Thursday, November 10, 2011

Restoration of the Paravur Synagogue

By Bala Menon

The ambitious restoration work on the Parur Synagogue in the town of North Paravur, some 23km north of Cochin International Airport, is fast nearing completion.  A report presented to the Kerala Assembly in October said that 'Renovation of Jewish Synagogue, North Paravur (KITCO- Rs.12116000/  Physical Progress: 85 % of the work is completed. Expected to be completed by 31/1/2012."

The way it 2009.
The total cost is estimated to be about $1.8 million, contributed by both the Kerala and the federal governments. 
Special funds have been earmarked for setting up a synagogue museum,   being developed by a committee headed by Dr Scaria Zacharia, retired professor of Sri  Shankaracharya University of Sanskrit in Kaladi, and assisted by Aju Narayanan, Malayalam Professor of Union Christian College, Aluva.
The transformation 2011.
Advice on the project also came from American architectural historian Prof. Jay Waronker  and Dr. Shalva Weil of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

View from the gatehouse of the 'cobra ground' 2009.
The restoration project, which began in May 2010,  is part of a massive archaeological-tourism project of the Kerala government, with the aim of recording and restoring the historical heritage of the N. Paravur-Kodungallur region with a combination of heritage management initiatives. Project Muziris is centred around the hamlet of Pattanam,  located in Chittatukara Panchayat -Vadakkekkara village, between Kodungallur and North Paravur in the Periyar Delta in Ernakulam district.

Two views - from front and back (bottom)
Many historians believe that this could be the legendary port of Muchiripattanam or Muziris as described by the ancient Romans, and the seat of the great Cheraman Perumals.

(There are also historians who believe that the project is an attempt to hijack history and rewrite it in line with the thinking of the Communist Party of India (M) which ruled Kerala when the project was announced. They argue the new excavations and theories are meant to diminish the glory of Kodungalloor).

 Coming back to Paravur, the synagogue, located on Jew Street, close to the Paravur market was built in 1615 CE, but Cochin traditions say it was built on top of a ruined synagogue built in 1165 CE and which was burned down by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

The magnificent first-floor breezeway
David Yaacov (Jacob) Castiel, the fourth mudaliyar or community leader of the Kerala Jews, is credited with rebuilding the synagogue, according to a Hebrew inscription on the synagogue wall.

The synagogue saw prayer services until 1988 when the last of the  Paravur Jews left for Israel. The synagogue was declared a protected monument in 1996,  soon after the original bimah (the elevated wooden platform from which the Torah was read) and the ornamental Ark, were taken from Paravur to Israel in 1995. These are now in the Israel museum.

In 2009, the Kerala government reached agreement with the Association of Kerala Jews to assume ownership of the Parur synagogue while the Jewish community maintained the right of use. Restoration efforts formally began in April 2010.

Work on the interior pulpit and Ark.
Prof Jay Waronker, of the Southern Polytechnic State University in the US, who has been studying the architecture of Indian synagogues, says the Parur synagogue is unique because it represents “the most complete and elaborate example of a Jewish house of prayer incorporating the many influences of building design from this region of Kerala.”

Fine detail from the first floor.
The entrance to Jew Street, from the main road to Paravur is guarded on either side by two tall pillars built by order of the Viceroy and Governor General of India Lord Reading (1921-1926) and the Maharajah of Travancore to earmark it as 'Jewish territory'. 

Apparently, the Christian community in the locality used to hold disorderly processions frequently along Jew Street and causing  disturbances. These were jarring to the sensitivities of the Jews and they complained to the Maharajah and the Viceroy. The Jews were then allowed to attach a heavy metal link chain to the pillars to prevent entry to outsiders whenever they chose to.
The interior baclony and ceiling.
There are still some old-style Jewish houses standing in the street but many have been modified and have flat concrete roofs.

The short street ends at a canal. At the entrance of the synagogue is an imposing padipura or gatehouse with two storage rooms. The floor above was used to conduct Hebrew classes. The Synagogue is beyond the small courtyard, which  harboured several nests of cobras before the restoration began, according to villagers.
Tombstones in the synagogue compound.

The main synagogue is separated from the gatehouse by an open space. A pillared corridor leads from the two rooms at the main entrance to the prayer area, which contains two rooms; a rectangular meeting and the main prayer room.

A balcony, supported by decorated timber columns and beams, overlooks the main room and behind this balcony is the women's gallery.  The pulpit and the Ark are being rebuilt according to the earlier style.

The conservation consultant is Chennai-based architect Benny Kuriakose., who said in a personal communication that his team had to get photographs from Paravur Jews in Israel to reconstruct some parts of the synagogue, including the main doors which were missing. The archaeological research for the synagogue is headed by Dr. S. Hemachandran.

Many of the Paravur Jews had farmlands and it is interesting to note that the Paravur countryside is still famous for its unique variety of rice known as Pokali and its eco-friendly backwater fishing. The beloved Periyar river flows through this region and over the centuries has created many small islands and made the  region into one of the most fertile areas in central Kerala.

Inscription on the wall of the Paravur Synagogue.

He who dwelt in rock and bush,
Let him live for His sake in my house,
Let there be light in the House of Jacob
Alas, darkened in my exile,
Said David Jacob's son,
Renowned noble seed of Kastiel, At the completion of the holy sanctuary. May it be His will  that the Redeemer come - (Courtesy of Dr. Nathan Katz)
On right: The  pillared corridor, like in Hindu temples.