The blue-tiled Cochin synagogue… No two are identical. The tiles from Canton, 12″ x 12″ approx ‘orted by Ezekiel Rabhi in the year iioo CE, covered the walls and ceiling of the little synagogue. Legends had begun stick to them. Some said that if you explored for long enough i your own story in one of the blue-and-white squares the pictures on the tiles could change, were changing generation by generation, to tell the story of the Cochin Jews. Still others were convinced that the tiles were prophecies, the keys to whose meanings had been lost with the passing years.
Scene after blue scene passed before her eyes. There were tumultuous marketplaces and crenellated fortress-palaces and fields under cultivation and thieves in jail, there were high, toothy mountains and great fish in the sea. Pleasure gardens were laid out in blue, and blue-bloody battles were grimly fought; blue horsemen pranced beneath lamplit windows and blue-masked ladies swooned in arbours. O, and intrigue of courtiers and dreams of peasants and pigtailed tallymen at their abacuses and poets in their cups. On the walls floor ceiling of the little synagogue.
— Salman Rushdie
These words from Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh suddenly sprang to life in my head, dancing their way into the vision of blue that we were walking on inside the Jewish Synagogue. The floor is a blue of brilliance. A blue of blue skies. The ones with puffy clouds of happiness floating merrily. The blue of soft felt blankets. The blue of freshly spilled ink dripping slowly into the blue of oblivion. It’s a strange experience when after you read about a place and have dreamt up images of it in your mind’s eye, you finally see it. It’s like you walked right into the pages of that book you never wanted to put down. The feeling that the place never existed before the writer gave life to it with his words. Like the words made the place real.
The Jewish Synagogue in Fort Kochi was always on my list of places to see after I read the enchanting descriptions of it in Rushdie’s book. So, I could barely contain my excitement all through our lovely walk to the Jew Street. The paths leading up to the synagogue transports you into another world. A tourist-targeted experience of course, with its quaint antique shops housing everything from priceless treasures and pretty baubles to nostalgia-ridden spices. But as you walk through the winding lanes, past the captivating window displays and ignore the empathetic sales pitch of every store-appointed lurer on the street and observe more closely, you will find a cultural encounter beyond the ones designed for tourists.
Amidst the sea of Kashmiri vendors selling the India experience in souvenirs, you see them. The Kochi Jews. The subtle difference in their voices and the intonations of their words. The downward slope of their sharp noses. The tell-tale signs of anthropological features different from ours. On enquiry we find out that the Jews have been a part of Kochi’s landscape for centuries now. And while the Kochi Jews are a dying tribe now, what with only nine families left behind now, their cultural flavours and legacies seem to have infused in the very air that hangs over Mattancherry.
After all, the Cochin Jews, known as the Malabar Jews, some of the oldest Jewish settlements in India, were said to have been in India since the time of King Solomon. By the 12th-13th centuries, they started building synagogues in India. A major migration was said to have happened somewhere in the 16th century, when Sephardi Jews following an expulsion from Iberia due to Catholic persecution made their way to Cochin. The Raja of Kochi, Rama Varma, not only gave them refuge, but granted the Malabari Yehuden their own land for them to trade (spices, mostly), live, laugh and love in. They spoke an interesting mix of Mayalam, Hebrew , Tamil and Malayalam — Judeo Malayalam. And they built the beautiful Jew Town with its quaint blend of cultures, the now old and colourful buildings and the a whole subculture. By the end of 16th century, the Malabari Jews were a flourishing community in Kochi, growing in numbers with the arrival of refugees from the Portuguese religious persecution of Jews from Cranganore, Spain and Portugal.
To cater to the needs of this growing congregation, they constructed their first synagogue in Cochin that was destroyed during the Jewish oppression by the Portuguese. The second one, the existing one, known as the Jewish Synagogue or Paradesi (foreigner) Synagogue was constructed under the protection of the Raja, in 1568 by Samuel Castiel, David Belila, and Joseph Levi, adjacent to the Mattancherry Palace temple. In fact, the temple and synagogue share a common compound wall.
We walked right past the tourist traps, getting our five seconds of television fame in the process. There happened to be a BCCI video team shooting the sights and sounds of Cochin for a montage to be broadcast before a cricket the match the next day. Yes, we were in it!
We then arrived at the Synagogue lane, a narrow street that is lined with houses that were once occupied by the Jews. Now they are all mostly curio shops on the ground level, but a glance up, reveals windows of what would have once been happy homes bustling with activity. Windows into another world. Straight ahead at the dead end of the lane is a clock tower. Not a part of the original structure, the clock tower was built in 1761, incorporating Dutch and local influences. The three dials, painted blue, show the time in Malayalam characters, Roman numerals and Hebrew letters.
After depositing our bags at the cloak room right under the clock tower, we made our way to the entrance of the synagogue’s inviting whitewashed compound on the left wall along the street. Right opposite the entrance is a massive iron gate barring an open area on the right — once used as a playground by the Jewish children — from the general public.
The synagogue has strict timings — 10 am to 12 noon; afternoon – 3 pm to 5 pm. And stricter policies against photography. We had to take off our footwear (Not a Jewish practice, but a result of local adaptation), bought our tickets from this no-nonsense woman at the counter, a certain Yaheh Hallegua, who at 40, is the youngest female Paradesi Jew in Cochin, among the few families remaining there. A series of oil paintings in the entry room of the synagogue narrate in images the history of the Jews in Kochi.
Then, we walk inside. And the blue envelopes our senses. Over a thousand blue and white Chinese tiles, said to have been imported by Ezehiel Rahabi in the 1760s, with their hand painted, willow-patterns, each slightly different from the other. Some say they depict a love affair between a Mandarin’s daughter and a commoner. The effect that the sea of blue tiles has on that small synagogue space is quite remarkable, really. Benches line the sides of this room adorned beautifully, housing a central podium where the Torah scrolls are routinely read and the service is conducted. When you manage to take your eyes off the arresting tiles, you will notice the glass lanterns hanging from the low ceiling. In multiple jewel colours, these lanterns share space with Belgian glass chandeliers.
Post independence, by 1950, most of the Jews migrated back to Israel and today, only a handful of families remain. In an earlier era, these streets would have been devoid of hawkers and eager tourists and would have been the heart of the community. Where the Malabar Jews met to eat, pray and love. Where Hanukkah, Passover, Yom Kippur, weddings and Bar Mitzvahs would be celebrated with much gusto and fervour. Today, the synagogue is the oldest functioning Jewish house of prayer in India, yet it is struggling to even complete the most basic religious activities for the lack of minyan (a quorum of 10 Jewish males required to perform religious rites). Today, the remaining Malabari Jews are just ancient curios, much like the antiquities in the touristy stores surrounding the area.
While we were strolling around, we stumbled upon the Police Museum housed in the headquarters of India’s only Tourism Police Station. It showcases police history from the era of the erstwhile kings of Travancore to today’s times when a whole department of police has been designated only to safeguard the interests of tourists. An enthusiastic cop, Ajmal, who takes great pride in his job, walked us through the exhibits, ranging from the evolution of the police uniforms to the different types of ammunition that were used, all housed in the clean and beautiful quarters of the police station. Ajmal spoke in length of his family, his desire to visit Goa and how being posted as a tourist police feels like a holiday from the everyday hardened life of a cop. We bid him goodbye and walked some more, soaking in the quaint beauty of the Mattancherry area.
We continued exploring the Jewish streets and the Mattancherry area to see what other treasures and tales awaited for us. Old doors and spice stores. Stray goats and art cafes. Quaint antiques and bistros. It was quite a heady mix.
We stopped only to peek into the closed gates of the ancient Jewish cemetery. Or to admire a colourful wall here. An old building there.
Strolling along Jewish streets of Mattancherry, Fort Kochi, gives you the feeling of being privy to a living museum of antiquities and historical legacies. The secrets that the stones hold, the stories that lie behind the locked doors and the faces that lived on those roads will always remain enigmas. The price paid for dying cultures and fading tribes. Of laughter lost, languages faded and lives forgotten.