International Survey of Jewish Monuments
ISJM Jewish Heritage Report
Volume II, numbers 3-4
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ISJM Members Helen & Abe Sirkin Carry out Reconnaissance Survey of Kerala Jewish Sites

In December of 1998, a survey of important Jewish sites in Kerala, India was undertaken on behalf of ISJM. The following is a summary of the report submitted.

Introduction to the Synagogues:

All the synagogues visited in Kerala - Chennamangalam, Mala, and Ernakulum - have similar traditional architectural features: a central bimah of brass or silver metal on a concrete or stone base, an ark on the western wall, a balcony above the eastern entry to the sanctuary that is used by the reader on certain holidays. Behind the balcony is the women's gallery, with a stairway leading up to it, usually from outside the building.

Parur:

The Parur synagogue was used for worship as late as May/June of l998. Almost every member of the community emigrated from Kerala to Israel in 1954. The synagogue dates back to 1615 and is built on the ruins of a synagogue that, tradition claims, was built in 1165. The synagogue is approached turning from the main street of Parur onto Jews' Street. At the entrance to this street, two 10' tall granite pillars still stand on either side of the street. They announced, in the old days, that only Jews entered here; Jews lived in a self-imposed ghetto.

Synagogue in Parur, Kerala (India). Photo: Helen Sirkin

The synagogue architecture is attractive; there's a pillared entryway that leads from the two rooms at the entrance from the street to the main entrance door of the synagogue in the small courtyard beyond. The wood doors are interestingly and gracefully curved at the upper side of closure point. (This style is also found in Mala.)

The original bimah and ark were taken to Israel in 1995 and reconstructions of the originals have been installed in their place. The floor and benches are in need of repair and restoration. The balcony and its decorated and gilded supporting beams are painted and currently in good condition. The stairs to the balcony have unusual flat, shaped supports for the railing. The roof tiles have deteriorated allowing water to leak into the building. The exterior base, the windows, and the doors all show damage from the monsoons, from dampness and from lack of maintenance.

Mr. Joseph Simon looks after the synagogue and he and his small family live in the front entrance rooms.

Chennamangalam:

The synagogue in Chennamangalam was built in 1614. At the time that the surveyors visited the synagogue, no one with a key was present. They were unable to enter the synagogue. Much repair and restoration is visibly needed around the exterior of the building, including the clearing of overgrowth and weeds. The synagogue is located in a peaceful wooded area. I.S. Hallegua reports of the tomb of a lady, dated 1264 C.E., in the courtyard.

Cleaning and restoration are both needed given the interior's appearance from outside through windows. The bimah is gone and few repairs and little maintenance have been offered. The ceiling has typical carved wooden rosettes in rows running east and west. The old Ark remains, with traditional Malabari carved entablature. It has, however, broken sections that are in need of repair and restoration. The entrance door is surmounted with a carved and painted half-moon wooden decoration of a menorah and olive trees, previously documented by the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem. There are also some damaged benches and a dusty circumcision chair. The synagogue was closed when the entire community migrated to Israel in l955. The trustee is Aaron Aron of Synagogue Lane in Cochin.


Synagogue in Chennamangalam, Kerala (India). Photo: Helen Sirkin

Mala:

Located at the intersection of two bustling small-commercial streets, and set now behind a row of shops, up a narrow unkempt alley, the Mala synagogue is a handsome stretch of yellow building with three traditional upper windows looking out from the main sanctuary. An outside balcony on the second level looks out on the intersecting streets below. Corners of the building, plaster over stone and brick, are broken and walls on the sides show the usual need for maintenance typical of this tropical climate. Inside the sanctuary, everything belonging to the synagogue has been removed-most of it taken by the community to Israel. Local authorities now use the space for meetings and events. Exterior steps lead to what was the women's gallery, two stories up, looking down on the courtyard well and broken roofs.

Ernakulum:

Thekkambagham Synagogue (1580, rebuilt in 1939): This large, denuded synagogue has lost both bimah and Ark, the latter being replaced by a characterless yellow brick tile structure. It is, however, the one synagogue in Ernakulam that is sometimes used for services if former members of the community visit from Israel. The Ark and bimah were taken to Israel (along with the Torah scroll), on the assumption that everyone in that community would come. Five families, members of this synagogue, still remain in Kerala or in Madras.

Kadavumbagham Synagogue (1200, restored 1790s): Members of this community feel that they might have been the original recipients of the copper plates which legend dates to the 4th century as the Paradesi synagogue was not established until the 16th century. There was a minyan here until 1972. In 1973, the Torah scrolls were all taken to Nevatim, Israel. The 161 members of this community had already emigrated in 1953 - but in the '30s and '40s there had been as many as 2000 members!

In 1985, Josephai Elias, now the trustee/caretaker of this synagogue, set up his nursery "Cochin Blossoms" at the entrance to the synagogue which is now on Market Road, a few stores down from Jew Street. Today, one reaches the synagogue through a lane of blossoms and plants, into Josephai's office on the first of two floors of what was a yeshiva, a structure added on to the original synagogue building as a place for children's education and adult study of Torah and mishnah. This lane makes an attractive approach to the synagogue and the nursery provides livelihood for the only member of the one family community who can care for and protect the synagogue.

Walking across the contemporary construction of a roof over a side alley leading from the synagogue courtyard, the Cochin architect Jacob Cherian speculated that this alley would have been the primary entrance off Jew Street into the courtyard and the main entrance to the synagogue. The synagogue thus would have been the central imposing structure from Jews' Street, flanked by the simple pitched roof houses of the Malabari community.

The Ark is handsome, with two steps leading to the platform; there is entablature in the pediment area, carved, gilded, with dark red background and white paint highlighting the two columns on either side of the doors to the ark. A few lamps remain, hanging from the wooden rosette-decorated ceiling and in the arc of a window or two. The bimah, of the traditional Sephardic style and made of a silver-tone metal, was stolen. One red glass chandelier hangs over the denuded base of the bimah, and crystal pieces of another chandelier are stored in wooden boxes.

Kadavumbagham Synagogue, Kerala (India). Photo: Helen Sirkin

The walls are approximately 18 inches thick, and there are generous windows, not only the three along each side at the floor level of the sanctuary, but also two large, shuttered windows on either side of the ark. All the windows on the floor level are tall and arched. Attractive wooden benches with simply carved backs cry for cleaning and polish. The main structure of the balcony is intact, with need for floor repair and the reconstruction of posts for the interior balcony of the women's section. The ceiling, wider and more handsome than the ceiling of the Paredesi synagogue, is decorated with gilded carved wooden rosettes, typical of most of these synagogues, but here more striking and well-preserved. There are brass pillars that serve as the entrance supports to the balcony. The inner aspect is spacious; there are a few lamps and one candelabra still hanging. A multitude of long metal hooks hang from ceiling rosettes, waiting for lamps and the second candelabra to be re-hung. Belgian glass lamps are behind benches and could be dusted, washed and reassembled if brass holders could be made and/or reconstructed. The main gate was stolen in 1979. While the roof has been kept in basic repair, more work is needed.

The Kadavumbagham Synagogue building (1554-59) in Cochin, Jew Street, south end, is now a warehouse. The community moved to Israel in 1955 and the building and grounds were sold to local Indians.

Cemeteries:

Chennamangalam/Parur: The surveyors were unable to uncover any tombs or markers, though there may be some under heavy growth on the hillside area out from Chennamangalam.

Mala: Marked as a Jewish cemetery with a clear sign over the entrance gate in English and Malayalam, the site is protected by the townspeople; a framed black sign inside the gate lists the three trustees of the cemetery, from Chennamangalam and Ernakulum, who deeded and handed over the cemetery to the Mala Panchayat on April 1, 1955. There is currently no Jewish community left in Mala. The cemetery is in two sections of land; in the first, there were three tomb stones - two were in the first section of open field, one was partly hidden under a cashew tree. The second section - at least twice as large - lies beyond the first on higher ground that is separated from the first by a stone wall, has no graves or tombstones. A court edict, brought about by petition from the Ernakulum Jewish community, has kept the town from using this spacious part of the cemetery area for a soccer/play field. The cemetery is located in a central residential area of Mala and is flanked on either side by attractive residences.

Ernakulum: The cemetery, surrounded by compound walls on all four sides, lies in an open space across from St. Teresa's College and Convent and a newly constructed shopping mall. It is registered in the name of the Kadavumbagham Synagogue and the Thekkumbhagam Synagogue. Overgrowth of vines and weeds makes it almost impossible to locate graves, although mounded areas probably indicate tombstones and one is barely visible

Cochin: Little is left of the Malabari cemetery in Mattancherry, now located in the compound of a (non-Jewish) family house. It consists of a collection of gravestones set within a tomb-shaped concrete structure about 6'x 8', used by the family to spread out wet mats or other items to dry. This compound is on the corner of the Brown Jews' Cemetery St. and the side road that leads to the tomb of Nehemiah Ben Abraham, a revered local prophet whose tomb (early 17th century) - the last intact and well maintained remnant of the oldest Jewish cemetery in Cochin - brings worshippers of all religions to pay their respects.

The Madras Cemetery: This cemetery is on Lloyd's Road, a poor market area of the road west of the Marina Fish Market, and contains stones moved from the old Mint Street Cemetery (Isaac Abendana Sardo, Madras Hebrew Merchant, d. 10 May 1709; Abraham Salomons, beloved merchant etc., d. V June, MDCCXLV; Salomon Franco, Merchant from Leghorn, d. 26 Yiar A.M 5523º). It is adjacent to the Chinese cemetery and both cemeteries have clusters of vendors and squatters with vegetables displayed on the road itself at the entrances. Esther Cohen was buried here in l964 and Isaac Joshua's wife Miriam in l998.

The wall of the cemetery is in need of repair and construction: some deteriorating base areas need to be reconstructed and the intrusion of a tree growing into a section of the wall needs to be dealt with; the wall itself needs to be raised to match the height of the Chinese cemetery wall in order to prevent intruders from climbing over. The gate of the cemetery is rusted and insubstantial and needs to be replaced with something more dignified.

Guarded in the past with the help of Walter Wolff (deceased) and Sally Solomon, now of London, England, the cemetery is in the trusteeship of Isaac Joshua, resident of Madras, member of the Thekkumbagham synagogue and president of the Association of Kerala Jews.


International Survey of Jewish Monuments
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Last updated: January 4, 2003