Interior of the synagogue facing the ark
The Paradesi Synagogue is the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth of Nations, located in Kochi, Kerala, in South India. Constructed in 1567, it is one of seven synagogues of the Malabar Yehudan or Yehudan Mappila people or Cochin Jewish community in the Kingdom of Cochin. Paradesi is a word used in several Indian languages, and the literal meaning of the term is "foreigners", applied to the synagogue because it was built by Sephardic or Spanish-speaking Jews, some of them from families exiled in Aleppo, Safed and other West Asian localities. It is also referred to as the Cochin Jewish Synagogue or the Mattancherry Synagogue.
The synagogue is located in the quarter of Old Cochin known as Jew Town, and is the only one of the seven synagogues in the area still in use. The complex has four buildings. It was built adjacent to the Mattancherry Palace temple on the land given to the Malabari Yehuden or " Yehuden Mappila" community by the Raja of Kochi, Rama Varma. The Mattancherry Palace temple and the Mattancherry synagogue share a common wall.
The Malabari Jews or Yehudan Mappilar (also known as Cochin Jews or Yehudan Mappila ) formed a prosperous trading community of Kerala, and they controlled a major portion of world wide spice trade. In 1568, the Jews of Kerala constructed the Paradesi Synagogue adjacent to Mattancherry Palace, Cochin, now part of the Indian city of Ernakulam, on land given to them by the Raja of Kochi. The original synagogue was built in the 4th century in Kodungallur (Cranganore) when the Jews had a mercantile role in the South Indian region (now called Kerala) along the Malabar coast. When the community moved to Kochi in the 14th century, it built a new synagogue there.
The Malabari Jews' or Yehudan Mappila first synagogue in Cochin was destroyed in the 16th century by the Portuguese persecution of the Jews and Nasrani or Suriyani Mappila or Syriac (Aramaic) Mappila people. The second, built under the protection of the Raja, in Mattancherry, in 1558, during the Portuguese rule of Cochin, is the present synagogue, which is still in use for worship and can attract a minyan. It is called Paradesi synagogue because it was built by Spanish speaking Jews; this contributed to the informal name: paradesi synagogue or "foreign" synagogue." In addition, a new Jewish group had immigrated to Kochi, Sephardim from the Iberian Peninsula. They and the Malabari Jews or Yehudan Mappila shared many aspects of their religion, and the newcomers learned the Judeo-Malayalam dialect, but the Sephardim also retained their own culture and Spanish language at least for three centuries. By 1660 the Dutch ruled the Kochi area, calling it Dutch Malabar. In later years, the Paradesi Synagogue was used primarily by the Sephardim (who were also referred to as Paradesi) and their descendants, and later European exiled Jews.
The Paradesi Synagogue had three classes of members:
- White Jews were full members. The White Jews, or Paradesi Jews, were the recent descendants of Sephardim from Spain and the Netherlands.
- Black Jews, or Malabari Jews, were allowed to worship but were not admitted to full membership. These Cochin Jews were the original Jewish settlers of Cochin.
- Meshuchrarim, a group of freed slaves and their descendants brought by the Sepahardim, they had no communal rights and no synagogue of their own. They sat on the floor or on the steps outside. In the first half of the 20th century, Abraham Barak Salem, a meshuchrar, successfully campaigned against this discrimination.
As is customary for Orthodox Jewish or Yehudan Mappila synagogues, the Paradesi Synagogue has separate seating sections for men and women.
Today the Paradesi Synagogue is the only functioning synagogue in Kochi with a minyan (though this minyan must be formed with Jews from outside Kochi, as the number who still reside there is not sufficient). In conformity with the Hindu, Nasrani or Syrac Mappila and Islam or Muslim Mappila traditions of Kerala, the worshippers are required to enter the Paradesi Synagogue barefoot. Other facets which are unique to the Cochin Jewish community, and which are results of Hindu influence, include special colors of clothing for each festival, circumcision ceremonies performed at public worship, and distribution of grape-soaked myrtle leaves on certain festivals. In addition, the Cochin Jews have no rabbis, and the community is led by elders.
The synagogue is open for a fee to visitors as a historic attraction. The ticket-seller, Yaheh Hallegua, is the last female Paradesi Jew of child-bearing age. The synagogue is closed on Fridays Saturdays and Sundays and also on Jewish holidays.
Objects of antiquity
The Paradesi Synagogue has the Scrolls of the Law, several gold crowns received as gifts, many Belgian glass chandeliers, and a brass-railed pulpit. It houses the 10th-century copper plates of privileges given to Joseph Rabban, the earliest known Cochin Jew. These two plates were inscribed in Tamil by the ruler of the Malabar Coast. The floor of the synagogue is composed of hundreds of Chinese, 18th-century, hand-painted porcelain tiles, each of which is unique. A hand-knotted oriental rug was a gift from Haile Selassie, the last Ethiopian emperor. The synagogue has an 18th-century clock tower, which, along with other parts of the complex, was restored between 1998 and 1999 under the direction of the World Monuments Fund.
A tablet from the 1344 synagogue in Kochangadi in Kochi was installed on the outer wall of the Paradesi synagogue. The inscription states that the structure was built in 5105 (in the Hebrew Calendar) as "an abode for the spirit of God."
The Thekkumbhagom synagogue, located on Jews Street in the Ernakulam area of Cochin, was built in 1580 and renovated in 1939.
- Fernandes, Edna (2008). The Last Jews of Kerala. London, United Kingdom: Portobello Books. p. 24. ISBN 978-1-84627-098-7.
- The Paradesi Synagogue, Cochin, India. Database of Jewish Communities, Museum of the Jewish People. Accessed online 13 February 2007.
- "Cochin Jews", Overview Of World Religions, Philtar, St Martin's College (UK). Accessed online 13 February 2007
- Abram, David. The Rough Guide to Kerala (2nd ed.). London, United Kingdom: Penguin Books. p. 181. ISBN 978-1-84836-541-4.
- Photographs and Video Clips from South India, Easter 2003, Religious Education, Staffordshire Learning Net. Accessed online 13 February 2007.
- "Repairs and Planning Begin for Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin, India", Jewish Heritage Report, Vol. II, Nos. 1-2 / Spring-Summer 1998. Accessed online 13 February 2007.
- MICHAEL FREUND, "Cochin battles to save its shul", JERUSALEM POST, 15 May 2009
- Paradesi Synagogue, Frommer's Review, New York Times
- Cochin Jews, Overview Of World Religions, Philtar, St Martin's College (UK).
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