Synagogue Ln, Jew Town, Kappalandimukku, Mattancherry, Kochi, Kerala 682002, India
About Jewish Synagogue
The 16th century synagogue built under the protection of Cochin King.
Paradesi Synagogue (also known as Cochin Jewish Synagogue or Mattancherry Synagogue), constructed in 1558 is one of the seven synagogues of the Cochin Jewish community in the former Kingdom of Cochin.
The word ‘Paradesi’ means foreigner in most of the Indian languages and the synagogue received the name because it was constructed by Spanish speaking Jews. Paradesi Synagogue is the only one of the synagogues that is still in use in Kerala. It is located in the Mattancherry, at a neighbourhood called Jew Town.
History of Paradesi Synagogue
The first synagogue in Kerala was built in the 4th century at Kodungallur, when Jews had trading activities along the Malabar Coast. This Jew community, called Malabar Jews moved to Cochin in the 14th century and built the new synagogue there. This synagogue was destroyed in the 16th century by the Portuguese when they started oppressing Jews and Syrian Christians (Christians who trace their origins to the evangelistic activity of Apostle Thomas).
The second synagogue built under the protection of Cochin King in 1558 during the Portuguese rule of Cochin is the present synagogue. The land for the synagogue was given by the king himself and it stands adjacent to Mattancherry Palace, the king's royal house.
Sephardi Jews- the community that built the present day Paradesi Synagogue
The present synagogue was built by Sephardi Jews - Spanish speaking Jews who migrated to Cochin in the 16th century. Even though the Malabar Jews and Sephardi Jews shared many aspects of religion, they both retained their original culture and languages for many centuries. As a result of the different communities of Jews in the same area, the synagogue had three classes of members - White Jews or Sephardi Jews who were full members, Black Jews or Malabar Jews who were allowed to worship but not admitted to full membership, Meshuchrarim Jews consisting of freed slaves and their descendants brought by the Sephardi Jews. Meshuchrarim Jews had no communal rights and they were allowed only to sit on the floor or on the steps outside.
The dutch invasions, the restorations and the present day activities
By 1660, the Dutch attacked Cochin overthrowing the Portuguese. In later years following the attack, the Paradesi Synagogue was used primarily by the Sephardi Jews and their descendants, and exiled Jews from Europe.
In 2001, World Monument Fund started to work on the 18th century nonfunctioning clock tower of the synagogue, a prominent feature that rises 14 meters tall. The work was completed on 2006 which included repairs to unsound masonry and replacement of rotten elements within the teak framing system. The organisation oversaw the cleaning and painting of the clock tower, installation of a mechanism to replace missing clock parts and re-hanging the large brass bell which was abandoned for years on the floor of the synagogue.
Today the Paradesi Synagogue is the only functioning synagogue in Cochin that can attract minyan - the minimum number of ten Jewish adults required for certain religious obligations (though this minyan must be formed with Jews from outside Kochi as the number who still reside there is not sufficient).
Exploring the premises of Paradesi Synagogue
The synagogue is a tight complex featuring series of rooms and passages linked and surrounded by outdoor spaces. It sits on the end of a narrow street lining with souvenir and antique shops on both sides which once were houses occupied by Jews. The street abruptly ends in front of the synagogue which is hidden behind a tall solid wall, the only hint of the structure is the clock tower directly ahead. With its strategic position and height, many gets the impression that the space here is synagogue's prayer space.
The antiques present
The Paradesi Synagogue houses many rare antiques. The 19th century glass chandeliers dangling from the ceiling are from Belgium, the floor is composed of many 18th century hand painted Chinese porcelain tiles, a hand knotted oriental rug was a gift from the last Ethiopian Emperor Haile Salessie. Two gold crowns presented to the Jewish community by the kings of Cochin and Travancore also can be seen at the synagogue.
Another valuable possession is the copper plates that describes the privileges granted to the Jewish community by the Cochin king. The inscriptions are in ‘kannadiyezhuthu’- mirror image writing.
The entrance and the halls inside
The entrance to the synagogue is through a large and heavy iron gate. Along the way to the ark (ornamental closet which contains Torah scrolls), there are places of ritual practises, community purposes, and religious education. The first room to enter from the street has a staircase leading up to the women’s seating area and the educational spaces in the clock tower.
Ahead of the first room is a short corridor that connects to a windowless room that contains canvases portraying the Jewish communities' historical events over the course of centuries drawn by the artist S.S Krishna. Another covered but unenclosed breezeway from the first room leads directly to the main sanctuary building which is surrounded by a courtyard. The walled courtyard protected and separated the synagogue and it served as a gathering area.
The main sanctuary building
The main building is a two story structure made of various spaces. The azara and sanctuary proper is in the ground floor, balcony and women’s seating area upstairs. Azara is the transition room where women would pass through before ascending to the gallery. It is also the place where kohanim (priest) perform important rituals. Mourners and women gathering at weddings and other celebrations used to sit at azara.
The azara in earlier days also served as the place where men in Meshuchrarim community sat during prayers as they were not allowed inside the main sanctuary building. The women of the community sat outside the sanctuary building altogether, on the benches lining the edges of the breezeway.
In the middle of the sanctuary is a Tebah, an elevated platform used to read the scrolls and from here the services are conducted. There is second Tebah located in the gallery level in a shallow space overlooking the sanctuary. The space is supported by two brass columns that represent Boaz and Jachin, the two columns believed to have existed in the ancient temple of Jerusalem.
The ark which contains Torah scrolls is the most sacred feature in the synagogue. The ark is located in the wall opposite the entrance. The ark is kept in the west wall, closest to Jerusalem as per Jewish traditions. It is beautifully hand carved from teak and highlighted with gold, red and green paint.
Getting to Paradesi Synagogue
The synagogue is situated at Mattancherry in Ernakulam City of Kerala State in Southern India. There are numerous bus services within Ernakulam City to Fort Kochi Bus Station through Mattancherry. The nearest major railway station too is in Ernakulam which is well connected to rest of the districts of the state and country.
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