Who Owns Paradesi?

Who Owns Paradesi?


Monumental Sites and Historical Ownership

The Paradesi Synagogue in India: a light building in a small alleyway.
The exterior of the Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin, India, via the Indian Jewish Heritage Center

It is often difficult to determine to whom a structure belongs. History may show that a building is under the authority of one group, while another faction of people lays claim to it because of their own historical declarations. It might be that there is no one to lay claim to a structure, or the ownership is so blurred that there is no group that can clearly declare possession. Organizations have been created to monumentalize certain buildings of historical significance so that their importance is not lost and to aid in the continuation of the building’s place in national and cultural threads, even through shifts in power. The World Monuments Fund and its subset, the Jewish Heritage Grants Program, are organizations that recognize that once a building falls from the forefront of public recognition, it often needs to be monumentalized and ownership needs to be defined so that its purpose is not lost, regardless of any history of contested or hazy ownership. When a building becomes a monument, does it maintain its original purpose, or does its purpose change in accordance with the people who choose to preserve it? As a structure monumentalized by the World Monuments Fund and the Jewish Heritage Grants Program, the Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin, India has both maintained its original purpose as a place of Jewish heritage and cultural significance, while also becoming a place of mixed ownership due to the necessity of its preservation as a historical site.

The Paradesi Synagogue is without a doubt a significant landmark in Cochin, regardless of its religion or historical ties or the lens through which one views it. However, history has shaped the synagogue and these external factors affect the “ownership” of the Paradesi Synagogue and its usage. The Jewish community of Cochin claims to have existed in Cochin for two thousand years, and the Paradesi Synagogue has existed for less than half of that time. However, for the entirety of its existence, who has “owned” the synagogue remains a question. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, different Jewish groups within Cochin fought for equal access to the synagogue, in order to pray there and engage in the site as a place of religious purpose. In a modern context, the site has become a place of tourism and a last connection to the once flourishing community that existed in there, as the Jews have mostly moved away.

There is physical proof of the Paradesi Synagogue’s history; however, for the purpose of critical analysis in this paper, it is important to note that the majority of texts written on the building have been through the lens of Judaic Studies. Thus, while the texts I have used provide a comprehensive record of the Paradesi Synagogue, describe its importance, and help answer why it is significant in addressing questions of ownership and purpose, one must constantly examine the facts with a critical eye. Although the World Monuments Fund and the Jewish Heritage Grants Program were not necessarily geared towards a preservation of “Judaism,” it is often difficult to separate religious purpose from the mission of the preservation. Thus, while answering the questions I posed, it is important to acknowledge that there are multiple perspectives interacting, in my paper, as well as around the heritage and purpose of the Paradesi Synagogue.

To answer the questions and claims that I have posed above, we must address the history of the Paradesi Jews, the synagogue itself, and examine some of the landmark’s physical attributes. The ancient Jews of Cochin (excluding the Paradesi Jews who came later) are arguably the oldest Jewish community in India, with roots dating back to the time of King Solomon. Their heritage maintains a twofold loyalty, both to their ancient home in Israel, as well as modern-day India, showing the power of a connection to a place or site.1 Although the evidence of this older community is extremely important in understanding the way that Cochin Jewry has developed over centuries, the more prominent Jewish community directly connected to the Paradesi Synagogue is constituted of the Paradesi Jews, also known as the White Jews.2 The distinction between Jews of different skin colors ultimately proved to be a harmful one, as issues of race and caste emerged, even within the seemingly tightly knit Jewish community.

Paradesi Jews hailed from Europe in the sixteenth century and settled in India after fleeing the hostile environment they faced in their homeland of Spain.3 Although their culture was strong and remained so even in their new homeland, the Paradesi Jews adopted many customs of neighboring communities, such as traditions from Hindus and Muslims; yet they still maintained their own heritage, including Orthodox customs from Europe.4 The Jews were no stranger to adversity; having survived attacks in their own homeland, in Cochin, they then survived more attempts at invasion by the Dutch, the Portuguese, and the British in the sixteenth and seventeenth century.5 Cochin Jews were insulated for centuries, and it is true that very few Jewish communities worldwide had managed to sustain themselves for so long. Upon the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, many, if not most, of the Cochin Jews left to make Aliyah (immigration to Israel).6 However, the landmarks that were so central to the Cochin Jewish community remained and began to deteriorate.

Although the Cochin Jewish community flourished prior to the fifteenth  century, the Spanish Inquisition did in fact result in an influx of Jews to Cochin, thus shaping the way in which that Cochin developed.7 There are claims that “the Spanish Jews came to Cochin in the year 1512, in which place they settled down with their synagogue which is the one they have today.”8 The synagogue that this statement refers to is the Paradesi Synagogue, the only synagogue in Cochin that is still in use today. Constructed in 1567 by Spanish and Dutch Sephardic Jews, it is the oldest known Synagogue in India and the entire British Commonwealth that remains a place of functioning religious activity.9 It is located at the end of Synagogue Lane in the Jewish Quarter of Cochin, a spot that was once the center of Jewish life.10 Even today, it stands as a symbol of the once flourishing Jewish community in Cochin, but over time, that community has dissipated as newer ones have sprung up throughout India and the world.11 When translated from Hindi, the word “Paradesi” means foreigner, a title appropriate for the origins of the synagogue, especially given the fact that the Jews of Cochin were given special permission from the Raja to build the structure. 12, 13 This begins to raise questions, such as, who does the structure actually belong to? The Paradesi Jews were lucky that the Cochin Raja desired a strong relationship with their community, as he believed it would benefit his rule.14 However, because they were allowed to build the synagogue under his jurisdiction and funding, does the building belong to him, or is it under the complete ownership of the Jewish community? One can see different religious and political entities interacting with each other and the authority over the synagogue becoming blurred before it is even built.

Furthermore, there were internal conflicts within the Jewish community itself that led to more questions of ownership. The Paradesi Synagogue was originally under the control of Sephardic Jews from Spain who believed themselves to be elite and of a higher class. This created a significant amount of strife between various Jewish groups who comprised the Jewish community of Cochin, such as the Malabar Jews and Meshucharchim (slaves freed by their Jewish owners and later converted to Judaism); each believed that they had as much of a right to pray in the synagogue as the White Jews.15 However, because the Paradesi Jews wanted to keep the Paradesi Synagogue pure, they attempted to prevent other groups from praying there, in order to assert dominance and ownership over the structure.[Ibid.] Thus, we return to the question of whether or not the synagogue originally belonged to the Paradesi Jews who, in conjunction with the Raja, might have provided a significant amount of the funds to build the structure, the Jews of have a longer and deeper history in Cochin, or if it is a site for all those who desire to take part in its religious or physical significance. One can see, however, that the site was a scene of significant communal angst amongst the Jews of Cochin and it is ultimately unclear to whom the synagogue actually belonged. Who had the right to assert ownership over the communal space remained a question for centuries, and despite the fact that the issue was never fully resolved, it dissipated slightly as the Jewish community began to dwindle in the late twentieth century.

The Portuguese destroyed the Paradesi Synagogue in the seventeenth century, but the current Synagogue bears striking similarities to the original structure built in 1567.16 The entire complex is a rectangular shape, made of four buildings enclosed within compound walls.17 A clock tower was added as an addition to the synagogue in 1761, and rises forty-five feet tall, marking the space as a site of significance amongst the generally low rising structures that surround it.18 The clock tower has faces telling time in three languages, Hebrew, Latin, and showing that the synagogue may or may not be a place of many heritages.19 At the time of the Paradesi Synagogue’s original construction, the synagogue was built approximately thirty feet from the Raja’s private temple, so that both prayer services could be heard in the two places of worship.20

Characteristic of Kerala and Cochin synagogues, the Paradesi Synagogue is a whitewashed, two-storied building, with a plain wooden doorway that one must walk though. The doorway is as high as the synagogue’s first story.21 After passing through the doorway, one is enveloped in a courtyard that surrounds the building, providing a sense of separation between the place of prayer and the chaos of the outside world. The courtyard has its own religious purposes, such as serving as the site of the afternoon Haqafot during Simchat Torah.22 As is customary in most traditional Orthodox synagogues, there is a stairway that leads to a separate space for the women’s section and a different entrance for the main synagogue.23 However, unlike most synagogues, the women’s section in the Paradesi Synagogue does not directly overlook the men’s section. 24

In addition to serving as a place of prayer, the Cochin synagogue is also a site of cultural history for Jews and non-Jews alike, housing artifacts and paintings that speak to the narrative of Cochin Jewry, as well as others who have passed through.25 Brass oil lamps hang alongside Belgian crystal chandeliers, contributing to the multicultural and foreign feel of the synagogue, while the floor is paved with eighteenth-century Cantonese tiles.26  The tiles that line the floor are blue and white, traditional colors for materials exported from China.27 Tzedakah (charity) boxes and silver pitchers used by the priests to wash their hands and feet line the thick walls; each window has a seat below it to provide comfort for people who enter to pray.28 Located in the center of the room are brass posts supporting a rail surround the bimah (stage for prayers); this is the location where prayer books, prayer shawls, and the five books of Moses are kept while they are used during services.29 Wooden benches line the interior walls, except for the northwest one, where the ark housing the remaining Torah scrolls is located.30

Because of its cultural significance and its place as a site of historical importance, the Paradesi Synagogue attracted the attention of the World Monuments Fund. “Dedicated to saving the world’s most treasured places,”31 the Word Monuments Fund began in 1965. Its goal was to function as a nonprofit organization devoted to preventing the acceleration of the destruction of important artistic treasures throughout the world.32 The purpose of the World Monuments Fund is to restore, protect, and preserve sites deemed culturally important by the organization that will propel cultural progression. Founded by James A. Gray, his original vision was to conserve the foundation of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The organization has been enormously successful, with more than six hundred projects in over ninety countries. Projects include the preservation of the Mughal Gardens of Agra, the Ani Cathedral, and the  Preah Khan Temple, among others.33 In 1996, the World Monuments Fund began a project in which they documented the status of the Paradesi Synagogue, a structure much in need of conservation. They oversaw the cleaning and repainting of the clock tower, the installation of a mechanism to replace missing devices within the structure to ensure the function of the piece, and the rehanging of the brass bell that had been sitting on the floor of the entryway to the Paradesi Synagogue for several years.34 However, the emphasis on the clock tower and the preservation of the physical attributes of the building seem to ignore the Paradesi Synagogue’s purpose as a religious site.

As mentioned above, there are few mentions in the World Monuments Fund’s description of its conservation of the Paradesi Synagogue of the Synagogue’s purpose as a place of worship. Thus, it is difficult to ignore the question of why the Paradesi Synagogue in particular is a place that deserved conservation. Indeed, it is a site of cultural and historical significance, but so too, are dozens of other sites, also in need of preservation, throughout the world. Because the World Monuments Fund is a privately owned organization, one can see that the preservation of the synagogue was not necessarily propelled by a Jewish or Indian agenda; rather it came from an outside source. Although both the remaining Jewish community of Cochin and Cochin as a town might have benefitted from the interference of the World Monuments Fund, this does not necessarily mean that that either group asked for the World Monuments Fund to take over conservation. This also sheds light on the question of the synagogue’s ownership. Because the Paradesi Synagogue has now been officially monumentalized, does this mean that the World Monuments Fund can assert a claim? Is it still under the ownership of the dwindling Jewish community in Cochin, or does it belong to the greater town of Cochin, given the fact that it falls within their town and therefore, one could assume, the Cochin government’s jurisdiction?

It is with the creation of a subset within the World Monuments Fund that one begins to understand the selection of the Paradesi Synagogue as monumental site. The Jewish Heritage Grants Program was created upon the realization that sites of Jewish heritage were being destroyed or in ruin after the onslaught from World War II.35 Founded in 1988, the Jewish Heritage Grants Program “set out to identify preservation priorities, launch conservation initiatives, and create a constituency drawn not only from the Jewish diaspora but from concerned citizens around the globe to underwrite the restoration of precious monuments in need.”36 The program was aimed at preventing the destruction of Jewish cultural legacy. Although not a program funded solely by Jews, there was specific emphasis on Jewish sites, including the Temple Synagogue in Krakow, Poland and the Boskovice Synagogue in the Czech Republic.37 Due to the success of the World Monuments Fund, the organization set up a section to focus on Jewish sites throughout Europe, with several exceptions, such as that of the Paradesi Synagogue in India. There is little mention of the religious function of the site, an interesting choice as the Paradesi Synagogue is still in use; therefore, one would assume that the religious use of the site would be at the forefront of its preservation. Thus, perhaps the preservation of the synagogue becomes aimed at a commercial purpose, for tourism or governmental prosperity, as opposed to religious or cultural appropriation. And therefore, one can see the confusion that occurs when a building becomes a national site or is taken under the jurisdiction of an organization that aims to preserve the monument but might not have any historical ties to the building. The building is in danger of losing its original purpose.

Although other once-prominent Jewish sites in Cochin have fallen into states of neglect, the Paradesi Synagogue remains today, as a prominent place of tourism. Only on few occasions is it used solely for prayer, but the reparation of the structure has led to a revitalization of tourism in the area.38, 39 The synagogue might not have the same purpose it did when it was constructed six hundred years ago. However, it seems that regardless of the site’s importance as a structure within Cochin’s history, it remains a Jewish site, as evidence by the work of the Jewish Heritage Grants Program. Because the Jewish Heritage Grants Program focused on the site specifically and is a subset within the World Monuments Fund, it appears that the powers within the organization recognized the site’s importance as a place of Jewish history. The Jewish Heritage Grants Program claims the site, desiring it as a way for Jews and non-Jews to be able to embrace the site “as part of their legacy as citizens of the modern world.” [ World Monuments Fund, Jewish Heritage Grants Program.] The Paradesi Synagogue has been monumentalized by numerous programs and heritage groups and although its purpose as a religious site is dwindling, it remains a place of cultural significance for more than just one group of people, thus showing the necessity of its preservation as a historical site.

  1. Katz, Nathan, Who Are the Jews of India? Berkeley (Calif.): U of California, 2000, Print.
  2. Fernandes, Edna, The Last Jews of Kerala: The 2000-year History of India’s Forgotten Jewish Community, New York, NY, Skyhorse, 2015, Print.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Katz, Nathan, and Ellen S. Goldberg, The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India, Columbia, U of South Carolina, 1993, Print.
  7. Segal, J. B., A History of the Jews of Cochin, London, Vallentine Mitchell, 1993, Print, 21.
  8. Segal, J. B, A History of the Jews of Cochin, 21.
  9. “Dedicated to Saving the World’s Most Treasured Places,” World Monuments Fund, N.p., 01 Jan. 1966, Web, 09 Apr. 2017.
  10. Katz, Nathan, Who Are the Jews of India?, 40.
  11. Fernandes, The Last Jews of Kerala: The 2000-year History of India’s Forgotten Jewish Community.
  12. Katz and Goldberg, The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India, 39.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Fernandes, The Last Jews of Kerala: The 2000-year History of India’s Forgotten Jewish Community.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Katz and Goldberg, The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India.
  19. Ibid, 81.
  20. Fernandes, The Last Jews of Kerala: The 2000-year History of India’s Forgotten Jewish Community.
  21. Katz and Goldberg, The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India, 74.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid, 79.
  25. Ibid, 74.
  26. World Monuments Fund. Jewish Heritage Grants Program, World Monuments Fund, World Monuments Fund, World Monuments Fund, Web, 6 Mar. 2017.
  27. World Monuments Fund, Jewish Heritage Grants Program.
  28. Katz and Goldberg, 74.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid, 77.
  31. Dedicated to Saving the World’s Most Treasured Places,” World Monuments Fund.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Ibid.
  35. World Monuments Fund, Jewish Heritage Grants Program.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Katz and Goldberg, The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India, 289.
  39. Dedicated to Saving the World’s Most Treasured Places,” World Monuments Fund.
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