The city of Kochi breathes in and exhales culture and diversity. Take a walk around the old town and you’ll spot elements from the city’s cosmopolitan past whether it’s the Chinese fishing nets that dot the waterfront, or the colonial architecture left behind by the British, Portuguese, or the Dutch.
However, if you wander around the old neighborhood of Mattancherry you will stumble into a section called Jew Town. The aroma of cinnamon, ginger, and cardamon perfume the air of this narrow street running from the Mattancherry Palace and the Paradesi Synagogue. Under the flaking blue walls and placards inscribed with the name “Jew Town,” spice and antiques’ shops pepper the area. Some shopfronts bear placards written in Hebrew, where you can step in and buy handstitched embroidery, kippas, runners, and others where you can even pick up menorahs. Windows with railings bearing the Star of David decorate a few of the houses cluster around the Paradesi Synagogue.
India is a diverse country with Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, and Zoroastrians counted among its numerous religions, but many are surprised to learn there is an old Jewish community around the Malabar coast in Kerala.
The Malabar Jews are the oldest group of Jews in India. Some say they came over to the Malabar Coast during the time of King Solomon and settled in Kerala around Kochi. Following the destruction of the First Temple during the Siege of Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE, some Jewish exiles fled to India, but this wouldn’t be the only time. In 70 CE, after the destruction of the second temple, more Jews arrived on the Malabar Coast and made a home in today’s Kerala.
The Malabari Jews blended the old and the new traditions, as they continued to follow the laws of Moses, and developed their own dialect of the local Malayalam language. In the 16th century, the next
wave of Jewish migration came from the Sephardic Jews coming from the Iberian Peninsula. It was this group of Jews, the Paradesi Jews, who settled in Jew Town, built the Paradesi Synagogue, and worked in the local spice trade. The word “Paradesi” comes from “foreigner” in Hindi. In Kochi were eight synagogues in the city that survived into the mid-2oth century, but the Paradesi Synagogue is perhaps the most beautiful and is, in fact, the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth Nations.
From the outside, the synagogue lies hidden in a cul-de-sac, next to a white-washed church tower. Like other holy places in India, you must enter barefoot. Blue and white Portuguese tiles line the floor of the cool, white synagogue. Glass chandeliers and lanterns in shades red and green hang from the ceiling like decorations. The focal point of the synagogue is the ark, set behind an alcove of redwood and covered with a saffron yellow sheet. The synagogue is still active, but the Paradesi community is dwindling, and services can only be held today when a minyan is made – the required group of 10 men needed for the service – and can only happen when there are enough visiting Jews. Most of the time, the synagogue is a place frequented by tourists rather than practising Jews. Many Indian Jews moved to Israel, leaving an aging population behind.
Round the corner, the old Jewish Cemetery in Mattancherry with tombstones inscribed in Malayalam and Hebrew testify to the large community that once resided here. Behind the gate, a cluster of stone sarcophagi rests beneath the palm trees, remembering the Jewish population that made their home here.
But 450 years after the founding of the Paradesi Synagogue, around 200 Jews flew into Kochi to celebrate the anniversary in December. Kochi’s Jewish community may be scattered around the world, in different parts of India, Israel, Europe, and America, but many remember their roots. And even if you take a walk around this curious neighborhood, its Jewish character is strong, and perhaps it will continue to leave its mark on Kochi’s local life.