Synagogue Searching in Kerala, India
After reading Karen Primack’s article in a Kulanu newsletter last year, I knew I had to seek out synagogues in and around Cochin in southwest India. So in January 2006, after completing an American Jewish World Service assignment on the southeast coast of India, I headed by overnight train to the state of Kerala in which Cochin is located.
Karen had described not only the well-known Pardesi synagogue in Mattancherry but also her discovery of the Kadavumbagam Synagogue in Ernakulam. Ernakulam, like Mattancherry, is one of several districts comprising the city of Cochin (Kochi). Another of Cochin’s districts is Fort Cochin where I was planning to stay.
Accompanied by a Christian Scientist colleague whose enthusiasm for finding the Kadavumbagam Synagogue nearly matched my own, we set off in early morning by ferry from Fort Cochin to Ernakulam. Upon arrival we hailed an auto-rickshaw and after many inquiries and much circling around, finally located Ernakulam’s Jew Street and the flower and fish shop called Cochin Blossoms. The present entrance to the Kadavumbagam (Bay of the River) Synagogue is through the shop.
Our persistence paid off. We found the proprietor of Cochin Blossoms, Elias (Babu) Josephai, waiting on customers. As for the synagogue which Karen had found replete with ark and chandeliers in “clean and excellent condition,” we viewed it piled high with furnishings still in paper wrappings and sealed boxes toppling and spilling onto available floor space.
Mr. Josephai took time out to explain the synagogue’s history including the laying of the stone foundation in 1200 CE and the rebuilding in 1700 CE. The synagogue design, he said, is a replica of the First Temple in Jerusalem; its ten windows symbolize the Ten Commandments. He left me to research the rest by giving me his e-mail address as well as that of Dr. Kenneth Robbins who had recently visited with him.
Mr. Josephai encouraged us to take more photos while telling us about the Thokumbagam Synagogue across the street (“Why another synagogue?” “Five Jews, six views,” he explained, citing Eli Weisel). It is now “Just a hall, not worth visiting”, he added. We took his word for it.
But our fires had been stoked. Back onto the ferry, we got off at Fort Cochin and went by foot to Mattancherry. Our destination: Synagogue Street in Mattancherry’s Jewtown. Mr. Josephi had indicated that the combined Jewish population in Ernakulam and Mattancherry numbers only fifty-two persons. We were in search of just one, the maker of silk kippot.
On Synagogue Street in Jewtown, we easily located the home/shop of Sarah Cohen. Lounging on a chair in her living room, she asked our forgiveness for her brother’s absence; he was resting upstairs. She, herself, was laid up with a leg problem but wanted to stand for a photo opportunity. Sales were under the supervision of a local Indian and I was delighted to find a couple of black kippot trimmed with gold sequins. Those of vibrant pink, yellow, orange, and blue, also bathed in sequins, seemed just a bit too exotic.
The Pardesi Synagogue in Mattancherry, originally built in 1568, is well documented, well cared for and well visited. We were told by the Indian caretaker that the near-by cemetery was not open to visitors, but a short stroll to Cemetery Road and a smile at its local caretaker enabled us to enter. This relatively unkempt resting place of Cochin’s former active Jewish community contains above ground tombs and all inscriptions are in Hebrew.
One name appears prominently in Cochin’s history and documents: the late Mr. Samuel. S. Koder. He was not only a patriarch of the Jewish community and vice-president of the Cochin Electric Company, according to our tourist brochure, but also an officer and benefactor of the Pardesi Synagogue. His imposing home, built in 1808, is located on Fort Cochin’s waterfront. Since late 2005 it serves as a luxury hotel complete with state-the-art health spa. The Koder House is well worth a visit if not an overnight stay.
Putting aside that fantasy, we began to look for more off-the-beaten-track synagogues. My Lonely Planet guidebook described a “dusty” one in Parur, “built at the same time as its famous counterpart in Mattancherry.” The following day we took a bus from Fort Cochin directly to Parur’s center, where we made several unsuccessful inquiries as to the synagogue’s whereabouts. Suddenly, some well-meaning Indians pushed us onto another bus, explaining that what we wanted was not in Parur, but in Chennamangalam.
I remembered having read in the Lonely Planet of the Chennamangalam Synagogue, the oldest in Kerala, “slowly disintegrating.” We ended up, thanks to assistance from fellow bus passengers, on Chennamangalam’s Jew Street at the foot of which was a freshly painted synagogue.
Upon entering the Chennamangalam Synagogue, we were reminded by the Indian laborers to respectfully remove our shoes in the manner of worshippers and visitors at Hindu temples. A colorful painted door entry, decorative wooden ceiling, carved wooden ark, and graceful staircase leading to the women’s section were some of the surprises that greeted us.
Just six years ago, we later learned, the Kerala Department of Archeology, with funds allocated by the Indian Ministry of Tourism, had inaugurated the restoration project. A commemorative stone in the courtyard records the dedication held in February 2005; a photo exhibit and a new museum shop are among the attractions since its official opening in late February 2006.
A young Indian woman spotted us looking around the synagogue grounds and offered her services. She led us back down Jew Street, parallel to the Periyar River, in the opposite direction from the synagogue. We turned a corner, dropped down below a mosque and continued on through a dirt path until finally, in scorching heat, we reached the small Chennamangalam Jewish cemetery. Only one above ground tomb remains visible in this overgrown area next to the Moslem cemetery and beneath a Hindu temple perched precariously on the hill above.
Leading us back to Jew Street, our guide invited us to sit on the porch of her home, once partitioned and occupied by two Jewish families. There she related the story of the stone monument in front of the synagogue. It was, she said, the burial site of a young girl who had died en route to Chennamangalam with the earliest Jewish settlers. Knowing of Jewish burial practices, I was skeptical at first, but later it seemed as plausible as many explanations we were encountering in India. As lunchtime approached, our self-appointed guide’s young daughter entertained us with Hindu songs and dances; then her young son escorted us to the bus stop. We downed some bananas, boarded a bus and resumed our quest for Parur’s synagogue.
Finding ourselves again at the central bus stand in Parur, we boarded another bus that continued on the same route as the one we had taken from Fort Cochin that morning. We got off just two stops later, still searching for Parur’s Jew Street and its Jewish synagogue. This time we found the street, but had difficulty locating the synagogue. Finally, two young men pointed to a nicely painted, securely closed building, identified it as the Parur Synagogue and reported that the guard had left for a meal and would be back at six. We took a picture, thanked them, and left without establishing the validity of their claims. (Later we learned that the nicely painted building was not the synagogue but its gatehouse; the synagogue is in the rear of the compound.) They had also identified a Jewish cemetery across the street. It too was locked. Since the heat was by now oppressive and since we needed to return to Cochin in preparation for leaving the area, we ended our searching.
The presence of former Jewish communities in today’s Ernakulam, Mattancherry, Chennamangalam, and Parur is hard to imagine. The impoverished state of these dirty and decaying towns with failing infrastructures gives little evidence of past vitality. Yet the interest in preservation by national and state governmental bodies as well as academics, organizations and individuals, and the benign attitude of the Indian populace, suggests that, remarkably, some of the Jewish synagogues will remain long after most of the Jews have departed.
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My thanks to the following individuals with whom I have communicated and who graciously offered their assistance to KULANU readers. For an overview on the history of the Jews of Kerala and an exhibit at the American Sefardi Federation in New York, please contact Kenneth Robbins at RAJANAWAB @ aol.com. Ken is a psychiatrist in Maryland and amateur researcher-historian. For an Indian perspective on the Kadavumbagam Synagogue in Ernakulam, write to Elias Josephai, proprietor of Cochin Blossoms, at avidarling @ rediffmail.com. Helen Sirkin and her husband completed the initial survey of the Kerala synagogues for the International Survey of Jewish Monuments in 1998. Helen continues to be actively involved in synagogue restoration efforts and can be reached at hws @ tcs.wap.org. For information on the Chennamangalam Synagogue, refer to the website at www.chensyn.com or contact the Project Director, Marian Scheur Sofaer at Marian @ sofaer.net. Marian is especially interested in receiving reader suggestions for the Synagogue’s museum shop. To learn more about the plans for the Parur Synagogue restoration as well as information on other synagogues in India, contact Jay A. Waronker, Professor of Architecture, Southern Polytechnic State University, Atlanta, Georgia at Jayawaronker @ aol.com. Jay spent several years studying, documenting, publishing and exhibiting work on all 34 synagogues in India and serves as co-curator of the museum in the Chennamangalam Synagogue. For questions or comments about this story, including logistics for visiting sites, please write Ann Haendel, a wandering Jew, at ahaendel @ tampabay.rr.com.