Paradesi Synagogue
The Paradesi Synagogue is the oldest 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 Paraja, 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 1500s. 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 (though this minyan must be formed with Jews from outside Kochi, as the number who still reside there is not sufficient). 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.

Objects of antiquity
The Paradesi Synagogue has the Scrolls of the Law, several gold crowns received as gifts, many Belgian glass chandeliers, and a brass-railed pulpit. It houses the copper plates of privileges given to Joseph Rabban, the earliest known Cochin Jew, dating from the 10th century, written in Tamil on the two plates, by the ruler of the Malabar Coast. The floor of the synagogue is composed of hundreds of Chinese, 18th century, hand-painted porcelain tiles, all of which are unique. There is also an oriental rug, a gift from Haile Selassie, the last Ethiopian Emperor. The most visible part of the synagogue is the 18th century clock tower, which, along with other parts of the complex, underwent repair work between 1998 and 1999. A tablet from the earlier synagogue in Kochangadi in Kochi (built in 1344) is placed on the outer wall of the Paradesi synagogue. The inscription states that the structure was built in the year 5105 (in the Hebrew Calendar) as an abode for the spirit of God.

Thekkumbhagom synagogue
Another Cochin synagogue, the Thekkumbhagom synagogue, located on Jews Street in the Ernakulam area of Cochin, was built in 1580 and later renovated in 1939.

Building Activity