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Hurva Synagogue, Jerusalem, Israel
Pardesi Synagogue, Kochi, India - Famous Synagogues
115    Dibyendu Banerjee    10/07/2024

Located in a corner of Mattancherry Jew Town, a suburb of the city of Kochi in Kerala, Paradesi Synagogue was built in 1568 by the city’s prosperous Jewish trading community, originally consisting of Sephardic Jews, descendants of the White Jews, who had been exiled from Spain and Portugal almost 1500 years ago, and were referred to as Paradesi or foreigners.

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Built adjacent to the Mattancherry Palace, on land gifted to them by Kesava Rama Verma, the then King of Kochi, it is the oldest synagogue in India, as well as the entire British Commonwealth, and is the only one of seven synagogues in Kochi’s Jewish quarter still in use. However, as a repercussion of the consolidation of Portuguese power in western India in the mid-16th century, the city’s Jewish community had to face a turbulent period, as local officials of the Inquisition tried to eliminate the religion and eventually, the synagogue was destroyed by fire in 1662.

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Nevertheless, in 1663, with the subsequent Dutch settlement of the surrounding the Malabar Coast, the synagogue was rebuilt two years later. Today, the complex of the synagogue consists of four buildings enclosed within large compound walls.

pardesi synagogue kochi india

The structure of the age-old Paradesi Synagogue, an unimpressive white-walled rectangular building with a tile roof, is guarded by a couple of wrought-iron gates, decorated with the Star of David. The synagogue has an old-Dutch-style clock tower with four clocks, featuring four different numeral styles, namely Hebrew, Roman, Malayalam and Arabic, which was added much later, in the mid-18th century, by Ezekiel Rahabi, the principal merchant of the Dutch East India Company. Later, the dilapidated tower was restored between 1998 and 1999, along with other parts of the complex, by the reputed architect Karl Damschen, under the direction of the World Monuments Fund.

pardesi synagogue kochi india
The Entrance

The interior of the Synagogue with its divine halls, along with the rare antiques and architectural marvel, creates a stunningly mesmerising effect on the visitors.

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The natural sunlight that enters the room through big windows, are deflected at various angles creating beautiful patterns on the walls and floors. The exotic floor of the synagogue is made of hundreds of hand-painted blue willow patterned ceramic tiles, brought for the purpose from Canton, China in the 18th century by Ezekiel Rahabi, a renowned businessman from the Jewish community of the city. The uniqueness and difference in design of the tiles created an overall mystical aura, emanating from the entire place.

pardesi synagogue kochi india

Apart from the Belgian crystal chandeliers dangling from the ceiling, the synagogue is also decorated with several ornamental silver, brass, and glass lamps. A pulpit with brass rails, along with a carved teak ark, is located in the centre of the room. It also contains four scrolls of the Torah, encased in silver and gold, as well as two gold crowns, special gifts to the Jewish Community from the Kings of Cochin and Travancore, and a hand-knotted oriental rug, a gift from Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia. Another valuable possession of the synagogue is the copper plates belonging to the 10th century, gifted by the ruler of the Malabar Coast with inscriptions in Old Malayalam, displaying the special privileges bestowed to Joseph Rabban, the earliest known Cochin Jew.

pardesi synagogue kochi india
Jewish Ark at Paradesi Synagogue

Like many other places of worship, the Paradesi Synagogue also has separate seating sections for men and women, and the worshippers are required to enter the synagogue barefoot. According to its strict dress code, men should wear full shirts and trousers, while women have to wear skirts below the knee length. However, although the Paradesi Synagogue represents a significant historical period of the Jewish community in India, due to the dwindling number of Jews in Kochi, service is conducted only when the quorum of minimum ten adult members is met. Nevertheless, it is open for a fee to visitors as a historic attraction.

pardesi synagogue kochi india
Hurva Synagogue, Jerusalem, Israel
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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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