, the Apostle of Jesus Christ in 52 AD, who established seven churches in Kerala. Contrary to popular belief that Islam came to India through the 11th century Muslim invasions in the northern parts of the country, it first arrived Kerala via the Arab merchants from 7th century onwards at the earliest. Similarly, Judaism the oldest continuously practiced monotheistic religion has an Indian presence from very early times. If traditional accounts are to be accepted,India had a Jewish colony from the time of King Solomon (10th century BC)! Most importantly, all the three religions trace their arrival in India to the Malabar region of Southern India which is currently the modern State of Kerala. Since ancient times Kerala has been the center of the Indian spice trade where Greeks, Romans, Jews, Arabs and Chinese came for grabbing their part of share. To be specific, the first Jewish, Christian and Islamic settlements of India claim their origin to a place called Cranganore (modern Kodungallur) in Kerala.

Much has been written on Indian Jews, their unique culture and traditions. Among the three major Jewish communities in India, the “Kerala Jews” popularly known as“Cochin Jews” are the most ancient followed by the “Bene Israel” of Maharashtra and the “Baghdadi Jews” of West Bengal. Recently two more communities have claimed Jewish ancestry viz. “Bene Menasheh” (1970s) from North East India and “Bene Ephraim or Telugu Jews” (1980s) from Andhra Pradesh. A small population of Jews had migrated to India during the Mughal, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British rule as well. Perhaps the Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Anti-Semitic Europe were the last Jews to arrive India. In other words, Jews weren’t a single emigration to India. At different times they arrived and settled peacefully in India where they never experienced any anti-Semitism from the native Indian community. Although Jews supposedly reached Kerala as early as 1st century AD, there were many different waves of emigrations later as well. Gradually, Jews of Kerala became organized into three distinct groups, but the different communities interacted very less among themselves. 1) Malabari Jews: the largest and most ancient group considered to have arrived in India as merchants during the period of King Solomon (1000 BC). 2). ‘Paradesi’ (foreigner) Jews: the second largest and recent group (from 16th century onwards) who migrated mainly from Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Spain and Germany. 3). ‘Meshuhararim’ (released): the smallest group believed to be the slaves held by both Malabari and Paradesi communities who were converted to Judaism and later on released from their status as slaves. The Malabari Jews were called the ‘Black Jews’, the Meshuhararim-the ‘Brown Jews’ and the ‘Paradesi’-the ‘White Jews’-terms considered derogatory and racist today. The arguments on who came first and who are more pure were often fought vehemently and each sect defended their claims. The Jewish population of Kerala numbered 2,400 at the height of their “mass” emigration to Israel in 1954. Today (2011), less than 40 Jews remain in Kerala-9 Paradesi Jews comprising of 6 women and 3 men; and less than 30 Malabari Jews.

In a strong caste-based Indian society, fair skinned Paradesi Jews managed to win a privileged position although they were a minority and newly arrived. Their European background, influence and wealth managed to push the majority of relatively poor Malabar Jews into an inferior position in colonial India. Unfortunately, even today for many in the west and to a great extent in India too, the existence of Kerala’s ancient Malabari Jewish community and their heritage is far unknown. The famous Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin is perhaps the only monument that comes into the mind of many as far as Judaism in Kerala is concerned. Often mistakenly acclaimed to be the oldest (built 1568) synagogue in British Commonwealth, the Paradesi Synagogue however, is the only functional one in Kerala today (2011). Did the Jewish community of Kerala leave anything more than this famed synagogue? The answer is a big yes. Judaism in Kerala is not only about the Paradesi Jews of Cochin and their synagogue in Mattanchery. In fact, the Malabari Jews have seven synagogues and six cemeteries, and several aretfacts and monuments that are also part of Kerala’s rich Jewish heritage! This does not include the few existing Jewish homes and the many earlier Jewish residences converted into non-Jewish owned business buildings and private villas.

This blog will be an attempt to help people both inside and outside India to locate and learn about the known Jewish monuments of Kerala, that include synagogues, cemeteries and former Jewish residences. It will be equally pictorial and textual in format. One of the objectives of this blog is to help people in identifying all known Jewish monuments of Kerala through maps and photographs. Their left out synagogues and cemeteries are the physical landmarks that still stand in testimony to the vibrant and glorious heritage of Jews who claim at least 2000 years of strong and continuous bond with India. The big question is about the accessibility and identification of these monuments. Some of the cemeteries for example are so overgrown with weeds and turned into garbage dumping yards that even the locals have no clue about their existence. Most of the sites have no sign boards or maps available to pin point their exact location. The information from internet and other sources are also limited or at times misinformed when locating the monuments are concerned. I will try to get as many photographs as needed to help people understand these monuments and the blog will not be confined to the heritage of Paradesi Jews alone. For those synagogues that are disputed properties or lie in ruined state and are not accessible for the public I will only add photographs of the exterior. Some of the original Jewish artifacts from Kerala are preserved in Israel and what left here are the duplicates. In such cases, I will trace and append online links having the original photographs. Regarding the dates associated with the history of ‘Kerala Jews’, I have tried to incorporate the most popular views and need not always be the scholarly accepted ones. I shall be much glad if any one can contribute or provide details of additional monuments, sites or artifacts you think can be classified as part of Jewish heritage of Kerala.

Being also a photoblog, I will be concentrating more on the photographs taken from various Jewish monuments in Kerala. Not many sites are available online that go deep into the structural and historic details of these heritage units with photographs. However, we are lucky to have a few very enlightening resources. The“Friends of Kerala Synagogues 2011”(Prof. Jay A. Waronker, USA; Prof. Shalva Weil, Israel; Marian Scheuer Sofaer, USA; Isaac Sam, India and Tirza Muttath Lavi, Israel) maintain an excellent site on the synagogues of Kerala. I strongly recommend anyone interested in ‘Jewish synagogues of Kerala’ to go through their highly informative links. Whenever, I refer to their site, it will be acknowledged as ‘’. The other very important site I recommend is the beautiful photo collection by Jono David in his Ha Chayim Ha Yehudim Jewish Photo Library’. He has photographs from many Jewish monuments of India. Although he has got wrong one of the synagogues (Mattancherry Kadavumbagam Synagogue) the site has largely helped me to identify the Jewish cemeteries in Kerala.Thoufeek Zakriya who introduces himself as a young Indian Muslim, hospitality management student and a calligraphy artist maintains a well informed and interesting blog discussing the History of Jews of Kerala.


The most important Jewish heritage structures in Kerala are the synagogues (Juda Palli in Malayalam), cemeteries and residences.

A. Synagogues

Today, there are 35 synagogues in India and 7 of them are in Kerala. The architectural style of Kerala synagogues differs from those in the west. These synagogues are strongly influenced from earlier Hindu religious buildings on its design and construction. They are characterized by high slope roofs, thick laterite-stoned walls, large windows and doors, balcony and wood-carved ceilings. A Kerala synagogue consists of a ‘Gate House’ at the entrance that leads through a Breezeway to the Synagogue Complex. The synagogue complex is made of a fully enclosed Azara or Anteroom and a double-storeyed sanctuary-the main prayer hall. Inside a typical double-storeyed sanctuary of a ‘Kerala Synagogue’ are:

1) A Tebah/Bimah: Located at the center of the sanctuary, Tebah is usually an elevated wooden platform or pulpit from which Torah, the holy book of Jews is read. 2) A Heichal (Ark): Represents the altar. It is a chest or cupboard in the synagogue where the Torah scrolls are kept. It is usually carved intricately and painted/gilded with teak wood. Unlike in the European Synagogues, where the ark is placed on the eastern wall, the synagogues in Kerala have the arks on the western wall facing Jerusalem. 3) A Balcony/Second Tebah: It is unique to the synagogues of Kerala. The balcony has two portions one for men and the other for ladies. Women’s seating area is placed directly above the azara. 4) A Staircase: Leads to the balcony and is generally spiral in shape and made of wood. At times there are two staircases, one for men from the main hall inside the synagogue and the other for the ladies from a staircase room outside the synagogue; 5) A Jewish School: Is actually a classroom for Jewish children usually located behind the women’s section on the first floor.

B. Cemeteries

Resting place of ancestors means a lot to the Jewish community. Sometimes they even carried tombstones from their old settlements while migrating to a newer place. The oldest Jewish tomb in India (dated 1269 AD) preserved in front of Chendamangalam synagogue is one such transferred from Kodungallur. Unlike Christian tombs in Kerala with Malayalam and English engravings, the Jewish graves have mostly Hebrew inscriptions. The Jewish year can be converted into modern Gregorian date if one can read the Hebrew letters. ‘Reading Hebrew Tombstones’ is an interesting site to read the Jewish tombs.

C. Jewish Residences

Today, most of the early Jewish homes sold to non-Jews are substantially modified or refurbished. However, there are a few features that still make them identifiable. Sometimes you can trace Jewish symbols like Menorah (candlestick) and Magen David (Star of David) on the walls, windows and roof tops. For example, a few residences in Mattancherry still maintain the Star of David (Magen David) despite being converted into shops or warehouses. The best way to locate the home of a residing Jew is to look for the Mezuzah on the door post. Nailed to the doorpost of a Jewish home, Mezuzah is a small container made of wood, plastic or metal having a piece of parchment with the most important words from the Jewish Holy Book, Torah. It is customary among religious Jews to touch the mezuzah on entering or leaving the home. A few homes in the Synagogue Lane of Mattancherry with mezuzah are the residences of the remaining 9 Paradesi Jews.

The Jewish monuments and artifacts I will be discussing in this blog are:

I Synagogues

1. Pardesi Synagogue, Mattancherry (1568)

2. Kadavumbagam Synagogue, Mattancherry (1130 or 1539)

3. Thekkumbagam Synagogue, Mattancherry (1647, only the building site known)

4. Kadavumbagam Synagogue, Ernakulam (1200)

5. Thekkumbagam Synagogue, Ernakulam (1200 or 1580))

6. Paravur Synagogue (750 or 1164 or 1616)

7. Mala Synagogue (1400 or 1597)

8. Chendamangalam Synagogue (1420 or 1614)

(The various speculated dates of establishment in parenthesis are taken from, coutesy Prof. Jay A. Waronker)

II Cemeteries

1. Pardesi Jewish Cemetery, Mattancherry

2. Malabari Jewish Cemetery, Mattancherry

3. Old Jewish Cemetery, Ernakulam

4. New Jewish Cemetery, Ernakulam

5. Paravur Jewish Cemetery

6. Mala Jewish Cemetery

7. Chendamangalam Jewish Cemetery

III Jew Streets

1. Jew Street Mattancherry (Jewish residences with Mezuzah and Magen David)

2. Jew Steet, Ernakulam (today all shops in non-Jewish hands)

3. Jew Street, Paravur (Twin Pillars)

4. Jew Street, Mala (Gate House and Breezeway of synagogue turned into shops)

5. Jew Street, Chendamangalam (used to be a Jewish Market or Judakambolam)

6. Jew Street, Calicut (identified in July 2011 as Jootha (Jew) Bazar)

IV Other Monuments & Artifacts

1. Tomb of Sarah (1269 AD), Chendamangalam

2. Kochangadi Synagogue Corner-stone, Mattancherry

3. Jewish Children’s Play Ground, Mattancherry

4. Clock-Tower, Mattancherry

5. Sarah Cohen’s Embroidery Shop, Mattancherry

6. Jew Hill/Judakunnu/Jewish Bazar, Palayur

7. Jew Tank/Judakkulam, Madayi

8. Koder House, Fort Kochi

9. Grand Residencia, Fort Kochi

10. Jewish Summer Resorts, Aluva

11. Jewish Copper Plates, Mattancherry

12. Syrian Copper Plates, Kollam

13. Torah Finial, Palayur

V Lost Jewish Colonies

1. Kodungallur (Thrissur)

2. Palayur (Thrissur)

3. Pullut (Thrissur)

4. Kunnamkulam (Thrissur)

5. Saudhi (Ernakulam)

6. Tir-tur (Ernakulam)

7. Fort Kochi (Ernakulam)

8. Chaliyam (Kozhikode)

5. Pantalayani Kollam (Kozhikode)

9. Thekkepuram (Kozhikkode)

10. Muttam (Alappuzha)

11. Kayamkulam (Alappuzha)

12. Dharmadom (Kannur)

13. Madayi (Kannur)

14. Quilon (Kollam)

15. Pathirikunnu, Krishnagiri (Waynad)

16. Anchuthengu (Thiruvananthapuram)