Judaism in Kerala

Paradesi Synagogue, Mattancherry

The Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry is a Jewish place of worship located in the Ernakulam district of Kerala. It is believed to have been built in 1568 by Spanish-speaking Jews on the land granted by the king of Cochin near his residence and a Hindu temple. As it was constructed by “foreigners” it gained the name Paradesi, the Malayalam word for foreign. It was badly damaged sometime in 1663 during the battle with the Portuguese but was restored within a few years after the Dutch emerged victoriously.

In earlier times, only the Paradesi (“White”) Jews, or Jews of European origin, were allowed to be permanent members of the congregation. The Malabari (“Black”) Jews, or mixed-race Jews born to Europeans and the natives, were allowed the right to pray at the synagogue. But they were not considered as full members. The Meshuchrarim, or freed former slaves and their descendants, were not allowed inside and had to sit on the steps outside. They had no communal rights either.  Perceiving this injustice, Abraham Barak Salem, an Indian nationalist and member of the Meshuchrarim Cochin Jew community successfully fought against this discriminatory practice in the 1900s. His non-violent means of agitation inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s methods like hunger strike and prayer boycott earned him the moniker ‘the Jewish Gandhi’.