Sunday, 20 November 2011

KOCHANGADI SYNAGOGUE (1344-1789 AD)-the first synagogue of Cochin.

Which is the oldest synagogue in Kochi (Cochin)? Majority will give you the name of Paradesi synagogue. Ironically, Paradesi synagogue, built in 1568 is one among the youngest in Cochin, predated by several Malabari synagogues from Kerala! In 1344, only three years after the founding of the harbor town of Cochin/Kochi, a synagogue was constructed on its shores! The Kochangadi synagogue as it was known predates the Paradesi synagogue by 224 years!

Kochangadi now.

The place Kochangadi (Cochangadi) is located immediately south to Mattancherry (enlarge the map here) and is one of the oldest parts of Kochi, preceding the ‘Jew Town’ of Mattancherry and Fort Kochi (the oldest municipality recorded in Indian sub-continent). Currently Kochangadi is the 6th administrative ward of Kochi Corporation. The road after the ‘Jew Street’ in Mattancherry is still called the ‘Kochangadi Street’. After the decline of Jewish community Kochangadi became a predominant Muslim center and continues till date. Today, the Jewish quarter of Kochangadi has completely disappeared and there are no Jews or Jewish buildings. Modern Kochangadi is more popular for the Chembattapalli/Chembittapalli (Shafi'i Jami') mosque, one of the finest surviving examples of the Muslim architecture of Kerala. Chempittapally (in Malayalam, ‘Copper roofed mosque’) was allowed to have its roof of the main hall sheathed with copper, a privilege only the Hindu Temples could boast earlier. It is a testimony to the tolerance and equality of the Kochi Maharaja, who gave the permission to do so. An Arabic inscription in the mosque dates its reconstruction in the year 926 of the Hijra (1519-20 AD).

Etymology of Cochin and Cochangadi

The term Cochangadi literally means “Small Market (Cochu Angadi)” in Malayalam, but an alternate view is that it refers to “Jews’ Market”! How is this inference made? In Cochin, a Jew was addressed by “Cocha” and a Jewess by “Achi”. Hence ‘Cochangadi’ becomes ‘Cocha Angadi’ and thus ‘Jews’ Market’. In addition, the term Cocha is believed to be derived from the Biblical ‘Cohen’, Hebrew word for ‘Priest’! Some identify the Jewish settlement Kunja-Kiri described by the medieval geographer Ibn Battuta (1304-1369) with Kochangadi. The word Kunja-Kiri is then a derivation from the Indian name ‘Konchi Ghari’ (Town of Konchi’) which in turn is said to denote Cochin or Koch-angadi. Alternatively, many others identify Kunjakiri with Chendamangalam.

Interestingly, Cochin was a nature’s gift to the Keralites. In 1341, a massive devastating flood in Periyar River silted the historic Cranganore port making it unsuitable for commerce, but creating a small harbor in the south named Cochin. The ancient port of Cranganore was banished to the footnotes of history. One of the origins for the name Cochin is thought to be from the Malayalam word ‘Cochu Azhi’ meaning ‘Small Sea or Lagoon’.  Many of Cranganore Jews moved to Cochin, where the flood had created a new port and they became one of the first settlers in the new town. The impact of the flood was so devastating that the people of the region commemorated the event as the beginning of a new era, calling it Puduvaippu (from Malayalam pudu, 'new' and vepa 'habitation') and started a new era beginning from 1341 AD. It should however be noted that Jews remained in Cranganore for an additional two centuries after Kochangadi was established. It was only when Muslims with the help of Calicut King (Zamorin) in 1524, and  the Portuguese in 1565  attacked Cranganore; Jewish presence in their first settlement in Kerala was terminated.

Who built the Kochangadi synagogue?

There are two prominent traditions about the construction of Kochangadi synagogue. 

I) The most popular is about Joseph Azar who fled to Kochangadi after having a quarrel with his brother Aaron Azar, the 72nd and last Jewish leader (Prince or King?) of Cranganore and established the synagogue in 1344. The first Jewish leader of Cranganore was Joseph Rabban, who received the famous copper plates (dated 4th to 10th century AD!). The exact circumstances that lead to Joseph Azar’s flight are not clear as several theories have emerged. 

i) Conflict over succession among brothers, Joseph Azar and Aaron Azar, leading to the intervention by neighbors that finally results in the eradication of Jewish autonomy in Cranganore and beginning of Kochangadi congregation.

ii) A quarrel initiated by wives that led to a fraternal struggle. Joseph Azar kills his elder brother Aaron Azar and flees with followers to Kochangadi.

iii) After a chieftainship dispute broke out over who controls the Jewish principality of Anjuvannam, Joseph Azar and followers get ousted to Kochangadi by his brother with the help of a local Hindu King.

iv) A civil war incited by neighboring kings eliminates Jewish monopoly of Cranganore and both brothers from the royal lineage of Anjuvannam escape to Kochangadi and establish a new Jewish community.

v) The strife between the White (Paradesi) and the Black (Malabari) Jews. The Jewish leader of Cranganore with the support of White Jews and local Hindu King expels Joseph Azar and his followers, the Black Jews.

Whatever the circumstances were, Joseph Azar fled from Cranganore to Kochangadi and established the first Jewish congregation of Cochin in 1344. Traditions record he swam to Cochin with his wife on his back. Moses Pereyra de Paiva, the Dutch Jew who visited Cochin in 1686 even claims to have seen the tomb of Joseph Azar at Cochin! When the Paradesi community wanted to depict their history in ten symbolical paintings during the time of the quartercentenary celebrations of their synagogue in 1968, Joseph Azar was drawn swimming with his wife on his shoulders (the 8th painting displayed in the courtyard of Paradesi synagogue). The caption below the painting reads, “Destruction of Cranganore by the Moors and Portugese in 1524. Joseph Azar, the last Jewish Prince, swam to Cochin with his wife on his shoulders. The Jews placed themselves under the protection of the Maharajah of Cochin". See here for the photograph from Note that the event is dated to 1524 instead of 1344.

II) The other tradition on the origin of Kochangadi community is attributed to the Jews of Palayur or Palur, one of the four ancient Jewish settlements of Kerala. Ruby Daniel remembers about a song the women of Mala Jewish congregation have about the building of their synagogue, which says that the first Jews arrived in Palur, and due to certain unknown reasons they had to flee to Cranganore. One batch of Palur Jews presumably migrated to Kochangadi and established the synagogue (Daniel, Ruby and Johnson, Barbara C., Ruby of Cochin: An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers (1995), Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, p.128).

Kochangadi synagogue-Malabari or Paradesi Monument?

It is generally accepted that Kochangadi synagogue was a Malabari and not a Paradesi monument. But, the Paradesis have a different version. According to them, Joseph Azar, the descendant of Joseph Rabban, the first Jewish King of Cranganore was a Paradesi (White) Jew; a claim Malabari Jews vehemently deny. For Paradesis, the leading families who moved to Kochangadi from Cranganore, viz. the Zakkais and the Aarons, merged with the newly arrived Spanish and Portuguese Jews to Cochin in 1511, formed their congregation in Mattancherry. Moses Pereyra de Paiva, an Amsterdam Jew of Portuguese descent visited Cochin in 1686 and published his ‘Noticias dos Judeus de Cochin’ in 1687, where he lists the names of 25 heads of Cochin Jewish families at that time. He mentions about descendants from Zackay/Zakkias (the family of Joseph Azar) and Aaron stocks, the first families who came from Cranganore to Cochin. According to him the Zakkias were branco (pure white) and Aarons were not! We have evidence for a group of Paradesi Jews from Cranganore moving to a place called Sinhora Savode  (Saudhi) near the western shores of Cochin, in late 15th century, who remained for fifty years before moving to Mattancherry (Jacobus Canter Visscher, Letters from Malabar (1723), English translation by H.Drury, p.115). Similarly, Baruch Joseph Levi, the first Mudaliyar of Paradesi Jews, is said to have restored the Kochangadi synagogue in 1539.

While Paradesis claim descent from the Jews of Cranganore, there is substantial evidence to suggest that most, if not all, the Paradesi families only arrived in Kerala after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497). Certain questions remain yet to be answered. Is there any convincing evidence for the Paradesi Jews living in Kochangadi in the 14th century? If the Kochangadi synagogue was a Paradesi monument, why was the foundation stone of the synagogue brought to the Malabari Kadavumbagam synagogue of Mattancherry after it was destroyed?

Decline of the Kochangadi synagogue.

After its establishment in 1344,  the Kochangadi synagogue was restored in 1539 by Baruch Joseph Levi, the first Jewish Mudaliar. From the writings of the Dutch Commander of Malabar, Adriaan Moens (1770-1781), it can be concluded that the 'Kochangadi Synagogue' was intact at least until 1781 AD. The synagogue was apparently damaged after Tipu Sultan’s army destroyed the monument during the Second Anglo-Mysore War in 1789. Adding to that, Muslim dominance in the area may have forced the Malabri Jewish community to move further north to Mattancherry where the Paradesi community lived. Ruby Daniel discusses the rift between the Jews and the Muslims in the area and remembers a few folklore and miracles associated with this conflict. She summarizes, “Anyway, the Jews found it difficult to stay there any longer. So they left the place” (Daniel, Ruby and Johnson, Barbara C., Ruby of Cochin: An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers (1995), Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, p.128). The Kochangadi Jews are thought to have moved to Mattancherry no later than 1795.

Foundation Stone of the Kochangadi synagogue.

The only physical evidence available for the Kochangadi synagogue’s existence is its mural slab kept in the eastern wall of the courtyard of Paradesi synagogue. According to Bar Giora Naphthali, after the Kochangady synagogue was destroyed in 1789, the foundation stone was brought and attached to one of the walls of Kadavumbhagom synagogue and somehow forgotten, but it was accidentally re-discovered in 1818, when plaster fell from the walls (A Note on the History of the Synagogues in Cochin, 1958)J B Segal, also narrates the same incident and  believes the synagoue was abandoned in 1795 (The History of the Jews of Cochin, 1993, p.31). Here is a photograph of the Hebrew stone inscription. The foundation stone of Kochangadi synagogue dated 1344 (Jewish year 5105) is the oldest relic preserved from any synagogues in India.

English translation: 
‘This building was built, a holy dwelling, a place for the eternal spirit, in the year 5105. Great it will be, this honored house, the last from the first. Created on Tuesday, 5 Kislev, a house of God’.

Locating the Kochangadi synagogue

Do we have any clue where the Kochangadi synagogue existed? According to Ruby Daniel, after the synagogue was demolished and abandoned, only a piece of wall was left standing in that compound. She recalls Muslim community living in the vicinity sometimes lighting up a lamp there. In her words, “A Muslim woman who lived nearby swept and kept the place around it clean. It was worth her while. I have seen that piece of wall years ago, but I don’t know if it still stands today(Daniel, Ruby and Johnson, Barbara C., Ruby of Cochin: An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers (1995), Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, p.128). If Ruby Daniel remembered the synagogue compound existing in early 20th century, I believe there will be some among the locals who still have a memory of the site where the synagogue once stood.   

A very interesting detail about the synagogue's location is recorded in an article by E. I. Hallegua that appeared in the 1906 edition of the 'Jewish Chronicle' (Malabar Jews-I, October 5, 1906-Jewish Chronicle, p. 20). He describes that the Cochin Angady (Kochangady) Synagogue was established in 5105 A. M. (1345 AD), about a mile south of the Kadavumbhagam Synagogue (Mattancherry) and writes "at present only the four walls attest the site of its grandeur". This is a very crucial information. Not only it gives a precise location of the synagogue, but also attests the fact that the synagogue's four walls were intact in early 20th century. Another insight is from Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz who visited Cochin in 1952. We don't know what he meant by "of the 1344 Angadi edifice only ruins remain," (Far East Mission, p. 134)-perhaps he was only mentioning about the foundation stone of the Kochangadi Synagogue, if not, we have to assume that the ruins of the synagogue were visible until the mid-20th century!

In Kerala, members of the three monotheistic Semitic religions, Jews Christians and Muslims have coexisted peacefully and lived close by, but within self made boundaries. The seven Churches established by St: Thomas in Kerala; all were near a Jewish colony, except the one at Nilackal. Similarly, we have proofs for Muslims and Jews together in Madayi and Chendamangalam. In Chendamanagalam, Jewish and Muslim cemeteries still exist in one compound without any boundary in between! In a similar fashion, the Jew Town of Mattancherry and the predominantly Muslim dominated Kochangadi lie side by side.

Map 1. Modern Kochangadi region
Courtesy, google maps.

The city layout of Kochangadi has not changed much due to the less interference from the colonial powers who controlled only the other parts of Cochin, mainly Fort Kochi. If you look the following modern google map, three main east-west streets can be seen intersecting Kochangadi. Their courses have probably remained the same for many years: 1) Muslim Street (today Maulana Azad Road)-the most prominent road located on the west side; 2) Kochangadi Street-the eastern street is a continuation of Jew Street from north and runs parallel to the sea; 3) Dar al Salaam Road-the central street which is the epicenter of all Muslim institutions in Kochangadi viz. Dar al Salaam School, Zain al din Mosque and Chembittapally.
Map 2a. Map of Cochin (Kochi) in 1755

Map 2b. Enlarged view of Mattancherry-Kochangadi region

In this 1755 map of Cochin, "Ville De Cochin”, issued by Jacques Nicolas Bellin and engraved by J. V. Schley, several individual houses, towers, garden plots and churches can be clearly seen. One can easily identify the fortified city of Fort Kochi in the north and Mattancherry and Kochangadi regions towards the south. If (1) is the Mattancherry Palace and (2?) the Paradesi synagogue (the map need not be drawn to a scale), the whole Jew Town of Mattancherry appears strangely vacant! Instead, if 2(?) is the Mattancherry Palace, there is no Paradesi synagogue depicted in the map! In the Kochangadi area, assuming Chembittapally is (3), can we locate the synagogue? Since the Kochangadi synagogue was intact until 1789, could one of the buildings in the residential complex near the mosque facing the sea shore (encircled yellow in the map 2b) represent the Jewish sanctuary?  

As we know that the three synagogues of Mattancherry (Paradesi, Thekkumbagam and Kadavumbagam) align in a line (see 3, 6 and 11 here, and the Map 1 above) and are near the sea, could the Kochangadi synagogue also be placed as a continuation, and east to the mosque towards the sea? Ruby Daniel mentions in her memoir (p.10) that the synagogue was a few furlongs to the south where Jew Town of Mattancherry ends. There is a high chance that the synagogue and mosque were close to each other. Hallegua's pointer that the synagogue was one mile south of the Kadavumbhagam Synagogue nicely corroborates with this location. It is said that the Jews of Cochin donated wood for the construction of Chembittapally in Kochangadi! Most probably, the Kochangadi synagogue was located somewhere between the Dar al Salaam Road and Kochangadi Street, which continues from the Jew Street of Mattancherry (yellow dotted circle in map 1).

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The Historic ‘Kadavumbagam Synagogue’ of Mattancherry (1544).

Every day hundreds of tourists flock to visit Paradesi Synagogue, the oldest functional Jewish monument in India. But how many of them realize that not far from this famed monument lies a more ancient synagogue? Perhaps the skeletal remains of this unmarked and ill-maintained structure are so obscure and ordinary looking that many travel books and tourist guides fail to even mention its existence! Known as the Kadavumbagam (Riverside) synagogue of Mattancherry, this Malabari Jewish monument was built before the Paradesi synagogue. At its height of glory the monument was a much larger and grander structure with its fame reaching even outside India. How big was the synagogue? Late Ruby Daniel, a Cochin Jew who lived in Jew Street before migrating to Israel, quotes in her memoir about an old Jewish folk song, where the number of seat holders attending prayers in the Kadavumbagam synagogue was 800! 

A few decades before, in front of the synagogue was a landing place (Kadavu in Malalyalam) mainly for fishing boats traveling southwards and the space was kept open between the synagogue and the waters. May be the name ‘Kadavumbagam’ is coined from its association with this landing site. According to Ruby Daniel, whenever the Rajah of Cochin would sail southwards from his palace in north (adjacent to the Paradesi Synagogue), he stands up and prostrates himself towards the synagogue’s sanctuary where the Holy Ark will be opened for his majesty.

Daniel, Ruby and Johnson, Barbara C.,(1995), Ruby of Cochin: An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, p.131

The Kadavumbagam Jews before emigrating to Israel.

The Kadavumbagam synagogue of Mattancherry is at the southern end of the Jew Town and it takes less than 10 minutes to walk from the Paradesi Synagogue which is at the other end. In fact, the original Jew Street of Mattancherry stretched from the Kadavumbagam Synagogue to the Paradesi Synagogue with the Thekkumbagam Synagogue in between. All the houses in the narrow Jew Street near the Kadavumbagam Synagogue belonged to the Malabari Jews, while the ones towards the middle of the street were the Meshuhararim residences. Today, none of them are in Jewish hands as all left for Israel. The upper section of the Jew Street had the more wealthy Paradesi homes, and a few are still with the surviving Jews. The Jewish Year Book (1907/08) observes that the Kadavumbagam synagogue was managed a century before by four trustees, viz.  Elias Moses Madai, Joseph Isaac Nahamia, Elijah Sadill Isaac and Elijah Nahamiah Jacob, and had enough funding to do charity work for the poor. 

However,  David G. Mandelbaum (1939) gives us a different picture about the community in early 20th century: “At the lower end is the Riverside (Kadavumbagam) synagogue of the black Jews, named after an earlier structure in Cranganore. The houses of the black Jews (Malabari Jews) extend up the street for perhaps five hundred yards. Most of them have an open veranda in front, in which the head of the family sells his fowls, eggs, and produce. In back of the shop are the living quarters which must be entered through the veranda, for the houses are jammed one against the other. Sandwiched between Jewish homes are houses belonging to Moslem merchants and Hindu artisans, for poverty and the extinction of family lines have necessitated the sale of some Jewish houses to outsiders”.

Mandelbaum, David G. “The Jewish Way of Life in Cochin”, Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 1, 1939, pp. 423-60.

History of the Kadavumbagom Synagogue, Mattancherry.

According to Jewish traditions (mostly Malabari), the Kadavumbagam Synagogue was built after their first synagogue in Cochin, the Kochangadi Synagogue (est. 1344) became functionless. However, the Kochangadi synagogue functioned until the late 1780s or early 1790s, when it was destroyed by Tipu Sultan. The Paradsei version can be summarized from the words of late S. S. Koder: 'As a result of the Moorish attack on the Jews of Cranganore in 1524, more Jews escaped to Cochin. They found the Cochangadi Synagogue too small. Another Synagogue the Kadvobagham Synagogue was therefore built in Cochin by Baruch Levi, the father of the first Mudaliyar in 1544 and completed in 1550'. 

The one thing we can be sure of is that when the Kochangadi synagogue became defunct, its foundation stone was brought to Kadavumbagham synagogue. After the Kadavumbagham synagogue was also abandoned, the Kochangadi cornerstone was brought to the Paradesi synagogue. Today, one can see the  cornerstone of Kochangadi synagogue in the eastern wall of the Paradesi synagogue compound. What about the foundation stone of Kadavumbhagom synagogue?  David Sassoon mentions in 1932 about two Hebrew stone slabs discovered from kadavumbagam synagogue, one commemorating its date of establishment, and the other with the completion date of its front wall.

The tablet with details of the Kadavumbhagom's front wall is currently displayed in the eastern wall of Paradesi synagogue courtyard along with the Kochangadi synagogue's corner stone. 
Stone tablet with details of the Kadaumbagam Synagogue's front wall built in 1550 AD.

English Translation of the Inscription:
‘The wall was completed 24 Tevet in the year 1861 by  Jacob son of our teacher David Castiel, half the building, From his will, and the other half from the late Baruch Levi, may his soul be in heaven’. It was originally the stone inscription in the eastern wall of Kadavumbagam Synagogue. The Hebrew inscription commemorates the completion of the front (eastern) wall of the synagogue in the Seleucid year 1861 (Seleucid era begins in 312 BC), which is equivalent to Gregorian 1550 AD.  

The other stone tablet David Sassoon reports is the cornerstone of Kadavumbagam synagogue of Mattancherry. The eight-lined Hebrew inscription commemorating the completion of Kadavumbagam synagogue under the leadership Baruch Halevy, son of Joseph Halevy, in the Seleucid year 1855 (equivalent to the Gregorian 1544 AD) is quoted in 'Ohel David' by David Sassoon (VolII, p. 577-588).  This important relic was later brought to Israel and I believe is preserved in the Israel Museum now. 
Foundation slab of Kadavumbagam Synagogue, Mattancherry (dated 1544). Courtesy, Moshav Nevatim

Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz visited the Kadavumbhagom synagogue in 1952 and has reported seeing a relatively modern tablet with the names of the contributors who rebuilt the synagogue in 1936. 'Among them are the names of Maharajah of Cochin, who donated five candles of teak, the Bishop of Quilon, the Dewan (Prime Minister) of Cochin and S. R. K. Shanmugan Chitty, an example of a remarkable tolerance which deserves, and will have, special mention' (Far East Mission, p.130) 

Different dates have been attributed for the construction and restoration of the Kadavumbagam synagogue from 1130, 1150, 1400, 1530, 1539/40, 1544 or 1549. The most acceptable among scholars is 1544. The credit for establishing and restoring the Kadavumbagam synagogue (1539 to 1549) has been given to Paradesi Jewish community leaders (Mudaliyar) from the first Mudaliyar, Baruch Joseph Levi to the fifth, Jacob David Castiel. Note that even the Paradesi community agrees on the existence of a Malabari synagogue in Mattancherry before theirs was constructed in 1568.  

Around 1844, the Jewish community from the Kadavumbagam (Riverside) synagogue was excluded from fellowship with the other six Malabari communities.  The dispute began as the Kadavumbhagom community sought the help of Paradesis to certify one of their own members to become a shohet (ritual slaughterer). Before that, the community was depending a shohet from the adjacent Malabari Thekkumbagam congregation for the purpose. David G. Mandelbaum (1939) expands, 'Since then a man who marries a girl of the Riverside congregation must join that synagogue and is not permitted to worship with his former associates. When the people of one synagogue go to kiss the scrolls of the others on Simhat Torah, the Riverside (Kadavumbagam) group goes to the synagogue of the white Jews (Paradesi Jews)”. It may be one the reasons that encouraged A. de Costa to write about the Kaddavumbagam Jews as the black non-Meyuhassims (descendants of manumitted slaves or converts from the non-Jewish natives) and the remaining  Malabari  congregations as the privileged Jews or Meyuhassims (Indian Church Quarterly Review, 1893).

Mandelbaum, David G. “The Jewish Way of Life in Cochin”, Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 1, 1939, pp. 423-60.

Sassoon, David Solomon, Ohel Dawid-Descriptive catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan Manuscripts in the Sassoon Library, London. Oxford University Press, Vol2, 1932.

Rabinowitz, Louis-Far East Mission, Eagle Press Limited, South Africa, 1952, p. 130.

Koder S. S. Saga of the Jews of Cochin, Jews in India (Timberg, Thomas A. edition), Vikas Publishing House Pvt Ltd, India, 1986, p. 138.  


The original synagogue complex had a two-storey gatehouse, a Beit Midrash (Hebrew school), a connecting breezeway and a main sanctuary. The synagogue had direct access to the sea and even a landing site for boats, located 50 meters in front (east) of the monument. There was a market in front of the synagogue according to Ruby Daniel (Ruby of Cochin, p.44). Today, only the sanctuary building remains and the rest all have disappeared. The gatehouse and breezeway were demolished in early 1960s while the Jew Street was expanded and altered. We know that the Hebrew school was attended by Malabari Jewish children from both Kadavumbagam and Thekkumbagam communities of Mattancherry.  

Orpa Slapak, a former curator at the ‘Israel Museum’ and editor of an excellent and well-illustrated  book on the material culture and customs of the 'Jews of India', gives a brief description about the structure of the synagogue before it was abandoned in 1955. In her words: The synagogue surpassed all others in its elaborate ornamentation and its beautifully carved and painted woodwork, particularly in the ceiling. The two-storied rectangular brick building, plastered and whitewashed, has a tiled roof and four buttresses on each side, reinforcing the long walls. It stands in a walled, paved courtyard and its floor plans runs lengthwise, aligned southeast to northwest. The main entrance and a staircase to women’s section were in a broad structure at the front of the building, while the second story of this structure was occupied by a Talmud Torah (elementary school). Inside the synagogue, in front of the women’s gallery and separated from it by a latticework partition, was an additional reader’s desk, which was reached by steps from the central hall and was used by the hazzan on Sabbaths and festivals” (The Jews of India: A Story of Three Communities. Jerusalem: The Israel Museum (1995), p.57).

Let us see some of the photographs of the synagogue taken from different period starting from the earliest.  The first photograph is a rare 1956 colour picture of the Kadavumbagam synagogue. The image is uploaded in the photostream collection ‘My Dad in India’ by Susie Bright. According to her, they were scanned from the slides of her father Bill Bright’s visit to India to work at Deccan College in linguistics in 1955-1967. This is perhaps the only colour photograph of Mattancherry's 'Kadavumbagam Synagogue' with its gatehouse and the Beit Midrash intact. Carefully observing the photograph, you can locate two Hebrew inscriptions, one on the front wall near the door (2), and the other at the apex of the synagogue gable (1). The inscription adjacent to the door (2) is the stone tablet with details of Kadavumbagam's wall (1550), currently preserved in the Paradesi synagogue's courtyard (see here); the first inscription on the gable is photographed separately in 1957 and published later (see details of the inscription below).
Kadavumbagam Synagogue of Mattancherry (1956). Photo Courtesy, Susie Bright, "My Dad in India".
The next photograph given below looks an identical black and white version of the colour photograph by Susie Bright, but it was taken a year later in 1957 and published in the "Jews of India" (1995, p. 59) by Orpa Slapak-a much valuable resource for anyone interested in studying about the Jews of Kerala. The enlarged photo of the synagogue's facade is also given in the same work. 
Kadavumbagam Synagogue of Mattancherry (1957). Photo Courtesy, Orpa Slapak, "The Jews of India", p. 59.

Facade of the Kadavumbagam Synagogue of Mattancherry (1957). Photo Courtesy, Orpa Slapak, "The Jews of India", p. 59.
The Hebrew inscription has 2 lines (or 3?). From the top it reads:  קדשל״ (an abbreviation for קדש ליהוה )="Holy to the Lord" and בעזרת האל="With the Help of the Lord"

Another interesting photograph is from the archives of Ben Zvi Institute, Jerusalem. The young Jewish boy is standing before the main entrance to the Kadavumbhagom synagogue, you can clearly see the front wall inscription (currently installed in the courtyard of the Paradesi synagogue), curtain with the large 'Star of David' that opens to the Azara (ante-room), and a a stone lamp on the right wall below the inscription. The photograph is undated and the caption mistakenly identifies the building as the Thekkumbhagom synagogue. Here is the link to the source from where the photograph was retrieved.
Entrance to the Kadavumbhagom Synagogue (undated photograph). Photo Courtesy, Ben Zvi Institute, Jerusalem.
One of my favourite photograph in this context is the following black and white picture of the synagogue that gives us a rare side view angle of the monument (courtesy, Moshav Nevatim). This image taken from the north reveals the gatehouse and the Hebrew school more clearly.
North Side view to the Kadavumbhagom synagogue (undated Photograph). Photo Courtesy, Moshav Nevatim. 
However you can see that both the structures have already disappeared from the 1977 image of the synagogue by Barbara C. Johnson shown below.
Kadavumbagam synagogue in 1977. Photo courtesy, Barbara C. Johnson, Kerala Jewish Women’s Folksongs: A Story of New Life, AJL Conference Proceedings, 2009, Chicago. The online link is here.
Finally, the following black and white photograph in Kenneth X. Robbins' 'Western Jews in India: From the Fifteenth Century to the Present' (2013, p. 99) is probably from the same period or slightly later as the synagogue appears more worn down compared to the 1977 photograph.
Photo Courtesy, Kenneth X. Robbins, "Western Jews in India", p. 99.
The interior of the synagogue was unique with its outstandingly carved woodwork done in teak wood. The decorative elements showed the rich influence of Hindu motifs including lotus blossoms, birds, fish, frogs and even cobras! Ruby Daniel mentions about a Paradesi Jewish folksong on the building of Kadavumbagam synagogue. In one stanza, the ceiling of the synagogue is said to be divided by beams into 15 sections with a carved lotus flower in the center of each section. Today, you can appreciate the same ceiling panel restored inside the Israel Museum of Jerusalem!“In its prime, the Kadavumbagam Synagogue was notable for its exterior ornamentation and painted surfaces, specifically at the gabled facade of the sanctuary building.  The interior was also unique to other Kerala synagogues for its elaborately carved woodwork. Though the majority of Kerala synagogues featured ceilings and balconies made of wood with detail drawing from the region’s secular and religious building traditions using timber, the ones at Kadavumbagam were the most intricate”-writes Jay Waronker in

Legends and folklores about the Kadavumbagom Synagogue, Mattancherry.

The Kadavumbagam Synagogue is attributed with several miracles when it was in use. “Therefore if anyone became ill, or was embarking on a dangerous journey, or lost something and wanted to recover it-or when a woman was soon to give birth-it was customary to bring a gift or donation to this synagogue and to pray for one’s well-being”, says Ruby Daniel. She remembers even non-Jews bringing a glass of oil for the synagogue’s lamp as a gift. She also describes an incident where a boy dies in an earthquake in Quetta, Afghanistan; and the father sends money to Mattancherry every year on his death anniversary so that his son's name is remembered in the famed Kadavumbagam synagogue!

There is also an interesting story about the person who purchased the synagogue and converted it into a factory for ropes and mat. It goes like this; being a Hindu he hung the idol of his God over the synagogue door, only to find it lying on the floor in pieces next day morning. He repeats the process and the result was the same each morning. Eventually, his sons began to die and only then he realized that he had to leave the synagogue.

The Kadavumbagam Synagogue of Mattancherry after the Jews left.

After the Malabari Jews of Mattancherry left for Israel in 1955, the synagogue was first entrusted to the Paradesi Jewish community. The synagogue was later rented and then sold to non-Jews. It became a woodshop, a workshop for producing ropes and mats, and even a warehouse for storing areca nuts and dried shrimps! Today, the building is padlocked and empty. The synagogue is for sale as of 2010 and has some disputes over its ownership and hence very difficult to access. Here is a photo of the synagogue taken in 1990 before it was dismantled and taken to Israel. You can see the intricately wooden-carved ceiling and the women's gallery. Also look for the bundles of rope stored inside the synagogue after it was turned into a factory!
Kadavumbagam synagogue of Mattancherry in 1990. Photo courtesy, The Jews of India-a story of three communities (1995), Orpa Slapak ed., The Israel Museum-Jerusalem, p.60. Photo credited to Jorg Drechsel.

Journey of the ‘Holy Ark’ of Kadavumbagam Synagogue from Mattancherry to Jerusalem.

What happened to the ark of the Kadavumbagam synagogue of Mattancherry after Jews left for Israel? The Kadavumbagam 'Torah Ark' of  Mattancherry was installed inside the synagogue in 1940s after its previous ark was damaged by humidity. As the Kadavumbagam Jews left India in 1955 and the synagogue became disuse, this newly installed ark which was said to be a replica of the pre-1940 Heichal, was sent to Israel sometime between 1955 and 1957. The exact order of events once the Ark reached Israel is not very clear. It is generally believed that the Cochin Jews failed to claim the Ark from the customs in Haifa Port, and as a result it was allocated to a German Jewish orthodox community in Moshav Nehalim in central Israel. A different version is that they were not in a position to build a synagogue immediately on arrival to Israel, and therefore  the Ark was donated willingly to the Nehalim community. For those who want to see the original ark of Kadavumbagam synagogue, here is a photograph taken in 1984 from the Moshav, published in 'the Jews of India-a story of three communities' (1995), Orpa Slapak ed., p.56.

The journey of the 'Kadavumbagam Synagogue' of Mattancherry to Jerusalem picked momentum when the local rope merchant who bought the synagogue sold it to an antique dealer. The new buyer decided to refurbish the synagogue's interior by putting the wooden structures made of teak for sale. The news was immediately brought to the Israel Museum's attention by Israel Roi and Doris Rau. In 1991, the synagogue’s wooden ceiling panels, women’s gallery and screen, steps, doors, rosettes, beams, lintels and doorpost were purchased by an English Jewish couple, Della and Fred Worms from London, who had the items carefully removed and sent to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The whole consignment was shipped in a 40-foot container and weighed a total of seven tonnes!  The painstaking restoration included acclimatization in a climate-controlled storeroom and even creation of a 'little Kerala' with high humidity in a relatively dry Jerusalem! Worms covered the full expense of purchase, dismantling, shipping and erecting the synagogue in Jerusalem.  

The project took almost five years before the reconstructed synagogue was displayed as a permanent exhibit in Israel museum in 1996. Fred Worms remembers in a Jerusalem Post article (9th May, 2011) here on how he arrived at a decision to bring the Kadavumbagam synagogue to Israel. It was his birthday gift to the legendary Jerusalem Mayor (1965 to 1993), Teddy Kollek. “I asked him what he wanted for his 75th birthday, and he said, ‘I want to pray in a synagogue in Cochin',said Worms. “Teddy, I didn’t know you were religious, but okay, I’ll pay for your first-class fare to Cochin,’ I told him. ‘No, I want the Cochin synagogue to come to Israel,’ Teddy said, so that’s how we ended up bringing the Kadavumbagam synagogue to the Israel Museum.”

Just to have an idea about the restoration efforts behind the project, read this interesting blog entry from ‘Let us tour Eretz Yisrael’: ‘In 1990 Fred and Bellah Worms from London acquired the Synagogue and gave it to the Israel Museum. The couple arranged the dismantling of the Beit Knesset. The ordinate celling weighs seven tons, each of its beams weighing about seven hundred kilos. To install it in the Israel Museum the concrete roof of the museum was removed and the enormous beams were put in place one by one by a crane. But before they could install the wood it had to be acclimatized to the Jerusalem weather conditions so that it should not crack or disintegrate. As the humidity in  Kerala is extremely  high and that of Yerushalayim is very dry, a special little 'India' with an Indian climate, was created in the Israel Museum. Strands of dry pieces of plants from India were placed around the chamber and monitoring instruments insured high humidity. Slowly over a period of five years the humidity and temp was lowered, thus allowing the wood to get used to its new home. At the end of the five year period the layers paint that had been applied  by the community in India, were gently peeled off, enabling one to view the original painted wood’.

Although, the Kadavumbhagom synagogue's interior was brought to Israel in 1991 from Mattancherry, its Torah Ark and Bima could not be included in the Israel museum's collection. The original Kadavumbhagom Ark had been already taken to Israel, to Moshav Nehalim in 1950s. The Nehalim community was reluctant to part with theirs and so the museum had to think of an alternative. Meanwhile, the Parur Synagogue became an option, because the synagogue was closed since 1988 when the last of 'Parur Jews' left for Israel and it's Torah Ark and podium were available. The Israel Museum therefore bought the Torah Ark (1891) and the Bima (podium) of the abandoned Parur synagogue and brought to Jerusalem in 1995. Thus, Israel Museum has a 'Parur Ark' of 1891 and Moshav Nehalim has the original 'Kadavumbagam Ark' from  1940s, although the later is presumably a replica of a more ancient ark! Here is a nice high resolution photograph of the Parur Ark preserved in the Israel museum, fetched from online.
Ark of the Parur Synagogue (1891), Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Photo courtesy,

The ark of Parur is carved with a seven-branched menorah flanked by two olive trees as described in the vision of Zechariah (4:2-3). Enlarge the photograph and look at the top of the ark for the Zechariah symbols. The pattern was most probably copied from the 1619 built Chendamangalam synagogue. Zechariah’s vision is a common subject for decorating artifacts among Kerala Jews and I would be discussing more about this while Chendamangalam synagogue will be uploaded. The museum gives the size of the ark as 550 x 880 x 520 cm. More photographs of the ark can be retrieved from here, here and here.


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)