By Jay A. Waronker
Parur is a typical low-rise Kerala small town with a population of just under 40,000 located eighteen miles (twenty six km) north of Ernakulam, twenty six miles (forty one km) to the north of Mattancherry, a few miles to the southeast of Cranganore, and two miles (three km) from the synagogue in Chendamangalam just to the north. The town can be reached via an easy drive from Kochi along the narrow and busy north-south main road (#14) linking a string of towns and villages throughout the length of Kerala. The most popular option for tourists is to hire a car and driver to get there, although there is excellent, frequent, and inexpensive public bus service from the station in Ernakulam directly to the center of Parur. From there, it is possible to hire an auto-rickshaw outside the station to get to the synagogue within a few minutes or, with time permitting, to walk. Locals can direct you to Jew Town.
In Parur, a visitor approaches the synagogue from Jews Street, which is today a minor and crudely paved straight road that runs north-south. This quiet street is located a short distance from the center of town to the southeast where the town hall, government buildings, rows of small shops and businesses, and bus terminal are located. The length of Jews Street can be walked in a few minutes, and is today lined with one to two-story homes and a few small businesses. Many of these structures are surrounded by dense ground coverage and towering trees. In recent decades, the composition of buildings along this street has changed. Many of the pre-twentieth century traditional Kerala structures have been pulled down, forever altering the established vernacular aesthetic of historic Jew Street. A handful of lots now sit empty or have been replaced with nondescript modern houses and small commercial structures that are constructed of concrete and are flat roofed.
Set on both sides of Jew Street at the south end, or the direction approached from the town center, is a pair of cylindrical ceremonial posts made of chunam (polished lime plaster) over local laterite stone with conical tops. These columns, set on plinths, frame the road and announce the beginning of Jew Town. A few years ago the one to the west was damaged, and its pieces were strewn about or lost, although a plan to have it rebuilt was carried out in 2010. The opposite boundary of Jews Street dead ends at a picturesque tree lined canal, which was once just east of a stop on an active jetty. For years, small boats ferried passengers and all sorts of wares to and from Jew Town and the adjacent market just to the west, but the area is now far quieter. These physical end points – the twin pillars and waterway – for years defined Jew Town not as a ghetto but a small and thriving neighborhood known to and recognized by the local Hindu, Jain, Muslim, and Christian communities.
Parur, the largest of Kerala’s synagogue compounds and is the most architecturally distinctive of the seven extant buildings, is truly worthy of a visit from Kochi. In the mid-1950s, most of the congregation immigrated to Israel, and the synagogue has not been an active place of worship since mid-1970s. The building and property were not adequately maintained for the next thirty years, yet it represents the most complete and elaborate example of a Jewish house of prayer incorporating the many influences of building design and construction from this region of India. As its architecture was also shaped by various Jewish building traditions, a distinct and remarkable style of synagogue architecture can be experienced at Parur.
According to the late twentieth century writings of the Dravidian Judaist historian Adv. Prem Doss Swami Doss Yehudi, Parur is home to one of the earliest enclaves of Jews in Kerala, settled many centuries ago by a small group of families. Yehudi believes that first synagogue may have been built in 750, a particularly early date that has not been substantiated, and then rebuilt in 1164 after the first building was destroyed (Yehudi: 90). This mid-twelfth century date, following the period of Moorish persecution of the Jews in Cranganore and their eventual shift south to Parur where they could be afforded relatively protection by the tolerant Rajah of Cochin, is the one David Solomon Sassoon supports in his documentation on Kerala’s synagogues (Sassoon: 578). As a result of Sassoon’s work, the 1164 date is the one commonly mentioned in later literature on the Kerala Jews, including by J. B. Segal, a notable historian of the Kerala Jews (Segal: 12). This structure fell into disrepair, and another was erected on the same site in 1616 according to its building inscription, a rectangular stone slab with Hebrew text that can still be seen inset in one of the exterior walls within the synagogue compound. Due to the difficulty of the inscription text, some sources use the date 1614, while others indicate it was 1621.
According to local narratives, it is believed that the ner tamid (the light that always burns) once hanging near the heckal (ark) in the 1164 synagogue was transferred to the seventeenth-century building. According to this legend, the Jews of Parur were so rich and proud that they offered incense on a local altar in the public market immediately to the west of the synagogue. For this act of hubris, since their behavior seemed to recall a religious ceremony only reserved to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, they were stricken with the plague. Their synagogue fell into disuse, and the ner tamid was hung out on the street as a sign of contrition. It was seen there nearly two hundred years later by an English observer (Segal: 12).
Prem Doss Swami Doss Yehudi recounts the same folk tale, adding the detail that the altar of incense placed by the Parur Jews in the street square had the same dimensions as one at the ancient Temple. Yet their effort to burn incense was thwarted, and the community was devastated by a pestilence. The onslaught was so sudden that it was interpreted as a punishment from heaven for their attempt to mimic or belittle the sacred rites of the Temple (Yehudi: 89). Ruby Daniel, a Cochin Jew born in Kerala in 1912, recalled a different version of this legend. According to Daniel, when she was young there were still a few wealthy Jewish families living in Parur. The town had a thriving Jewish community living in some blocks of the town, but at one point back in history there was a great epidemic that could not be stopped. The rabbanim, or men versed in Jewish law, were so bold that they set out to burn ketoret, or incense, as the Israelites did in the wilderness of Sinai when they were affected by an epidemic. Yet the rabbanim could not obtain, or they were unclear about all the necessary ingredients mentioned for this ritual in the Hebrew Bible, so they used whatever was locally available. As soon as the incense was lit, hundreds of people died. They should have heeded the warning which is read twice every morning in the Shaharit service: “If any ingredient is missing, it will be death.” (Johnson: 127)
David Yaacov (Jacob) Castiel, the fourth mudaliyar (community leader) of the Kerala Jews, was responsible for bringing the rebuilding of the Parur Synagogue to fruition in 1616. This is confirmed by the building’s Hebrew dedicatory inscription. According to a local Jewish song in Malayalam written by an anonymous Jewish poet to honor the synagogue, a fire damaged the building around 1662, and it was refurbished (Segal: 36). This blaze was likely set by the Portuguese since they by then had laid claim to this part of Kerala and burned Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry about the same time. For more than one hundred and twenty years, the renovated synagogue served the congregation until they experienced another dark period. When Tipu Sultan from Mysore and his armies invaded South Malabar in 1783 during the Second Mysore War and took possession of the region, he aggressively and ruthlessly promoted the rise of Muslim rule in South India. Over the next seven years, the fanatical Tipu Sultan was responsible for the destruction of literally thousands of non-Muslim religious buildings, which included Hindu and Jain temples, churches, and synagogues. He also tortured and forced the conversion of followers outside his faith. He killed those that resisted or refused to convert. It was during this period that the Parur Synagogue was attacked and heavily damaged, and some of its members were murdered (Johnson: 127).
A Church of England missionary Rev. Thomas Dawson, stationed in Cochin beginning in 1817, wrote about the Jews in Kerala. He visited Parur and its synagogue during his tenure in the area. His observations were accounted by W. S. Hunt:
"The chief of Mr. Dawson's interests was evidently the Jews. Their condition was calculated to excite compassion. Recently decimated by smallpox, and, only a few years before, the victims of Tipu's ferocity, they were despised by the rest of the community and were, for the most part, ignorant and degraded. He visited each place in which they lived. At Parur he found them using the porch of their synagogue for their services, the rest of the building having been destroyed by Tipu; at Mala and Chankotta their synagogues were in ruins from the same cause. He found that the White Jews had no dealings with the Black Jews and that all alike were separated form the Gentiles. He computed their strength in 1529 and they had seven synagogues." (Hunt: 153)
Dawson’s observation seems to confirm that even after the passing of more than a quarter of a century the synagogue had yet to be rebuilt or repaired. By 1790, the Third Mysore War marked the doom of Tipu Sultan. He had to surrender his territories one by one, and by 1792 he ceded the kingdom of Malabar to the British authorities. Once this formidable menace to the Jews of Parur had been wiped out, as the British were tolerant of the Kerala Jewish community, it is a mystery why the synagogue took so long to rebuild. The Parur Jewish community seems to have been generally prosperous before Tipu Sultan’s arrival, so it might have been expected to revive again after his defeat.Yet during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Parur Jewish community had declined in numbers and became less prosperous. Dawson’s particularly bleak account asserts that they had undergone years of hardship and health issues, and that in the early years of the nineteenth century they were facing discrimination and difficult times. These factors could certainly explain why the rebuilding of a proper synagogue took so long. For this reason or any other, based on Rev. Dawson’s short passage, most of the structure as it stood in the twentieth century (with the possible exception of the gatehouse, which Dawson seems to have identified as the porch) could date no earlier than the second decade of the nineteenth century.
When Parur’s current synagogue was reconstructed on the same site as the previous building, it was built in the centuries-old Kerala tradition using locally quarried by hand ashlar laterite stone blocks for its load-bearing walls that were veneered in chunam plaster. These walls, very thick, were punctured by deeply-revealed doors and windows. Despite the memory of seventeenth century Portuguese aggression against the Kerala Jewish community, the synagogue at Parur incorporated Portuguese-colonial detail, such as the fan-like alette decoration, swirling rope patterns, circular vents, or heavily revealed bands of trim on its wall surfaces. How much of these details drew from the 1616 synagogue or from the overall rooted design traditions of the area will likely never been known. With its locally cut wood roof framing exposed at its deep eaves in response to the heavy annual monsoons, flat profiled clay roof tiles covering its pitched surfaces, and carved wood gablet ends for ventilation, the Parur Synagogue is an archetypical example of the vernacular Kerala style. As with other Kerala synagogues, it is made up of not one building but a collection of parts forming a compound. Among all Kerala synagogues, Parur is notable for having the greatest number of connected and consecutive pieces which have survived fully intact, albeit rotting and crumbling before the recent government renovation. Over time, other Kerala synagogue compounds have lost some of their pieces for a variety of reasons or they tended to have a fewer or a more compact collection of spaces.
Unique to the synagogue at Parur is the way its parts are formally arranged and linked in a highly axial, extended, and ceremonial fashion. Of all Kerala’s extant synagogue buildings, the one is Parur has the longest procession: from the street, through the gatehouse, out into a walled outdoor room, past a foyer flanking by twin storage rooms, along a narrow columned breezeway, into the azara that is followed by the sanctuary with its low balcony that spills into a double-height space containing the central tebah and finally its to the heckal as the termination point. A similar organization can also be seen in some historic Hindu temples of Kerala and at various other religious buildings in the immediate region, including Syrian Christian and Catholic churches or mosques. As a local building type, there is little doubt that these buildings belonging to the larger religions influenced neighboring synagogue architecture or were representative of a way of building that included other faiths. The influence of secular design traditions is also obvious here in the ways the same materials and construction techniques, ones used for ages in Kerala, were utilized and expressed. To note are also the broad similarities shared between the Parur Synagogue and the ritual linking of spaces that existed in the Court of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the use of terminology identical to these ancient sacred Jewish places
For the past few decades, the Parur Synagogue was not used as a house of prayer, and the marginally-maintained building slowly deteriorated. In recent years, its condition became so serious that there was concern for its structural survival. Both the few remaining Kerala Jews and sympathetic outsiders recognized that the building needed intervention for some time, yet no formal effort to save Parur synagogue came to fruition. The Kerala government is fortunately now renovating the building, paying close attention to its architectural and cultural heritage. In response to domestic and international interest, the popularity of the restored synagogue in nearby Chendamangalam which opened as a museum in 2006, and local recognition of the cultural importance of historical architecture and natural spaces in general, the State of Kerala with support of the government of India in 2009 embarked on a long term plan called the Muziris Heritage Site. This undertaking is being coordinated by several government divisions, particularly the Kerala Department of Tourism and Department of Archeology. It gets its name from the ancient port city, a place where Kerala’s Jews are believed to have originally settled many centuries ago and which they called Shingly. The Muziris archaeological site will be one of the highlights of the impressive effort of protecting, restoring, and sustaining more than thirty other natural and built sites that will be sensitively linked by existing canals, bike paths, and roadways within the central region of the state of Kerala. Among the first of the sites to be restored is the Parur Synagogue.
During the spring and summer months of 2009, the Kerala government negotiated with the Association of Kerala Jews to assume ownership of Parur Synagogue while the Jewish community maintained a right of use. Once these details had been worked out, the restoration effort formally began in April 2010, and work is scheduled to be completed by the middle of 2011. According to the State of Kerala Muzris Site Project plan, the Parur Synagogue will not only be properly brought back to form along with a permanent on-site exhibition on its history with academic contributions from an international team of scholars, but it will be linked with a number of other important Kerala cultural sites, both religious and secular. The synagogue will in turn be placed into context with various centuries-old traditions and customs of the people of Kerala so as to protect and preserve the state’s heritage.
For anyone fortunate enough to visit the former Parur Synagogue during the exciting restoration period running into the first part of 2011, the building should be open during regular working hours except for Sundays. Seek out one of the project coordinators or associates on site to show you around
Adv. Prem Doss Swami Doss Yehudi. The Shingly Hebrews. Trivandrum: Sachethana, 2000.
Hunt, W. S. The Anglican Church in Travancore and Cochin 1816-1916. London, 1920.
Johnson, Barbara C. and Daniel, Ruby. Ruby of Cochin: An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers. Philadelphia and Jerusalem: The Jewish Publication Society, 1995.
Sassoon, David. Ohel David. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932.