I was excited to be visiting Kerala in SW India in December 2016 and on reading the guide books discovered that there was a Synagogue in Cochin City (Cochi) which became my top place to visit.
The Paradesi Synagogue is one of the oldest in the Commonwealth of Nations, built in 1568 it was built in the Jewish quarter of Old Cochin City, known as “Jew Town”. It was once one of seven synagogues in Kerela.
The name ‘Paradesi’ is derived from the word used in several Indian languages and literally means “foreigners” and applied to the Synagogue because it was built by Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal.
The building can be found at the end of Synagogue Lane, a pretty street lined bazaars and small shops selling a variety of goods such as fabrics, pots and rugs. The Synagogue consists of three ordinary looking whitewashed buildings, one of which has a clock tower.
Inside one is struck by the ornate but relatively bright simple interior of traditional form with a central bimah, ark on the eastern wall and ladies gallery above. In true Hindu style we removed our shoe before entering the building.
Of particular note were the many Belgium glass lamps & chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, the brass railings around the bimah and the 1,500 or so hand painted Chinese porcelain floor tiles, all of which are different and date from 1762.
The clock tower was interesting as it only had a clock on three sides, the fourth being blank. Each clock was unique having numerals in three different typefaces; Hebrew, Hindi and Roman. The tower was restored in 1998/99 under the direction of the World Monuments Federation.
Sadly regular services are no longer held as there are only five Jewish people left in Cochi. We were fortunate to briefly meet their eldest congregant, Mrs Sarah Cohen aged 93, who sits daily in her doorway on Synagogue Lane greeting and chatting to tourists. Unfortunately when we met her her speech was not too good as she had recently suffered a fall. Her house doubles as a small shop selling Judaica, such a crochet challah covers, prayer books etc.
In 1968 celebrations were held to commemorate the Synagogues 400th anniversary. The festivities were enhanced by the attendance of Prime Minister, Indira Ghandi and the Indian Post Office issue a special commemorative stamp to mark the occasion (see below).
Reproduced below is a small section of the guide book “Kerala and Her Jews” which refers to the Prime Minister’s visit.
The Prime Minister in her speech said that every visit of hers to this ancient Synagogue was a reminder of the long history of this country with which the Jews were associated and also to the tradition of religious and cultural tolerance which was their great heritage.
The Prime Minister stressed the need to remind themselves of this tradition today, because there were many in the country who would have then forgot it.
She said their tradition had not been one of communalism of parochialism, but of tolerance, mutual exchange and peaceful living together. That was the teaching of great men.
Mrs Gandi said her father (Mahatma) believed that tolerance was the basis of their unity, and indeed the foundation on which world peace could be built. She concluded by wishing the dwindling community a hearty “mazel-tov”.
Words which are just as relevant in today’s world as they were back in 1968. The guide book is available for purchase from the Synagogue.
A plaque from the 1344 Synagogue in Kochangadi in Kochi is set into one of the outer walls as shown below together with a translation (thanks to Rabbi Roderick Young) of the medieval Hebrew.