By Jay A. Waronker
The world-renowned Paradesi Syngagogue, first built in 1568 and reconstructed in part and enlarged over the years, can be found in the Mattancherry area of Kochi. The road that it was built on came to be known as Jew Street or Synagogue Lane, and the surrounding neighborhood as Jew Town. The Rajah of Cochin generously allotted the community land in Cochin da Cima, or Upper Cochin, next to his own palace (now a city museum) and an adjacent small Hindu temple to service himself and his royal family. The synagogue, today the only functioning one in Kerala, was erected for a congregation whose core had migrated from Cranganore to the north of Kochi where they were then joined by a larger group of relative newcomers from Europe and Western Asia. The diverse influx of Jews to Mattancherry led to its designation as the Paradesi, or Foreigners’ Synagogue.
By the early years of the sixteenth century, there was already a flourishing Jewish community in Kochi composed mainly of Malabari Jews. Within half a century, the city’s Jewish community had expanded considerably through the arrival of refugees from the Portuguese religious persecution of Jews locally from Cranganore and farther a field originating from Spain and Portugal. To serve this growing congregation, the Paradesi Synagogue was constructed in 1568 by Samuel Castiel, David Belila, and Joseph Levi.
The Kerala Jewish community had the protection and friendship of the Rajah of Cochin, but was still exposed to the enmity of the Portuguese, who had established a trading post in Fort Cochin in the sixteenth century. The Portuguese attacked the Jews again in 1662 since they had sided with the Dutch in a skirmish for control over local territory. This was the result of attempts by the Dutch in 1661-62 to challenge the Portuguese for the European supremacy in South India. In February 1661, the Dutch took the fortress at Palliport near Cranganore, in December they captured Quilon, and a month later Cranganore fell into their hands. They next laid siege to Cochin. The Portuguese, however, defended Fort Cochin to all means, and in March 1662 the Dutch withdrew for Ceylon. With the Dutch defeat, the Portuguese took revenge on the Jews. The Paradesi Synagogue was set on fire and partially destroyed. It is believed that other Kerala (Malabari) synagogues were attacked and damaged by the Portuguese forces as well. The Jews gained security again once the Dutch were finally able to oust the Portuguese in 1665 and take control for the next one hundred and thirty years. The Paradesi Synagogue, which had been in derelict condition during the period of Portuguese hegemony, was then repaired.
The Paradesi Synagogue is a grouping of white washed and painted thick-walled chunam (a polished lime plaster) over laterite (a soft reddish-brown local stone) structures with pitched roofs featuring deep eaves to avoid damage from the annual monsoons, wooden lattice screens and enclosures, pronounced gablets (where hip and gable roofs intersect), exposed rafters, flat wall surfaces, clay tiled roofs, shuttered windows and clerestories, cusped arches at the sanctuary building’s entryway, a decorated tray ceiling within the sanctuary, and understated and limited detail. The synagogue is a tight complex featuring a series of rooms and passages linked or surrounded by outdoor spaces.
The Paradesi Synagogue sits at the north end of Synagogue Lane, a narrow street lined on both sides with houses that were once Jewish owned and occupied; as of 2010 only ten Jews reside in this neighborhood. Many of the former Jewish residences are now Muslim owned, and several operate as souvenir or antique and curio and shops on the ground level, creating a true tourism zone. After a slight bend in the road, Synagogue Lane abruptly dead ends at the synagogue property. From this point, however, one see very little of the Paradesi Synagogue compound. Nearly all of it is hidden behind tall, mostly solid walls. The only hint of the synagogue standing on the lane is the clock tower directly ahead. That three-story structure, nearly square in plan, with a gabled clay tiled roof capped by a cupola, is most prominent and photographed feature of the Paradesi Synagogue compound. On first impression, based on its strategic position and height, many believe this to be the synagogue’s prayer space, but the free-standing sanctuary is located to the west and not seen at all from the street.
The Paradesi Synagogue’s three-story clock tower is not original to the compound but was erected nearly two centuries later. Dating from 1761, it was built under the direction of Ezekial Rahabi, a leading figure of the Kerala Jews at that time and the representative of the Dutch East India Company. The clock tower is sometimes labeled as fully Dutch, although it is better described as an Indo-colonial design and does not represent a distinct and pure style. As with many other colonial period buildings throughout India, the clock tower incorporates local design and construction elements such as the thick laterite stone load bearing walls veneered in chunam, then fused with various colonial influences popularized by both the Portuguese and Dutch, such as the brackets, clay roof tiles, and cupola details.
The clock tower’s façades along three sides feature clock faces at the uppermost level. The tower’s massing is covered by a gabled clay tiled roof supported by wooden brackets. The roof is then crowned by an open cupola in the form of a small widow’s walk that is capped by another gabled roof also with deep overhangs. Here copper, an indigenous material used in other local buildings including some roofs of smaller Hindu temples, is the finished roofing material. A finial featuring two spherical copper balls, filigree, and a metal mast and flag resembling a weather vane rests on the apex of the copper roof. The square cupola includes four rounded-arched openings set within a painted wooden structure with quoins at the four corners. A solid rail fills in the lower section of each of the arches. On the surface of cupola is an inscription in Hebrew indicating that it was constructed in the year 1761. There used to be a bell within the cupola which would be rung every day except on the Sabbath (when Jewish law forbids the ringing) to call the Jews to prayer. In 1986 the bell stopped working, the community never had it repaired, and it was removed a short time later. There was an attempt to bring the bells back when the clock tower was restored in 1998-99 through the World Monuments Fund, but the effort was unsuccessful.
The clock tower has three existing dials; they are made of teak and painted blue. To the north, facing the maharajah’s place, the characters are Malayalam; to the south, viewed from Jew Town, they are Roman numerals; and to the west, from the synagogue side, Hebrew letters are used. According to I. S. Hallegua, a member of the Paradesi Jewish community, it is likely that there once was a fourth dial on the east side, facing the water, with numbers (Weil: 43). The only existing pointer is on the Roman dial and is made of copper. The clock mechanism, operated via heavy stones, pulleys, and gears, worked until the early 1940s, and there was never a serious effort to repair or replace the mechanism. From that point, the non-working clock faces began to deteriorate, and by the 1990s they were in poor condition. Like the bell, there was a plan to bring the clock back to working order when the clock tower was being stored in 1998/9, but the work was too costly.
The entrance to the synagogue compound is not through the narrow doors at the clock tower’s base, but along the adjacent wall to the west along the street. Opposite to the east, accessed via large and heavy iron gates, is a walled grassy outdoor area that was once used as a playground for Jewish children living in the neighborhood and attending school here.
The synagogue compound is laid out as a cluster, with spaces built or linked around a series of small indoor and outdoor rooms. Entering the synagogue, the visitor goes through a gradual progression from secular life to the sacred domain, finally reaching the sanctuary proper and lastly the heckal (ark). Yet, in contrast to the synagogues at Ernakulam-Kadavumbhagam, Parur, or Mala when they were intact, the journey to the sanctuary is not straight and flowing, but a bit contorted, with tight turns. Along the way are places for ritual practice, community purposes, and Jewish education. The first space to be entered from the street is the tallam, a rectangular gatehouse space. Today this small room functions as an office where tourists purchase their entry tickets, but its intended purpose was as a transition zone from inside to outside, where synagogue meetings were once held, and for a staircase leading up to the women’s seating area and the educational spaces within the clock tower. From the tallam, the visitor makes a tight turn and passes through a narrow opening leading to a choice of spaces. Ahead, although not on a direct axis, is a short corridor that connects to a small room that was originally intended as a storeroom. In the late 1960s, the members of the synagogue commissioned the Kerala Hindu artist S. S. Krishna to paint ten canvases portraying the Paradesi community’s historical events over the centuries to celebrate their quatro-centennial in 1968. The paintings have been exhibited to visitors in this windowless space ever since.
Returning to the point just off the tallam, a short covered yet unenclosed breezeway leads directly ahead to the sanctuary building. The courtyard which surrounds the sanctuary building can be accessed from either side of this breezeway. The walled court not only protects and separates the sanctuary from the outside secular world, but it served as a gathering area for holiday and life-cycle activities. Most famous of these celebratory events was when the congregation circumambulated the courtyard on the Jewish festival of Shimhat Torah, or Rejoicing of the Law, during the service, singing, dancing, and clapping while carrying the Torah scrolls. The ground surface of the space is partially finished in granite stone pavers, a hard material not readily available to the region yet used in important secular and religious spaces, and the walls are chunam over soft laterite stone (Salem: 19). Within the courtyard are a loose collection of scrubs, overhanging trees, and a well which is near the northeast corner. Water from the well served the communal needs of the Paradesi community for centuries, and similar ones can be found at other Kerala synagogues.
The sanctuary building is a two-story structure constructed of thick load-bearing laterite stone walls veneered with chunam that are pierced with windows and openings. The structure is covered by a steeply pitched roof (gabled to the east end and hipped at the west elevation) finished with flat-profiled clay tiles set over a framing system fabricated from local wood. The sanctuary building is made up of a various spaces: the azara and sanctuary proper on the ground floor, and balcony and women’s seating area upstairs. The azara, an anteroom found in all Kerala synagogues, and mentioned in Biblical descriptions of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is entered directly off the breezeway linked to the earlier described spaces. It is rectangular and finished in whitewashed chunam over laterite walls, terracotta tiled floor, a wooden beamed and planked ceiling, and shuttered windows on all sides. In the center of the azara’s west elevation is the opening to the sanctuary. Its most prominent feature is its multi-foil cusped arch, a design often associated with Islamic, Moorish, and Mughal architecture. No other Kerala synagogue contains such a design, nor does it exist in any synagogue elsewhere in India.
The azara in all Kerala synagogues has various functions. It served as a transition space where the women would pass through and enter the sanctuary before ascending to the gallery level, and it was also the room where the Cohanim performed important rituals. As the direct patrilineal descendants from the Biblical Aaron, the Cohanim since the period of the Temple in Jerusalem have for two millennia performed many duties set forth in the Torah (Weil: 44). In the Paradesi Synagogue, they ritually washed their hands in a brass basin before blessing the congregation. In a purely functional sense, the azara acts as a waiting or holding area where latecomers. The room has also been where mourners and women gathering at weddings other celebrations would sit. The azara has always contained charity boxes for contribution to the synagogue and other needy causes, and it was also the place where its members and guests would sit on the built-in benches lining its walls and remove their shoes before entering the sanctuary.
The Kerala Jews have always removed their footwear, a practice unfamiliar in most Jewish communities around the world. There are various theories about the origin of this practice, ranging from adopting the custom from Hindu, Jain, and Muslim communities in India for entering their respective houses of prayer, the general tradition of removing shoes for hygienic reasons before entering an Indian dwelling, to the remembrance of the divine command to Moses on Mount Horev to remove his shoes, for the place where he stood was holy ground (Weil: 44). The azara also once served another less than noble purpose which reflected local class prejudices. According to Ruby Daniel, who was born and lived in Kerala before immigrating to Israel in the mid-1950s, the Paradesi community included a group of Meshuharim (commonly translated from Hebrew as liberated slaves) Jews who until the 1940s were not allowed into the sanctuary or into the women’s seating area on the gallery level. The men in this community were delegated to the azara during prayers, and the women sat outside the sanctuary building altogether, on benches lining the edges of the breezeway (Johnson).
The largest and most important space of the Paradesi Synagogue compound is the sanctuary. In the tradition of all Kerala Jewish houses of worship, it is rectangular in plan and double height. Measuring 27’ (8.2 m) wide, 42’-8” (12.8 m) long, and 19’ (5.8 m) high, the sanctuary, the focus of all religious worship, is a centralized space where the bench seating, never fixed in placed or in the form of individual seats, surrounds the central tebah, or podium where the Torah scrolls are routinely read and the service is conducted. The shallow tray ceiling is detailed in a grid of square panels of painted wood each featuring a lotus pattern (a distinct Indian motif), and walls of the sanctuary are white-washed chunam. During select Jewish holidays and life-cycle celebrations, the walls of Paradesi’s sanctuary are adorned with colorful fabrics which give the space its sense of place. Unique to this synagogue and well renowned is its tile floor made up blue and white Chinese tiles.The hand painted, willow pattern tiles, each slightly different, were imported by Ezehiel Rahabi in the 1760s and hence are not original to the synagogue. Accounts vary as to why and how they were purchased and installed. One reveals that they were to be used by the local Rajah, but when he learned that they were fabricated using unholy cow parts taboo to Hindus, he sold them at a good price to the Jews. Some sources claim that the tiles were not from China but rather from the Netherlands.
The Paradesi Synagogue’s tebah, shaped like a lyre or curved keyhole, is contained by a stepped railing featuring twenty-five profiled polished brass balustrades of waist height that rest on the carpeted floor of the tebah and are capped by a polished brass banister. The banister is topped by a two-tiered secondary series of slimmer and shorter polished brass balustrades. At the curved end of the tebah, the side closed to the heckal, the railing is at its highest level before its “arms” symmetrically step down twice. These curved “arms” intersect with the straight lines at the entry to the tebah, which feature flanking polished brass scrolls. At the end of the tebah and wherever the railing steps up, short brass balustrades with glass domes are positioned. These provide lighting to the tebah and definition to the space. Surrounding the outside perimeter of the tebah is a very low wooden bench that is normally draped in a colorful fabric. Here, since it is so low to the floor, boys would often sit.
Unique among synagogues throughout the world is the second tebah found in all Kerala synagogues. It is located on the gallery level in a shallow space overlooking the sanctuary that is supported by two brass columns that flank the entry doors to the sanctuary. While their architectural function is to support the gallery, over the years these twin profiled pillars have come to represent or recall the pairs of columns known as Boaz and Jachin that are believed to have existed in the ancient temple in Jerusalem. The special tebah is reached via a steep wooden stair that is located in the corner of the sanctuary to the right when entering the space. The stairs are used by the men who remove the Sefer Torah from the heckal and carry it upstairs to the second tebah during Shabbat and holiday services. At other times, the Torah is read from the ground floor tebah. The second tebah is placed in the center of the gallery, where it is defined by the wood balustrades of the railing that bump out towards the sanctuary. Adjacent to the gallery and second tebah is the women’s seating area. This room, measuring 27’ (8.2 m) in length and 9’-5” (2.7 m) in width, is accessed via a pair of doors that swing into the women’s area on an axis with the second tebah. The gallery and women’s seating area are adjacent to one another, but they are separated by a wooden mechitza, a perforated screened partition. This partition allows for the sights and sounds of the service to filter into the women’s area but provides a degree of visual privacy and separation common to other orthodox synagogues throughout the world.
The heckal, a cabinet for storing and displaying the Torah scrolls, is normally the most sacred and hence embellished feature of synagogues throughout the world, and in the Paradesi Synagogue this tradition is maintained. Its heckal is located in the wall opposite the entrance. In Jewish tradition, the heckal is placed in the sanctuary along the wall closest to Jerusalem. Since Jerusalem is west of Kochi, the heckal in the Paradesi Synagogue is on its western wall. 8’-6” (2.4 m) in width, it is beautifully hand-carved from local teak wood, stained, and highlighted with gold, red, and some green paint. Many of the carvings on the surfaces of the heckal are organic and floral in nature, popular motifs in many synagogues and also popular in other secular and religious architecture in Kerala. Topping the heckal is large panel featuring a series of festoons and swags surrounding a crown. The crown, a popular motif on heckalot/arks in all regions of the world, represents the sacred and high place of the Torah in the Jewish religion, not the majesty of a Jewish king.
According to an emissary from Jerusalem who visited the Paradesi Synagogue in 1850, the sanctuary wall engaged with the heckal was made from “a compound of clay…(mixed) with the fat milt of the nuts of the kukus, in other words coconut water instead of plain water, for the cement was mortar, so as to withstand many days and to honor the greatness that was among them.” (Weil: 45). Draped in the front of the heckal is a beautiful parokhet, or curtain. It can be drawn to reveal the carved and painted doors of the heckal. The Torah scrolls kept in the heckal, capped with beautiful crowns, are each housed in a rounded wooden case which is covered with hammered silver. To Jews, the Sefer Torahs are the equal of royalty, and are thus ornamented as such. One of these crowns was presented by the Rajah in 1805. In front of the steps leading up to the heckal is a rug presented to the synagogue by Emperor Haile Sallassie of Ethiopia in 1956.
In the Paradesi Synagogue near the heckal are two special chairs, one for the Prophet Elijah and the other for the brit mila, or circumcision ceremony. Both are made from carved and stained teak with a plush cushion and perhaps a richly colorful fabric draping it entirely. Also hanging inside the sanctuary from the shallow sloped ceiling are, in true Kerala synagogue fashion, many glass lanterns -- clear, cobalt blue, emerald green, ruby red, and other colors. These lanterns, some blown in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands and others locally fabricated, are popular in many secular and religious buildings throughout India. Intended for burning the coconut oil readily available in Kerala, they have never been electrified. Other ceiling-suspended brass, silver, pewter, bronze, or other metal alloy fixtures in the Paradesi Synagogue are also prevalent in Indian synagogues, including the ner tamid, a fixture that stays lit all the time. Ceiling fans, common throughout the country, also hang in the synagogues. No Indian synagogue is air-conditioned, and today the fans, which were installed only in the 1970s, provide the sole source of cooling other than cross-ventilation. The whirling of the ceiling fan blades, both hypnotic and soothing, is a familiar and comforting sound of the Kerala synagogue experience. Before the fans were hung, a non-Jew was employed to pour water over the stone pavers around the perimeter of the synagogue and on the walls themselves to keep the building as cool as possible.
Today the Paradesi Synagogue is said to be the oldest functioning Jewish house of prayer not only in southern India, but in the whole country, and even the entire British Commonwealth. It is visited by thousands of tourists from India and abroad each year six days a week, except on Friday afternoons and all day Saturday when the synagogue is closed, visitors can make their way down Jew Street, enter the gatehouse, pay a small entry fee (ten rupees), and make their way around the synagogue compound. A no photography policy was enacted a few years ago at the synagogue, and visitors are kindly asked to observe this rule.
Johnson, Barbara C. and Daniel, Ruby. Ruby of Cochin: An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers. Philadelphia and
Jerusalem: The Jewish Publication Society, 1995.
Salem, A. B. Jew Town Synagogue. Cochin, 1929 and Haifa: Eliya Ben Eliavoo – Beit Eliahu V’leah, 1972.
Weil, Shalva. India’s Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art, and Life-Cycle. Mumbai: Marg Publication, 2002/2006.