Monday, 2 December 2019

THE 26 ELEGANTLY WOOD CARVED LOTUS FLOWERS BENEATH THE UPPER GALLERY OF MALA SYNAGOGUE.

Before coming to the details, a brief background of the current state of Mala's Jewish monuments. Mala has the northernmost synagogue in Kerala and it is also one of least explored Jewish monuments. After Mala's Jews decided to leave for Israel, their synagogue and cemetery were donated freely to the Grama Panchayath (Village Council) of Mala on December 20, 1954 under the main conditions that 1) the synagogue would not be converted to a place of Worship of any denomination or used as a slaughter house and the Panchayath would do all the annual maintenance and repair at their own expense; 2) the cemetery shall be preserved with a compound wall on all sides and a gate, and no part of the cemetery would be dug or unearthed. The contract was registered on January 4, 1955.

In 1948, there were around 300 Jews in Mala (Eliya Ben Eliyahu, 1978), by the end of 1955 not a single Jew was left in the town. One of the first batches of Kerala Jews who made Aliyah to Israel in the early 1950s was from Mala.  It is also the first synagogue in Kerala to become defunct. However, the agreement had only a short span of life and frequent encroachments became common phenomena. The synagogue was used as a primary school and turned into a community hall for conducting private and government functions. From the interior of the synagogue, the Holy Ark, the main pulpit (Tebah) and all the original furnishings went  missing. The gatehouse was rented out to private traders and additional structures were inserted in front of the building, the double-height breezeway that lead to the original entrance of the synagogue from the east was cut off. A new entrance was constructed in the south side of the synagogue converting a window into a door. A large portion of the northern compound was used to build a shopping complex, which was later demolished and used as a parking area for some time. During the recent road widening project of the main East-West road of Mala, the State Highway 51 (Kodakara-Kodungallur Highway), whatever left of the gatehouse and breezeway were demolished. The maximum damage was inflicted on the Jewish cemetery of Mala. The 4-acred graveyard is the largest Jewish cemetery in India, but only three tombstones remain today, 2.5 acres of the plot was separated and used to build a sports complex. There are even reports on the tombs being used as markers for shooting practices conducted by the Kerala Police Home Guard! The Association of Kerala Jews and the Mala Paithruka Samrakshana Samithi (Heritage Conservation Society) stepped in and bravely fought against the encroachments both legally and by means of generating the public awareness for the need of preserving the Jewish heritage. If it hadn't been for Prof. C. Karmachandran and his team who stood against all odds, most of the Jewish monuments in Mala would not have survived today. Last time when I visited the synagogue, the keys were with the Panchayath Office, and on approaching them I have been told that they no longer have them, but I should contact the Archaeology Department instead. However, upon reaching the department they recommended me to wait until the renovation work was completed! I extend by sincere thanks to Prof. Karmachandran for arranging the keys to access the synagogue, gave me complete freedom to photograph the monument and spent hours of his precious time sharing how hard it is to protect Mala's Jewish monuments from the encroaching elements who have ample support from some of the rich and affluent fractions of the society.

Thanks to the relentless efforts of the conservation team, Mala Synagogue and Cemetery were declared as protected monuments by the Government of Kerala on December, 2017. The construction works on the cemetery grounds were halted and measures were taken to add boundary fences. The original compound walls, main gate at the entrance, and the heritage plaques installed at the cemetery had all been vandalized and destroyed by anti-social elements. Mala's Jewish monuments are now under the famed Muziris Heritage Project, renovation of the synagogue and preservation of the cemetery will be the immediate goals. As for the cemetery, Prof. Karmachandran's vision is to have a Harmony Park and a museum for Kerala's Jewish Heritage in the compound.

Despite years of neglect and vandalization, the main sanctuary of the synagogue has remained intact. It is sad that no trace of the Holy Ark, the main Tebah (pulpit), the lighting fixtures and the synagogue furnishings remain, but the upper balcony, women's gallery, the lattice work partition (Mechitza), the second Tebah, the pair of pillars supporting the gallery and the original steep staircase to the upstairs have been preserved. The amount of wood used in these constructions is lavishly abundant. The inscriptions in Malayalam and Hebrew engraved on the balcony dates the current synagogue to 1909, an additional line in Malayalam informs us that the new synagogue was built on the foundation of an old sanctuary from 1790. The earliest date for the synagogue is late 10th to very early 11th centuries based on a Hebrew-Malayalam Jewish folk song. Traditions also attribute dates 1400 and 1597 for the foundation of the synagogue. According to the aforementioned folk song sung exclusively by women, the wood used for the Mala synagogue was donated by the Rajah of Cranganore through the famous Jewish leader Joseph Rabban. We don't know if the wood used in the upper gallery has elements from the earlier synagogues, but the chances are less. The most striking feature of the balcony is the 26 beautiful and finely designed lotus flowers elegantly carved into the wooden panels beneath the upper gallery and arranged in three sections. I) Fourteen flowers ( 1 to 14) arranged in a longitudinal row under the frieze of the balcony, four each on either sides of the pillars supporting the balcony and six between the pillars; II) Three flowers (15 to 17) in a row below the second Tebah; III) Nine (18 to 26) flowers in a rectangular panel arranged in a 3 x 3 pattern beneath the upper gallery

The abundance of wood used in Mala Synagogue

The upper gallery and second Tebah (Pulpit) of Mala Synagogue.

I) The arrangement of carved wood lotus flowers (1 to 26) under the upper gallery of Mala Synagogue.


Panels with the lotus flowers under the second Tebah (15 to 17)  and upper gallery (18 to 26)

Enlarged views of the 14 carved wood lotus flowers beneath the frieze of the upper gallery. The flowers are arranged in a single longitudinal row.


Enlarged views of the 3 carved wood lotus flowers (15 to 17) arranged in a row beneath the second Tebah.


Enlarged views of the 9 carved wood lotus flowers (18 to 26) beneath the upper balcony arranged in a 3 x 3 pattern.
Flowers are arranged in 3 rows: 1st row- 18 to 20; 2nd row- 21 to 23; and 3rd row- 24 to 26.


If you carefully observe these flowers, you would notice that each of them is different from the rest, their appearance vary in the arrangement, shape, and the number of petals, the size and design of the central bud. It was Prof. Karmachandran, who brought to my attention about this unique property of the work, and I decided to photograph each of the flowers individually and insert in the blog. More simple floral motifs and designs can also be seen through out  the wood panels. These elegant wood carvings are fine examples of the rich traditions of Kerala architecture. It is interesting to note that, despite existing for at least 110 years and surviving more than six decades of neglect and decay, the flowers still look fresh and undamaged. In near future, I plan to include more on the synagogue and cemetery of Mala with additional information and photographs.


 More floral motifs and design on the upper gallery

(All photographs were taken on 26 November 2019)

Saturday, 30 November 2019

RARE PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE OLD THEKKUMBHAGOM SYNAGOGUE OF ERNAKULAM BEFORE IT WAS DEMOLISHED IN LATE 1930S

A synagogue from Ernakulam in the background (September, 1937). Magnes Collection:  [76.311.2.1 (CJ 10)] 

Another gem from David G. Mandelbaum, and this slide from 1937 has the image of an unknown synagogue in the background. The title reads, "Ernakulam. Jewish girl holding her brother who wears only skull cap and abdominal band. Synagogue in background." At first glance, I thought it was the Paradesi synagogue, because of the well  (1) in the courtyard and the upper passageway (2), but on a closer look I realized the structure is different. For instance, the front windows (3) are plain and simple compared to the ones in the Paradesi synagogue. In fact, Mandelbaum has even a photograph of the Paradesi synagogue taken in 1937 from the same angle (see here), and you can notice the style of windows is different.  The title of the slide gives the place Ernakulamand unlike western travellers who sometimes interchange the names Ernakulam and Cochin, Mandelbaum was aware of the difference and he used Cochin specifically for Mattancherry, therefore, it has to be one of the two synagogues in Ernakulam. We know that the Kadavumbhagom synagogue has a half-octagonal shaped front side and there are no records or traditions of the building having a gatehouse or an upper passageway. The only candidate left with us is the Thekkumbhagom synagogue of Ernakulam, but the current sanctuary has no resemblance to the structure in the slide. However, when we look into the history of Thekkumbhagom synagogue, we know that it was built over an old synagogue. According to the signboard placed over the synagogue gate, it was rebuilt in 1948, but more reliable narratives estimate that the current building was erected at least partially in 1939. The photograph taken in 1937 which Mandelbaum has included in his collection is therefore the old Thekkumbhagom synagogue of Ernakulam before it was demolished or reconstructed for a larger and new sanctuary. Jay Waronker has surveyed all the synagogues of Keraland hithesis, "The Synagogues of Kerala: Their Architecture, History, Context, and Meaning" (2010) is the most detailed treatment on the subject available today. Late Isaac Joshua (1929-2010), former president of the Association of Kerala Jews and ex-member of the Thekkumbhagom synagogue of Ernakulam, ia personal interview with Waronker (2009) recollected that the old synagogue was left intact while the new one was built around it or extended from the earlier structure, and the pre-1939 Tekkumbagam Synagogue had a gatehouse and connecting breezeway from the east.

In the 2013 catalogue of Magnes Museum, the above lantern slide has a more expanded caption: "Jewtown. Outside of the [Tekkumbhagam] synagogue, little boy wears only skull cap and abdominal chain around waist, with the silver pendant over pubic area. Synagogue in background Ernakulam, Kerala, India, September 1937 (taken by R.V. Kamath) 76.311.2.1 (CJ 10)." Note that the full name of the synagogue, "Tekkumbhagam in Ernakulam" is given, and the photograph was not taken by Mandelbaum.

Although it is evident from the slide that the synagogue had an upper passageway, only a fraction of the corridor is visible. In the meantime while I was going through the video made by Mandelbaum on the "Scenes of Jewish Life in Kerala" (1937), what struck me was the first scene in the video, it was captured from the same spot where the slide was made! I am including a screenshot of the video that will give you a better glimpse of the Thekkumbhagom synagogue of Ernakulam. You can clearly see the upper passageway or Loggia connecting perhaps to a gatehouse, unfortunately the video fails to capture the structure (1)oil lanterns flanking the main door of the synagogue (2), entrance to the compound guarded by tall wall and a gate (3 & 4), and a lamppost outside the wall (5).
The Old Thekkumbhagom Synagogue of Ernakulam in 1937.

It would be worth mentioning that Mandelbaum has three more lantern slides from the Thekkumbhagom synagogue, two of them with men holding Torah scrolls in front of the synagogue [76.311.2.12 (CJ 11) and 76.311.2.17 (CJ1)], and the remaining [76.311.2.13 (CJ 16] depicts the tall wall of the synagogue with goat skin prepared to make parchment for the Torah scrolls. In 76.311.2.12 (CJ 11), the man holding the scrolls is identified as Joseph Hai (Josephai?) and you can see more closely the glass oil lanterns hanging from the walls near the front door of the synagogue in 76.311.2.17 (CJ1).
Men holding Sefer Torah at door of Thekkumbhagom synagogue (1937), Ernakulam.  Magnes collection: 76.311.2.17 (CJ1)

The synagogues in Keralare aligned in east-west direction, entrance usually through a gatehouse at the eastern end that leads through a breezeway and Azara (anteroom) to the main sanctuary, where the Holy Ark (Heichal) is placed at the western end, and the gatehouse opens to a main street that runs perpendicular to the synagogue complex in north-south direction. Thekkumbhagom of Ernakulam is the only exception where the main street (in this case the 'Jew Street') runs parallel to the synagogue in east-west direction. Instead, the synagogue has a narrow alley path connecting two main east-west roads (see map below), the Jew Street at the south and a parallel path (Basin Road) bordering a canal at the north (not shown in the map). There are two entrances to the complex, the main gate at the southern end (SG) in the 'Jew Street' leads to the south-east corner of the synagogue, whereas an obscure northern gate (NG) positioned near the north-east corner of the synagogue joins the crowded Ernakulam market area through a narrow and congested alley. 
Aerial map showing the alley paths connecting the synagogue through northern (NG) and southern (SG) gates. Courtesy, Google Map. 

The North-South path joining the eastern courtyard of the synagogue. NG: Northern Gate; SG: the narrow alley from here leads to the Southern Gate.


The narrow alley path from the Southern Gate (SG) leading to the synagogue.

The pocket road from the Ernakulam market area leading to the northern gate of the synagogue.

It is now evident from the slides of Mandelbaum that the photograph was taken from the northern gate of the synagogue. However, at the position of the well there is no indication of any remains today. The modern fresh water well inside the compound is a bit farther to the west, and facing the northern boundary wall (see the photograph below)
North-Eastern courtyard of the synagogue showing: 1) Base for a flag post or pole?; 2) Modern well; 3) Northern gate

According to Jay Waronker (2010), there was an intention to build a portico and exterior stair to the women’s seating arein the new synagogue, but it was never realized, so a provisional porch was built. Above this porch supported by two concrete columns is a small open terrace connected to the upper women's gallery. In an old undated photograph (see below) of the present synagogue, this small exterior balcony is visible with slightly different modifications, the earlier structure had a solid guardrail (1), a clay-tiled roof over the porch (2), and side wall to the entrance from the north (3).
An old photograph (1970s) of the Thekkumbhagom synagogue, Ernakulam. Photo courtesy: "The Shingly Hebrews" (1990) by Prem Doss Swami Doss Yehudi.


Thekkumbhagom synagogue, Ernakulam, Photo: 10 November, 2019.
In the current synagogue (Photo above), metal balusters and handrail have been incorporated to the terrace (1)the clay-tiled roof is replaced with concrete ceiling (2) and the sidewall has gone (3). May be the broken structure near the south-east corner of the synagogue (photograph below) was part of the sidewall.

South-East corner of the Thekkumbhagom synagogue of Ernakulam

As we are also discussing about the modern Thekkumbhagom synagogue of Ernakulam, I thought it would be worth adding more photographs to demonstrate few features of the synagogue that is usually not observed due to accessibility issues and the limited space available for photography. The synagogue's roof has beautiful gables with extended eaves, but because of the trees blocking the views and the short dimensions of the eastern courtyard, the front gable (eastern) is not easy to photograph. The gable at the other end (west) is much more difficult to capture, even if you manage to access the synagogue compound, there is only a narrow gap between the western wall of the sanctuary and the bordering tall multi-storey commercial buildings. The following photograph was taken through a small gap found between a hodgepodge of buildings from the 'Broadway Street' running behind the synagogue and you can see the mess.
The western gable of the Thekkumbhagom synagogue, Ernakulam. Photo: October, 2017

Here are two recent photographs (5 December, 2019)


The other interesting structural detail of the synagogue is the appearance of its exterior. Although the synagogue is a two-storey building, it has a tall attic space and from outside it may show up as a typical three-floored structure. This feature becomes more evident when you observe the synagogue from an elevated position outside the complex. The following photograph was taken from the 2nd floor godown of a commercial store in 'Broadway Street'.
The north-side view of Thekkumbhagom synagogue, Ernakulam. Photo: May, 2017


Two recent photographs (5 December, 2019) are attached below.


Based on the size of the plot (see map), there is no possibility that the new synagogue was built as an extension to the old sanctuary. Also the area in front of the synagogue is limited for a gatehouse and a connecting breezeway. May be the present boundary wall separating the synagogue from the adjacent mosque was recently added and originally the synagogue had more space in the courtyard towards the east. It is almost certain that the old synagogue was demolished for the new one, but what is more astounding is that no trace of the early structure can be tracked in the compound, it is as if such a grand sanctuary never existed! We don't know if anything from the interior is retained in the current synagogue, what appears to me from the Mandelbaum slides is that the old synagogue was well maintained. The exact reasons behind the decision to destroy the synagogue and why nothing was preserved from the worshipping center will remain a mystery. Jono David in 2009 has photographed the synagogue and in one of the photos from the upper floor is a plank with Hebrew inscription and finely carved fragment of wood. Whether these are from the old synagogue or part of the current synagogue are yet to be confirmed. Interestingly, an identical inscription has appeared in another synagogue of Kerala, but sadly it also does not survive. You may notice that the gable of Kadavumbhagom synagogue of Mattancherry (Kochi) had the same inscription and I have included the details in a previous blog entry here

Unless specified all photographs were  taken on November, 2019.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

INTERIOR OF THE THEKKUMBHAGOM SYNAGOGUE OF MATTANCHERRY

In the previous post, I discussed about the exterior of the Thekkumbagom synagogue.  As for the interior, we should look for someone who visited the synagogue before the mid-1960s and took a photograph inside. There is of course, the possibility of finding photographs from the personal collection of the Jewish community, but their accessibility would be even more difficult. Luckily, we have some of the important religious articles inside the synagogue photographed and saved before the sanctuary was dismantled. For instance, the Holy Ark (Heichal) of the synagogue is currently preserved in the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life (former Judah L. Magnes Museum) in Berkeley, California in USA (see here for Magnes Museum’s photograph and here for my previous post). In this upload, I wish to share a few pictures that can shed light on the interior of the synagogue.

Picture 1: This rare black and white photograph inside the Thekkumbagom synagogue was taken in 1952 by Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz and published in the 'Far East Mission'. The picture was included in the text to show a unique object displayed inside the synagogue: four ostrich eggs suspended from the ceiling to bring luck. Apparently, these eggs were part of the Paradesi synagogue as noted by Francis Day in 'The Land of Permauls' (1863, p. 338), he writes: "On passing inside the gateway, through the first court yard, where four ostrich eggs are suspended, the porch of the (The Chief or Northern) Synagogue is arrived at: here the Jew leaves his shoes, before he enters within the house of prayer." -but when and why these curios preserved in the courtyard of Paradesi Synagogue were brought to the main sanctuary of Thekkumbhagom are unknownAlthough the photograph fails to depict the Holy Ark, the Tebah in the center, the furniture used in the synagogue etc., it is perhaps one of the last pictures taken before the synagogue was destroyed, and provides valuable insights regarding the structure of the monument. The wooden staircase (2) leading to the upper floor is clearly noticeable-a strong indication that the Thekkumbhagom of Mattancherry had an upper balcony with the second pulpit (Tebah) and women's seating area. Based on the position of staircases to the second Tebah in the typical synagogues of Kerala, this image represents the north-east corner of the sanctuary building. In fact, on a closer look, you can see the floor of the upper Tebah (5) protruding into the main sanctuary. In the synagogues of Kerala, the upper balcony is supported by a pair of pillars representing the ancient columns of Boaz and Jachin in the Temple of Jerusalem. At the center of the photograph is a finely designed wooden pillar with striated rings (3) supporting the upper balcony suggesting that the Thekkumbhagom synagogue also followed the same pattern. An additional pillar (4) which is more plain and simple strengthening the staircase is also visible from the image. Similar to the other synagogues in Kerala, the ceiling is decorated with traditional dome covered clear and coloured glass oil lanterns, and don't forget to see the  ostrich eggs (1) near the pillars.
Picture 1: Inside the Thekkumbhagom Synagogue of Mattancherry (1952). Courtesy, Louis Rabinowitz (Far East Mission)

Picture 2: The second picture that I would like to include is the Hebrew inscription over the main entrance to the sanctuary building of the synagogue. This rare black and white photograph was taken by David G. Mandelbaum (1911-1987) in September 14, 1937 with the caption: “Tekumbagam “Southern” Synagogue. Wooden carved sign above synagogue door.” Mandelbaum was one of the first cultural anthropologists to undertake ethnographic research in India. An erudite scholar and researcher, his pioneering works on Cochin Jews are widely known and well recognized, but not many are aware about the photographs he took while spending two weeks in September of 1937 with the Jewish community of Cochin. He has also taken a short film (8 minutes) on the community which perhaps is the earliest video about the Jews of Cochin, made now available to the public by the Magnus Museum. Mandelbaum has donated his precious collection of visual materials of Jewish life in Kerala, consisting of a complete set of 17 lantern slides and 90 photographs (contact prints and photographic enlargements) with annotations to the Magnes Museum in 1976, the lantern slides are digitized and available online. The current photograph is in the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life numbered 76.311.128 (CJ32). When the pediment of the entrance door to the Tekkumbhagom synagogue was brought to Magnes Museum, its exact location in the original synagogue was identified based on this photograph of Mandelbaum. 

In a 2013 catalogue of Magnes Museum, the following expanded title is given for the photograph: “Pediment of the entrance door to the Tekkumbhagam synagogue (Mattancherry), inscribed after Ps. 5:8 (“But, as for me, in the abundance of your lovingkindness I will come into your house”); Hebrew; Kochi, Kerala, India, [17th-18th century]; Wood (teak), paint and silver leaf; Judah L. Magnes Museum purchase, Bernard; Kimmel collection, 67.0.13”


The Hebrew inscription (2) reads "ואני ברוב חסדך אבוא ביתך" which is based on Psalms 5:7, translated "And I will come to your house with most grace". See that the pediment was placed above the entrance door (3) to the main sanctuary from the Anteroom (Azara), also note the simple wooden ceiling (1) of the Azara. The inscription on teak wood is currently preserved in the Magnes Museum, a colour photograph of the pediment is given in museum site here with the heading: "Architectural fragment [67.0.13]: Door pediment, Tekkumbhagam synagogue (Mattancherry, Kochi, Kerala, India, 17th-18th century)".
Picture 2: Hebrew inscription over the entrance to the Thekkumbhagom Synagogue of Mattancherry (1937). [Magnes Collection: 76.311.128 (CJ32)]; Photo Link.


Picture 3: The picture was taken on September 14, 1937 from Thekkumbhagom synagogue to show a ritual conducted during 'Yom Kippur'-the most holy day of Jewish religious life. This is a precious document depicting the act of self-flagellation performed in the Cochin Jewish community-a ritual rarely practised nowadays for Yom Kippur services anywhere in the world. The caption given in the flickr series is -"Cochin. South synagogue. Ritual scourging on day before Yom Kippur. The Magnes catalogue (2013) has a more detailed record and I am quoting the full citation:

Title: "Tekkumbhagam “Southern” synagogue. Ritual scourging on day before Yom Kippur Kochi, Kerala, India, September 14, 1937 76.311.2.7 (CJ 33)."

Notes: "Flat pads of goatskin used as lash and prescribed number of blows give by beater who stands [on] a stone. Recipient, stripped to waist leans against bamboo pole (in vestibule of synagogue), wrists crossed and tied to pole with kerchief. In front of him, prayers are read. Recipient of blows puts an [offering] in a cup before the lashing.”

See that the name "Thekkumbhagom" is specifically given in the full title. The slide is dark and under exposed, but you can still see the person undergoing flagellation with a skull cap (1), whose both hands are tied to a bamboo pole, and his bare back facing us. If you carefully observe the slide,  there is a white building with a window (2) in the background. Mandelbaum is specific with the place where the ritual was practised, when he records the venue as the vestibule of the synagogue. Therefore the image was captured from the Azara (Anteroom) of the synagogue and the white building at the background should be the backside of the gatehouse. Since there is a space between the gatehouse and the anteroom, I believe this is an indication for a breezeway.
Picture 3: Vestibule of Thekkumbhagom Synagogue (1937). Magnes Collection: 76.311.2.7 [CJ 33]; Photo Link.

Picture 4: Another slide from Mandelbaum’s 1937 collection is an image taken outside the gatehouse of the Thekkumbhagom synagogue. The title goes "Talking on the steps of the South Synagogue. Satu and Lilly Koder, Miriam, 76.311.2.16 (CJ 18)". The more expanded heading in the catalogue says "White Jews. Talking on the steps of the South [Tekkumbhagam] Synagogue. Satu [Shabdai Samuel Koder] and Lilly Koder, Miriam Kochi, Kerala, India, September 1937 76.311.2.16 (CJ 18)". 

The image captures the gatehouse entrance, you can see a granite stone lamp (1) on the left side of the main entrance and steps leading to the synagogue (5), the lamp is not visible in the earlier two pictures of the exterior (previous post). Also note that in the expanded title, the Paradesi Jews sitting on the steps are noted as Sattu [Shabdai Samuel Koder] (2), Lilly (3) and Miriam (4?), the other three are not identified. The siblings, Sattu (S. S. Koder: 1908-1994) and Lilly (Lilly S. Koder) remained in Cochin and were buried in the Paradesi Jewish cemetery. I believe Miriam here is Sattu's sister, Miriam (Koder) Hallegua (1905-1979), most probably buried in Cochin only.
Picture 4: Steps of Thekkumbhagom Synagogue (1937). Magnes Collection-76.311.2.18 [CJ 16]; Photo Link.

Picture 5: Finally, I leave one picture for future to be discovered. In the Magnes catalogue (2013) under "David G. Mandelbaum (1911-1987); ‘Scenes of Jewish life in Kerala’; Kerala, India, September 1937; Silver gelatin prints" there is a photograph entitled: “Outside Central [Tekkumbhagam] Synagogue of Malabar (Black) Jews. Women on balcony may not enter synagogue proper because they are having their menstrual periods Kochi, Kerala, India, September 1937, 1976.311.3.82 (CJ 69)”. 

This particular photograph was not available in the flickr series released by the Magnes Museum. Since the complete collection of photographic prints and lantern slides of David Mandelbaum is maintained in the archives of the Bancroft Library and the Magnes Museum in UC Berkeley, USA, I contacted them regarding the possibility of accessing the image. Unfortunately, the reply from both the institutes were the same that it was not digitized.

I believe this photograph would be a rare find, because it would a direct evidence for the upper passageway (Loggia) to the women’s seating room like the one observed in the Paradesi synagogue. It is obvious from the title that the image was taken outside the synagogue and the mention of women on balcony would suggest no other place than the exterior upper corridor to the main sanctuary.
Picture 5: Balcony of the Thekkumbhagom Synagogue (1937). Magnes Collection-1976.311.3.82 (CJ 69)

Note that Mandelbaum refers to the Thekkumbhagom synagogue by different names: “the Central Synagogue”, “the South Synagogue” and “the Southern Synagogue” of Cochin. Based on the slides and photographs discussed so far, it is logical to conclude that the Thekkumbhagom of Mattancherry was similar to the other synagogues in Kerala with: a double-storied gatehouse, a breezeway with a loggia, an anteroom with an upper seating area for women, and a double-height main sanctuary with an upper balcony containing a second pulpit (Tebah). Today, only a fraction of David G. Mandelbaum’s collection is available for the public. Let’s hope in near future more photographs and slides would be digitized, that would definitely add to our understanding on the structure and history of Jewish monuments in Cochin (Mattancherry) and Ernakulam regions.

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)