The oldest of the Jewish communities in India is located in Cochin. Most historical accounts indicate that traders from Judea arrived in the city in 652 BCE, and that an additional influx of exiles arrived after the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70CE.

 

 

Central to the history of the Cochin Jews was their close relationship with Indian rulers, where they lived without any anti-Semitism from the local Hindu population. (Anti-Semitism did occur when the Portuguese controlled the area). This relationship is codified on a set of copper plates granting the community special privileges which included permission to live freely, build synagogues and own property without any conditions.

 

Tourists that walk the streets of Jew Town will easily come upon the small synagogue located on Mattancherry Street. The Paradesi Synagogue, the oldest active synagogue in the former British Empire, was built in 1568 by descendants of Sephardim that were expelled from Spain in 1492 and Dutch Sephardic Jews. The synagogue has a decorative interior reflecting the traditions of the many cultures that existed along the trade routes in Southern India: European, Chinese, Middle Eastern and Indian.

 

For those interested in a more information of the Jews of Southern India can travel less than 25 miles to two small towns, Chennamangalam, and Paravur, where remnants of their synagogues are under restoration.

 

Archaeologists believe that the Jews migrated to Chennamangalam around the mid-thirteenth century with

the first synagogue built in 1420.  They believe the current synagogue was built 1565 and repaired in 1621.  On the ground floor is a central tebah made of intricately-carved and painted/gilded teak. In the courtyard behind the synagogue there are old Jewish graves, including one inscribed Sarah, Bat Israel dating from the mid-thirteenth century; it is the oldest text in Hebrew discovered in the region to date.

 

With the restoration of the synagogue underway, the former synagogue was readapted as India’s first Jewish heritage museum with a permanent exhibition on the history of the Chennamangalam Jews and their synagogue.

 

In Chennamangalam it is written that one of the Paliath Achams (hereditary Prime Ministers to the Maharajas of Kochi) was responsible for the construction of four places of worship in the village: a Hindu temple, a mosque, a church and a synagogue. It was a testament to the tolerance of the area where all four religions co-existed for centuries.

 

 

In Paravur region, the synagogue is located on the former Jewish Street where the Jewish community settled close to the Paravur Market. The synagogue was built in 1615 CE, but Cochin traditions state that it was built on top of a ruined synagogue built in 1165 CE and was burned down by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

 

                             

 

The synagogue's last service was in 1988 when the last of the Paravur Jews left for Israel. In 1996 the synagogue was declared a protected monument with restoration beginning in April 2010 and ongoing. The complex comprises of two buildings - the double storied entrance building and the main synagogue separated by an open space.