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 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.
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!
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 cochinsyn.com 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.
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.