Much of Cochin drips with history and atmosphere, but the most romantic part, for us, is not the colonial architecture and churches of Fort Cochin but the merchants of Mattancherry and Jew Town. Along a main road alternately permeated with the scent of ginger, pepper and chili, hundreds of shops and warehouses continue business as they likely have for centuries, trading in the riches of Kerala’s agriculture. Nearer the center of Jew Town, and on and near Synagogue Lane in particular, antique shops and Kashmiri carpet salesmen take advantage of the newer trade with domestic and international tourists, trying to greet each in their guessed mother tongue.
Jew Town now has only thirteen Jewish residents, but throughout much of Cochin’s history was the center of a large and prosperous Jewish community. Kerala’s first Jews arrived possibly before Christ and are called the “black” Jews. Later “white” Jews arrived later and flourished especially during the tolerant Dutch era in the 17th and 18th centuries (after suffering persecution under Portuguese control).
Our brush with one of the thirteen came when we visited the synagogue (the largest and best renovated of several which existed in and around Cochin). A young lady who collected the Rs 2 (~10 cent) admission, she explained that most of the Jews had moved to Israel, where they are dispersed but keep in contact with one another. [Wikipedia reports that there are Cochin Jewish synagogues in Israel–these may be interesting to visit.] She wouldn’t allow us to take her picture, but her outside appearance was typically that of a European Jew, showing that however long her family had lived in India, there did not seem to have been much intermarriage. [The flight of Jews from distant native lands to Israel is something we had heard of before, with the Falashas of Ethiopia. In some cases we assume that the decision is economic, but a contemporaneous survey of Cochin Jews showed that a principal concern was finding suitable coreligious marriage partners.]
Jew Town may no longer be Jewish, but religious pluralism survives, with Christian and Muslim places of worship steps apart hidden among the merchant houses (and no doubt Hindu ones also close by). The merchants themselves were also mixed, seemingly with no faith dominating particular lines of goods. [Although this may not have been true historically–I have read reports that Christians at certain point dominated the important pepper business.] Holy Cross Church, which at present appeared to be Anglican, is said to have been established in 1550 and has the layout of an Indian place of worship, with a more or less typical church contained within a small structured compound which is entered (barefoot) through a small shrine area. [See also my blog on Syrian Christians for an important historical event at this site.] A lady at the entrance sold religious paraphernalia.