Not lost, but forgotten

The heart of the once-thriving settlement, Jew Town is a bustling market space filled with trinkets that transport you to a bygone era.
Jew Street in Kerala's Mattancherry.
Jew Street in Kerala's Mattancherry.(File Photo)

KOCHI: When one searches for the abode of the Jewish community, most people would point to Mattancherry’s Jew Town.

The heart of the once-thriving settlement, Jew Town is a bustling market space filled with trinkets that transport you to a bygone era. The official website of Kerala Tourism will point you to this road that leads to the synagogue if you search ‘Jew Street’.

However, there is a Jew Street that hides in plain sight, smack in the middle of Ernakulam town. Not Jew Town, the actual Jew Street, faded from glories of history but one that safekeeps many tales of yore.

Stretching around 800 meters from Pullepady to the Ernakulam market, this Jew Street stands as evidence of a Jewish settlement outside Mattancherry. Connecting two major roads in Ernakulam — MG Road and Shanmugham Road (the road leading to Marine Drive) — this street was once a thriving Jewish settlement. However, now, the best way to find the street is to look at two cinema theatres, Padma and Sridar.

Once, there used to be two Jewish synagogues on the street — Thekkumbhagam synagogue and the Kadavumbhagam synagogue. However, one now goes unnoticed by an overcrowded market and the other has faded to history’s pages.

“Jew Street may not be known to everyone, but it existed way back before the inception of today’s Ernakulam market,” says Johann Kuruvilla, founder of the Kochi Heritage Project. Jewish synagogues usually indicate the existence of a well-fledged community and early maps point towards the possibility that the Jewish community may have played a role in the inception of today’s Ernakulam market, he adds.

Thekkumbhagam synagogue may have been lost before the public eye, but the Kadavumbhagam one is still functional, though it hides behind the board of an aquarium shop situated roughly 50 meters away from the junction. So, how did the jew street become the ‘jew street’?

‘Ruby of Cochin’, a memoir by Ruby Daniel, a Malayali of Kochi Jewish heritage, gives an interesting take on the inception of Jew Street. The story is about ‘Mani Kallanmar’ (bell thieves). Once, out of anger, the then Cochin Raja gave an order to pull out the tongue of a Dutch Governor for his disrespectful behaviour. Once the word was out, Raja realised the seriousness of his outburst. So, the problem was how to keep his word without harming the Dutch. That’s when the Jewish community came to the aid of Raja and stole the great bell of the Governor’s bungalow, symbolic of cutting the tongue. Impressed by it, Raja rewarded the community with today’s Jew street. If this tale is validated, one can assume that Jew Street came to be during the Dutch period in the 17th century.

Elias Josephai, the caretaker of the Kadavumbhagam synagogue, however, opposes this view. Though he believes the legend of ‘Mani Kallanmar’, he says that Jews were settled there even before the incident.

“Kadavumbhagam synagogue was established in 1200 CE, long before the Dutch’s arrival. That means there was a populated Jewish community even at that time,” says Josephai. “Our ancestors fled from Muziris (today’s Kodungallur) fearing religious persecution and settled here even before European rule,” he adds.

What is the relevance of the street today? K J Sohan, ex-mayor of Cochin Corporation says that there is a possibility to turn Jew Street into a heritage corridor. “This way, we can monetise heritage whilst also preserving it,”he says.

Jew Street in Kochi may have lost its glory, but it is still Kochi’s past, which should be known and well-preserved for the future, Sohan adds.

What’s in a name

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The New Indian Express