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The Burning Lamp of the Synagogue in Cochin

Photo: Sadiq Zafar

By Sadiq Zafar

South Asia’s beautiful landscapes reveal the imprints of its diverse heritage and culture. While traveling through the Great Escarpment, one could see minimal presence of human interventions on the Western Ghats. Every turn uncovers layers after layers of natural beauty which has its own historicity. Exploring the south western tip of the Indian peninsula, one reaches the most urbanized state of India, Kerala, popularly known as God’s own country.

Kerala is a province that sits in the lap of nature. It’s known for the earnestness of its people, the scent of spices, and homemade chocolates. One important urban agglomeration in Kerala is Cochin, one of the largest port cities in India, having shipyards, container terminals, and witness to numerous sea activities.

The biennale event in the Jewish town

The biennale event in the Jewish town

Historically Cochin has witnessed many foreign invasions including Portuguese, Dutch, and British. And to experience this cultural confluence, tourists from across the globe flock to the city in large numbers. Meandering lanes bifurcate the waterfront leading to Mattancherry, a residential area on the fringes of Cochin. As a historic human habitat, Mattancherry is home to Jewish settlements, a synagogue, and a Jewish graveyard. Jews live here in consonance with people from other religions. Since this place was once the center of Cochin Jewish community, the tourists, especially Jews, flock to the area to experience the past traditions of a dwindling community.

View of the street leading to the Synagogue

View of the street leading to the Synagogue

The formation of the state of Israel in 1948 and recognition of the state by the United States on the same day became a source of encouragement for the Jews from around the world to migrate to the newly formed state. India too witnessed the exodus of Jews from its soil and the number of Jews dropped at such an alarming rate that the population in this Jewish settlement can now be termed almost extinct. While many moved to Israel, some married outside the community here. Thus, on the basis of ethnicity and complexion, it is easy to identify the Malabari-Jews and the White-Jews. 

The historic 'Pardesi' Synagogue

The historic ‘Pardesi’ Synagogue

Lanes lined by curio and boutique shops lead to the famous Jewish settlement of Cochin. At one end of the settlement, one could see the synagogue, which is popularly known as the Paradesi Synagogue. As one enters the synagogue, a lady with curly hair greets every visitor with a smile. She is a White-Jew, and one of the few remaining Jews in Mattancherry. She sells entry tickets to the synagogue, while entreating the visitors to respect the sacred place.

The style of architecture of the synagogue and the use of materials are very vernacular, resulting in a climate responsive architectural end-product. The very first thing we notice is the presence of a red cloth at the backdrop of the front wall, a central lamp surrounded by circular seating, and a raised platform meant as a separate seating arrangement for women. Huge window panes on the side walls make way for cool breezes to soothe the visitors and comfort them from the hot and humid climatic conditions. Many architectural students come here to study the settlement pattern, the synagogue, and the whole ambience of the Jewish community.

The arrival of Jews in India in the pre-colonial era, their stay during the colonial rule, and then their migration to a new state make for a fascinating story. However, their migration is a humiliating event for a democratic nation like India as it somehow failed to weave their rights within the constitutional framework. Plurality and diversity are the strengths of any progressive state. Being a democratic state, India has a responsibility to make this minor religious community feel at home and help preserve their diminishing population.  .

Let’s keep the lamp of the synagogue burning.

Sadiq Zafar is an urban planning graduate from the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. He specializes in architectural and planning research. Having authored a book on sustainable development, worked with a reputed national research institute, he has served as an assistant professor in a central university. A social worker and writer, Sadiq sees education as a medium to liberate young minds in order to achieve harmony in society.


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