New Delhi, India
June 16, 2013
The Paradesi Synagogue is about 4 km from where we were staying in Fort Cochin, we decided to take an autorickshaw instead of walking all the way. The auto driver dropped us off at the head of Synagogue Lane (which has some interesting little shops selling spices and tea). We walked a hundred metres or so, down to the white-painted synagogue with its distinctive little clock tower, at the end of the lane.
The synagogue has recently undergone a restoration project under the aegis of the World Monuments Fund, in conjunction with the National Culture Fund and the Jewish community of Kochi. A weather-beaten signboard to this effect stands outside the synagogue and provides very basic information about the synagogue: that it was built (by the descendants of European Jews, including Dutch and Portuguese Jews) in 1568. The clock tower is a later addition to the synagogue, having been constructed only in 1760.
Beyond the entrance to the synagogue is a small, rather dingy little office, where we bought our tickets. On the right of this office is a slightly larger (but still fairly cramped) room which serves as a sort of chronicle of the Jewish presence in Kochi (more on this later); outside the office, and separated from it by a narrow strip of open ground, is the synagogue itself.
We took off our shoes (as is compulsory) outside the synagogue, and stepped in. The interior of the synagogue is striking: on either side, tall wide windows let in lots of natural light, and the floor is covered with blue-painted ceramic tiles. (These, we later discovered, are of special interest in themselves: there are 11,000 of these tiles—especially brought in 1762 all the way from Canton, and no two tiles have the same pattern. Each is unique). A variety of lamps and chandeliers hang from the ceiling; the lamps, crafted from glass and silver, were made in Kochi itself, 300 years ago; the chandeliers were brought from Belgium 100 years ago.
Approximately in the centre of this modest-sized hall is the pulpit, surrounded by a brass railing and standing on a low, circular platform. At the far end of the hall, facing the door, is the curtained altar. On either side of these are two pairs of old stone tablets. One pair is inscribed with prayers. On the other pair of tablets are inscribed the first two letters (in Hebrew) of each of the Ten Commandments—supposedly the oldest such inscription in the world.
After emerging from the synagogue, we stepped back to the office, and from there into the little gallery that describes the history of the Jews in Kochi. This is depicted through a series of paintings (executed recently, and not, seemingly, by an artist of any great talent). The paintings are chronologically arranged, and each shows a scene from history, along with a fairly detailed description—in English and Malayalam—of what it’s supposed to represent. The first Jews arrived in Kerala in 72 AD, landing at Cranganore (Kodungallur in Malayalam, Shingly in Hebrew). About 300 years later, in 379 AD, the local ruler bestowed the title of ‘Prince of Anjuvanam’ on a prominent member of the Jewish community. The community continued to prosper, though it suffered a serious blow in 1524 AD, when the Moors attacked and the Jewish kingdom was destroyed.
Alongside the ‘linear’ history narrated through these paintings, there are interesting bits of trivia: for instance, the Old Testament Scrolls kept (but not displayed) at the Paradesi Synagogue are supposed to be the oldest in the world. Also kept (and again, not on display) are the two copper plates on which were inscribed the rights granted to the Jewish community of Kochi by the raja, conferring on the them ranks equivalent to those of the mid-rung Portuguese gentry then in control of Kochi.
The synagogue was once also home to two silver trumpets, of the set originally used at the Second Temple in Jerusalem. These two trumpets were, unfortunately, destroyed in a skirmish between two zealous but careless groups of people, each vying to be given the right to blow the trumpets.
Also part of this tiny but very informative gallery are dedications to two important Jews. One is Samuel Sabatai ‘Satu’ Koder (the man whose residence, Koder House, is now a hotel, and home to a restaurant where you can actually order a Kochi Jewish meal). Koder was, for many years, the warden of the Paradesi Synagogue, and a plaque to his memory is still here.
The other important Kochi Jew you’ll see mention of here (and a portrait) was Ezikal Rahabi; Rahabi was the man who brought the Cantonese tiles that decorate the floor of the synagogue. He also built, around the same time, the clock tower of the synagogue. The clock tower originally had four faces, one each in Hebrew, Malayalam, Roman and Arabic numerals; the last—in Arabic numerals—was later bricked up.
The Paradesi Synagogue is closed on Saturdays and Sundays. The rest of the week, it closes at noon. Entry fees are Rs 5 per person; no photography is allowed within the synagogue. Please make sure you’re appropriately dressed.
From journal Four days in Kochi