Prayers at synagogue stopped after most of its members left for Israel

The Paradesi synagogue at Mattancherry receives several thousand visitors every year from all over the world. People flock to Jew Street to catch a glimpse of the well-preserved 16 century synagogue and the descendants of the Paradesi Jews who still follow the old customs. Not many know, however, that a second synagogue older than the Paradesi synagogue still stands just a few metres from it. At the other end of Jew Street stands the Kadavumbhagom synagogue, a 463-year-old prayer hall of the Cochini Jews.

When the Moors attacked the Jewish settlements near Kodungalloor, known as Cranganore or Shingly in Jewish texts, the people fled to the port town of Mattancherry to seek refuge. There were at least four synagogues in Mattancherry in the old days, says historian P.M. Jussay in his book ‘The Jews of Kerala.’ These are the Kochangadi, Kadavumbhagom, Paradesi and Thekkumbhagom synagogues. (There are two other synagogues — the Kadavumbhagom and Thekkumbhagom synangogues on Market Road in Ernakulam — that are less known but are just as important.)

The Kochangadi synagogue in Mattancherry, says Mr. Jussay, was enlarged by a community leader named Baruk Levi in 1539. But the synagogue was abandoned in 1795 a few years after it was destroyed by Tippu Sultan’s soldiers. The Thekkumbhagom synagogue, on the other hand, was demolished in the 1950s after most of its congregants left for Israel. All that stands are the Paradesi and Kadavumbhagom synagogues. While the Paradesi synagogue remains popular as a tourist attraction, the Kadavumbhagom synagogue has almost faded from memory. A portion of the synagogue, which earlier stood right at the coastline, was removed to construct the road in front of it. The building passed into private hands after the Jewish residents sold it while they left for Israel.

The first owner used the place of worship to store prawns, a food item forbidden to Jews. The building was later used to store coir products. Today, this centuries-old archaeological monument is used as a cattle shed by its current owner. The stench of cow dung, unkempt surroundings, and obscene graffiti on its shutters drive away curious visitors. Only a small board at the entrance set up by ‘The Friends of Kerala Synagogues’ gives any indication of the historical significance of the building.

“Private persons have carted away whatever was inside the building. It’s an important monument. Shouldn’t the government protect this synagogue?” a local resident asks.

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