As part of my discovery of the Jews of incredible India, I flew to a very
popular destination of Jewish India – the historic and serene city of Cochin,
now called Kochi, in the southern state of Kerala on the Malabar Coast. More
than 30 million people live in this densely populated state, a third of which is
covered by forests.
The extreme heat warms my face and the lush
landscapes, sandy beaches, cool backwaters and palm gardens interfaced with
rowboats, sailboats, cargo skiffs, steamers and naval vessels cruising on a
nearby vast system of waterways. An idyllic scene, especially since I have just
arrived from the frigid northeast US. It is December.
Kochi, I learn, is
an important spice center whose surroundings contain an ancient and
still-functioning fishing industry. Once, traders from Yemen and Babylon
exported dates and olive oil in exchange for peacocks and spices.
surprise, therefore, that the town is considered the commercial and industrial
capital of Kerala, one of the most attractive states in India. The municipality
was created in 1967, out of Fort Kochi, Mattancherry, Ernakulam, Willingdon
Island and nearby villages.
Interest in the Jewish India of the past
brought me to Kochi, for Jews once lived in large numbers around Cochin. Today,
about 50 Jews remain and they are doing everything in their power to restore
those empty synagogues – so that long after they pass on, Jews will be
The Cochin Jews are the best-known of the Indian Jewish
communities to the outside world; the other two, as we have seen in my previous,
articles are the Bene Israel and Baghdadi Jews. The Cochinis, now numbering
about a dozen in Kochi itself, are the smallest of the three groups in India
today, though they claim to be the oldest. In the surrounding town of Ernakulam–
the hub of Kochi–live about 50 Jews.
Legend has it that Cochin Jews
arrived and were warmly received at the time of the destruction of the Second
Temple in 70 CE. But the most significant physical evidence of the Jews’
presence in medieval Malabar is kept to this day in the safe of the Cochin
synagogue (Paradesi Synagogue): three rectangular copper plates etched in the
Tamil language and given to Joseph Rabban, the “Jewish king” of the Jewish
principality of Cranganore, by King Cheraman Perumal.
“While legend has
the date of the plates to be 379 CE (4th century), the 11th century is a date
much closer to contemporary scholarly assessment,” says Prof. Nathan Katz,
Jewish historian, scholar and author of Who Are the Jews of India? The Hindu
king gave permission in perpetuity or in the more poetic expression of those
days, “as long as the world and moon exist.”
Cochin Jews had no contact
with the geographically isolated Jews near Bombay.
Indeed, they were not
aware of the existence of another Jewish community in India until the 18th
century, when Cochin merchant David Rahabi visited the Bene Israel, who at that
time clung to vestigial Judaic observances despite centuries of
Rahabi believed they were lost Jews. He took three of them
back to Cochin, where he educated them in Hebrew and the rudiments of Judaism,
and then had them sent back as religious leaders. Thus began a longstanding
relationship between Bene Israel and Cochin Jews.
The “White Jews”
(Paradesi) settled in the Cochin region in the latter half of the 17th century.
They were exiles of the Spanish Inquisition and brought with them the Ladino
language and Sephardic customs. They found the Black Malabari Jewish community
quite different, and tensions between the two communities existed early on and
lasted for centuries.
It is true, however, that some of the European Jews
intermarried with the older Jewish communities that had already been long
settled in the region. But the majority of the Paradesi married within their
community, a community divided by a color line into White Jews, Black Jews, and
Brown Jews. The latter were also known as freed slaves, or freemen (meshuhrarim
Driving in the city with my guide, Gopal, I learn that Kochi
has a population of about 600,000, but if you include the extended metro area,
the figure rises to 1.6 million. Visitors notice the economic boom taking place
here, among the highrise apartment buildings and offices, the likes which
reflect the fact that India is on the move economically.
shops dot the old part of Kochi town. Here, it’s fun to bargain.
busy and lovely but still relaxing, you can unwind, indulge yourself and take a
boat ride, especially on one of those Kerala houseboats, or rice-boats as they
are called. Sailing around the islands in the backwaters and watching the city
skyline from your slow-moving boat can bring about that peaceful interlude that
one occasionally needs touring this vast subcontinent.
I notice that some
companies mention that on their Kochi backwater tour, you can stop off at
tourist attractions which include the synagogue which we shall soon
In Kochi and outside the city, I marvel at traditional Kerala
costumes, a marked contrast to Western clothing. Men wear colorful, long, white
cotton lungi, a long piece of cloth wrapped around the waist, with typical bank
patterns. South Indian women traditionally wear the sari.
It was soon
time to head to Mattancherry, a part of old Cochin City, specifically to
Synagogue Lane in what is called “Jew Town,” and one of the centers of the Kochi
spice trade. Shopping appears to be in full swing. Alongside humble houses,
small kiosks and booths abound. It’s easy to bargain with the friendly
salespeople in this crowded, lovely market known for its precious
Tourists can spot the Jewish Star on the lattice of many homes,
and some even have Jewish names inscribed on them. If desired, tourists can
obtain postage stamps with the Magen David at the post office.
outstanding Jewish site on Synagogue Lane is the whitewashed, rectangular
Paradesi Synagogue, part of the “living heritage of India.” Hundreds of tourists
crowd into Kochi each day to visit the synagogue.
Today is no exception;
a long line of tourists from around the world wait outside to enter. Finally, a
member of the congregation arrives and opens the doors, and we realize why the
house of worship is a must for visitors. For one, the brass pulpit and hand
porcelain floor tiles made in 18th-century China are exquisite to the eye. No
two tiles are alike.
Several Torahs occupy the ark. Each has a crown of
solid gold with precious stones, a gift of the Maharaja of Cochin, “the
protector of the Jews.” He lived next door in what is called the Dutch Palace,
but is now a museum; the maharaja wanted to reside next to the synagogue so he
could hear the Hebrew melodies wafting up from the Jewish house of
I sit on the benches arranged in a horseshoe pattern around the
main hall and marvel at the silk wall hangings as well as the chandeliers and
glass lamps filled with coconut oil, admiring this historical monument of Jewish
life in India.
Upstairs, next to the woman’s balcony, is a room
containing artwork depicting the recent history of Indian Jews. The Torah is
read on Shabbat and festivals on this balcony.
The synagogue is open from
10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3 to 5 p.m., and is well worth a visit.
Most of the
Cochin Jews, who in the 1940s numbered around 2,500, emigrated to Israel in the
1950s and 1960s. It was almost as if the whole city emigrated. Most Jews from
India returned to the Land of Israel after 2,000 or more years.
this wonderful Indian Jewry, although meager in numbers in the 21st century, is
empowered with a strong belief in Jewish continuity. And according to author
Benjamin J. Israel, this Diaspora community is “living evidence that, in at
least one country in the world, Jews can exist with pride and honor, and without
any need for self-consciousness or protective withdrawal into a self-created
ghetto.”Ben G. Frank, a journalist and travel writer, is the author of
Klara’s Journey, A Novel (Marion Street Press), and
Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti &
Beyond (Globe Pequot Press).