By Jay A. Waronker
The town of Mala lies in the central region of Kerala State in its Thrissur district fifteen miles (twenty four km) to the east of Cranganore and thirty two miles (fifty one km) north of Mattancherry’s Jew Town in Kochi. Since it is the farthest synagogue from Kochi, a hired car and driver is the easiest and quickest way of getting there, although far less expensive local buses from Ernakulam (perhaps involving a transfer) are available. Mala, located on a secondary road equidistant between the north-south highway #17, spanning most of western Kerala, and highway #47 beginning in Kochi and running to the northeast, can be described as a typical Kerala town with a small, low-rise commercial center that sprawls out in all directions to a mixture of residential and scattered business districts. While not positioned directly on water, the town is set very near the famous backwaters of Kerala that connect to the Arabian Sea. Mala’s former synagogue is in the center of town, and the Jewish cemetery is a short distance to the east along a main road running immediately perpendicular to the gatehouse (now a shop) of the former Jewish house of prayer.
There is a difference of opinion among the sources as to when the Jews who had settled in Mala first built a synagogue. The building was realized for an active community of Jews who are remembered by the townspeople as productive shop owners, small traders, or involved in agricultural work.
Prem Doss Swami Doss Yehudi, a Dravidian Judaist and historian, wrote about a Jewish Malayalam folk song revealing that the wood used for the building of the synagogue in Mala was donated to Joseph Rabban in 1000 CE by the Rajah of Cranganore on behalf of his fellow Jews. Mala was then under the sovereignty of Cranganore, and the Rajah was said to have welcomed a diversity of faiths (Yehudi: 93). Yehudi also claims that the original early eleventh century synagogue was pulled down for an unspecified reason and a new building was erected in 1400, and it was, in turn, renovated in 1792. This is in conflict with the observations made by the Church of England missionary Rev. Thomas Dawson, who was stationed in Kochi beginning in 1817. Dawson visited the Mala Synagogue during his tenure in the area, and he observed that the building was still in ruins following Tipu Sultan’s attack during the Second Anglo-Mysore War of the early 1780s. Dawson seems to confirm that even after the passing of more than a quarter of a century the synagogue had yet to be rebuilt (Hunt: 153). The nineteenth-century structure was in whole or part upgraded by a new one in 1909 on the same foundation. In 1914, the Mala Jewish community sent a letter to Sir and Lady Sassoon of London, of the prominent former Indian-Baghdadi Jewish dynasty of central India, seeking a contribution for the beautification of the synagogue (Yehudi: 93).
Other sources claim that the first Mala synagogue dates to a much later period, to 1597, after Kerala Jews had been driven away from Cranganore by the Portuguese in 1565. It is the 1597 date that the Jewish scholar and historian David Solomon Sassoon wrote about in his study of the synagogues of India in the early twentieth century (Sassoon: 1056). Irrespective of its date of origin, this synagogue has been altered or partially rebuilt over time, evident by an inscription in the wood carvings in Hebrew and Malayalam along the balcony frieze, which confirms that the existing sanctuary building dates in full or in part only to 1909. The gatehouse and breezeway appear to be older, however, so it is possible that these two sections were not rebuilt at this time but survive from an earlier period.
The former synagogue as it stands today is located at a prominent location in the center of town at a busy intersection. In the immediate area, a hectic place with a constant flow of vehicles, pedestrians, and animals, is a row of small shops lining the street where an assortment of products and services are sold. Running parallel to the façade of the now altered synagogue gatehouse, or north-south, is the paved two-lane Trichur Mala Road. The perpendicular major thoroughfare that dead ends at the gatehouse leads eastward to the Jewish cemetery a short drive away.
At one time, a great deal of real estate extending quite a distance from all sides of the synagogue was Jewish owned. Since 1955, not a single Jew has resided in town, and with this came the closing of the synagogue and sale of all Jewish commercial and residential property.
On December 20, 1954, just before the Mala Jewish community of some three hundred immigrated en masse to Israel in early 1955, a formal agreement was signed by the trustees of Mala Synagogue to turn over without financial benefit the ownership, use, and control of the building to the local panchayat, or municipality. The agreement stipulated that in the synagogue building would be cared for, and it would not be used as house of prayer or slaughterhouse. Mala’s departing Jews were the exception in that they had collectively arranged for their building to be deeded over for use by the broader local community. This was in contrast to other Kerala Jewish congregations, who had passed control of their synagogues to other Kerala Jews or had left the building in the hands of the skeletal community that had not made aliya (immigrated to Israel).
The decommissioned synagogue was converted to Mala village government offices, and it was readapted as a venue for cultural, educational, and communal functions.
The original entrance to the synagogue’s sanctuary building, on the latitudinal (short) side of the building compound, faced Trichur Mala Road. Following the formula of Kerala synagogues, at Mala a gatehouse was erected to the eastern end of the synagogue property. It was through this two-story structure bordering the main road in the heart of town that the formal entrance was found. The gatehouse, which served as a foyer with communal spaces downstairs and a Jewish school upstairs, linked to a covered yet exterior breezeway (now filled in) that connected on axis to the sanctuary building proper. The sanctuary featured the usual spaces for Kerala synagogues: an azara, or anteroom, followed by the double height prayer space, or sanctuary. Located roughly in the center of the room was the tebah (bimah), and at the far end of the sanctuary on the west wall was the heckal (ark).
In the tradition of other synagogues of Kerala, a shallow wooden balcony, reached by a steep corner stair, overlooks the double-height sanctuary and features a second tebah. This space was adjacent to the women’s seating area which was positioned behind a mechitza, or screened partition wall and directly above the azara. Before the synagogue was altered, doors led from the rear of the women’s area to a narrow and long passageway with its ventilated and diffusely lit “walls” made of struts with a latticework of interlinking laths – a form unique to Kerala architecture. This space, above the breezeway on the ground floor, provided a way into the synagogue for the women via a connecting stair at the opposite end and also linked to the classrooms within the gatehouse’s upper floor level.
The keys to the former Mala Synagogue are in possession of the panchayat, or municipality, and all visitors must stop at its building on the edge of town to arrange access. The office staff is normally helpful in approving the visit and locating the keys, and in most cases someone accompanies guests to the synagogue. In recent years, the Mala Synagogue building has been marginally at best maintained and rarely used.
Since ownership of Mala’s synagogue passed to the municipality officially in 1955, the building and its grounds have been altered and, in part, extensively and even irrevocably compromised. While the sanctuary building has remained under the control of the panchayat and never sold or rented, the former synagogue gatehouse and its connecting two story breezeway were parceled off for income and converted to commercial functions. Rent from these shops was intended to go to the maintenance of the former synagogue sanctuary building and the nearby Jewish cemetery, yet this has not always been the case. As a result of this arrangement, the original gatehouse entry to the synagogue complex was literally cut off from the sanctuary, forever destroying the intended spatial and experiential arrangement. Some of the gatehouse’s original interior woodwork can still be seen today. In the mid-1950s, a shallow addition was built onto the front façade of the synagogue gatehouse, and a second building abutting the rear and near the end of the breezeway was completed.
To visit the interior of the former synagogue today, one needs to pass by adjacent newer structures facing CMS Road (the side street) to the south (some post-1955 buildings blocking the ex-synagogue altogether were removed in 2008), walk around the west (short end) side of the synagogue before coming upon the overgrown remaining walled courtyard to the north side that has for years been used for drying black pepper, and ascend tacked-on exterior steps to unceremoniously enter the building through the sanctuary (rather than through the azara, the intended arrival point) via a make-shift entrance. The synagogue’s tebah, heckal, and all furnishings and fittings were removed years ago and are now lost, although the balcony with its second tebah remains. The platform seen near where the heckal was located is a post-1955 addition.
In response to the growing interest among the public in Kerala’s Jewish history and its still functioning and former synagogues, modest renovation and repair work on the exterior of the synagogue has been scheduled to be carried out in late 2010 by the municipality, and the area along the long elevation of the building facing the street side is to be covered with pavers to improve site conditions.
Adv. Prem Doss Swami Doss Yehudi. The Shingly Hebrews. Trivandrum: Sachethana, 2000.
Sassoon, David. Ohel David. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932.