By Marian Scheuer Sofaer and Jay A. Waronker
The cochinsyn.com website illustrates how a small community of Kerala Jews living in an outpost of the Diaspora for many centuries managed to maintain their own distinct identity while coexisting with Hindu, Christian and Muslim neighbors through a variety of political and social changes. It is a window into how the Jews of Kerala chose to express themselves architecturally in their synagogue buildings and in their religious and social life.
The website presents a comprehensive guide to the seven synagogues still extant in the Cochin (Kochi) region. Fortunately, the Kerala State government, with help from the government of India, has recently funded archaeological excavations and scholarly work in the Ernakulam region as part of the Muziris Heritage project. More information on all the historic ethnic and religious groups in the area will become available as the Muziris Heritage Project proceeds.
This website welcomes contributions of articles, notes, photos and letters from members of the Kerala Jewish community and their families, as well as from friends and scholars of all fields of interest and communities.
While monumental buildings and structures designed by leading architects will most often attract the attention of historians and bring in visitors from the public at large, the study of more ordinary, vernacular buildings, especially in relationship to their cultural and natural contexts, is an appealing area of architectural history. Cultural history is best experienced onsite, and a visit to Kerala, renowned for its natural beauty and diversity of terrain, parks, intriguing coastline, and gracious hospitality, has much to offer.
For Jewish history in particular, the history of the remote community in the Cochin region shows how traditions could be maintained at long reach from Jewish population centers. For instance, Jewish women’s songs in the local Malayalam language handed down from generation to generation in handwritten notebooks offer details about life before the advent of modern communications.
The Jewish community in Kerala may date from as early as Biblical times. Some cite the words in the book of Kings that appear to be of early Dravidian origin (or ancient Tamil) as well as references to trade with India as prooftexts for this contention. Did King Solomon have boats that could make the journey, bringing back the highly valued spices and sandalwood of the Indian subcontinent to his palace? Could the first synagogues in Kerala have been built by people with some collective memory of the Temple, which would explain the use in the Cochin synagogues of spaces like the azara (the courtyard adjoining the sanctuary)and the Jachin and Boaz pillars (which stood in front of the Temple)?
We know that by Roman times, the demand for pepper fostered a thriving sea trade from Rome to the city of Alexandria in Egypt, through an ancient canal, to the Red Sea, and across the Arabian Sea to the Malabar coast in India. Modern archaeologists have identified Roman ruins in Pattanam, on the Malabar coast of western India, with the ancient port of Muziris. Muziris was a port known to historians from a first century C.E. guide to ports which was written in Greek and known in Latin as the Periplus Maris Erythraei and from other ancient texts. It was probably a shipbuilding center, as well as a trading center, and prospered from about the first century B.C.E. to the 3rd century C.E. Archaeological finds along the Egyptian and Yemeni coast of graffiti and pottery shards attest to the participation of Jewish sailors and traders in the spice and ointment trade.
India was the only place where Romans and other wealthy Mediterranean people could get pepper, and ancient Roman writers lamented the grip that this valued spice held over housewives. The spice trade was most likely the first regular commerce between India and the West, and Muziris seems to have been its central port and a source of much wealth for India. Much later, Portugese, Dutch, French and British merchants set out to reap similar rewards.
Kerala’s Muziris Heritage Site Project, a recent initiative of the local government, is designed to make the history of the Cochin area and local sights accessible to students, residents and visitors. Local buildings will be sensitively restored, and transportation networks are being upgraded to make it easy to reach a variety of destinations within the region. Plans include the renovation of cultural and religious buildings, craft and industrial workshops, shops and museums.
The Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi has been an internationally known landmark for many years, and receives thousands of visitors annually. In 2005, the Kerala office of the Indian Department of Archaeology and the Kerala Department of Tourism restored the synagogue in Chendamangalam, and an exhibition opened there in February, 2006 with the support of the Koret Foundation (USA).
Most of the Kerala Jewish community emigrated in the 1950s or the succeeding decades, and with the exception of the Paradesi synagogue, the buildings left behind in the Cochin region ceased to operate as prayer houses and communal centers. The Jewish community that remained in Kerala did not always have the means to properly maintain the smaller synagogue sites. However, many of the families from the region have renewed their interest in maintaining ties to Kerala, and scholarly and lay articles about the community have become widely available. Visitors are gradually finding out that they can get to the more remote synagogues by private car or taxi, as well as ferry and bus, in a little over an hour from Kochi or Ernakulam. They find the time to make their way out to the sites and to enjoy the countryside outside Kochi. In addition, professionals in the field of historic preservation, and journalists, as well as government specialists working on the economic development of the region have come to recognize the cultural value of the historic synagogue buildings in their local environment. This has saved the remaining several Kerala synagogues from destruction.
In response to this historic process, the cochinsyn.com website places the seven extant Jewish community buildings in the Cochin area within an Indian, Kerala and Jewish context. Thanks to recent and ongoing restorations, the public can understand and appreciate these buildings as landmarks that express the spirit of the religious and communal life of the Jewish communities, which coexisted and thrived, along with their Hindu, Moslem and Christian neighbors, over the course of many centuries.