The Synagogues of Kerala

click:-The Synagogues of Kerala
Asian Jewish Life - A Journel of Spirit, Society and Culture
A History of the Parur Synagogue
Trial by fire, inquisition and neglect
by Jay Waronker & Shalva Weil

Parur Synagogue - Cochin/
All Photo Credits: Jay A. Waronker and V. Issac Sam
 Parur Synagogue exterior
Parur Synagogue exterior
Synagogue interior view
Synagogue interior view
Many people have heard of the Jews of Cochin (today Kochi) in southwestern India, but far fewer know that there were in fact other small Jewish communities over the centuries in this same region of the country, each revolving around a synagogue. Eight such buildings, all located in the central part of the State of Kerala, survive in some form today. The most famous of these synagogues is the Paradesi synagogue in Jew Town, Cochin, with its beautiful blue tiles imported from China. In 1968, Indira Gandhi attended its quarter-centenary celebrations and the Indian government issued a special commemorative stamp on the occasion. Today, there are only nine Paradesi Jews left in Jew Town, and a Chabad Rabbi conducts the services, pulling in Israeli backpackers and American and other Jewish tourists to make up the minyan.
In the 1990's, the interior of another synagogue located just down the street from the Paradesi Synagogue was brought to the Israel Museum and is a great attraction in the newly reopened museum. In February 2006, an abandoned synagogue which had in the past served the Kerala Jews in the verdant village of Chennamangalam was re-opened as a tourist site with an exhibition on the local Jews. It was initiated by the two authors of this article, coordinated by Marian Sofaer, and funded by the Koret Foundation.
In 2010, the Kerala government decided to fund a new project to restore the next of Kerala Jews' abandoned synagogues in the town of Parur, also called Vadakkan Paravoor, located north of Kochi. This synagogue, set on Jew Street, Parur, near the town center, represents the most complete and elaborate example of a Jewish house of prayer from the Kerala region incorporating many local influences of design, as well as longstanding Jewish building traditions. Once there was a vibrant Jewish community here, but today, all the Jews from Parur (with the exception of one or two) live in Israel or elsewhere. The careful restoration of the Parur synagogue is almost complete.
It is commonly thought that the Parur synagogue was built as early as 1164 C.E. The original building fell into disrepair, and another structure was erected on the same site in 1616. A stone slab with Hebrew text on an exterior wall within the synagogue compound testifies to this. It is believed that the ner tamid (everlasting light) once hanging in the 1164 synagogue was moved to the seventeenth century building. According to this legend, the Jews of Parur were so rich and proud that they offered incense at a public altar. For this act of hubris, since their behavior seemed to recall a religious ceremony reserved only to the Temple, the Parur synagogue congregation was stricken with the plague. Their twelfth century synagogue fell into disuse, and the ner tamid was hung out on the street as a sign of contrition, where it was seen nearly two hundred years later by an English observer.
David Yaacov Castiel, the fourth mudaliyar (leader) of the Kerala Jews, was responsible for rebuilding the Parur synagogue in 1616. According to a local Jewish song written by a Jewish poet to honor the synagogue, a fire damaged the building around 1662, and it was refurbished. This blaze could have been set by the Portuguese colonizers since they had laid claim to Kerala and also burned the Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi about the same time. The Kerala Jews never suffered from anti-Semitism at the hands of their Indian neighbors, but the Portuguese colonizers even tried to institute the Inquisition.
For more 120 years, the renovated synagogue served the needs of the congregation until a Muslim tyrant, Tipu Sultan (1750-1799) from Mysore, and his armies invaded Kerala in 1783. Tipu Sultan was responsible for the destruction of thousands of non-Muslim religious buildings, which included Hindu and Jain temples, Christian edifices and churches, and synagogues. He also tortured and forced the conversion of followers outside his faith, or had them killed. It is likely that during this period that the Parur synagogue was attacked again.
Writing about the Kerala Jews, the Church of England missionary Rev. Thomas Dawson, stationed in Kochi from 1817, visited Parur and other synagogues in the area. His observations, accounted by W. S. Hunt, seem to confirm that even after the passing of more than a quarter of a century the synagogue had not been repaired. By 1790, the Third Anglo-Mysore War marked the doom of Tipu Sultan as he ceded the kingdom of Malabar to the British by 1792. Since this formidable menace to the Jews of Parur had been wiped out, and even though the British were tolerant to Kerala's Jews, it may seem odd that it took so long to rebuild the synagogue. Considering that historians have written about the prosperity and local acceptance of the Parur Jewish community, the logic would be that they would have had the means to restore the synagogue to its former glory. Yet during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Parur Jewish community had declined in numbers and became less prosperous.
Dawson's particularly bleak account asserts that they had undergone years of hardship and health issues, and that they were facing discrimination. These factors could explain why the rebuilding of a proper synagogue took so long. Based on Rev. Dawson's fieldwork, most of the structure as it stands today, with the possible exception of the gatehouse, could therefore date no earlier than the second decade of the nineteenth century.
When Parur's extant synagogue was realized on the same site as the previous building, it was constructed in the centuries-old Kerala tradition using locally quarried laterite stone blocks that were veneered in chunam, a polished lime. The thick walls, normally whitewashed, were punctured by large wooden doors and windows. Despite any memory of Portuguese aggression against the Jews, the Parur synagogue incorporated Portuguese colonial detail, such as swirling rope patterns, circular attic vents, wooden railings and struts, and revealed bands of trim on its wall surfaces. With its locally cut and crafted wood roof framing exposed at its deep eaves in response to the annual monsoons, clay roof tiles covering its pitched surfaces, and carved wood ends, the Parur synagogue is an archetypical example of the Kerala style.
As with other Kerala synagogues, the Parur synagogue is made up of not one building but a collection of parts forming a distinct compound, including enclosed spaces, covered yet unenclosed rooms, outdoor walled areas, and courtyard zones. Among all Kerala synagogues, Parur is notable for having the greatest number of connected and consecutive pieces which have survived fully intact, albeit rotting and crumbling in recent decades until the current restoration effort.
Unique to the synagogue at Parur is the way its parts are formally linked in highly axial, extended, and ceremonial fashion. Of Kerala's surviving synagogue buildings, the one in Parur has the longest procession from the gatehouse to the innermost Ark. A similar organization can also be seen in some Hindu temples of Kerala and at other religious buildings in the region, including Syrian Christian and Catholic churches and mosques. As a local building type, there is little doubt that synagogue architecture was influenced by local architecture of buildings belonging to other religions, as well as sharing common liturgical and spatial elements with synagogues the world over.
So when can one view the newly renovated Parur synagogue? Benny Kuriakose, the conservation architect appointed by the Kerala government to direct the work, stated this week that the estimated date of opening is April 2012, although it could be postponed to next autumn. He said: "There is about 15% work left" the new special officer who took charge in November 2011 has started looking at things seriously." The actual inauguration will take place at a later date but feelers have been put out by the government, to India's Prime Minister, Dr. Man Mohan Singh in the hopes that he will attend the ceremony.

Jay Waronker is an architect and a professor of architecture in the USA whose scholarship focuses on the synagogues and other Jewish architecture of the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa.
Shalva Weil is an anthropologist and a specialist on Indian Jewry; Senior Researcher, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
All photographs have been supplied by Jay A. Waronker and V. Issac Sam.
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The Jews of Jew Town, Mattencherry, Kerala, India

Synagogueinte Naatil (In The Land Of Synagogue) - 2011 is film based on historical facts. This film is in Malayalam with English sub-titles. The translation is wanting. I wish to thank Mr.Thaha Ibrahin for granting permission to upload this video. Thaha is a very special person who has lived and worked among the Jews of Jew Town Mattencherry, Kerala, India.




Healing touch for Jewish heritage

KOLKATA: The Jewish built heritage in Kolkata mirrors the plight of the dwindling community. But now, the Archeological Survey of India is throwing it a lifeline.

The ASI on Friday promised to "protect and project the glory of the Jewish community" by renovating the monuments built a hundred years ago. Regional director of ASI (east) P K Mishra visited three synagogues on Friday along with the gritty Aline M Cohen, who has been battling every odd to conserve Jewish monuments in the city.

Two of these - Beth El Synagogue



  and Maghen David Synagogue -


are nationally protected monuments but the third, Shalo
me Synagogue, is unprotected although it is equally important to the community's history and heritage. It stands next to the Maghen David structure.

Mishra announced plans for a unique Jewish tourism circuit in the city, which will begin with a festival-cum-fair to exhibit the unique facets of Jewish life and culture. The Jewish community will itself restore Neveh Shalome Synagogue, which marked its centenary in 2011.

"Apart from their rich history, these monuments, speak eloquently of the great cultural melting pot the city is. Many communities came and settled here and left their indelible mark in the form of these monuments. But I am afraid after Aline M Cohen, there will be hardly anyone to tell the stories behind these magnificent structures," said Mishra.

His concern is not unfounded - the Jewish community in Kolkata now numbers 25 from a high of 6,000 during World War II.

"Thus it is important to look for the history of Jewish community in the city. We need to add cultural text tags at these synagogues. Otherwise, people won't be interested to see these sites," he remarked. ASI wants better communication between the community and conservators.

In fact, most Kolkatans are not aware of these synagogues, tucked away as they are behind office buildings and hawker stalls in Canning Street and Pollock Street.

Aline Cohen was excited by the idea of Jewish tourism circuit. "There is no dearth of elements for developing it. Apart from these five independent synagogues in the city, there are the Jewish cemetery and a girls' school," she said.

The Beth El and Maghen David Synagogues were declared national monuments and brought under ASI protection in 2003. It isn't easy for tourists to access these monuments because of security restrictions.

Last week, the chairperson of National Monument Authority (NMA), professor Himanshu Prabha Ray, was almost denied access. There was a hue and cry over it. "We are streamlining the system. We are setting up a door-frame metal detector, a surveillance system and bag counter to make things easy for tourists and the monuments safer," said Mishra.

The Jewish community has a special place in Kolkata's heart. The first recorded Jewish immigrant to Kolkata was Shalome Cohen in 1798 from Aleppo ( Syria). The most influential Jewish family in Kolkata was perhaps the father-son real estate magnates of David Joseph Ezra and Elia David Ezra, who founded the Jewish Girls School. The confectioner Nahoum's in New Market is still a top draw.

The independence of India in 1947 and the birth of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948 marked the decline of Jewish population in Calcutta (Kolkata). Today the only about 30 Jews are left in the city. The Beth El Synagogue built in 1856, is located on Pollack Street while the Magen David Synagogue built in 1884 is located at the junction of Brabourne Road and Cannig Street (Biplabi Rashbehari Road).
The Synagogues of Kolkata
This is going to be my last post on Kolkata. And I want to end it with the beautiful Synagogues of Kolkata that I photographed as part of my photo story on The Jews of India. Out of the five synagogues in Kolkata only two synagogues, Beth El & Magen David are still open to visitors. Declared as protected monuments they are looked after by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI). However you still need permission from David Nahoum, who own's the famous Jewish bakery and confectionary shop called Nahoum's located in New Market, to visit the synagogues. 

Constructed in 1850-1856 by the famous Ezra family of Kolkata, the Beth-El Synagogue, typifies the architecture of Indian synagogues - soaring ceilings, delicate columns and arched stained-glass windows. 

The Magen David synagogue is truly a picture of grandeur. Replete with an ornate Holy Ark, a beautifully-carved tebah (an elevated platform for reading the Torah), stained-glass windows shaped as the Tablets of Stone, Hebrew plaques and polished furniture, the immaculate interiors even in their silence reflect a sense of bustling times.

The altar of the Magen David Synagogue is crowned with a Apse (Half Dome) studded with stars representing Heaven. The large plaque in the middle contain the Ten Commandments, some Hebrew inscription along with several other items of Jewish Iconography.

Magen David Synagogue is architecturally Italian and the towering floral-carved pillars were shipped from Paris by the Ezras

Its 140 feet high clock tower still dominates the Kolkata skyline. Its one of the most splendid synagogues in India. The din outside its periphery only heightens the calm you feel on its precincts.

The Beth El and Magen David Synagogues speak of a celebrated legacy, while Neveh Shalome in the vicinity stands a crumbling structure. The Neveh Shalome Synagogue, Kolkata’s first-ever synagogue was established in 1826. When Neveh Shalome could no longer accommodate its growing congregation, Magen David was built on the adjoining site. Neveh Shalome, now in ruins, suffered years of inter-synagogue strife based on competing claims to the land on which the buildings stood. It's sad to see a how a rich thriving community is diminishing and all that remains today are a few prominent landmarks.

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Judah_Hyam_Synagogue_02.jpg. Judah Hyam Synagogue447 viewsInterior of the Judah Hyam Synagogue in New Delhi. Photo courtesy of Nissim Moses.