Wednesday, 5 September 2012


Positioned in a remote corner near the crowded ‘Ernakulam Market’ is the abandoned sanctuary of ‘Thekkumbhagom Synagogue’. The synagogue’s main entrance is from the southern side in the ‘Jew Street’ of Ernakulam. It can be easily missed unless you spot a small gap between the long rows of congested shops in this crowded street. To be more specific, the main entrance to the synagogue is about 100 feet east of the ‘Jew Street-Broadway’ intersection, and situated between the shops, C K Mathew & Sons and Fancy Stores in the ‘Jew Street' (See here and here)
 The Location of Thekkumbhagom Synagogue of Ernakulam
 Courtesy, Google Maps

The entrance is guarded by a closed iron gate with signboards and a heritage plaque describing the history of the synagogue and contact details for accessing the site.  From the gate, a narrow path goes inside and you can notice the corner of a yellow three-storey building at the end, which is the only portion of synagogue visible to the public today. When I was visiting the area, the alley was blocked by garbage, weeds and dead branches of a nearby tree. The synagogue is presently maintained by the Association of Kerala Jews, but due to internal conflicts within the local Jewish community, the monument is difficult to access. Most probably you may have to be contended with views from the closed gate. In addition to this, during week days, the space in front of the synagogue is blocked and turned into a two-wheeler parking lot, making the situation even worse to obtain a view from outside. However, not many are aware of a synagogue entrance from the northern side that is almost hidden behind the ‘Ernakulam Market’. The entrance (also closed) can be spotted, if you are lucky to trace a narrow pocket road connecting the synagogue to the market area. Although, the northern entrance looks more messy and isolated, it gives a full view of the closed synagogue building from the back. In front of the entrance is a signboard in Malayalam that says: ‘This way goes to the Synagogue. Do not dirty this place’'.

Jono David has some excellent photographs taken in 2009, from both the interior and exterior of the synagogue here. You can see that the synagogue is virtually empty, and perhaps the upper gallery and the staircase leading to it are the only original structures remaining now. The traditional 16th century Torah Ark, Bima (pulpit) and other inside furnishings of the Thekkumbhagom synagogue were brought to Israel in 1970s and incorporated to the Moshav Nevatim’s Synagogue (near Be’er Sheva, Israel), built in the traditional Kerala style. Here is an online link for some nice photographs taken from the Nevatim Synagogue displaying the Thekkumbhagom Torah Ark and Bima. 

History of the Synagogue 
The present Thekkumbhagom Synagogue of Ernakulam is mostly a renovated structure from the late 1930s. The original synagogue is said to be established in 1580 AD and modeled after the 12th century Parur Synagogue. According to a tradition, the land where the present synagogue stands was gifted to the Malabari Jews of Ernakulam by the Rajah of Cochin. The story behind this warm gesture is discussed earlier in the blog (see the Ernakulam Jew Street and the story of ‘Bell Thieves’). In 1711, the Malabari Jews received a grant of land in Ernakulam from the Rajah of Cochin. Rev. James Henry Lord records (1907) that it was addressed to ‘the 64 Jews of Naikar of Kadavoo (Kadavumbhagom) at Ernakulam’ (The Jews in India and the Far East, p.78, 86, 100). A certain other tradition dates the presence of an even earlier synagogue in the site from 1200 AD, wherein the credit for building the synagogue is given to the Jews of Cranganore, who settled in Ernakulam after Muslims attacked their city in 1154. The heritage plaque placed in the entrance of the synagogue gives the date 1200 AD. It would be interesting to note that the adjacent Kadavumbhagom synagogue of Ernakulam also dates its establishment from 1200 AD. However, it is unlikely that Ernakulam had two synagogues from 13th century, as only after the formation of a harbor in 1341 that Cochin and the surrounding places including Ernakulam developed.

Ernakulam Jews and their statistics 
The earliest documented evidence for the existence of Thekkumbhagom and Kadavumbhagom synagogues in Ernakulam is from the writings of the Dutch Jew, Moses Pereyra de Paiva who visited Cochin in 1686 and published a report, ‘Notisias Dos Judeos De Cochim’ in 1687. In this report, de Paiva refers to 9 Malabari synagogues in Kerala, and two of them were in Anguicaymal (Ernakulam). He visited both the synagogues of Ernakulam on 25th November, 1686 and recorded 150 Jewish families, but finds the congregants of ‘poor people’. A letter written by the famous Paradesi Jew, Ezekiel Rahabi II (1694-1771) to the Dutch banker Tobias Boas in 1768, enumerated 100 Jewish families in Ernakulam. A century after de Paiva’s visit to Cochin, in 1781, the Dutch Governor of Cochin, Adriaan Moens confirmed Ezekiel Rahabi’s observation and wrote: at Anjecaimal (Ernaculam) they possess a little over 100 houses and two synagogues’.  Nearly eight decades after Moen’s visit, the Jewish emissary Jacob Saphir reached Kerala in 1860, and catalogued 120 Jewish families in Ernakulam in his book ‘Even Saphir’ (1866). All these reports account for the number of Jewish families, but do not give the number of people.

One of the earliest record for the number of ‘Ernakulam Jews’ is a report given by the Church of England missionary, Rev. Thomas Dawson who visited Kerala in 1817. Dawson’s account based on the information collected from the Paradesi Jew, Moses Isarphaty gives 286 Jews (152 males and 134 females) in Ernakulam out of a total 1,529 Jews in Kerala (Proceedings of the Church Missionary Society for Africa and the East, 1819, p.330). About two decades later, the numbers had changed; thus in 1839, Ernakulam had only 193 Jews (85 males, including children & 108 females, including children) living in 52 houses out of a total of 1,039 Jews in Kerala (The Calcutta Christian Observer, 1839, Vol VIII, p.660). By 1848, we have at least two independent observations that retain the number of Jewish population in Ernakulam at 193, but with different estimates for the total number of Jews in Kerala, viz. 973 (Star of Jacob, Rev. Moses Margoliouth, 1847 edition, p. 61) and  1,344 (J B Segal, History of the Jews of Kerala, 1993, p.89), respectively. According to a survey in 1857, the number of ‘Ernakulam Jews’ had suddenly increased to 353, and the total number of Jews in Kerala were 1,790 (J B Segal, A History of the Jews of Kerala, 1993, p.89). 

From 1891 onwards, we can rely on the Census of India Reports (updated and published  every decade since then) for a more authentic estimate of the Jewish population in Ernakulam. The 1891 census accounted 427 Jews in Ernakulam, but in 1901, the figures had slightly fallen to 412 Jews (209 males and 203 females). By 1911, there were 488 'Ernakulam Jews' (248 males and 240 females), that increased to 548 (287 males and 261 females) in the 1921 census estimates. During the 1931 census there were 644 Jews (335 males and 309 females) in Ernakulam. At the time of India’s Independence (1947) and Israel’s formation (1948), the population of Ernakulam Jews were at their peak. Their population is reported at a record high of 901 (out of 2,233) in 1948 by Eliya Ben Eliavoo and Shellim Samuel (The Synagogues of India, 1978, p.75).  In early 1950s, before the mass migration to Israel began; Dr. Rudolf Reitler also estimated 909 Jews in Ernakulam (Gilbert Kushner, Immigrants from India in Israel, 1973, p.15). The decline afterwards was so abrupt that, today the ‘Malabari Jews’ have reached almost on the verge of extinction in Kerala. In early 1950s, Dr. Reitler reported a total of 1,902 ‘Black Jews’ from five settlements, but today there are not more than 40 ‘Malabari Jews’ left in Kerala!

Structure of the Thekkumbhagom Synagogue 
We don’t have much information about the structure of the original synagogue as most of the present building is modern and substantially modified. Jay Waronker discusses in about a few unique architectural features of the earlier synagogue, that included; 1) a polished black floor made of a mixture of burned coconut shells, charcoal, lime, sugar cane or other plant juices, and egg whites; 2) a decorated threshold of polished granite stone and, 3) a fine courtyard built with prized charol sand taken from the local river bed (see more details here). An old Malayalam folksong collected from the previous Thekkumbhagom congregants, the ‘Ernakulam Thekkumbhagom Synagogue Song’, throws more light into the former synagogue’s structure. The 18-lined song depicts the synagogue as a precious and beautiful structure with four courtyards and a nice black pebbled path to it. The folksong compares the synagogue’s front side to a gem studded ring and the upper gallery to pearls in succession. It is not known if the pre-1939 Tekkumbagam Synagogue had a gatehouse or a connecting breezeway as observed in other typical synagogues of Kerala. More details about the present synagogue’s architecture are given also in the plaque installed at the entrance by the ‘Friends of Kerala Synagogues’ in July, 2009.

Thekkumbhagom  Synagogue after 1930s
The renovation of present synagogue started in 1936 and the effort was to have a larger and better sanctuary for the expanding congregation as the earlier synagogue was in a much dilapidated condition. However, Second World War broke out in 1939, the reconstruction got halted and things were never the same afterwards. Jay Waronker in shares an interesting event from that period: There was even concern that the city would be bombed during World War II, and some Jews left Ernakulam temporarily for outlying small communities where fellow Malabari Jews resided’. Soon after the war, the modern State of Israel was established (1948) and Jews began flocking to their ancestral home. By 1955, aliyah (the return to Israel) picked momentum with the Kerala Jews, especially with the Malabari Jews. In fact, Ernakulam Jews were known for their early Zionist activities. In 1922, eight elders from the Kadavumbhagom and Thekkumbhagom synagogues of Ernakulam wrote to the British Zionist Federation expressing their desire to settle in Palestine (see Walter J. Fischel, Early Zionism in India, Herzl Year Book 4, 1962, p. 327-328). When the South African Rabbi, Louis Rabinowitz arrived in Kerala to campaign for the aliyah, he addressed the Ernakulam Jews in the courtyard of the Thekkumbhagom synagogue. Their response literally brought tears to his eyes and he quotes: ‘They gave of their last annas and made a magnificient response’ (Far East Mission, 1952, p. 138-139).

Once completed, Thekkumbhagom was supposed to be the largest synagogue in Kerala and may be even in India. Rabbi Louis Rabbinowitz visited the synagogue in 1951 and wrote: the Tekum Bagam, has the largest vestibule of all the synagogues’  (Far East Mission, 1952, p.130). The Thekkumbhagom Jews soon realized that their new synagogue had no future in Ernakulam. The synagogue was left unattended with no further modification or restoration efforts. The plaque placed in front of the synagogue entrance gives 1948 as the rebuilding year. The synagogue was finally closed in 1954. In 1990s, with funding from some of its members, the synagogue was partially restored and used occasionally for religious and social gatherings. It housed a Jewish run poultry farm in early 1990s-records Nathan Katz and Ellen S. Goldberg (The Last Jews of Cochin, 1993, p.70)! Today, the synagogue remains locked and is rarely used for religious ceremonies or activities.

The Controversies over the synagogue
In May, 2009 there were reports about Thekkumbhagom synagogue of Ernakulam being put up for sale and deals done with a local developer who wanted to buy the property and tear down the building. However, the Association of Kerala Jews who takes care of the synagogue denied any such claims to be true. The Kerala government received a mass petition opposing the sale of Thekkumbhagom synagogue from 50 Jews in Israel of Kerala origin. There was a similar attempt to sell the Thekkumbhagom synagogue in July, 2011. The Malabari Jews in Israel blame members of the Jewish community in Kochi for illegally attempting to sell the synagogue, and regret the Indian Government’s insensitive attitude. In July, 2010 a plan to conserve the Thekkumbhagom synagogue as a national monument was submitted to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and nothing much has been heard thereafter.


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)