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Heli Tourism

Enchanting Kerala


ISSUE: 202

JUNE 2010

Jewish Synagogue, Fort Kochi

Fort Kochi, the place not far away from the city of Kochi can ideally be termed as a cultural melting pot of Kerala. This small geographical entity is perhaps unique in the world due to its cultural representations. Be it for people from other parts of India or those from far off lands like those in the Middle-East and Europe, Fort Kochi at various stages of time in the past welcomed them all to settle down and lead a life in harmony with the native folks.

Visitors to Fort Kochi would invariably be treated to many a cultural representation. They all have left their marks in the form of traders, asylum seekers, rulers and those who came to spread their religious faiths. What we are going to unravel is a landmark in a place called Mattancherry in Fort Kochi; a monumental one that rose from the cultural traits and religious beliefs of a community that came to Kochi seeking asylum. The Jews of Fort Kochi, who fled their homeland - Israel during the Diaspora embraced Fort Kochi as their second home.

A short walk from Mattancherry bus stand or from the boat jetty nearby would take you to the Jewish Synagogue, situated at one end of the Jew Street in the Jew Town enclave of Mattancherry in Fort Kochi. This synagogue was built in 1568 by the Malabar Yehudans or Cochin Jewish community. It was built close to the Mattancherry Palace Temple on the land gifted by King Rama Varma, a former ruler of Kochi. The Mattancherry Palace Temple and the Mattancherry synagogue share a common wall. This synagogue at Mattancherry is the oldest one in the Commonwealth of Nations.

As one approaches the synagogue on Jew Street, its white facade begins to appear very prominently. A clock tower can also be seen, towering over and close to the facade. This was built in 1760 by Ezekiel Rahabi an affluent Jewish businessman. Of the four faces of the clock, the one facing the maharaja's palace showed the time in Malayalam. And among the other three, the face with etchings in Roman numerals was meant for the traders. Of the remaining two faces of the clock, one had writings in Hebrew while the other remains blank.

Stepping inside the Synagogue, one's eyes would easily go to the glass chandeliers and blue willow-patterned Chinese floor tiles. The chandeliers are of Belgian origin. Also of interest are the Scrolls of the Law housed here and the several gold crowns received as gifts and the brass-railed pulpit. And for some exclusive pieces from history, the synagogue also houses the copper plates of privileges given to Joseph Rabban, the earliest known Cochin Jew, dating from the 10th century, written in Tamil, by the ruler of the Malabar Coast.

And as one surveys the interior of this synagogue, the hundreds of 18th century, Chinese hand-painted porcelain tiles laid on the floor stand out. There is an oriental rug, which was a gift from Haile Selassie, the last Ethiopian Emperor. There is also a tablet from the earlier synagogue in Kochangadi in Kochi (built in 1344), which is placed on the outer wall of this synagogue. The inscriptions on it state that the structure was built in the year 5105 (as per the Hebrew Calendar) as an abode for the spirit of God.

These days, walking on the Jew Street in Fort Kochi, one can still find the busy spice market, which once had a sizable number of Jewish people engaged in spice trade. Nowadays, one would also come across curio shops run by those from Kashmir; selling mostly wood carvings, oil lamps, spice boxes, snake boats and books on Indian subjects. Most of the Jewish settlers here have now left for their homeland - Israel.

In and around the Jewish Synagogue and on the Jew Street, one would come across travellers from different parts of the globe and of all age groups, curiously checking out the vestiges of a culture that was once very much part of the native population. And the presence of the Jewish community in Mattancherry is vindicated by the nearby Jewish Cemetery, which has tombstones written both in Malayalam and Hebrew.

Getting there:

Nearest railway station: Ernakulam, about 10 km from the synagogue.
Nearest airport: Cochin International Airport, about 30 km from the synagogue.
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