Taking a walk along Jew Town in Kochi (Cochin) is like taking a stroll down the lanes of antiquity. A narrow street lined with quaint Dutch style houses and picturesque little shops that sell spices and antiques leads to the doors of the 446-year old Paradesi Synagogue. Curved brass columns, intricately carved teak ark, Belgian crystal chandeliers, hanging silver, brass and glass oil-burning lamps and Torah crowns of solid gold set with gems, all make it one of the most beautiful synagogues. The floor is paved with hand painted porcelain tiles, each with a different weeping willow pattern, brought from Canton, China. The synagogue has ten paintings portraying the history of Jews of Kochi. The most prized possessions of this Jewish Synagogue are two copper plates, inscribed in ancient script, containing details of privileges granted to the Jews during the reign of King Bhaskara Ravi Varman (962 – 1020 A.D.). A mark of exceptional architecture and medieval history, it remains a fascination for hundreds of tourists and visitors every day.
The main sanctuary’s white walled courtyard is lined with ancient Hebrew inscribed gravestones. The synagogue complex of four buildings was built in 1568 A.D. by the Jews on land gifted to them by Kesava Rama Varma, the King of Kochi. Reconstructed after the Portuguese bombardment in 1662, and restored in 1664, the Paradesi Synagogue is the oldest surviving synagogue in India.
In mid-18th century Ezekiel Rahabi, the Dutch East India Company’s principal merchant and diplomat, further refurbished the buildings and added a 45-feet-tall clock tower to the complex. There is something quite unique about this Dutch-styled clock tower – the dials on all four sides are in different numerals – Hebrew numerals facing the synagogue, Roman numerals facing the king’s palace, and Malayalam numerals facing the harbor. A fourth clock face with Arabic numerals once graced the tower. When its original Dutch clock mechanism ceased to function it was removed in 1941. The synagogue shares a wall with the temple of the kings of Kochi. And the Mattancheri Palace, once the residence of the king, is only a block away. Magnificent symbols of tolerance and peaceful coexistence in times past!
Over the years the Jews accepted and modified many of their host country’s customs and cuisine. Colorful oil lamps hang from synagogue’s ceilings and synagogue is entered barefoot. Jewish marriages were arranged by the parents of the bride and groom, and brides wore thalis (gold wedding pendants) around their necks, in keeping with the local Hindu tradition. Jews became prominent spice merchants and business owners and spoke the local language Malayalam as well as English. The many fragrant spices that they traded, pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander and others – slowly but surely were incorporated into their traditional cuisine. Coconut milk became a perfect substitute for milk whenever kosher laws forbid the use of dairy products. Tamarind became a handy souring agent. Spicy hot chicken curry and fish cooked in a spicy sauce thickened with fresh grated coconut became their specialties.
With the establishment of Israel in 1948, most of the Jews immigrated to Israel leaving only a few behind in Kochi. Today Jew Town, in Kochi is just one street long. The spice markets are still there on this narrow street, but most belong to non-Jews. Out of seven synagogues that once graced this street, only the Paradesi remains open. The Thekumbagum synagogue, on Market Road, built in 1580 A.D is practically empty today with only the upper gallery and the stairs leading to it being the only remnants of the old structure. The sixteenth century Torah, Ark, Bima and furnishings of the synagogue are today in the Moshav Nevatim’s Synagogue in Israel, a Synagogue built in traditional Kerala architectural style. The oldest of them all, Kadavumbagham synagogue on Jew Street, built in 1200 A.D. and rebuilt in 1554 A.D, is only a short distance away. It was closed in 1972, and its Torah scrolls were sent to the Cochini synagogue near Beersheba. This building still has an ark and ceiling lamps, but today it is a plant nursery. Amidst all of this, stands tall the Paradesi synagogue – a splendid memento of spice trade.