Lost Kerala Synagogues
By Jay A. Waronker
According to local narratives, the earliest Jewish settlements in Kerala were located at Cranganore, Palur, Pulut, and Madai. In time, due to persecution first by the Moors in the twelfth century and later by the Portuguese with the Moors in the sixteenth century, or because of natural disasters, the Jews living in these early settlements shifted to more secure places a short distance to the south, where they were offered relative protection by the Rajah of Cochin. In the process, the earliest synagogues were abandoned and lost, and the next generation of buildings was built. None of these synagogues survives, yet through narratives and the Jewish folksongs sung by the women in Malayalam, some things are known about them.
The first synagogue built in the Cochin region predated the resettlement of the Kerala Jews en bloc in the sixteenth century as a result of Portuguese aggression. Dating from 1344 and attributed to Joseph Azar, it was located in a village called Kochangadi (near Mattancherry), now a part of the city of Kochi. It was most likely built when the Jews abandoned an area in or around Cranganore after the Perriyar River flooded. This synagogue in Kochangadi was apparently razed by the army of Tipu Sultan during the Second Anglo-Mysore War in the 1780s. The building was never rebuilt, and the Jewish community is thought to have moved to nearby Kochi no later than 1795. They carried with them the inscription stone verifying the fourteenth century date of construction and placed it in the Kadavumbagam Synagogue in Mattancherry. Today it can be found inset in the east wall of the courtyard of the Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry.
Beginning in the fourteenth century and continuing into the mid-1800s, the Kerala Jews, according to local narratives, also built small synagogues at Muttam, Tir-Tur, Saudi (or Southi), Palur, and in Kochi’s Fort district. A short distance to the north of Kochangadi and not far from Allepey to the south – a place known to tourists for its picturesque backwater boat tours – is Muttam, a village where a small enclave of Jews once existed. The settlement, located midway between Uppala and Kumbala in Kasaragod district, gets its name, “_____,” from the Malayalam phrase meaning “front of the house which is spread with mud.” However, the small Jewish community of Muttam seems to have been so persecuted by the armies of Tipu Sultan in the late eighteenth century that they were never able to recover, and the synagogue was ultimately closed.
The synagogue at Palur, a village south of Ernakkulam in the eastern part of Trichur district, was destroyed long ago, yet it is mentioned by the Dutch Jewish traveler Pereya de Paiva during his travels to the area in 1685. Palur’s synagogue is also referenced in a Jewish Malayalam folksong. The song, sung only by the women, reveals that the first Jews arrived in Palur, and theylater fled to Cranganore. Some of the Palur Jews found peace only when they came to Kochi, where the rajah befriended and protected them. Perhaps the families who had formed the Kochangadi Synagogue in 1344 had come from Palur after that colony had been destroyed. A rimon (ornament) with an inscription "this is a rimon of the Palu(r) Synagogue year 1565" exists to this day.
Just to the northwest of Kochi, on a small island in the bay called Tir-Tur that was once owned by a wealthy Paradesi trader by the name of Ezekiel Rahabi, was the site of another Kerala synagogue. It was built in 1750 or 1756 for the few dozen Jewish families living there. The Rahabi Family had fields on the island, which they used during the summer months as a retreat. According to local narrative, Rahabi settled ten Jewish families there to make sure that there was a minyan (quorum), although the congregation could have been larger. It had closed by 1761, when the Jews left for Kochi and other towns. Another source claims that the Tir-Tur Synagogue was abandoned because the Jews were fleeing from Tipu Sultan, with the result thatthe small congregation left the island. At that point the building was sold to the Chief Minister of Cochin.
Another Kerala synagogue dating from 1514 once existed at Saudi, which is the part of current-day Kochi located to the most northerly point of the city’s mainland “finger” peninsula. This building existed until 1556, yet services were rarely held there.
At one time a synagogue, the Tekkumbagam, stood in the Mattancherry area of Kochi on Synagogue Lane in Jew Town, very near the Paradesi Synagogue on the same, or west side of the street. A former leader of the Paradesi Jews, S. I. Hallegua, claimed (wrote?) that construction of the synagogue began in 1647 during Portuguese colonial rule and was completed by the Mudaliyar (high leader of Kerala Jews) Jacob Castiel in 1687 on property owned by Paradesi Jews. It is unclear whether the building was ever altered or renovated during its long history., It was in continuous use for about three hundred years. In 1955, most of the congregation immigrated to Israel,During Jewish holidays and life-cycle events such as Shimhat Torah and wedding ceremonies, all the Jews living in Jew Town, from both the Malabari and Paradesi communities visited the Tekkumbagam Synagogue as well as the two other synagogues in Jew Town, the Paradesi and Kadavumbagam.
When the Tekkumbagam Synagogue congregation left India for Israel, the propertywas turned over to the Paradesi community in Jew Town. The former synagogue sat for some time, and was eventually purchased by a Paradesi Jew. Despite community misgivings about tearing down a building that once served a religious function, a perceived bad omen among many Indians, it was demolished to make room for a private residence. Today the two storyhouse with its white exterior stands unoccupied.
At Fort Cochin, Jews known in the community as Meshuhrarim (the Hebrew word means “freed people”, and it is understood to refer to freed or converted slaves), , are believed to have initiated the building of a Jewish prayer hall in 1848. This was in response to their failed effort to secure equal rights and standing within the Paradesi community. As an act of protest, they formally separated and organized their own congregation. Its leaders, along with others, are said to have come down with the plague some time thereafter, so the building remained incomplete, and religious services were never held there. After these deaths, the remaining community are said to have returned to their former synagogue in Mattancherry.