Exploring the lanes

We learned there’s a historic synagogue in Kochi and on our first day exploring the chaotic market Jack spotted it tucked away down a long alley. We were surprised to see a tropical fish shop inside, and the doors to the sanctuary locked.

This is the Kadavumbhagham Ernakulam Synagogue, by some accounts the oldest of the synagogues of the Malabar Jews, establish about 1200. It holds only occasional services and to visit you have to make an appointment with the caretaker. We hadn’t.

When we moved over to Fort Kochi we were interested in visiting the other oldest synagogue, and we hired a tuktuk to drive us to the area called Jew Town rather than hoof it in the Kerala steam heat.

We’re at the end of the tourist season, good because there are no crowds, bad because many businesses have already shuttered for the season. Luckily the synagogue is still open for visitors.

This is the Paradesi Synagogue and as you can see, it claims “oldest in the Commonwealth” status.

Before you enter the synagogue there’s a small gallery of drawings, paintings, and maps illustrating the history of the Jews on the Malabar coast. The congregation of this synagogue are descendants of the Sephardis who were expelled from Iberia in 1492. The Malabar Jews and the Sephardic Jews maintained their separate cultural identities. After India gained its independence most of the Malabar Jews emigrated to Israel, and most of Paradesi Jews emigrated to other commonwealth countries, leaving only a small congregation here.

The synagogue is small but lovely, filled with artifacts and antiquities from its long history. The elaborate crystal chandeliers are Belgian; the hand painted blue willow porcelain floor tiles are Chinese. The provenance and significance of nearly every feature is detailed in small plaques.

Kochi is part of the old Indian Ocean trade route that includes Singapore, Malacca, Penang, and Zanzibar. We’ve loved visiting these crossroads for the lasting imprint in architecture and culture left by the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, English, Arab, and West African traders. Kochi was, and still is, known for spices and textiles.

Back at the beach we explored the back streets, graveyards, and old and new art as our remaining time in India grew short.

Every time we walked to dinner we passed an intriguing sign: Jail of Freedom Struggle. There was an iron gate and a uniformed guard. We decided to see what it’s about.

The guard let us in and walked us around the compound. It’s not clear when the jail was built or who it housed but it’s believed to have been a transit jail where freedom fighters were held before being moved to other facilities. There are eight small cells with concrete slabs for beds. Pretty gruesome.

Back when we were in Delhi our food tour guide told me all the spices except saffron are grown here in Kerala. I figured I should buy some fresh local spices to take back, but knowing the strict customs regulations on bringing plants and plant products across the border I looked for packaged spice mixes that have a better chance of being allowed. I consulted our guesthouse host and he invited his own spice supplier to bring us some samples. She grows and dries the spices and creates her own blends. Everything smelled so good and I bought more than will fit in our tiny campervan, and some for friends and family too.

We bought even more spices from this lady down the street who had our favorite peppercorn mix and an intriguing ginger coffee that I couldn’t pass up.

With only one more day left we watched our last Arabian Sea sunset before dinner, and peered through the fence at a wedding party on our way home. I’ve barely stopped smiling since we got to India and I can’t believe it’s almost time to go.

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One Response to Exploring the lanes

  1. Celeste Gainey

    India is the heart of the world! Congratulations on seeing so much of it!

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