The Fort Kochi neighbourhood is immersed in nostalgia. As you walk along the narrow lanes lined with pastel-coloured houses, you will eventually reach your answer of why Kochi is also known as the “battleground of Europe”.
The Dutch, British, French, Portuguese and Jewish chapters from the city’s history can be read on the walls of most buildings. Even though most of it has been reclaimed by native inhabitants post Independence, traces of the culture left behind continue to exist. Of them all, the area previously home to the Jews has been able to conserve its erstwhile identity the best.
History of Jew Town
How and when Jews arrived on the Malabar coast is a contested subject. One version suggests that the first Jews came in the lure of India’s flourishing spice trade. These traders were from the kingdom of King Solomon. This is challenged by another version that suggests the Jews arrived from Israel between the 6th century BC and 1st century AD or Majorca in the 5th century AD.
However, the Jew Town’s origin concerns the arrival of Sephardic Jews between the end of the 15th and 16th centuries due to the Edict of Expulsion enacted in Spain.
Even though it is believed that Cranganore or Kodungallur was their first home, the Jews were quick to disperse and settle in Kochi, propelled by various social, economic, and political developments. These Jews came to be known as Paradesi (foreigner) Jews among the natives. As they flourished, their culture came to be embedded in Kochi’s social fabric–the Paradesi Synagogue, considered one of India’s oldest and Kochi’s first, is a symbol of seamless assimilation.
An Avenue For A New Life
The Jews have had a strained history, having been persecuted from their homes several times. In Kochi, however, they could finally lay a claim to peace and acceptance and build a life that reveals itself in the buildings, shops and culture.
There’s no obvious way of knowing when you’ve entered the Jewish part of the area. Sure, the cursory blue signage marking the beginning of Jew Town exists, but it’s easily missed while trying to find your way between cars and cycles crammed in a lane. However, even before seeing the board, the houses subtly give it away if paid attention to.
Once you come across one house with the Star of David painted in bright colour right above the main door, that’s all you’ll see on the buildings lined ahead. That’s how you know you’ve entered the Jew Town.
Even though no official boundary separates the part of the town where white Jews lived from where the blacks lived, the differences are glaring. The latter precedes the part officially known as the beginning of the Jew Town, despite the Star of David shining bright on each facade. A five-minute walk through the neglected part lets you into the more flourishing one, where all the boutiques, cafes and the Paradesi Synagogue are.
This stretch is your haven for lovers of all things antique and vintage. The most famous shops here are Crafters, home of the largest uruli in the world and Sarah’s Hand Embroidery Jewish Shop, where you can find delicately embroidered handkerchiefs and kippah.
It’s been a while since the Paradesi Synagogue has hosted a prayer session, for it demands that at least ten men be present. However, due to the dwindling Jewish community, comprising just two people now, the possibility of ten men congregating before the prayer time is close to none.
Once home to a burgeoning Jewish population, the area has lent itself to tourists. It has ceased to be a haven for those relegated to an alien land and gone on to become an attraction and a testament to Kochi’s diversity.