The Jews of Kochi, India

Even though you know exactly where the water taxi is headed, the first glimpse of the sign at the end of the dock can be unsettling for any Jew steeped in the dark memories of Russian pogroms, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Holocaust:

However, a name some might consider insensitive is actually giving directions to a fascinating and historically important neighborhood of Kochi (formerly Cochin), the capital of Kerala state in southwestern India.

Jews have lived in Kochi for centuries, although their precise arrival date is a matter of debate.  Some scholars argue that Jews first appeared following the reign of Solomon and the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE.  Others assert they were Spanish merchants of the second century BCE trading for pepper and other rare spices.  Some historians claim Jews settled in Cranganore, an ancient trading port near Cochin, after the sacking of the second temple by Roman legions in 70 AD.   Unfortunately, none of these historical arguments can be substantiated, and the earliest firm evidence of a Jewish presence in southwestern India is a set of copper plates dating to 1000 AD that record grants of privilege to the Jewish community from the Emperor of Kerala.  In 1524 Muslims attacked the Jews of Cranganore over a trade dispute.  They fled to Kochi where they flourished under the protection of the Rajah of Cochin who gave them liberty to practice their religion and deeded land near his palace for homes, shops, and synagogues. Residents called this area “Jewtown,” a name it maintains to this day.  In the early 1600s the Portuguese occupied the city and persecuted the Jewish community as part of the ongoing Spanish/Portuguese Inquisition. This abuse lasted until 1660 when Kochi came under the rule of Dutch Protestants who were accepting of this Jewish presence.  Again the community prospered, first under the Dutch and then, starting in 1795, the British.  By the 1940s Kochi was home to thousands of Indian Jews and a vibrant ethnic community of merchants, traders, and scholars.  However, with the creation of the State of Israel many in the community emigrated; those that stayed saw either their children or grandchildren leave. The population decreased rapidly and today only a few dozen Jews, most quite aged, still call Jewtown home.

Interior of the Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi, India

Although most Jews are gone, reminders of their 1,000-year presence still abound and offer insight into a religious community that few know anything about.  One of the earliest houses of worship in Jewtown, the Paradesi Synagogue, was completed in 1568, and it is the last functioning synagogue in the city.  (100 years ago Kochi had seven Jewish houses of worship.)  The word Paradesi means “foreigner” because at the time of its construction most members were “white Jews,” a term Indians used to identify first-generation Jews of European and Middle Eastern descent.  The synagogue is an exquisite building in the Sephardic style and houses historically important Torah scrolls, gold crowns, a floor of 18th century hand painted Chinese porcelain, and the original copper plates given to Joseph Rabban, the earliest known Kochi Jew, in 1000 AD.  On the outer wall is a tablet inscribed in Hebrew from an even older synagogue (no longer standing) constructed in 1344.

Religious services are held every Saturday morning, but as there are no longer any rabbis, services are led by elders of the community.  Jewish visitors are welcome as this is often the only way to obtain a minyan, the quorum required for conducting public prayer. Afterwards guides conduct tours of the building and describe the long and fascinating history of the Kochi Jewish community. In 1968 the synagogue celebrated its 400th anniversary with a ceremony attended by Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.

Typical Religious Symbols Inscribed on the Windows of Buildings in Jewtown

Following your visit to the synagogue it is interesting as well as informative to stroll along “Jew Street” to see reminders of this ancient community etched into the architecture of virtually every store and home, even though for the last 60 years most merchants and residents have not been Jewish.

Store in Jewtown Selling Religious Artifacts and Souvenirs

An enjoyable way to complete your visit is to shop for a memento of this once proud community.  A couple of Jewish residents sell religious antiques, handicrafts, and souvenirs to the few Jewish tourists who make it to these distant shores.  The stores carry ceremonial objects used for the Sabbath celebration–e.g., tablecloths, wine glasses, challah covers, candle holders–as well as items used in Jewish festivals, including menorahs (candelabra) for Hanukkah, Seder plates for Passover, and groggers (noisemakers) for the raucous holiday of Purim.

Jewtown is located in the Mattancherry neighborhood of Kochi, a 30-minute boat ride from the main Jetty in the central city. Half-day (3-4 hour) tours of Jewtown are available from virtually every travel agent in Kochi, and they include boat transportation, meals, and English-language guides.  They often include other sights of interest in the Jewtown area, including the Rajah’s Palace, Fort Kochi, Bishop’s House, and the Chinese Fishing Nets of Kublai Khan.

(Read about our no-cost holiday to India following a six-month working vacation in Mauritius in On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide to Traveling Without Paying.)

2 responses to “The Jews of Kochi, India

  1. Fascinating – who knew? I loved reading this – thank you!

    • Thanks Jessie. Glad you enjoyed it. In the next post I am going to explain how I got there for free–or as I like to say on the other guys dime.

      Mike

      Sent from my iPhone

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