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Story of the Jews of Kerala & Reminiscence through their Synagogues in Kerala

Updated: Nov 17, 2023

Who is this Jew? Not a tribe that perished. Though all the rulers of all the nations of the world since eternity had crushed, disgraced, exiled and drowned them. They walk this planet, gloriously, Protected by Divinity.

Story of the Jews of Kerala dates back to a period between the destruction of the First temple and the second temple marked the beginning of the exile of Jews - The Assyrian exile, fabled as the era of the lost tribes of Israel. Based on biblical and traditional chronology the time period in discussion would be 587 BC.

Cochin Jews maintains the tradition that in the first century, after the destruction of the second temple, Jews in large number was received by the then Hindu Ruler who allowed them to settle in the country where majority of them chose Cranganore or Shingly as called by the Jews.

Cranganore called by the British now called Kodungallur, or as called Shingly by Jews and Muziris by the Greek is found to be the First colonization of the Jews, which has three supporting theories. One, the exodus of the Jews from Persia; two, Kerala Jews to be the descendants of the tribes taken into captivity by Shalmanezer; and three, descendants of the Jews taken to Babylon by Nebuchandnezar. The bigger picture here is that all theories amidst of contradiction states a similarity. Be it time period, maritime route, spice or exile. Not forgetting to mention the few direct evidences of a Jewish settlement on the South –West Coast of India during the first century of the Christian era.

The Anjuvannam (anchuvannam) guild issued by the Cheraman Perumal, King of the modern day region of Kerala is another proof of existence of the Cochin Jews; this guild is defined as a "body of west Asian traders". The original copper plates of this guild are secretly housed in Paradesi Synagogue of 1568. This Synagogue is the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth of Nations.

The oldest Jewish community in India, Yehudey Kochin or Kochinim commonly known as Malabari Jews, who traces their roots to King Solomon and the 16th century Sephardic Jews, has held on to their ethnic traditions; with nearly 70 percent dilution in their Middle Eastern ancestry. If 2000 years of seafarers and trade has benefitted them; Civil wars and Colonial invasions have taken its turn too.

A family photo of Cochin Jews
A family photo of Cochin Jews

They suffered the most under the Portuguese rule in India. Their houses and shops in Muziris were looted. This drew the final curtain of Jewish settlements in Kodungallur. However the Dutch who captured Cochin from Portuguese were tolerant to all trading communities like Arabs and Jews. Once again there was Jewish migration from Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. A very small number of Malabari Jews and Pardesi Jews together form the Jewish community of Cochin. However, they aren’t Homogeneous. Though Malabari Jews traces their ancestry to King Solomon’s era and the Pardesi Jews who arrived from other parts of the world since 16th century live separately within the community. As it is in Israel.

It is the Jewish Business savoir faire that engaged them in the trade of goods like pepper, muslin, pearls, ivory and diamonds. However the giants floods of Periyar in the 14th century made them leave Muziris for Cochin. The same era witnessed a huge migration of Jews from Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Yemen and Germany. They were known among the locals as Pardesi Jews or White Jews. The existing Jews were known as Black Jews. Cochin Jews had an indispensable role in cultural mapping and culture shaping of Cochin.

Paradesi synagogue at Mattancherry
Paradesi synagogue at Mattancherry

The Pardesi synagogue and Jew town today stands in the land granted by the then Rajah of Cochin, Keshava Rama Varma. Post-Colonial period, Cochin witnessed an ardent act of favors being returned by the Jewish Community to a society that accepted and stood by them all the time.

The story of the Jews since millennia till today can only be concluded with two names; Koder and Hallegua. The Koder’s were the Pardesi Jews who migrated to Cochin from Iraq. Mr.Samuel Koder was the honorary consul to the Netherlands; the family was like mini-royalty in Cochin. The Koder house is one of the frequently witnessed landmark in Fort Kochi. Samuel Koder, his brother Elias Koder and their beloved sister Lilly Koder had a deep impact in the cultural evolution of this colonial town Cochin.

The Cochin Electric Company run by Sattu Koder later taken up by the government (Samuel was lovingly known as Sattu) was responsible of bringing in Street lamps to Cochin. They initiated the Ferry service in Cochin. Lilly Koder was the first Lady to have a membership in the British Cochin Club. Lilly Koder had a very prominent role in setting up united club, Laurel Club and Lotus club. Samuel Koder was the warden of The Pardesi synagogue for 40 years; he was followed by His daughter Queenie’s husband Mr. Sammy Hallegua. They sold of the Koder House and are living in Jew Town. Now, Yael Hallegua; the youngest Jew of a very tiny Jewish community takes care of the synagogue. Sadly with her ends the marvelous and exotic lineage of Pardesi Jews in Cochin.

Sarah Cohen
Sarah Cohen

Sarah Cohen passed away in 2019, the eldest Jew of the Pardesi Jewish Community lovingly known as Aunt Sarah was an explanation to the rest of the world about Cochin’s tolerance to multiculturalism.

At Present there are four protected synagogues in Kerala. The Mattancherry Synagogue works more like a monument for visitors, There is a Synagogue in broadway and two synagogues are like protected monuments, religiously inactive. The Paravoor Synagogue, which is preserved as a museum and the Chendamangalam Synagogue is maintained by the tourism department of Kerala.

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