Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Thomas Master and the Jewish monuments in Mala

Guest post by Prof. C. Karmachandran
Former Associate Professor (History)
C. Achuta Menon Government College, Kuttanellur

The one year long birth centenary celebrations of late K A Thomas master (b 1916- d 2011) who made a deep imprint in the history of Mala, more exactly of central Kerala as a freedom fighter, political leader and a social and cultural activist commenced on 2nd of October, 2015.

He was the President of Poyya, the neighbouring Panchayat for 15 years and the Chairman of Mala Development Block for ten years. He contested against the former Chief minister K Karunakaran and was defeated by a slender margin of mere 364 votes in 1967.

During 80's he gradually withdrew from political activities and started concentrating his attention on social and cultural activities when he came across the pathetic condition of the millennium old Jewish Monuments at the hands of Mala Panchayat. Despite the fact that it was bound by an agreement of 1955 to preserve the Jewish monuments in Mala the Panchayat chose to neglect the same.

Towards the end of 80's it was he who organised a popular movement in Mala for the first time demanding the protection of the Jewish monuments. He was the founder chairman of the Jewish Monuments Protection Committee that spearheaded the activities to save the Jewish monuments in Mala. Under his able leadership the committee organised public meetings and various other forms of agitations such as satyagraha, demonstrations, and legal activism.

He gave representations to the Archaeological authorities of the central and state governments for the purpose. He associated himself with the Jewish organisation of Cochin who in 1994 approached the High Court of Kerala for restraining Mala Panchayat from violating the agreement of 1955.

The Panchayat was constrained to give an affidavit in the court that it would honour the agreement and preserve the Jewish monuments. Unfortunately when he was forced to give up his activities due to failing health and old age the Panchayat resumed its anti heritage activities in the Jewish cemetery.

It is significant to note that despite being an atheist and a rationalist he championed the cause of preserving a synagogue and a cemetery, both related to Jewish religious belief. To him the Jewish monuments in Mala were the symbols of the proud and lofty tradition of the religious harmony and cultural inclusiveness that existed in ancient Mala and Kerala.

Let us pay a glowing a tribute to his unforgettable memories on this occasion.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Mala Activists Campaigning To Preserve Jewish Monuments

By Bala Menon

The Mala Heritage Committee will observe the 60th anniversary of the historic 1955 Mala Jewish Agreement  on Sunday 4th January 2015 in Mala. See earlier report here: (Mala, once a flourishing Jewish settlement, is located 32 km north of Cochin). The event is being organized under  the leadership of activists Prof.C. Karmachandran and K Venu.
The seminar announcement
The Mala agreement is considered one of its kind in the world, where a Jewish congregation bequeathed, in good faith, its synagogue and cemetery for safekeeping to the town council, when emigrating to the Holy Land.

It was on January 4, 1955 that the elders of the Mala congregation and the local town council signed the document in the Mala Sub-Registrar's Office. A member of the Ernakulam congregation named Avraham, a member of the famed Pallivathukkal family named Eliyacha, and one Eliah Bai from Chennamangalam were also signatories to the agreement along with Mala panchayat (local body) president A. D. Joseph.

The document details (in its A Schdule) the 23 Cents (1/4th acre approx.) of property on which the Mala Synagogue is located and (in its B Schedule), 4 acres of land which was the Jewish cemetery in the heart of the town.

The agreement stipulated that the panchayat would bear the expenses for maintenance and repair of the Synagogue building and the cemetery; that proper signboards would be erected to show that these are Jewish monuments and that these properties would never be encroached upon on used for other purposes. The Synagogue would not be used as a place of worship by any other community and that the tombstones in the cemetery would be left undisturbed along with the surrounding land; proper walls would surround the cemetery along with a gate and the land would be available for the burial of any Jew for all time.

Unfortunately, the agreement was violated  even before the ink dried on the agreement. No maintenance or repair work was ever done; the synagogue building was for some time used as a primary school and later as a community hall by all and sundry. The western side of the synagogue was sealed off to facilitate the building of a shopping complex and two decades later a two-metre-width length all along the synagogue property was used to widen the main street.  On the eastern side, the main entrance was closed off after illegal encroachment of 1. 5 metres in width  by politically powerful parties.
The seminar invitation (in Malayalam)
The cemetery walls and the gate collapsed because of neglect and where there were once 50 elegant tombstones, only three survives today. The rest were all vandalized or the stones stolen and carted away. Political thugs in 2005 used a spurious argument about a non-existent court verdict and erected a wall diagonally across the cemetery and took possession of 2.5 acres of the land to build a gallery and soccer ground. Another 2 metres of land all round was taken away for road building. This encroachment is now being named for a former Congress chief minister of Kerala K. Karunakaran, and building work has commenced.

The remaining 1.5 acres with its three tombstones are now being earmarked for a park by the state tourism department, in violation of  a High Court order. The western wall of the cemetery was recently flattened with heavy equipment. It must be noted here that the Mala cemetery is the largest Jewish cemetery in India.

The Jews in Kerala and local conservation activists filed a  case in the Irinjalakuda court and in a judgment on September 3, 2014, the court dismissed the Mala local government's contention that the 1955 agreement was null and void citing various circumstances, including the exponential growth of Mala town and the need of land for development in the town centre etc.

The court directed that the municipality develop procedures to preserve the monuments according to the agreement. The local government has, however, appealed to a higher court to overturn the verdict.
The seminar will be opened by noted historian Dr. M. G.S. Narayanan, and speakers include Dr. K. Gopalan Kutty, Dr. Aju K. Narayanan, P. S. Manoj Kumar and Baiju Manathara.

The second session will feature a roundtable conducted by P. K. Kittan, Prof. Kusumam Joseph and Prof. Sara Joseph.  Participants are: Dr. A. Jayashankar, Civic Chandran, P.N. Gopikrishnan, Prof. George Menacheri, Prof. T. B. Vijayakumar, former Cochin Mayor K.J. Sohan, Riyaz Comu, Father John Kavalakatt, Sachidanandan Puzhankara, Kuzhoor Wilson, Sebastian, Dr. N. R. Gramaprakash, Prof. K. Ajitha, Satheesan, P.K. Bharatan Master, M. G. Babu, E. D. Davies, Advocate George Pulikuthiyil, Advocate George Thamban, M. Mohandas, K. V. Abdul Aziz, V.K. Bose, Haider Marekadu, Elias Joseph Hai (caretaker of the Kadavumbhagam synagogue in Ernakulam) and some members of the Kerala Jewish community.