Sunday, September 18, 2011

The 'Song of Evarayi' & Other Cochin Jewish Songs

By Bala Menon

The famous 'Song of Evarayi' tells the story of a Jew name Arivalen Evarayi who travelled from Jerusalem, accompanied by a Rabbi Avaroh, sometime in antiquity, to Malanad (land of the mountains - modern-day Kerala ). He apparently had an adventurous voyage, passing through Egypt and Yemen before landing at Palur Bay (where there was a community of Jews  - Kerala Christians also claim Palur as one of their founding settlements.)

The song goes thus:
From Jerusalem came he, wise Evarayi
The learned , the teacher, the moliyaru (community leader)

from his father he requested
Let me go Vava, to see Malanadu….
(Cochini Jews still call their fathers Vava…

…With a minyan ot ten he boarded a ship…
….A ship to to Malanadu…
Evarayi (the name is  considered to be the same as Ephraim) is made welcome by the noblemen and people of Palur and he sells the goods he brought with him for handsome profit. Evarayi then expresses a desire to build a synagogue. Soon, the synagogue rises...and the local Nair chieftain goes out on a hunt and kills a deer to organize a feast to celebrate its building.

Scholars say this song is a 'historic tradition' song which connects the Kerala Jewish settlers directly to Jerusalem and the warm welcome they received from the people of Malabar. (Historically, everything seems to tally with the song - only the Nairs were allowed to hunt in those days and their attitude to foreigners were a welcoming one! Foreigners - then called Yavanas - came in as traders and filled a niche in the caste-ridden Kerala community - that of the Vaishyas of which there was no group recognized in society. The  Namboodiris and Nairs were not allowed to ply trade on the high seas for fear of losing caste status and others seldom ventured far from their places of habitation and work.)
In observant Jewish societies, men are not permitted to hear women sing. This ban is called koi isha and applies only to singing outside of synagogue prayers. (Because, it is believed that in the synagogue, the women's voices will be not be heard separately from that of the entire group of male and female worshipers.). There have been, of course, several interpretations of this prohibition, from various rabbis (we won't get into that discussion here.) In modern-day Israel, with its Westernized population and mixed-sex youth groups and a lively cultural and music milieu, such prohibitions are no more an issue.

However, among the Kerala Jews, considered very orthodox, there was a clear deviation from this practice. Mixed singing was a matter of everyday life, with the distinction that women sang only religious songs (Hebrew Piyyutim) in the synagogue - while sitting in a different section.

Outside, in their homes and various life cycle functions likes weddings, childbirth, circumcisions and festivals, the Cochini women had a wonderful repertoire of songs - ranging from Biblical tales to singing praises of their ancestor-prince Joseph Rabban and the Cochin Maharaja. Women's lives in medieval Kerala revolved around the rituals in the synagogue and festivities in the community and the songs reflected the social life of the times. Some songs, with many unique Tamil words are believed to be very old, because Malayalam came into popular usage only by the 15th century. Almost all the songs are original, written and set to tune by Cochin Jews. Songs in praise of Joseph Rabban, the merchant who was given princely privileges by Cheraman Perumal Bhaskara Ravi Varman in 1000 A.D., talk of palanquins and old traditions, testifying to their antiquity.

Some songs were blessings, some kallipattu or play songs, some kilipattu - songs about a parrot (as a messenger) - and many about the impending birth of Israel. Wedding songs, with a lot of clapping and exaggerated accounts of the beauty of the bride and the royal gait of the bridegroom, were very popular in the repertoire. Most melodies resemble the many ancient folk songs of Kerala and the modern ones are straight lifts from Tamil and Malayalam film hits.

As Martine Chemama, a scholar of South Indian arts at the CNRS - French Unites Langues-Musiques_Socieities of Paris, wrote in a research article "Women Sing, Men Listen": "The opportunities for performances were during family celebrations associated with ceremonies which preceded and marked weddings, which in the past lasted as long as 2 weeks; name-giving for newborns (akin to Hindu custom); berit-milah; bar mitzvah; before or after religious holidays and festivals such as Passover, Purim, Hanukkah, Succoth, Simhat-Tora; related to the construction or inauguration of synagogues…"

Noted anthropologist Dr. Barbara Johnson, who was professor at Ithaca College in New York and who has spent three decades studying Malayalam Jewish songs, writes: "Jewish women sang in Hebrew together with men, joining in full voice to sing piyyutim in the synagogue, at the Shabbat family table and at community-wide gatherings to celebrate holidays and life cycle events. In contrast to many other traditional Jewish communities.

One of the parrot songs is the delightful 'Palotu pazham tharuven', accompanied by women dancing in a circle, clapping their hands.
Milk with fruit I shall give - aiyaya
To you, oh my lovely parrot - Aiyaaya
And kovil (guava) fruit I shall pluck for you
(Paalum pazhavum tharuven, painkiliye ..
parichu tharam njan thathe.

A wedding song:
Njangde manavalam neeradan pokumbol
aya, mazhe nee aa neram peyathe
When our bridegroom goes for his bath.
Please don't fall, oh rain…
One of the songs pays tribute to the Paliyath Achans, traditional prime ministers in the Kingdom of Cochin.
"Tel me, ye workmen, who goes there,
With drums beating, striking and tapping,
It is Pantheerachan, with Nairs and retinue…

It is Paliathachan, who gives gifts and boons,
To all those who come,
and title to foreigners,
It is Paloor, charming Paliathachan,
The Komaranachan of Paliam.

There is also one song - a prayer for the Cochin Raja, composed during the coronation of Vira Kerala Varma in 1663. Another is about the birth of Israel on the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Iyyar in May 1948. This song is set to the 1950s Tamil song Enni enni parkum manam and the Malayalam song Ennum ennum molil chinni mineedunnu Keralam:
Enni enni theerthu dinam
vannallo Iyarran
aa dinnathe aadi addi naam akosham kondanam

The Fifth of Iyyar has arrived,
counting, counting, counting the day
The country of Israel, the nation of Israel, the flay of Israel may rise into the air.

Set to the tune of the famous KPAC drama song Ponnarival ambiliyile..., one song goes thus:
Ponnaliya, prasnam vannu ponkivarum neram

aa marathil zion kodi paaridunu nammal...
…anku pokaam, anku pokam, israelil pokaam, thokedukkan

nammude nattinu

The flag is now flying high
of the golden aliya
let us go to Israel to pick up the gun for our land.

Jewish women in Cochin wrote scores of these songs down in notebooks, some of which are more than 150 years old - (fortunately most of them have been photocopied in India and Israel and archived at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem). There are about 300 songs listed so far from about 30 notebooks in the possession of women from Ernakulam and Cochin who have settled in Israel, but Dr. Johnson and other scholars believe that many may have been lost forever.

The songs are also being digitized and preserved at the Sound Archives of the Jewish Music Centre in Jerusalem and the notebooks are treasured items at the Ben-Zwi Institute in Tel Aviv with copies also archived at the Phonoteque Archives of the Israel National Library.

Although the songs were sung for centuries in Cochin, the first systematic effort to collect them was done only in 1947 by A.I. Simon of the Pardesi synagogue in Mattancherry, who printed a small pamphlet of the songs. This task was later taken up by the late Professor P.M. Jussay (pictured, left) who was then Head of the Dept. of Humanities, Regional Engineering College, Calicut. in the late 1970 and through the 80s. He translated and indexed many of the Malayalam songs. Shirley Isenberg, the late anthropologist and Dr. Barbara Johnson,  collected many of the hand-written texts in Cochin, Ernakulam and Israel.

In Cochin, where there were eight Jewish congregations, many of the songs were common to all groups, with some variations in tunes. Some have strong Kerala folk music overtones. A Cochin Jew from Mattanchery Ruby Daniel (pictured on right) published a booklet of nine songs - transliterated in Hebrew - in association with Isenberg and Miriam Dekel. Working prodigiously through the 1990s, Ruby translated some 130 songs into English - and 13 of them were included in the classic work by Ruby Daniel and Dr. Barbara Johnson (pictured on left) in 1995 - Ruby of Cochin: An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers. (Dr. Johnson taught in the Anthropology Department and was Coordinator of Jewish Studies at Ithaca College before retiring in 2007. She continues her active research on the Kerala Jews as a visiting scholar at Cornell University.)

The project gathered steam in the waning years of the 20th century when Dr. Scaria Zachariah of the Shree Shankaracharya University of Sanskrit in Kalady joined a team of scholars to make an in-depth study of the songs, its structure, meaning and other elements. Dr. Zachariah found several  strange grammatical usages peculiar to Jewish Malayalam and was able to translate the garbled mix of Tamil, archaic Malayalam and Hebrew words into a coherent Malayalam text. Another researcher Dr. Ophira Gamliel of Hebrew University in Jerusalem (who has a a doctorate in Malayalam studies from the University of Calicut and is a scholar of Kerala and Indian spiritual traditions) assisted Dr. Zachariah in analysing the songs. They jointly co-authored a definitive work on Malayalam Jewish songs - Karkuzhali/Yefiyah/Gorgeous: Jewish Women's Songs in Malayalam with Hebrew translations.

In 2004 , as part of the anthology of Music Traditions in Israel, the Jewish Music Research Centre of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem published an enchanting 126-page booklet and CD combo called Oh Lovely Parrot!, Jewish Women's Songs in Malayalam. The translations of the 42 songs on the CD are by Dr. Zachariah and Dr. Johnson and there are notes in English and Hebrew. The songs on the CD have been sung by the Nirit Singers, a group of Cochini women in Israel, led by Gallia Hacco who went from Kerala to Israel while a teenager and who is now retired. Ruby Daniel's sister Rahel Kala and niece Venus (Seporah) Lane are the other lead singers. Some of the songs are typical Kerala “parrot songs” addressed to colorful birds like the one that appears on the Ketubba, pictured on the cover design of the Oh Lovely Parrot CD.

The Nirit singers (pictured on left) have appeared on stage at several prestigious events - at the Vane Leer Institute in Jerusalem, at a conference on the Jewish Heritage of Kerala in India and in the Library of Congress, Washington D.C at an event aptly called "The Women who Saved the Songs."

In an article in the Hindu in May 2003, Sarah Cohen who is the oldest Jew in Mattancherry today was quoted as saying:"No one really taught us these songs. There was an old lady who used to come every Saturday and take me to the synagogue. She used to force me into singing the hymns. There were a few seniors who used to lead the song sessions.  Once they left, I  used to gather a few women and sing these songs during  special occasions. Now, there is no one here to sing them anymore..."

As Dr. Scaria (on left)  points out, Jewish Malayalam is in steep decline in Israel because of infrequent use of the language and the fewer number of traditional get-togethers and joint celebrations. The language and the songs will  disappear within a generation, with only the invaluable recordings available in the Israeli archives and on rare CD collections.
This Shavuot song is included in the JMRC album "Oh, Lovely Parrot: Jewish Women's Songs from Kerala." Performed by Rahel Nehemia, Toba Sofer and others. Recorded by Avigdor Herzog, Moshav Taoz, December 23, 1982. It is in the public domain and can also be heard on the site of the Jewish Music Reserch Centre of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Muyimpāya Tampirāntĕ (When Moses Received Knowledge)

The Lord Who is the First gave all knowledge to Moshe,
And with that knowledge he gave praises to God.
On Sinai Mountain God appeared in royal splendor.
On Seir Mountain, there the fire was burning.
All the incense of this world was thrown into the fire,
So that the smoke would rise with a pleasant fragrance.
"Oh let that smoke go up-up into heaven."
Then that smoke went up-up into heaven.
And Mutaliyār Moshe went and spoke about it.
He spoke to his brother, Aaron Hacohen.
"Oh Moshe, receive it into your hands."
Mutaliyār Moshe took it without looking at it.
It feel down from his hands because it became heavy.
"Oh Moshe, make the effort; try to write it down."
So he made the effort and he wrote it down.
And that was for the good of the Children of Israel,
It was for their good and for their freedom.
Blessed, blessed be Mutaliyār Moshe.
Blessed, blessed be the children of Israel.
The Lord God lives forever and forever.
May His holy name be blessed forever and forever.

Another song from the  JMRC website is the Blessing Song, recorded in Cochin.

Suggested Readings:
Johnson, Dr. Barbara, Ruby of Cochin, A Jewish Woman Remembers, Jewish Publication Society, Philiadelphia, 2002
Katz, Dr. Nathan & Goldberg, Ella S., The Last Jews of Cochin, University of California Press, 1993.
Jewish Music Research Centre, Oh Lovely Parrot - CD-Book combo, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2004


  1. A voyage through the history of lovely cochin synagogue. - Vijay Mohan, Toronto, Canada

  2. I read the note with interest. It presents core facts in a very pleasing manner.
    scaria, kerala

  3. Very interesting history of the Jews of Cochin. It is such a pity that they have dwindled to such an extent. Quaint, old songs too. Liked it a lot.

  4. comming soon jewish documentary 'thora'.

    thora documentary director

    1. Hi Sidhiq,
      Send me an email, please.
      Bala Menon

  5. can u pls send me the link or how can i get a copy of this c.d