Heritage Travel

Jew Town, Kerala- the oldest Jewish settlement in India

Jew town is an age old settlement of Jewish people in Kochi, Kerala; with some estimates going as early as the 6th Century BCE.
Teeming with antique, textile and handicraft shops; Jew Town, a remnant of India’s colorful history, today stands as a testament of inclusion, of culture, of taste and of humanity.

Table of Contents:
Jew Town at a glance
  1. How to reach
  2. Where to stay
  3. Best time to Visit
  4. Timing

History of Jew Town
Present day Jew Town
My trip to Jew Town
  1. Shopping in the Jew Street
  2. The largest cooking vessle
  3. Paradesi Synagogue
  4. Inside the Synagogue

India is a diverse country with numerous religions, some ancient some contemporary. It however came as a pleasant surprise to me when I came to know about an old Jewish community, who built and settled in a small town around the Malabar coast in Kerala.

A typical tour of Jew Town leads to the Paradesi Synagogue, which was first established in the 16th century. It is the oldest Synagogue in India, visited by scores of Jews from around the world.

Jew Town however is a museum in itself, showcasing evidence of its cosmopolitan past. Narrow, stone cobbled path, colonial era buildings, colourful walls with numerous murals. Though there are very few Jews left in the town today, it reeks of human history like no other in Kochi.

How to Reach:
Jew Town is situtated in the Mattanchery area of Kochi. It is easily accessible by Bus, Cabs, Auto Rikshaws from anywhere in Kochi. Do remember that vehicles are not allowed inside the Jew Town, so a walk of about a killometer is needed to reach the Synagogue.
Kochi itself is well connected to the rest of the country by Frequent Trains and Flights.

Where to Stay:
Kochi being the cultural and commercial hub of Kerala, accommodation is not an issue at all. There are so many hotels/B&B that there is always a vacant room somewhere. All hotel aggregators like MakeMyTrip, Yatra, and have options of booking hotels online.

Best Time to Visit:
Avoid the summers at all cost, that set in by April to the end of May, the temperature and humidity will kill you.

Jew Town is open throughout the day however there are timings for the Synagogue. It Remains Open from 10 am to 12 noon and 3 pm to 5 pm. The Synagogue is closed on Saturdays and Jewish holidays

History of Jew Town:

As per some accounts, the first Jews arrived at the Malabar Coast around the 1st century BCE as sailors on King Solomon’s boats. They settled in the ancient port city of Muziris, now modern-day Kodungallur, 28 miles north of Kochi. They were welcomed by the then King and over time were provided everything from land rights and exemption from taxes to religious freedom and special ceremonial privileges.

In 1341, the flooding of the Periyar River, led the Malabari Jews south to present-day Kochi. By the 16th century, fleeing from the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions, a second wave of Jewish immigrants arived from Middle East and North Africa seeking refuge. These Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews came together to form the second community — the Paradesi Jews (Paradesi means foreign in Malayalam and Hindi).

Paradesi Synagogue, was established by these Jews in the year 1568. In the year 1662, it was destroyed by the Portuguese and then reconstructed by the Dutch 2 years later. Since then it has stood the test of time. It underwent a renovation in the year 1760, and that is when a clock tower was added to it.

Present day Jew Town:

The Jewish community thrived in Jew Town, living side by side with the local Malayali community over thousands of years. However when Israel was established in 1948, most of them preferred to leave and settle down in the Jewish homeland. They left behind their houses, their shops, and their mark on Jew town.

Gradually local communities took over the businesses and houses left behind by the Jews, bringing life back to the streets of Jew Town. Currently only a few Jews are left here, however a lot of them come from around the world to walk the streets once walked by their ancestors, to experience the life they once had and to pray in the oldest Synagogue of the Commonwealth.

My experience of Jew Town:

A short walk from The Dutch Palace of Mattancherry, led me into a narrow street surrounded by colonial era buildings. A sign board on the entry read “Jew Street”, followed by a few more that pointed in the direction of Jew Town.

I looked around and it felt I have stepped inside a time capsule. Houses painted in bright blues, yellows and greens with slanting tiled roof, had an old world charm about them and a look that spoke of the people and the times. The walls of some houses were flaking, while some were coloured more recently. Small windows with wooden blinds, handcarts, and a maze of electrical wires on top. All the traits of an age old settlement were on display and in full glory.

The road was narrow, and stretched house to house, as a result 2 wheelers belonging to residents and shopkeepers were the only ones allowed on the road. The initial part of the road was covered in asphalt, which gave way to a narrower stone cobbled path as we went deeper. The old world charm was even more profound as the houses looked even more ancient.

Shopping in Jew Street:

Curio shops have opened up on many of the houses, which dealt in spices, antiques and handicrafts. It’s hard to resist the temptation of indulging in shopping when you are surrounded by so many colorful shops. I had always had a soft corner for antiques, but never the pocket for the same. I tried to bargain my way into a lock that looked amazing, the shopkeeper however didn’t budge.

Almost everything on the street looked overpriced, probably because they are aimed at foreign tourists. Shops on Jew Town are now owned by Kashmiris, Rajasthani and Local businessmen. Some shopfronts however bear placards written in Hebrew, an attempt at resonate with the groups of Jews who come to visit the Synagogue.

A jewish lady who goes by the name Sarah Cohen, is probably the only known Jewish business owner now a days. She is 90 years old now and owns a small embroidery shop “Sarah’s Hand Embroidery” near the Synagogue. The window of her home, which is also the shop, bears the Star of David, and the door has a Mezuzah both a symbol of the Jewish heritage. The store itself sells kippas, table cloths, halah cover etc.

World’s largest cooking vessel:

An interesting artefact in the Jew Town is an Varpu. It is a traditional cooking vessel, which looks vaguely like a frying pan minus the handle. This particular Varpu placed inside ‘Crafters Antique Shop’, costed Rs. 7 lakhs to make and claims to be the largest cooking vessel in the world.

It is made up of Bronze, is 12 ft wide and weighs around 3500 Kgs. It took 30 craftsmen, 13 months to build this vessel. Later 100 more artisans joined in to give the final touches. It officially entered the Limca Book of Records in the Year 2012.

The Paradesi Synagogue:

Scouring through the shops, clicking photographs, I reached the end of the street where the Synagogue stood. The most recognizable aspect of the Synagogue is the Clock Tower that stands tall at 45 ft. The number 1760 is inscribed on the clock, marking the year in which the clock tower was created.

Few things to note:

  1. The devotees or visitors are expected to enter the Jewish Synagogue bare feet.
  2. The strict dress code requires men to be in trousers and full sleeved shirts; women must wear skirts extending below the knee while visiting this place of Jewish worship.
  3. Photography is allowed but Video cameras are not allowed. 

Inside the Synagogue:

From outside, the synagogue looks like a plain white-washed tower, the insides however were exquisite. The first thing that captured my attention was the large hall with display of rare antique objects that add to the grandeur of the place. A few Belgian glass chandeliers dangled from the ceiling, belonging to the 19th century.

The floor of the synagogue was paved with hand-painted blue willow patterned floor tiles, each of which is different from the other in design. These were imported from China by a wealthy businessman and donated to the Synagogue.

A pulpit with brass rails is built in the centre of the room. An exclusive gallery for women with gilt columns, a carved teak ark etc can be seen in the synagogue.  The teak Ark houses four scrolls of Torah (the first five books of Old Testament) and they are encased in silver and gold. Two gold crowns presented to the Jewish Community by the Kings of Kochi and Travancore are also kept here. Sadly it was covered when I went there, so I googled and found this image.

What’s inside the ark. Pic curtesy Jewish Heritage Facebook Page

Another valuable possession of the synagogue is the copper plates belonging to the 4th century with inscriptions in Malayalam. The inscriptions describe the privileges granted to the community by the erstwhile Cochin king. It is written in kannadiyezhuthu script or mirror image writing. Sadly the plates are not on display anywhere, however one replica was gifted to the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu by his Indian Counterpart Narendra Modi in the year 2017. These are a good indication of how they actually look.

The replicas. Pic Curtesy: Kerala Tourism

In Conclusion:

With this jaunt down the lane of history it left some nice, warm, proud feelings inside me. The Jew town is a testimony to the fact that India has always encouraged the synthesis of different religions, races and communities. No wonder then that the Jews who lived here considered themselves Indians first.

Kochi’s Jewish community may be scattered around the world, in different parts of India, Israel, Europe, and America, but many remember their roots. And even if you take a walk around this curious neighborhood, its Jewish character is strong, and perhaps it will continue to leave its mark on Kochi’s local life.

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