Beautiful South of India

by Andy Epstein

If I had only two words to sum up our recent visit to Karnataka and Kerala they would be surprise and delight. It is luxuriantly green and fertile with a wide range of landscapes from the vertiginous forested mountains of the Western Ghats to the brackish lagoons, lakes and canals of the Keralan backwaters.

 

To describe the entire holiday would take many thousands of words so for WSP purposes, I will concentrate on subjects of Jewish interest. Many years ago, on my first trip to Israel, I met some Bnei Israel Jews from Cochin so I was aware that there had been a Jewish community there but had no idea of the age-old interaction between Jews and Kerala. It is said that King Solomon sent traders to the Malabar Coast to bring back materials for the Temple and that there have been Jews in south India since that time.

 

Now very few are left. In Kochi (Cochin) there are fewer than nine resident Jews but with help from visitors they often manage to find a Friday night minyan for the one functioning synagogue left in the city. To visit the Paradesi shul, originally one of seven in Kochi, we walked through bustling Jew Town in the Mattancherry area, stopping on the way to call in at the one remaining Jewish-owned shop. We met Sarah Cohen, an 85 year old lady who sits by the doorway smiling and nodding to welcome visitors and encourage them to buy her embroidered challah cloths and kippot. How could we decline the offer to add to our ever-growing pile of decorative covers?

 

The 400 year old synagogue is open each weekday morning for tourists to visit. Bags and cameras must be left in a locker outside. Shoes must be removed in accordance with local custom at religious sites and also to protect the remarkable blue and white ceramic floor tiles. Each was individually hand-painted in Canton in the 18th century. The layout of the shul is familiar, with the ark on the eastern wall and a central bimah but in other respects is very different. The ornate wooden ceiling is painted in bright colours and hung with dozens of oil-burning Belgian chandeliers.

 

The intricately carved and painted teak ark has four scrolls encased in silver and gold on which sit richly jeweled solid gold crowns presented by the maharajas of Travancore and Kochi. Unusually we were permitted to see the ark opened because a film crew was there researching a documentary. Normally it remains closed to tourists. The community's proudest possessions are two copper plates which detail the privileges granted to the Jewish community during the 10th century.

 

We were amazed to learn that Kochi is not the only place in Kerala where synagogues were built. The morning after our visit to the Paradesi shul, we were taken about 40 kilometers north of the city to a place called Chennamangalam, sited in a lush area at the confluence of three rivers.

 

The hereditary prime minister of the Maharajah of Kochi built a palace on a nearby hill and instructed that places of worship for the four major world religions, a Hindu temple, a Muslim mosque, a Christian church and a Jewish synagogue should be built within view of the palace to demonstrate the religious tolerance of his people.

The Chennamangalam synagogue was constructed in 1614, during the period of the Portuguese Inquisition and the small community lived in harmony with the local people for hundreds of years. It is a rural area and the Jews engaged in agricultural occupations. Soon after the founding of the State of Israel, the entire community decided to fulfil their dreams and make aliyah. The building was left to deteriorate but in the late 1990s the Kerala Government decided to renovate synagogues and places of worship throughout the State. The work was completed in February, 2005.

 

Our driver found the caretaker who opened the building up for us and we discovered the remains of the inaugural exhibition showing the history of the community. The shul is similar in style and layout to the Kochi synagogue but far less opulent. I was able to go upstairs to the ladies' gallery where, like the Paradesi shul, there is a secondary bimah in front of the wooden mechitzah. All you can see through the heavy teak screen is a small diamond-shaped view - it would certainly have ensured modesty and concentration on worship.

 

We then found a local man who, for a small fee, took us to the neglected Jewish cemetery where cows now graze. He showed us a house that had been owned by Jews, pointing out the small oblong cavity where the mezuzah had been removed. We drove on to Parur, a small market town about 2 km further on and drove through the market buildings which, our driver told us, had once been owned by a Jewish family. We went to the Parur synagogue to find that it is currently being restored by the Kerala government. We were able to take a quick look around and were very impressed with the quality of the renovation and the care that is being taken to respect the antique structure.

 

It was sad to see these old places of worship empty but we learned that the Jews of Chennamangalam integrated well into the new State in Israel. At first, nearly all settled in moshavim but now many live in the cities. Some have made their mark on Israeli and world agriculture, including horticulture. Their children studied at institutes of higher learning in Israel and work as doctors, laboratory assistants, scientists and teachers. They retain great fondness for their homeland and keep in touch with old friends and former neighbours in Kerala.

 

Apart from the stunning scenery of southern India there is so much of interest to see and do, the people are warm and welcoming and the lifestyle seems very calm and relaxed. Our holiday was exhilarating and unforgettable and we can't wait to visit again.

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