Saturday, 10 March 2012

A CEMETERY BEHIND THE THEKKUMBHAGOM SYNAGOGUE OF MATTANCHERRY

So far I discussed about five Jewish cemeteries in Ernakulam-Cochin region: the old (non functional) and the new (functional) cemeteries in Ernakulam city; the Malabari (left with the single tomb of ‘Nehemiah Motta’) and the Paradesi (functional) cemeteries in Mattancherry; and the ‘Meshuchararim Cemetery’ (extinct) at Fort Cochin. In Mattancherry, since two out of the three synagogues, viz. the ‘Kadavumbagam’ and the ‘Paradesi’ maintained a cemetery of their own, I asked if the third synagogue, the ‘Thekkumbagam’ had a cemetery? Although the answer is not positive, the quest provided a new candidate.

I didn’t have a clue until I came across an article written by a ‘Cochin Jew’ in the Jewish Chronicle more than 100 years ago. The anonymous author is identified as the Paradesi Jewish leader and Rabbi, Isaac Elias (I E) Hallegua (1862-1941), who is also the first Cochin Jew to graduate from India (in 1884). Understandably, a staunch proponent of the Paradesi viewpoints, he wrote a three-part series in the ‘Jewish Chronicle’ to proclaim his community’s (White Jews) superiority over the Malabari (Black) Jews in Kerala. Though these articles (Malabar Jews I, II and III) have a strong anti-Malabari Jewish tone, they give us certain valuable information about the state of Cochin Jews in early 20th century.

In the 1906 ‘Jewish Chronicle’ article (Malabar Jews II, October 19, Page 31), I E Hallegua, the ‘Cochin Jew’, mentions about an old cemetery in the Jew Town of Mattancherry. In his words: There is an old cemetery in Cochin adjacent to the White Jews’ quarter, partly bounded on the east by the Theckumbhagam Synagogue’. The description places the cemetery behind the Thekkumbagam Synagogue (remember the entrance to the synagogue faced east) and south to the ‘Paradesi Synagogue’. We also know from him that the cemetery was not walled. The cemetery then should have been somewhere in the yellow encircled area in the Map given below. See also the location of the current 'Paradesi Cemetery' a few meters south west to this extinct graveyard.


Hallegua claims that no Malabari Jew was buried in this cemetery. In his view, the cemetery was possessed by the Paradesi Jews until 1783, and as they ceased to make use of it, the non-walled graveyard was encroached by the locals, who took away all but ten tombstones, which remained with the Jewish community. He even identifies the oldest tombstone with a Paradesi Jewish woman named Sarah Moses Salah, whose burial was dated 1581. The present Paradesi Cemetery is believed to be not more than 250 years old, and fits with the conclusion of I E Hallegua that their earlier cemetery stopped functioning by late 18th century. According to J B Segal (1993), the oldest tombstone surviving in the four cemeteries of Cochin is that of a Paradesi woman named Leah, daughter of Moses Belila, who died in 1540 ('The History of the Jews of Cochin', p.31). James  Julian  Cotton in his monumental work, 'List of Inscriptions on Tombs or Monuments in Madras', Vol-2 (1905) mentions specifically about this cemetery. He calls it, "the 'Beth Haim" or "House of Life" at the back of the Jews' quarter, Muttoncherry" and records the oldest tombstone dated 11th Elul 5426 (i.e., 1666 ) belonging to "the venerable chief Rabbi Moses Alegoa" (Hallegua)

Naftali Bar Giora's "A Note on the History of the Synagogues in  Cochin" (1958) is an important reference for the study of synagogues in Kerala, unfortunately the text is in Hebrew and I didn't have access to this work until recently. I wish to discuss his narrative on the Jewish cemeteries of Cochin in detail. He describes about four Jewish cemeteries in Cochin; 

1)  Pallit Todam (i.e. Palli Thodam)-behind the Thekkumbhagom synagogue;
2) Pallit Parambu (i.e. Palli Parambu) -nearby " Beit Cherian";
3) Beit Khavarot Hadash (i.e. the New Jewish Cemetery)-south of Ernakulam;
4) "Cherian Parambu"- also Beit Khavarot Hadash where only Paradesi Jews are buried. 

The first cemetery: Since this cemetery is reported behind the Thekkumbhagom synagogue, it is the one referred by HalleguaBar Giorrecords that the cemetery was not functional anymore, however unlike Hallegua, he claims that it was used by both the Malabari and the Paradesi communities. The oldest tombstone: "Isaac bar Abraham"-died on Wednesday, 20 Sivan 5331 (i.e. 23 June 1571). 

The 2nd cemetery: He cites the cemetery being used by all three communities (Paradesi, Kadavumbhagom and Thekkumbhagom synagoguesand wast located near "Beit Cherian Cemetery" which is the current Paradesi cemetery. This would indicate that the 2nd cemetery, the "Palli Parambu" is the Malabari Jewish cemetery where the tomb of Nehemiah Motta is located. The oldest tombstone:  "Leah Bat Mosheh Belilah" who died on 5300 (i.e. 1540).

 The 3rd cemetery: "The New Jewish Cemetery" south of Ernakulam is in fact the current old Jewish cemetery in Convent Junction. Bar Giorreports two set s of burial in the cemetery- i) people who died of an epidemic in 1790,  and 2) the Bene Israeli Officer, "Samuel Ezekiel Divekar" who was released from the captivity of Tipu Sultan by the efforts of  Ezekiel Rahabi-the wealthy Jewish merchant of Cochin -burial date: Wednesday, 14 Kislev, 5557 (i.e. 14 December 1796). He also adds that Samuel Ezekiel Divekar was the only Paradesi Jew buried in the cemetery.

The 4th cemetery is the current Paradesi Jewish cemetery.  Bar Giora's reference is-"new cemetery", near the 2nd cemeteryand exclusively used by the Paradesi Jews. The name "Cherian Parambu" for the Paradesi cemetery is unusual, may be he was confused with the "Cheraman Parambu" in Kodungallur. 

Thus, according to Bar Giora, the oldest tombstone in Cochin belongs to a woman named Leah Bat Mosheh Belilah (d. 1540) buried in the cemetery near Paradesi cemetery, i.e. the Malabari Jewish Cemetery, and the oldest tomb in the cemetery behind the Thekkumbhagom synagogue is in the name of Isaac bar Abraham" (d. 1571). 

Following my recent (September, 2019) correspondence with Prof. Barbara Johnson, she shared a valuable information regarding the local name of the site where the cemetery was located. The empty area behind the Paradesi and Thekkumbhagom synagogues was called "Mupatti Munnam"-the significance of the name is unknown.


INTRODUCTION

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 ‘www.cochinsyn.com’. 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.

JEWISH MONUMENTS & ARTIFACTS 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 www.cochinsyn.com, 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)