Saturday, 17 September 2011

The 'Malabari Jewish Cemetery' of Mattancherry and the tomb of 'Nehemiah ben Abraham Mota (Namia Mootha)': India's greatest Jewish mystic (Kabbalist) and the patron saint of Malabari Jews of Cochin (d. 1615 AD).

Malabari Jewish Cemetery of Mattancherry
Not many know about the existence of a non-Paradesi Jewish cemetery in Mattancherry. Known as ‘Malabari Cemetery’, ‘Black or Brown Jew Cemetery’ or ‘Kadavumbagam Cemetery’, today the only evidence for its existence is a lone tomb standing in the midst of a much congested neighborhood. After the 'Land Reform Acts' was passed in 1957 by the communist government in Kerala , the entire cemetery was demolished by the locals and converted into a colony called ‘Chakkamadom’. Since most of the Malabari Jews had left for Israel by early 1950s and the locked property had no claimants, it was easy for the encroachers to raze the cemetery to ground and build a colony. 

Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz who visited Cochin in 1952 blames the local Jewish leaders equally responsible. He observes the synagogue trustees easily renting cemetery  plots to non Jews to build houses and calls them corrupt and autocratic. "Grave after grave was raised to ground, of some of which the masonry was entirely demolished. On the cemetery itself were a number of Hindu houses with cement foundations and bamboo and rush superstructure. Incredible though it may sound, the trustees of the cemetery had rented plots in the graveyard to Hindus on which to build houses, and the tenants were using the masonry of the graves to form the cement foundations", reports Rabinowitz (Far East Mission, p. 138). 

Gradually, all the tombs in the cemetery were destroyed or dismantled except for that of a 17th century Yemenite Jewish sage called Nehemiah ben Abraham Mota. Locally revered as ‘Namia Mootha’ (‘Namia the elder’ in Malayalam) by Jews and non-Jews, his tomb survived the damage. Some of the tombstones dismantled are now displayed in the courtyard of Paradesi Synagogue. A local legend is that when the villagers tried to raze Nehemiah Mota's grave, a great fire broke out and the earth shook.  Since then his tomb is venerated not only by the Jews of Cochin but also by the local Christian, Muslim and Hindu communities.  

The Malabari Cemetery of Mattancherry is believed to be at least 400 years old as compared to the 250 years old nearby Paradesi Cemetery. Late Ruby Daniel records in her memoir about the cemetery being 700 years old (Ruby of Cochin, 2001,  p. 147)! Don't miss this rare photograph of an old Jewish cemetery taken in 1937 from Cochin, included in the Ghetto Fighters House Archives. The photo appeared in issue No:1 (1937) of the Yiddish language weekly, 'Yidishe Bilder'. I am wondering if this is a photograph from the 'Malabari Cemetery' of Mattancherry?  Isn't the tall tomb in the middle of the photograph resembling the grave of Namia Mootha? (see below for more details and recent photographs).

Nehemiah ben Abraham Mota or Namia Mootha:
Life of the spiritual leader and patron saint of Malabari Jewish community of Cochin is shrouded in mystery. Nehemiah Mota was born some where between 1570 and 1580 and died in 1615, as indicated on his tomb in Mattancherry. Majority accept he is from Yemen, but alternate opinions claim he was from Iraq, Turkey, Morocco, Italy or Poland. He is said to have married a woman from the Malabari Jewish community. Mota had a sister named Saidi who made a large contribution in building the Paradesi Synagogue, but not much is known about her either. The Jewish Encyclopedia (1907) calls him a false messiah from the Cochin Jews!

After Namia Mota’s death, he was gradually transformed into a kind of cult figure or a village deity who was attributed several miracles and healing powers. There is even a folklore that he could fly in the air to reach home in time for Sabbath prayers! Jews and non-Jews alike make oaths and light candles before his tomb for specific needs and rejoice after fulfilling their desires. Nathan Katz records in “Who are the Jews of India” an interesting legend about him: “In Jew Town folklore, if some of piece of jewelry is missing from a house-hold, the mistress of the house says within earshot of the suspected servant, “I’m going to Namia Muta’s tomb to get his help in returning my bracelet”. If the servant had in fact pilfered the bracelet, he or she fearing Nehemiah Mota’s presence, immediately returns it”.

The Malabari Jews still honor his death anniversary on the first day of Chanukkah with a special banquet, followed by singing his Sephardi memorial prayer (Hashkavah). 1757 edition of the Shingli Macazor (Jewish prayer book for holiday ceremonies) contained about twenty of Nehemiah's songs which, for reasons unknown, were deleted from the 1769 edition. They have reappeared in recent Israeli editions of the Shingli rite (Nathan Katz, Who are the Jews of India”; 2000, pp 52-55). The legacy of Nehemiah Mota is not confined to India alone. More recently, in 2010 when the Kerala Jews (who had emigrated from Chendamangalam) built Eliahu Motta Synagogue at Givat Koach near Lod where the Ben-Gurion airport of Israel is located; it was named in honour of the great Kabbalist. A large crowd of Cochin Jews from all over Israel came to Givat Koach for the inaugural event: records Shalva Weil in cochinsyn.com. Here is a youtube link about the tomb of Nehemiah Mota (see the later half of the video).

The reverred tomb of 'Nehemiah Mota' or 'Namia Mootha' in Mattancherry: the 17th century Jewish mystic (Kabbalist) of India.







The Hebrew inscription on the 'Tomb of Nehemia Mota' (1615 AD).



Translation from Jewish Virtual Library:
Here rest the remains of
the famous kabbalist,
The influence of the light of whose learning
shines throughout the country,
The perfect sage, the hasid, and
God-fearing Nehemia, the son of
The dear rabbi and sage Abraham Mota.
Our Master departed this life on
Sunday, the 25th of Kislev, 5336.
May his soul rest in peace.

Late Isaac Hallegua’s translation:
He shines everywhere in the Jewish Dispersion
(He is) the perfect wise man
(and) the righteous person of divnity
(he is) the rav and teacher.
Nehemia, son of the rav and teacher, the wise and beloved
Abraham Muta (old person) of blessed and saintly memory
And he passed on his life to the (late) rabbanim ( expired)
On Sunday 28th of the month of Kislev
In the year of creation 5376 (1616AD)

How to locate the ‘Tomb of Nehemia Mota or Namia Mootha’?

The best way is to seek the help of locals, but remember to mention ‘Namia Mootha’ and not ‘Nehemiah Mota’. If you wish to find the tomb yourself its a bit tricky to locate. Let me try to explain as simple as possible. From the Paradesi Synagogue as you walk southwards along the ‘Synagogue Lane’, continue straight as you reach the junction where ‘Jew Street’ begins. Jew Street to the east/left takes you to the Mattancherry Boat Jetty. As you walk south along the Jew Street, skip the first side-street (A B Salem road) and turn west (right) on the next road. At this junction look on your left (east) for the 1831 made Jewish building with a large Star of David marked atop. The street runs parallel to the A B Salem road, but goes behind the Paradesi Jewish Cemetery. As you walk the lane remember to observe ‘Kallarakka Parambu Road’ and St. Jacob’s Catholic chapel on your left (south) side. ‘Kallarakka Parambu’ in Malayalam means ‘graveyard’ and the street runs behind the ‘Kadavumbagom Synagogue of Mattancherry. Shortly after the chapel turn left onto a street called ‘Subhramaniyam Temple Road’. Before reaching the Shree Subramaniyam Hindu Temple you should be smart to find a very narrow concrete path onto your right (west) side located between a densely populated neighborhood called ‘Chakkamadom’ colony. There is a small shop (the type called ‘pettikada’ or box-shop in Malayalam) in front of the entrance at the junction where this path merges with the ‘Shree Subramanyam Road’.  After a few meters walk inside this narrow alley, when you reach a T-junction, take a right turn and move a few steps further and there you are finally in front of the tomb of India’s greatest Kabbalist, Nehemiah Mota. You cannot miss the large plaque before his tomb written in Hebrew. The tomb is in front of a small home and adjacent to a large modern (yellow painted) house in the name of one Mr. Nelson. If you continue walking further, the street takes you to the ‘Parallel A. B. Salem Road’ to a spot almost behind the Paradesi Jewish Cemetery. Look for '9' and '2' in the maps here and here.

The road that runs behind the 'Paradesi Jewish Cemetery' and parallel to 'A. B. Salem Street'.

 1P: The junction where 'Parallel A. B. Salem Road' and 'Jew Street' of Mattancherry merges.

Kallarakka Parambu Road and St. Jacob's Catholic Chapel, Mattancherry.

1P: Kallarakka Parambu Road goes behind the Kadavumbagom Synagogue of Mattancherry.




Shree Subhramaniyam Temple Road, Mattancherry. One of the ways to access the 'Tomb of Nehemiah Mota'.


 2P: Shree Subramaniyam Hindu Temple, Mattancherry.


The narrow concrete path to the 'Tomb of Nehemia Mota' from Shree Subramaniyam Temple Road.

 1P: The narrow street to the tomb is opposite to this small shop situated on the 'Shree Subramaniyam Temple Road'

3P: The  'Tomb of Nehemia Mota' is between the modern yellow two-storeyed house and the small  building with a gabled clay tiled roof.

The narrow alley to the 'Tomb of Nehemia Mota' from the street behind A. B. Salem Road.

 1P: The narrow street to the tomb is just besides this four-storeyed building.



4P: The black wall in the extreme left is part of the 'Tomb of Nehemia Mota'.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Abraham Barak Salem (1882-1967)-the Jewish Gandhi of India.


Courtesy, ufdc.ufl.edu, 'Jew Town Synagogue', A. B. Salem


Who was A B Salem?
A brief background before answering the question:
As I discussed earlier, Judaism in Kerala also failed to escape the menace of caste-based racism that once prevailed very strongly in India. The Jews of Kerala belonged to three distinct categories. Based on their skin colour, the more ancient and native-looking dark-skinned Malabari Jews were called the 'Black Jews', the fair-skinned newcomers, Paradesis were the 'White Jews' and the small community of converted Jews, often regarded manumitted (freed) slaves by Paradesis and Malabaris were the ‘Brown Jews’.

Although, Malabaris were the majority and the first Jews to arrive India (from at least the time after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, 1st Century AD), the Paradesis (most came after the 16th century) successfully managed to dominate both economically and caste-wise. The Malabri Jews consider themselves as the ‘privileged ones’ (Meyuhassim)-the real owners of the copper plates and the direct descendants of Joseph Rabban, the Jewish prince who was given several privileges including the ownership of Anjuvannam by a Hindu King. The Paradesi’s however denied the Malabari claims and believed themselves to be the original Israelites and true lineage of Joseph Rabban. Paradesis viewed Malabaris as proselytes or Hindu natives converted to Judaism and thus treated them impure. Malabaris had a larger community than Paradesis and owned separate synagogues and cemeteries. Malabaris and Paradesis didn’t intermarry or worship together and both considered themselves the ‘Meyuhassim’ (privileged ones).


Most of the foreign travelers usually heard the Paradesi version of the story as they were the ones who spoke European languages and as a result the existence of Malabari Jews was unknown to the west. Late historian P M Jussay writes in the foreword to his work ‘Jews of Kerala’: “Foreign writers who came to cochin were the guests of white Jews and they accepted in good faith whatever they were told. White Jews described black Jews as the children of slaves or of concubines kept by rich white Jews. But this is not true. However others repeated this wrong information and it became current and was accepted as the truth. Black Jews were poor and so they were delegated to the periphery of the community. There were a few Jews who were children of slaves and concubines and they were also poor. They formed the poor section of the community and thus all the Black Jews came to be low borns”.


The third community, Meshuchararim (released slaves) was a minority’s minority. They have to depend the Paradesis largely for religious and social needs. Meshuchararims didn’t have separate synagogues or cemeteries. Although an effort was made in 1848 to establish an independent synagogue in nearby Fort Cochin, it turned out to be futile and they had to return to the Paradesi Synagogue. They were considered inferior and often treated derogatively by the upper class Jewish society of Kerala. For instance, the Meshuchararim could sit only on the floor of Paradesi Synagogue's anteroom and was not allowed to be inside the synagogue at the time of services or to read from Torah. They were also denied to be buried in the Paradesi cemetery.

All these changed after the emergence of Abraham Barak (A. B.) Salem. He was born in 1882 from the Meshuchararim Jewish community of Cochin. He was the first graduate from Meshucharars. An advocate by profession, he was a multi talented personality.  A. B. Salem was also a Zionist, politician, Indian nationalist and trade union leader. James Chiriyankandath elaborates (Journal of Global History (2008) 3, pp. 21–42):"Scrupulously observant of Jewish religious law even as a young man, when Salem sat his Intermediate level exams at Maharaja’s College in Ernakulam, Cochin’s twin town, in 1899, he successfully petitioned Madras University to be exempted from taking a paper on the Sabbath. He then sought an audience with the dewan of Cochin, P. Rajagopalachari, persuading him to grant a scholarship that allowed him to pursue his studies in Madras where he successfully acquired his B.A. in 1902 before going on to obtain a degree from the Law College. Although a scion of the wealthiest Paradesi family (and distant cousin of Salem), Isaac Ben Elias Hallegua, had become the first Cochin Jew to graduate in 1884, Salem was the first of the meshuchrarim to do so (he was also the first Cochin Jew to gain a law degree)”.

Inspired by Mahathma Gandhi’s non-violent teachings and methods of satyagraha (civil disobedience), Salem fought for decades against the discrimination his community faced under the Paradesis. By 1940s, the Paradesi Synagogue was finally opened to the Meshuchararim community; they could read from Torah and were allowed to bury their dead in the Paradesi cemetery, though in a separate section.  No wonder he is fondly remembered as the ‘Jewish Gandhi’ of India. Despite being the main force behind Kerala Jews’ migration to Israel in 1950s, Salem stayed back in Kochi. After his death in 1967, he was buried in the Paradesi Jewish cemetery of Mattancherry.

(Need to mention that today no such categorization or discrimination exists among the different classes of Kerala Jews. The existing members interact more freely without old prejudices, worship together and even intermarry. The usage of ‘Black’, ‘Brown’ and ‘White’ Jews is considered derogatory today). 

‘A. B. Salem Road’ (earlier ‘Jew Cemetery Road’)-the street where ‘Paradesi Jewish Cemetery’ is located. Not many know that A. B. stands for ‘Abraham Barak’ and the street is named after a Jew who is also known as the ‘Jewish Gandhi’ of India. The locals refer to the street as ‘Abu Salem Road’ and many think the name belongs to a Muslim leader. I believe it is the only road in Kerala named after an Indian Jew.

A. B. Salem Road is the first side-street to the right when you walk from the Paradesi Synagogue along the Jew Street towards south. In 1P, Look for the earlier street name, i.e. 'Jew Cemetery Lane' after the small pink board with 'Shalom Fashion Emporium'.

 1P: Entrance to the A. B. Salem Road from Jew Street, Mattancherry.
2P: The A. B. Salem Road, Mattancherry

3P: The A. B. Salem Road , Mattancherry.The tall wall on the right end is a part of the Paradesi Jewish Cemetery.

4P: Entrance to the A. B. Salem street from the main road to Dutch Palace.

5P: A signboard mentioning the importance of the heritage area

6P: A building with traditional Kerala architecture-near A. B. Salem Road entrance from Dutch Palace side.

7P: A view from A. B. Salem Road

8P: The building opposite to the main entrance of Paradesi Jewish Cemetery.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Paradesi Jewish Cemetery of Mattancherry. The cemetery is at least 250 years old, while the compound wall was established in 1898.There are approximately 300 graves in the cemetery.

For locating the cemetery, see '7' in the map here. The cemetery was exclusively used by the Paradesi Jewish community. Only in the late 1940s after the relentless efforts by A.B. Salem, the Meshuchrarim Jewish community got the permission to use the cemetery. However, Meshuchrarim tombs were allowed in a separate section away from the Paradesi burial place with their tombstones facing the far wall.'They are buried in a place of dishonour, against the wall, separated from the main portion of the cemetery by a stinking, stagnant pond’, recorded Louis Rabinowitz, the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, who visited Kochi in 1952 (Far East Mission, p.117-118).

Interestingly, no Malabari Jew was buried in the Paradesi Cemetery until 1999, when Advocate P T Aron (also known as Abraham Aron), a Malabari Jew from Chendamangalam passed away (see Shalva Weil: 2009, Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, 8(3):319-335). Since the Malabari Jews had at least six cemeteries in Kerala including one in Mattancherry, they probably didn’t require the one used by the Paradesi community. 

The cemetery is locked and closed for the tourists. Permission for entering the graveyard has to be obtained from from the Paradesi synagogue and I believe is not easy. For those who still want to explore the tomb stones or have a glimpse inside, Jono David has uploaded some nice photographs in his Jewish photo library (See here). 

Entrance to the Paradesi Jewish Cemetery, Mattancherry. Among the details engraved at the entrance in Hebrew, Malayalam and English is the date of establishment of the compound wall and the shed inside the graveyard, i.e. 15th September 1898. The locked wrought iron gate has the Jewish symbols of a large menorah and four six-pointed stars (the 'Star of David').








Views inside the 'Paradesi Jewish Cemetery', Mattancherry. Also known as 'White Jew' Cemetery it once was exclusively for the Paradesi Jews. A. B. Salem is the most famous non-Paradesi Jew buried here and the street is aptly named in his honour. Not open to public so I have taken pictures through bars of the locked gate.
















INTRODUCTION

The monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam arrived India much before they reached the West. For instance, it is widely believed that Christianity reached the subcontinent only after the first European colonists; the Portuguese arrived India in the 15th century. However, long before Christianity reached many parts of Europe, it came across to India. According to strong traditions among the ancient Syrian Christians of Kerala, Christianity was introduced to India by St: Thomas, the Apostle of Jesus Christ in 52 AD who later established seven churches across Kerala. Contrary to popular belief, Islam came to India prior to the 11th century Muslim invasions with the Arab merchants who arrived Kerala for trade in the 7th century AD. Similarly, Judaism the oldest continuously practiced monotheistic religion has an Indian presence from very early times. If traditional accounts are to be accepted, India had a Jewish colony from the time of King Solomon (10th century BC)!

Most importantly, all the three religions trace their arrival in India to the Malabar region of Southern India which is currently the modern State of Kerala. Since ancient times Kerala has been the center of the Indian spice trade where Greeks, Romans, Jews, Arabs and Chinese came for grabbing their part of share. To be precise, the first Jewish, Christian and Islamic settlements of India were established in a place called Cranganore (modern Kodungallur) in Kerala. The oldest church in India is found in Palayur not far from Kodungallur purportedly constructed in 52 AD by St. Thomas. The oldest mosque in India and the second oldest mosque in the world to offer Jumu'ah prayers is the Cheraman Juma Masjid of Kodungallur and is constructed during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad in 629 AD! Traditionally, Kodungallur had a Jewish synagogue even before St: Thomas arrived in 52 AD and it will then be the oldest synagogue in India.

Much has been written on Indian Jews, their unique culture and traditions. Among the three major Jewish communities in India, the “Kerala Jews” popularly known as “Cochin Jews” are the most ancient (2500 years ago) followed by the “Bene Israel” (2100 years ago) and the “Baghdadi Jews” (250 years ago). Recently two more communities have claimed Jewish ancestry viz. “Bene Menasheh” (1970s) from North East India and “Bene Ephraim or Telugu Jews” (1980s) from Andhra Pradesh. A small population of Jews had migrated to India during the Mughal, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British rule as well. Perhaps the Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Anti-Semitic Europe were the last Jews to arrive India. In other words, Jews weren’t a single emigration to India. At different times they arrived and settled peacefully in India where they never experienced any anti-Semitism from the native Indian community. In fact, it is said that out of the 148 nations where Jews have lived in, India is the only country where they were never persecuted by the natives.

Although Jews reached Kerala as early as 1st century AD, there were many different waves of emigrations later as well. Gradually, Jews of Kerala became organized into three distinct groups, but the different communities interacted very less among themselves. 1) ‘Meyuhassim’ (privileged) or Malabari Jews: the largest (85%) and most ancient group considered to have arrived in India as merchants during the period of King Solomon. 2). ‘Pardesi’ (foreigner) Jews: the second largest (14%) and recent group (from 16th century onwards) who migrated mainly from Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Spain and Germany. 3). ‘Meshuhararim’ (released): the smallest group (<1%) believed to be the slaves held by both Malabari and Pardesi communities who were converted to Judaism and later on released from their status as slaves. Based on skin colour, the Meyuhassim are called the ‘Black Jews’, the Meshuhararim-the ‘Brown Jews’ and the ‘Pardesi’-the ‘White Jews’. The arguments on who came first and who are more pure were often fought vehemently and each sect defended their claims. The Jewish population of Kerala numbered 2,400 at the height of their “mass” emigration to Israel in 1954. Today (2011), less than 40 Jews remain in Kerala-9 Pardesi Jews comprising of 6 women and 3 men; and less than 30 Malabari Jews.

In a strong caste-based Indian society, fair skinned Pardesi Jews managed to win a privileged position although they were a minority and newly arrived. Their European background, influence and wealth managed to push the majority of relatively poor Malabar Jews into an inferior position in colonial India. Unfortunately, even today for many in the west and to a great extent in India too, the existence of Kerala’s ancient Malabari Jewish community and their heritage is far unknown. The famous Pardesi Synagogue in Cochin is perhaps the only monument that comes into the mind of many as far as Judaism in Kerala is concerned. Acclaimed to be the oldest (built 1568) synagogue in British Commonwealth, the Pardesi Synagogue is the only functional one in Kerala today. Did the Jewish community of Kerala leave anything more than this famed synagogue? The answer is a big yes. Judaism in Kerala is not only about the Pardesi Jews of Cochin and their synagogue in Mattanchery. In fact, there are seven synagogues, seven Jewish cemeteries; six Jew Streets, a ‘Jewish Children’s Play ground’, at least two monuments and a few artifacts linked with extinct Jewish colonies in Kerala! This does not include the few existing Jewish homes and the many earlier Jewish residences converted into non-Jewish owned business buildings and private villas.

This blog will be an attempt to help people both inside and outside India to locate and learn about the known Jewish monuments of Kerala, that include synagogues, cemeteries and former Jewish residences. It will be equally pictorial and textual in format. One of the objectives of this blog is to help people in identifying all known Jewish monuments of Kerala through maps and photographs. Their left out synagogues and cemeteries are the physical landmarks that still stand in testimony to the vibrant and glorious heritage of Jews who claim at least 2000 years of strong and continuous bond with India. The big question is about the accessibility and identification of these monuments. Some of the cemeteries for example are so overgrown with weeds and turned into garbage dumping yards that even the locals have no clue about their existence. Most of the sites have no sign boards or maps available to pin point their exact location. The information from internet and other sources are also limited or at times misinformed when locating the monuments are concerned. I will try to get as many photographs as needed to help people understand these monuments and the blog will not be confined to the heritage of Pardesi Jews alone. For those synagogues that are disputed properties or lie in ruined state and are not accessible for the public I will only add photographs of the exterior. Some of the original Jewish artifacts from Kerala are preserved in Israel and what left here are the duplicates. In such cases, I will trace and append online links having the original photographs. All the trips I made to these heritage sites are through public transport systems and hence the directions provided will be for those who travel the hard way. Regarding the dates associated with the history of ‘Kerala Jews’, I have tried to incorporate the most popular views and need not always be the scholarly accepted ones. I shall be much glad if any one can contribute or provide details of additional monuments, sites or artifacts you think can be classified as part of Jewish heritage of Kerala.

Being also a photoblog, I will be concentrating more on the photographs taken from various Jewish monuments in Kerala. Not many sites are available online that go deep into the structural and historic details of these heritage units with photographs. However, we are lucky to have a few very enlightening resources. The “Friends of Kerala Synagogues 2011” (Prof. Jay A. Waronker, USA; Prof. Shalva Weil, Israel; Marian Scheuer Sofaer, USA; Isaac Sam, India and Tirza Muttath Lavi, Israel) maintain an excellent site on the synagogues of Kerala. I strongly recommend anyone interested in ‘Jewish synagogues of Kerala’ to go through their highly informative links. Whenever, I refer to their site, it will be acknowledged as ‘www.cochinsyn.com’. The other very important site I recommend is the beautiful photo collection by Jono David in his Ha Chayim Ha Yehudim Jewish Photo Library’. He has photographs from many Jewish monuments of India. Although he has got wrong one of the synagogues (Mattancherry Kadavumbagam Synagogue) the site has largely helped me to identify the Jewish cemeteries in Kerala. Thoufeek Zakriya who introduces himself as a young Indian Muslim, hospitality management student and a calligraphy artist maintains a well informed and interesting blog discussing the History of Jews of Kerala. His ‘Jews of Malabar’ is rich with unique information and rare photographs. A site maintained by Isaac Solomon has a very good collection of photographs on 53 Jewish cemeteries of the Bene Israeli community in India . However, he has not included cemeteries of the Jews of Kerala. Other way round, the Bene Israeli community has a site on the 49 synagogues they had established in Israel. Another interesting link has 360 degree view on the interiors of 10 Indian Synagoues including four from Kerala. General and popular articles on the subject are freely available on internet. You can also read some very informative classic books and scholarly written articles about the Jews of Kerala. Unfortunately, most of them are expensive to purchase and some are out of print or stock.


JEWISH MONUMENTS & ARTIFACTS OF KERALA

The most important Jewish heritage structures in Kerala are the synagogues (Juda Palli in Malayalam), cemeteries and residences.

A. Synagogues

Today, there are 35 synagogues in India and 7 of them are in Kerala. The architectural style of Kerala synagogues differs from those in the west. These synagogues are strongly influenced from earlier Hindu religious buildings on its design and construction. They are characterized by high slope roofs, thick laterite-stoned walls, large windows and doors, balcony and wood-carved ceilings. A Kerala synagogue consists of a ‘Gate House’ at the entrance that leads through a Breezeway to the Synagogue Complex. The synagogue complex is made of a fully enclosed Azara or Anteroom and a double-storeyed sanctuary-the main prayer hall. Inside a typical double-storeyed sanctuary of a ‘Kerala Synagogue’ are:

1) A Tebah/Bimah: Located at the center of the sanctuary, Tebah is usually an elevated wooden platform or pulpit from which Torah, the holy book of Jews is read. 2) A Heichal (Ark): Represents the altar. It is a chest or cupboard in the synagogue where the Torah scrolls are kept. It is usually carved intricately and painted/gilded with teak wood. Unlike in the European Synagogues, where the ark is placed on the eastern wall, the synagogues in Kerala have the arks on the western wall facing Jerusalem. 3) A Balcony/Second Tebah: It is unique to the synagogues of Kerala. The balcony has two portions one for men and the other for ladies. Women’s seating area is placed directly above the azara. 4) A Staircase: Leads to the balcony and is generally spiral in shape and made of wood. At times there are two staircases, one for men from the main hall inside the synagogue and the other for the ladies from a staircase room outside the synagogue; 5) A Jewish School: Is actually a classroom for Jewish children usually located behind the women’s section on the first floor.

B. Cemeteries

Resting place of ancestors means a lot to the Jewish community. Sometimes they even carried tombstones from their old settlements while migrating to a newer place. The oldest Jewish tomb in India (dated 1269 AD) preserved in front of Chendamangalam synagogue is one such transferred from Kodungallur. Unlike Christian tombs in Kerala with Malayalam and English engravings, the Jewish graves have mostly Hebrew inscriptions. The Jewish year can be converted into modern Gregorian date if one can read the Hebrew letters. ‘Reading Hebrew Tombstones’ is an interesting site to read the Jewish tombs.

C. Jewish Residences

Today, most of the early Jewish homes sold to non-Jews are substantially modified or refurbished. However, there are a few features that still make them identifiable. Sometimes you can trace Jewish symbols like Menorah (candlestick) and Magen David (Star of David) on the walls, windows and roof tops. For example, a few residences in Mattancherry still maintain the Star of David (Magen David) despite being converted into shops or warehouses. The best way to locate the home of a residing Jew is to look for the Mezuzah on the door post. Nailed to the doorpost of a Jewish home, Mezuzah is a small container made of wood, plastic or metal having a piece of parchment with the most important words from the Jewish Holy Book, Torah. It is customary among religious Jews to touch the mezuzah on entering or leaving the home. A few homes in the Synagogue Lane of Mattancherry with mezuzah are the residences of the remaining 9 Paradesi Jews.

The Jewish monuments and artifacts I will be discussing in this blog are:

I Synagogues

1. Pardesi Synagogue, Mattancherry (1568)

2. Kadavumbagam Synagogue, Mattancherry (1130 or 1539)

3. Thekkumbagam Synagogue, Mattancherry (1647, only the building site known)

4. Kadavumbagam Synagogue, Ernakulam (1200)

5. Thekkumbagam Synagogue, Ernakulam (1200 or 1580))

6. Paravur Synagogue (750 or 1164 or 1616)

7. Mala Synagogue (1400 or 1597)

8. Chendamangalam Synagogue (1420 or 1614)

(The various speculated dates of establishment in parenthesis are taken from www.cochinsyn.com, coutesy Prof. Jay A. Waronker)

II Cemeteries

1. Pardesi Jewish Cemetery, Mattancherry

2. Malabari Jewish Cemetery, Mattancherry

3. Old Jewish Cemetery, Ernakulam

4. New Jewish Cemetery, Ernakulam

5. Paravur Jewish Cemetery

6. Mala Jewish Cemetery

7. Chendamangalam Jewish Cemetery

III Jew Streets

1. Jew Street Mattancherry (Jewish residences with Mezuzah and Magen David)

2. Jew Steet, Ernakulam (today all shops in non-Jewish hands)

3. Jew Street, Paravur (Twin Pillars)

4. Jew Street, Mala (Gate House and Breezeway of synagogue turned into shops)

5. Jew Street, Chendamangalam (used to be a Jewish Market or Judakambolam)

6. Jew Street, Calicut (identified in July 2011 as Jootha (Jew) Bazar)

IV Other Monuments & Artifacts

1. Tomb of Sarah (1269 AD), Chendamangalam

2. Kochangadi Synagogue Corner-stone, Mattancherry

3. Jewish Children’s Play Ground, Mattancherry

4. Clock-Tower, Mattancherry

5. Sarah Cohen’s Embroidery Shop, Mattancherry

6. Jew Hill/Judakunnu/Jewish Bazar, Palayur

7. Jew Tank/Judakkulam, Madayi

8. Koder House, Fort Kochi

9. Grand Residencia, Fort Kochi

10. Jewish Summer Resorts, Aluva

11. Jewish Copper Plates, Mattancherry

12. Syrian Copper Plates, Kollam

13. Torah Finial, Palayur

V Lost Jewish Colonies

1. Kodungallur (Thrissur)

2. Palayur (Thrissur)

3. Pullut (Thrissur)

4. Kunnamkulam (Thrissur)

5. Saudhi (Ernakulam)

6. Tir-tur (Ernakulam)

7. Fort Kochi (Ernakulam)

8. Chaliyam (Kozhikode)

5. Pantalayani Kollam (Kozhikode)

9. Thekkepuram (Kozhikkode)

10. Muttam (Alappuzha)

11. Kayamkulam (Alappuzha)

12. Dharmadom (Kannur)

13. Madayi (Kannur)

14. Quilon (Kollam)

15. Pathirikunnu, Krishnagiri (Waynad)

16. Anchuthengu (Thiruvananthapuram)