A two rupee fee will give you entry into what is probably the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth. At first glance, the structure is unassuming and run down. The place seems to stand still, but yet it reeked of history in its nooks and corners. However, a few steps inside and then, you understand why people still continue to visit Jew Town in Cochin.
Not many people know that the state of Kerala was once home to scores of Jews from 700 B.C onwards. Today, only a handful of Jews live in Jew Town, situated in Old Cochin.This very fact symbolises the communal harmony that Kerala has experienced for over a millenia, with various religious communities accommodating and accepting each other. Like the Bene Israelis who fled to parts of Western and Northern India, the Cochin Jews first arrived near Cranganore, ( now Kodungalloor ) and later moved to Cochin proper. Once the Queen of the Arabian Sea, the city is now a thriving commercial hub. It has been said that the earliest Jews (labelled the Black Jews) arrived here after the separation of Israel during King Solomon’s time. Later the white or Paradesi Jews as they are known, descended from Spain, Portugal, Holland and the Middle East. The third category of Cochin Jews included freed slaves of the White Jews, who were not allowed to enter the synagogue and had to sit outside on the steps. These European traders came to the Malabar Coast to indulge in the spice trade and subsequently, settled down to create a Jewish kingdom. When the Moors and Portuguese launched an attack, the Jewish settlers fled to Cochin to seek refuge from the King. Interestingly, the King of Cochin granted a site to the refugees, since then known as Jew Town.
The Jews were persecuted when the Portuguese took over the coast in the fifteenth century but in the following decade, the Dutch occupied the area and were more tolerant. They helped built the present synagogue. The name ‘paradesi’, meaning ‘foreign’, came about with the presence of the Dutch during this period. The Paradesi Synagogue also houses the Scrolls of the Law and several gold crowns received as gifts. It also has the copper plates of privileges given to Joseph Rabban, the earliest known Cochin Jew, dating from the 10th century, by the ruler of the Malabar Coast.
But I was clearly surprised to come across a few old Jews on the street whose ancestors had chosen not to leave. Now, in their early eighties, they speak Malayalam and have blended in well. Yet, on the other hand, they look and dress quite differently. Currently, the synagogue is not in the best of conditions and renovation work is poor, but the remnants remind us of a rich Jewish tradition that once prospered in Cochin. Hanging from the ceiling are Belgian glass chandeliers of various hues and the floor is laden with 18th century Cantonese hand painted porcelain blue tiles, which speak of the love story between a Chinese couple. The brass railed pulpit commands a dominating presence. Fortunately, the synagogue is still functioning today. Outside there is a 18th century clock tower, which stands as a testimony to the times gone by. Despite undergoing many repairs in the last few decades, it remains frozen in time. One can also catch a glimpse of Hebrew stone inscriptions and see the backyard of the Mattanchery Palace adjacent to it. Kerala, despite minor discord in the past has always been proud of its tradition of different religious communities being influenced by each other. The Jews are no exception to this. The community is led by the elders and not a rabbi and similar to Hindu and Christian tradition, one has to step inside barefoot.
It was heartening to hear the old Jewish couple speak the native language, Malayalam and being comfortable with their surroundings. Cochin is growing fast, facing ever growing pollution and urban growth. But Jew town has not lost its quaintness. Except for the Kashmiri shopkeepers selling jewellery and antique ware, the locals and tourists casually passing by, there was literally no rush or tension on the streets. Huge brass vessels, portraits and inscriptions speak to you of the time when scores of Jewish traders mingled with the locals and established strong cultural links.
Perhaps, we should attempt to preserve this glorious piece of history to remind ourselves of the need to live in harmony and peace and to not forget our rich historical past.