By Bala Menon
The Paradesi synagogue complex in Mattancherry's Jew Town comprises several different structures connected in various ways to the main worship hall. Many of these are not in active use. Once you enter the first inner room of the synagogue (thallam in Malayalam) - through a doorway in a wall connected to the clock tower - there is a small corridor leading to a rectangular room on the right. This was earlier intended and used as a store-room. Today, it is a gallery of emotionally valuable, framed canvasses dating to 1968, commissioned to mark the 400th anniversary of the building of the Paradesi synagogue.
During the anniversary celebrations, guests who saw the paintings included then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi, and other dignitaries of the day - Governor of Kerala V. Viswanathan, Chief Minister E.M.S. Namboodiripad, his cabinet ministers, vice-chancellors and professors from various universities from India and abroad, diplomats, filmmakers and journalists. It was estimated that more than 100,000 people viewed the paintings and an exhibition of Cochin Jewish artifacts that were put on show.
The first painting is of a typical Kerala marketplace (angadi) by the sea, obviously in Shingly (modern day Kodungalloor which was once known as Muziris, the entrepot of the world). Shingly was the beloved and legendary ancestral home of the Cochin Jews. Goods being traded include spices, coconuts and ivory and the caption goes like this: "There was trade between King Solomon's Palestine 992-952 B.C.) and Malabar coast. The Biblical name for India was 'Odhu (Hodu). Teak, ivory, spice and peacock were exported to Palestine."
The Cochin and Travancore kingdoms merged to become Tiru-Kochi on July 1, 1949 and the Maharajah of Travancore, Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, became Rajapramukh (Royal Chieftain) of the new state. The ruler of Cochin refused to accept any title - except that of Valiya Thampuran (a respectful title of Big Lord) and surrendered all his royal powers. On November 1, 1956 the district of Malabar joined Tiru-Kochi to become the new state of Kerala.)
It is poignant that today, there are more paintings hanging on these walls than there are Cochin Jews in Jew Town.
© 2011, Bala Menon - All rights reserved. Please write to me if you want to reproduce the pictures.