By Jay A. Waronker
Twenty-five miles (forty kilometers) to the north of Kochi’s Mattancherry, four miles (six kilometers) to the southeast of Cranganore, and two miles (three kilometers) from the synagogue in Parur just to the south, and reached by a narrow and busy north-south running main road (#14) linking a string of towns and villages throughout the length of Kerala, is Chendamangalam (sometimes written Chennamangalam). A sleepy settlement in Paravoor Taluk in the state’s Ernakuklam district, it was for centuries the home to a Jewish community and a synagogue, yet by the close of the twentieth century not a single Jew resided in Chendamangalam. The Chendamangalam Synagogue sits near the center of the quiet village. The narrow lane, paved only in recent years, leading to the synagogue seems to dead end into the white-washed building, but then it splits and continues onwards along both sides of the walled compound. The immediate area of the synagogue is a neighborhood of modest homes, some once Jewish owned, and a collection of small shops selling a handful of goods.
In 1324, the Arab geographer Ibn Battuta embarked on a ten-day expedition in Kerala from Calicut (now called Kozhikode) to Kawlam (once known as Quilon, or today as Kollam) by boat along the backwaters. On the fifth day of his journey he came to Kunjakari, and he describes this place, “which is on top of a hill; it is inhabited by Jews, who have one of their own number as their governor, and pay a poll tax to the sultan of Kawlam.” (Weil 2006: 1) The historian P.M. Jussay studied Kerala Jewish folksongs in Malayalam, and he linked Kunjakari with Chendamangalam on the basis of the summit location and the Jewish self-rule. Kunjakari has been plausibly identified with the section of the river called Kanjirapuzha to the east of the island of Chendamangalam where there was a very old Jewish settlement. (Weil 2006: 1)
In the Kerala Jewish Malayalam folksong "The Song of Evaray", the long migration of a learned Jew named Evarayi is traced from Jerusalem to Malanad, which was another name for the land of Kerala. Evarayi traveled by way of Egypt, Yemen, and Persia to Palur, north of Cranganore. Welcomed on his arrival in another place that is believed to be Chendamangalam, he set out to build a synagogue, or palli, and a Nayar (high-caste Hindu) killed a deer for a nercca feat to celebrate completion of his vow (Johnson 2004: 38).
According to a second Jewish Malayalam tune, that Evaray was requested to join the local aristocratic Nayars in a local deer hunt is interpreted as signifying that the Jews were accepted as members of the nobility. In "The Song of the Bird", another Kerala Jewish folksong which recounts the transmigration of a bird to India in search of a guava fruit, the bird flies "to a green mansion…in an elevated spot", which is identified with the hill at Kunjakari in Chendamangalam (Jussay 1990). This interpretation would agree with the conclusion drawn by P. Anujan Achan, the Kerala State Archaeologist of Cochin in 1930, who believed that the Jews must have migrated to Chendamangalam from Cranganore around the mid-thirteenth century (Weil/Waronker 2006: 3). A tombstone dating from 1268 belonging to a Jewish woman named Sarah, inscribed in Hebrew, which is the oldest text in Hebrew discovered in the region to date, was restored in 1936 and can today be found just outside the front entrance of the Chendamangalam Synagogue. According to a local narrative, the stone was brought to Chendamangalam from nearby Kottapuram.
In "The Song of Paliathachan", also recited by the Jewish women of Kerala, Jussay claims that the Paliath Achan, the representative of the Chendamangalam Nayar noblemen, bestowed upon the Jews "gifts and books to all those who come, and titles to foreigners". (Weil/Waronker 2006: 3) Paliath Achans, or local chieftains and hereditary prime ministers of the Rajahs of Cochin, reigned in Chendamangalam until the early nineteenth century. Today the chieftain’s descendants remain in residence in town, although without formal power, wealth, and privilege. A popular legend holds that hillocks of the town were planned by one of the Paliath Achams who sought to have four religious faiths prominently represented in town. It is said that in the center of Chendamangalam the tolerant leader designated a site on each of the cardinal points for the construction of a palli, or religious building, 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 – the highest point in the village.
The story, an appealing and romantic narrative, is only partially accurate. It is true that the construction of all four places of worship were realized by the Paliath Acham. It is also the case that the structures have for centuries stood in central Chendamangalam. However, they are not neatly positioned on the four points, and the Paliath Acham’s palace is not neatly located at the axis. All structures are indeed close to one another and it is possible to visit by car or foot, although they have been modified, enlarged, or rebuilt over the years. Today a visitor walking around the quiet town will not find a direct road or perceivable axial link from of the religious buildings to another. Behind the mosque, a path leads to the overgrown Jewish cemetery. The prime minister’s residence, an impressive and “high” architectural structure built in the traditional Kerala style that dates in part to the sixteenth century, was constructed not in the village center but rather on the edge of town. It is surrounded by lush vegetation, and today family descendents still live in the compound, which has expanded over the years. Chendamangalam is particularly well known for its inclusive town plan, and it is indeed a significant historical gesture, but it should also be noted that other Kerala towns feature a similar variety of religious buildings. In the Kottayam district of central Kerala is small city of Changanacherry, for example, and associated with it is a comparable story that the local ruler Marthanda Varma, a tolerant man, encouraged the building of a temple, church, and mosque within the town center.
The walled synagogue at Chendamangalam has been rebuilt over the centuries, yet its Kerala vernacular style was maintained. This includes load-bearing white-washed walls of laterite stone veneered in chunam (a polished lime plaster), limited surface details inspired by the Portuguese colonial period such as fan-like alettes or native painted panels, local timber roof framing covered in clay tiles with deep overhangs, and large windows and doors deeply revealed into the thick walls. According to local narratives, the first building dated to 1420, followed by one in 1614, and then another later that same century (Yehudi: 97). Fire was the likely cause of the rebuilding efforts. It is possible that the Portuguese, who persecuted the area’s Jews in the mid-seventeenth century and set the Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi’s Jew Town on fire in 1661, were responsible for also setting the Chendamangalam Synagogue ablaze. The Portuguese period in Kerala was marked by restive activity in the Jewish community. While synagogues in Ernakulam, Parur, and Mala may have been built during this time when the Jews resettled as best as possible away from Portuguese reach, in time the colonial power asserted itself far and wide. As a consequence, synagogues were attacked by the Portuguese and damaged or destroyed. Whether the Chendamangalam Synagogue was completely or partially destroyed at that time is not clear, but a fourth synagogue seems to have been realized. Archeologists from Government of Kerala responsible for the restoration of the Chendamangalam Synagogue in 2005 have a slightly different opinion on the dates of the building. They believe that it was built in 1565 and repaired in 1621 (DOE staff, interview by author, Trivandrum, 2006).
According to the Anglican Church missionary Rev. Thomas Dawson, who visited Chendamangalam in 1817, the synagogue at that time was in ruins. Dawson recorded that the synagogue and the one in Parur and Mala had been destroyed by the armies of Tipu Sultan during the Anglo-Mysore Wars. From 1780 – 90, Tipu Sultan and his forces had attacked and burned down thousands of non-Islamic religious structures in Kerala, including Hindu temples, churches, and synagogues. Based on Dawson’s history, the Chendamangalam Synagogue could not have been rebuilt before the second decade of the nineteenth century (Hunt: 153).
The Jewish community in Chendamangalam, never numbering more than a few hundred, was small even relative to the other Kerala Jewish enclaves. Although the current building served the needs of this community for many years, from the mid-1950s to the turn of the new millennium it sat mostly unused. Many of the local Jews had moved from Chendamangalam to Israel after the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, and most of the remaining community left in the 1960s and 70s. By the 1980s, there were only nineteen Jews remaining in Chendamangalam (Yehudi: 103).
Unattended to during these years and into the 1990s by the tiny, mostly elderly congregation with limited resources, the synagogue deteriorated so badly that portions of the roof and floor collapsed, large sections of the whitewashed veneer eroded, and the structural integrity was severely compromised. Vegetation consumed the building, and its doors and windows had to be sealed against the elements and vandals. Funds for maintenance could not be found even though the synagogue had been declared a protected structure by the Kerala office of the Indian Department of Archeology. During this period, the synagogue often remained locked and its key was left in the custody of P. A. Aron, a Kerala Jew who lived in later years in Fort Kochi. By the first years of the twenty-first century, the last of Chendamangalam’s Jews had emigrated or died. This allowed the Kerala office of the Indian Department of Archaeology to assume formal control of the decommissioned synagogue from the Association of Kerala Jews and embark on its much needed restoration.
At Chendamangalam, the smallest of the extant Kerala synagogues, there no gatehouse per se, but the synagogue compound, which is surrounded by a high chunam over laterite stone wall, includes a deep recessed porch below a room once used as a Jewish school. Otherwise, the Chendamangalam Synagogue follows the pattern of other Keralan synagogues with its azara (anteroom) followed by the double height sanctuary on the ground floor with its central tebah and intricately-carved and painted/gilded teak heckal to the west. Overlooking the prayer space is a balcony with its second tebah. The balcony is supported by two wooden columns with plain shafts that, according to local narratives, are in reference to the twin pillars of Boaz and Jachin that once stood outside the ancient Temple built by Solomon in Jerusalem. Behind the balcony, and separated by a mechitza, or partition wall, is the naturally-lit women’s seating area that is placed directly above the azara. To the rear of the women’s area is a space with windows that was once used as a classroom. This room connects to a separate small tower that leads via a spiral stair down to the porch.
Beginning in late 2004, under the direction of Dr. V. Manmadhan Nair and his departmental staff, skilled restoration professionals and craftsmen brought Chendamangalam Synagogue back to form. The work, costing some 40 lakhs, or about US$80,000, was funded by the State of Kerala. By that point the synagogue was in such dilapidated condition that there was concern by these experts that it could even be saved. Although the building was in a most precarious state, it was ultimately determined that it could be restored. Over the course of ten months, the building was restored by a team of government archeological authorities, the privately-commissioned restoration contractor Thampy and Thampy based in Karnataka, and a crew of craftsmen and carpenters trained in vernacular building traditions. During that period, the tradesmen working on the project frequently slept on site, preparing their meals on the property.
In 2005, with the restoration of the synagogue underway, a proposal prepared by Professor Jay Waronker of Southern Polytechnic University in Atlanta, Georgia USA, Dr. Shalva Weil from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem Israel, and Marian Scheuer Sofaer of Palo Alto, California USA was presented to Dr. Nair of the Kerala office of India’s Department of Archeology to allow for the former synagogue to be readapted as India’s first Jewish heritage museum. With funding by the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life in San Francisco and private individuals, a permanent exhibition on the history of the Chendamangalam Jews and their synagogue was created. An opening ceremony, attended by many from the local village, the Kerala Jewish community, former Chendamangalam Jews and their descendants now living in Israel, international guests, and representatives of the Indian and Israeli governments, was held in late February 2006. Today the museum, managed and operated by the Kerala office of the Indian Department of Archeology, is open daily from 9 AM – 5 PM, except Mondays. A small entry fee is charged, which includes a museum brochure produced by the exhibition curators as well as a one page guide on the spaces of the former synagogue and Jewish liturgical practices.
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Hunt, W. S. The Anglican Church in Travancore and Cochin 1816-1916. London, 1920.
Johnson, Barbara C. Jewish Women’s Songs from Kerala: Oh Lovely Parrot. Jerusalem: Jewish Music Research Centre, 2004.
Joshua, Isaac. The Synagogues of Kerala, unpublished, 1988.
Sassoon, David. Ohel David. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932.
Waronker, Jay. Interview of Kerala office of the Department of Archeology staff, Trivandrum Kerala, 2005.
Weil, Shalva and Waronker, Jay. The Chendamangalam Synagogue: A Jewish Community in a Kerala Village, Kochi: not formally published, 2006.