Kochi's Jew Town: The treasure trove of Jewish culture & history

Kochi’s Jew Town: The treasure trove of Jewish culture & history

Jew Town: The treasure trove of Jewish culture & history in Kochi paradesi synagogue spice market antiques heritage hotel 30stades

It was in 1492 that the Edict of Expulsion in Spain asked Sephardic Jews to either convert to Christianity or leave the country. The persecution of the Jews forced many of them to emigrate from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) to the Indian subcontinent. Some of them settled down at Kochi and came to be known as Paradesi (foreigner) Jews.

The Sephardic Jews, also called White Jews, who came to India in the 15th and 16th centuries, built their first synagogue in Kochi in 1568 on the land given by the King of Kochi. Called the Paradesi Synagogue, it is adjacent to the Mattancherry Palace.

Kosh

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Paradesi Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in India and also among all the Commonwealth nations.

A clock tower was added to it in 1760 and its conservation work was completed in 2015.

The area in Kochi where Sephardic Jews lived, prayed and flourished for over 400 years is called the Mattancherry Jew Town. It is a top tourist destination not only because of its 453-year-old synagogue and the 120-metre lane that houses it but also because the town is home to some of India’s finest shops selling antiques, spices, wood carvings, vintage collectables and much more.

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Only three or four Sephardic Jews now remain in Jew Town in contrast to 100 years back when every household was Jewish.

At the peak, the Jew Town was home to about 3,000 Jews in the 1940s and 1950s. Most of them migrated to Israel after it was established as a nation in 1948.

Most Jew mansions have long arched windows with hardwood floors and high ceilings. Smaller houses have rectangular windows with ironwork. Some of the Jews sold their houses to locals while many just locked them and went away, to never return.

A lot of these dilapidated houses became the source of antiques for the dealers in Jew Town. Many Jew houses have been converted into heritage hotels, like the Koder House, some have become cafés while some others are used as warehouses.

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Kochi (earlier Cochin), due to its coastal location, has long attracted traders from all parts of the world, becoming a cultural melting pot over the centuries. It is renowned for its spices trade and not surprisingly, huge spice shops still welcome buyers with the aroma wafting through the air. Here are pictures of the Paradesi Synagogue, spice market, antique shops and Jewish homes from Kochi:

Inside the Paradesi Synagogue where prayers are now held only on special occasions because there are just 4 or 5 Jews in Jew Town now. Pic: Wikipedia
Inside the Paradesi Synagogue where prayers are now held only on special occasions because there are just 4 or 5 Jews in Jew Town now. Pic: Wikipedia
Clock tower was built adjacent to the synagogue in 1760. Its restoration work was completed in 2015. Pic: Flickr 30stades
Clock tower was built adjacent to the synagogue in 1760. Its restoration work was completed in 2015. Pic: Flickr

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Jew Street in Jew Town with houses that were home to 3,000 Jews at the peak in the 1940s. Pic: Flickr
Jew Street in Jew Town with houses that were home to 3,000 Jews at the peak in the 1940s. Most of them have been converted in shops, cafes or warehouses. Pic: Flickr
The house of Sarah Jacob Cohen, who was a prominent member of the Jewish community and famous for her hand embroidery as well as keeping alive the Jewish tradition of wearing kippah -- a brimless cloth cap. She passed away in 2019 at the age of 95. Pic: Flickr
The house of Sarah Jacob Cohen, who was a prominent member of the Jewish community and famous for her hand embroidery as well as keeping alive the Jewish tradition of wearing kippah — a brimless cloth cap. She passed away in 2019 at the age of 95. Pic: Flickr

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Koder House was constructed in 1808 by Jewish patriarch Samuel Koder of the Cochin Electric Company. It was last occupied by Jewish community patriarch Satu Koder and his daughter Queenie, who sold it to the present owners. They have converted it into a heritage hotel while retaining the name Koder House. Queenie also left for Israel some years back. Pic: Flickr 30stades
Koder House was constructed in 1808 by Jewish patriarch Samuel Koder of the Cochin Electric Company. It was last occupied by Jewish community patriarch Satu Koder and his daughter Queenie, who sold it to the present owners. They have converted it into a heritage hotel while retaining the name Koder House. Queenie also left for Israel some years back. Pic: Flickr
Inside the Koder House, which has been made in the hybrid Indo-European style found in many old buildings of Kochi. Pic: Flickr
Inside the Koder House, which has been made in the hybrid Indo-European style found in many old buildings of Kochi. Pic: Flickr

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An antiques shop in Jew Town Kochi. Most of them stock antique items sold by Jews before leaving for Israel. Pic: Flickr 30stades
An antiques shop in Jew Town Kochi. Most of them stock antique items sold by Jews before leaving for Israel. Pic: Flickr
Since Kochi, earlier Cochin, has been welcoming traders from across the world, antiques from old families often find way into the shops. Though no more home to a large community of Jews, the Jew Town has a good mix of Muslim, Christian and Hindu population even today. Pic: Flickr
Since Kochi, earlier Cochin, has been welcoming traders from across the world, antiques from old families often find way into the shops. Though no more home to a large community of Jews, the Jew Town has a good mix of Muslim, Christian and Hindu population even today. Pic: Flickr

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Kosh
Kochi has been a centre for global spice trade for centuries. And continues to be so even today. Outside a spice shop in Jew Town. Pic: Flickr
Kochi has been a centre for global spice trade for centuries. And continues to be so even today. Outside a spice shop in Jew Town. Pic: Flickr
Spices at a spice shop in Jew Town. Pic: Flickr
Spices at a spice shop in Jew Town. Pic: Flickr

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Dilapidated Mandalay Hall, which once housed a Jew trader's family. They had extensive trade relations with Mandalay, the erstwhile royal capital of Myanmar and named their house after the place. Pic: Flickr
Dilapidated Mandalay Hall, which once housed a Jew trader’s family. They had extensive trade relations with Mandalay, the erstwhile royal capital of Myanmar and named their house after the place. Pic: Flickr

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