The Paradesi Synagogue is the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth of Nations, located in Kochi, Kerala, in South India. It was built in 1568 by the Malabar Yehudan people or Cochin Jewish community in the Kingdom of Cochin. Paradesi is a word used in several Indian languages, and the literal meaning of the term is "foreigners", applied to the synagogue because it was historically used by "White Jews", a mixture of Jews from Cranganore, the Middle East, and European exiles. It is also referred to as the Cochin Jewish Synagogue or the Mattancherry Synagogue. The synagogue is located in the quarter of Old Cochin known as Jew Town, and is the only one of the seven synagogues in the area still in use. The complex has four buildings. It was built adjacent to the Mattancherry Palace temple on the land gifted to the Malabari Yehuden community by the Raja of Kochi, Rama Varma. The Mattancherry Palace temple and the Mattancherry synagogue share a common wall.
The Malabari Jews formed a prosperous trading community of Kerala, and they controlled a major portion of World wide spice trade. In 1568, the Jews of Kerala constructed the Paradesi Synagogue adjacent to Mattancherry Palace, Cochin, now part of the Indian city of Ernakulam, on land given to them by the Raja of Kochi. The original synagogue was built in the 4th century in Kodungallur (Cranganore) when the Jews had a mercantile role in the South Indian region along the Malabar coast now called Kerala. It was later moved to Kochi from Kodungallur.
The first synagogue of the Malabari Jews in Cochin was destroyed in the Portuguese persecution of the Malabari Jews and Nasrani people of Kerala in the 16th century. The second synagogue, built under the protection of the Raja of Cochin along with Dutch patronage, is the present synagogue. It is called Paradesi synagogue because it was built with Dutch patronage at a time when Kochi was under Dutch occupation, thus the name paradesi synagogue or "foreign synagogue". In 1968, the synagogue celebrated its 400th anniversary in a ceremony attended by Indira Gandhi, the Indian Prime Minister.
Social Composition And Traditions:
The Paradesi Synagogue had three classes of members.
- White Jews were full members. The White Jews, or Paradesi Jews, were the recent descendants of Sephardim from Holland and Spain.
- Black Jews were allowed to worship but were not admitted to full membership. These Cochin Jews were the original Jewish settlers of Cochin.
- Meshuchrarim, a group of freed slaves who had no communal rights and no synagogue of their own sat on the floor or on the steps outside. However, in the first half of the 20th century, Abraham Barak Salem, a meshuchrar, successfully campaigned against this discrimination.
As is normal for Orthodox Jewish synagogues, the Paradesi Synagogue has separate seating sections for men and women. The Paradesi Synagogue is the only functioning synagogue in Kochi today with a minyan. In conformity with the Hindu, Nasrani and Islamic traditions of Kerala, the worshippers are required to enter the Paradesi Synagogue barefoot. Other facets which are unique to the Cochin Jewish community, and which are results of Hindu influence, include special colors of clothing for each festival, circumcision ceremonies at public worship, and distribution of grapes soaked myrtle leaves on certain festivals. In addition, the Cochin Jews currently have no rabbis, as the community is led by elders. The synagogue is also open to visitors; the ticket-seller, Yaheh Hallegua, is the last female Paradesi Jew of child-bearing age.