Jew Street and the historic Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi, Kerala

A synagogue and a temple co-exist in the same compound.

By Dileep Thekkethil

KOCHI: The Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi wished the Jewish community a happy Hanukkah holiday, in Hebrew. He tweeted, “Wishing my Jewish friends a Happy Hanukkah! May this Festival of Lights and the festive season ring in peace, hope and well-being for all.”

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reverted wishes and thanked Modi, in English and Hindi. He wrote “@narendramodi On behalf of all the people of the nation of Israel, thank you very much for your good wishes of Hanukkah.”

India has a long-standing relationship with the Jewish community; a relationship that dates centuries before the first traders landed on the Malabar coast.

According to historians, the first colonization of Jews in Cranganore near Cochin in Kerala was the result of the exodus of Jews from Persia in the fifth century during the rule of Kobad. A book written by a Dutch Jew named Moses de Paiva, who visited Cochin on November 21, 1686, says seventy to eighty thousand Jews arrived on the Malabar coast of Kerala in 370 AD from Myorca, a place where their forefathers were kept captives by Titus Vespasianus.

The leader of the Jewish settlement in Cranganore was Joseph Rabban. The Cera emperor of Cranganore gifted him a charter and privileges known as ‘grant of rights of the Anjuvannam’, engraved on copper plates which still exists in the hands of Cochin Synagogues. The Jewish settlement in Anjuvanam flourished further for more than a thousand years with Jews from Spain and other European countries adding more number to the community.

The decline of Jews started after the extension of the hire of Joseph Rabban. Dispute arose between two brothers of the noble family. They fought amongst themselves. This was the time when the neighbouring king intervened and annulled the provisions given to the Jews in the principality of Anjuvananam.

In 1471, the younger brother escaped to Cochin by swimming across the backwaters with his wife on his shoulders, and then followed by his brother. Due to the disintegration of Anjuvanam, the remaining Jewish settlers in Cranganore also fled to Cochin and placed themselves under the protection of the Hindu rajah of Cochin who liberally granted them a site near his palace, close to a Hindu temple to settle down. Here was built a new Jew town in 1567 and later in 1568 the Cochin Synagogue.

Now the Jew town in Kochi is famous for its antique shops and colonial buildings that speak about the good old days of communal harmony. The Hindu temple and the synagogue were built in the same compound and still share the same wall. The Jew town is a narrow street between Mattancherry Palace and the Synagogue.

The Synagogue is called Paradesi Synagogue as it was built by Spanish Jews. Paradeshi is a word used in several Indian languages which mean foreigner. The Paradesi Synagogue is also known by the names Cochin Jewish Synagogue or the Mattancherry Synagogue. The synagogue is the oldest active synagogue in any Commonwealth Nations and is open for visitors on all working days except Friday, Saturday and Jewish holidays.

Though Paradesi Jews were endogamous during their early years in Cochin they began to break it in the late 1940s as some started marring Nasarai Christian community and the rest immigrated to Israel after it was formed in 1948.

Currently there are only seven Paradesi Jews in Kerala; the youngest being a 41 year old female named Yaheh Hallegua who is currently in charge of the entry tickets to the synagogue. Taking photos inside the synagogue is prohibited.

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