Synagogues in Kerala

An interesting note about hand full of known and unknown Synagogues in Kerala

As we know, the earlier Jewish visitors were sailors during the era of King Solomon. After the siege Jerusalem and destruction of the first temple, in BC 587, some of them came down to settle in India. But in BC 70, when the second temple was destroyed, there was a huge flow of Jews to India. Always welcoming Indians, specially Keralites, welcomed them too.

In Kerala, we can find Jewish Synagogues in Kerala are Paradesi Synagogue at Fort Kochin, Mala near Trissur, Kottayilkovilakon at Chendamangalam, Paravur near Cochin, Kadavumbagam Synagogue at Jew Street in Ernakulam, Tekkumbagam Synagogue, Broadway Ernakulam Kadavumbhagam Synagogue at Mattancherry.

Chendamangalam Synagogue

Chendamangalam Synagogue interior Chendamangalam Synagogue

40 kilometers North of Mattancherry is Chendamangalam Synagogue. Built in Kerala vernacular style. A tombstone dated 1268 which belongs to a Jewish woman named Sarah, inscribed in Hebrew, was restored in 1936. This tombstone can today be found at the front entrance of the Synagogue. This stone was said to brought from Kottapuram.

It is mentioned that in the center of Chendamangalam, the tolerant leader of that time, Paliath Achan, designated a site on each of the cardinal points for the construction of a place of worship for four major faiths: a Hindu temple, Muslim mosque, Christian church, and Jewish synagogue. At the crossing of the axis he set his own residence, the Paliyam Palace, on a hill. But a today’s traveller will not find a direct road or perceivable axial link from of the religious buildings to another.

During Anglo-Mysore Wars in late 17th century, Tipu Sultan had attacked and burned down thousands of non-Islamic religious structures in Kerala. This includes Hindu temples, churches, and synagogues. According to an Anglican Church missionary Rev. Thomas Dawson, on his visit at AD 1870, this synagogue was in ruins. He recorded that the synagogue and the one in Parur and Mala had been destroyed As per these details, the Chendamangalam Synagogue could not have been rebuilt before the second decade of the nineteenth century.

Parur (Paravur) Synagogue

Paravur Synagogue Paravur Synagogue side view

A must visit synagogue.Located on a perfect trading location next to historical market and boat jetty. It was an easy access for prayer and trade. I was very happy to visit this synagogue, experiencing how beautifully it was restored and was soon ready to be opened for public. A luxurious piece of Kerala architecture with long corridors and wood works. Upstairs, there is a large area for women for prayers with direct view of the sanctuary and behind to it, space for children. Separate access to this area from entrance before corridor and also from the main hall. To the interiors pocket roads,one can find more marvellous pieces of Kerala architecture.

It is believed that first synagogue was built in 750 and then rebuilt in 1164 when the first building was destroyed. During Tipu Sulthan’s period, he tortured and forced the conversion of followers outside Islam. He killed those that resisted or refused to convert. During this period, Paravur Synagogue was also attacked and heavily damaged, and some of its members were murdered.

A Christian missionary Rev. Thomas Dawson, visited Paravur synagogue in 1817. inormation from his mentions that the Jews were using the porch of their synagogue for their services, the rest of the building was destroyed by Tipu Sulthan. Surprisingly he also found White Jews and Black Jews who had no dealings in between.

Kadavumbhagam Synagogue,Jew Street, Ernakulam

Kadavumbhagam synagogue jew street ernakulam exterior Kadavumbhagam synagogue jew street ernakulam interior

This synagogue, once serving the Malabari Jews can be found in Jew Street near broadway, Ernakulam. NEar the Jew street and market junction, we can find it as both as fish & plant store and Synagogue. Entering inside, you can feel your blood raising for the government not maintaining this heritage monument.

Those days, since spices were a valuable local commodity and the trade was profitable and competitive, the Moors( Muslims from North Africa) saw the Jews, who were involved in the spice trade, as competition that needed to be eliminated. The Moorish persecution convinced some Jews to abandon their synagogues and they resettled in Ernakalum in 1154. Even the Jews had the support of Rajah of Cochin, this torturing by Moors continued. Today’s structure dates to the early sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries.

During the 1950s and 60s, many members of the Synagogue immigrated to Israel, and membership in the congregation became thin. Until the early 1970s, the Kadavumbagam Synagogue was still substantially intact. By 1972, the synagogue had closed and within two years the Torah scrolls were transported to Israel.

Kadavumbhagam Synagogue, Mattancherry

Kadavumbhagam synagogue mattancherry Kadavumbhagam synagogue mattancherry

In Mattancherry, other than the touristic Paradesi Synagogue, two others houses of prayer were once alive in heart of Jew Town. Recently demolished Tekkumbagam Synagogue, almost immediately to the South of the Paradesi Synagogue on the west side of the street, and the Kadavumbhagam Synagogue. These Synagogue served the Malabari Jews for centuries, and were closed down in 1955 when their congregations immigrated to Israel.

After about four decades, the synagogue’s interior finishes were purchased by an English Jew and were shipped to Jerusalem, and then meticulously restored by the Israel Museum to represent Asian synagogues.

Mala Synagogue

Mala Synagogue

Around 51 kilometers from Mattancherry, it is difficult to find in the Mala town. Even build in 1000 AD, the new structure was renovated in 1909. In 1954, a formal agreement was signed by the trustees of Mala Synagogue to hand over the control of the building to the local panchayat. The agreement mentioned that the synagogue building would be cared for, and it would not be used as house of prayer or slaughterhouse. The decommissioned synagogue was converted to government offices, and it was re-adapted as a venue for cultural, educational, and communal functions.

The synagogue’s tebah, heckal, and all furnishings and fittings were removed many years ago and are now lost, although the balcony with its second tebah remains with less damage. The panjayath staff will assist you to enter the synagogue. Now in 2015, there are works going on to maintain the exterior of the building and compound.

Paradesi Synagogue, Mattancherry

Mattancherry Synagogue

The oldest functioning Jewish house of prayer in India, the Synagogue is located at the North end of Synagogue Lane, a narrow street lined on both sides with houses which were once Jewish owned and occupied. in 15th century, due to Portuguese persecution, Jews arrived from Kadundallor and areas near Spain and Portugal. The synagogue was constructed in 1568 by Samuel Castiel, David Belila, and Joseph Levi.

Following Indian tradition, the Kerala Jews have always removed their footwear, an unfamiliar custom in Jewish communities around the world. Different from synagogues throughout the world, synagogues in Kerala has a second tebah. Over looking the sanctuary, it is located on the gallery level overlooking the sanctuary.

The famous clock tower in the picture has three existing dials. To the North, facing the maharajah’s palace, with Malayalam characters; Malayalam; to the South, viewed from Jew Town with Roman numbers; and to the West, from the synagogue side, Hebrew letters. It is said that there once was a fourth dial on the East side, facing the water, with number. The only existing pointer is on the Roman dial.

As Fort Kochi is a tourist location, now the synagogue is visited by thousands of tourists around the world. The synagogue is opened all days except on Friday afternoons and Saturdays.

Tekkumbhagam Synagogue, Ernakulam

Thekkumbhagam Synagogue Ernakulam Thekkumbhagam Synagogue

Built in 1200 AD, this synagogue was most wanted for Malabari Jews engaged in a number of professional occupations and trades. Along with fishing and petty trading, many ran small private businesses. It is said that, these shop owners devised their own secret pricing code that incorporated Hebrew. The Jews in Ernakulam for years maintained these two synagogues ( Thekkumbhagam and Kadavumbhagam) and a Jewish school.

Even it is situated on the Northers end Jew Street (between Market Road and Broadway), it is said that the name is derived from an earlier Jewish house of prayer in Kadungallor with was located at the Southern end of the town. The new building was constructed in 1930s. The synagogue was closed for the past decades, but or few years, it served as a gathering hall for community events. Today it stands locked and unused. To visit the sunagogue, we should speak to the caretaker of the Kadavumbagam Synagogue at the other end, Elias “Babu” Josephai. Recently The government has decided to renovate and restore the abandoned Jewish cemetery located located near Jew Street and Broadway

Lost Synagogues

The earliest Jewish settlements in Kerala were located at Kadungallor, Palur, Pulut, Madai, Tir-tur and Saudi. Due to persecution by the Moors in the twelfth century, the Portuguese with the Moors in the sixteenth century,and other natural disasters, the Jews living in these early settlements shifted to more secure places like Kochi under the protection of the Rajah of Cochin. These time, the earliest synagogues were abandoned and lost and none of these synagogues survives. But we know about these through Jewish folk songs sung in Malayalam.

And I was surprised to find another Jewish Cemetry in the modle of Ernakulam city very near to Pulleppady Bridge on they way to MG Road from Kaloor and Kathrikkadavu bypass, The gate is renovated and there is a new arch now.

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