Jewish Heritage Tour

Background: According to legend, the history of Kerala’s Jews goes back as far as the time of King Solomon (10th century BC), when trade in exotic items from India such as peacocks, ivory, sandalwood and spices flourished.

Many believe that Jews arrived on the Malabar Coast after the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Interestingly, the Christian tradition recounts that when St Thomas arrived on the Malabar Coast in the first century, he attended a wedding in Kodungallur (a port town near Cochin, also called Cranganore). He sang a wedding song in Hebrew, which no one understood, except a local Jewish flute girl. This story seems to prove the existence of Jews on the Malabar coast as early as the first century.

The Jewish community in and around Kondungallur enjoyed amicable relationships with local rulers. It grew and prospered over the centuries, building several synagogues. In 1524, because of conflicts with the Portuguese and Arab Moors, they were forced to flee to Cochin. They found protection under the Hindu Raja, who granted them land adjacent to his own palace for a town that became known as "Jew Town”.

The Jewish community in Cochin grew significantly during the 16th century with an influx of Sephardic Jews primarily from Spain, Portugal and Holland, escaping the Inquisition. Others emigrated from the Middle East, also escaping persecution. The newcomers were called Paradesi, a word that means foreigner in Malayalam, distinct from the Malabar Jews, who were the original Jewish community of Kerala.

Thus in the mid 20th century, Kerala had eight Jewish communities each having its own synagogue. Collectively known as the Cochin Jews, they were divided into two subgroups:

  • The Malabar Jews had seven synagogues, among which two synagogues in Chennamangalam and Parur have been restored and are accessible to tourists.
  • The Paradesi Jews had just one synagogue, which was originally built in 1568 in Cochin, and is the only Jewish house of prayer in Kerala where religious services are still held.

After the formation of Israel in 1948, the Cochin Jews migrated to the Promised Land. Only a handful of Jews still live in Kerala today – however, their synagogues, cemeteries, houses and streets still bear witness to their 2000-year old association with India.

Tour coverage: This tour covers Jewish sites in the old settlement (prior to the move to Cochin), as well as the sites in Cochin itself.

We will start at 9:00 a.m. with a drive to Kondungallur, the original trading port where the Jewish community arrived. It takes about 1.5 hours from Cochin, through the countryside. We will visit Chennamangalam, to see the sensitively restored synagogue of the Malabar Jews. Based on Indian building traditions, but influenced by visiting traders and imperialists over the centuries, the Chennamangalam synagogue is a wonderful example of the traditions of Keralan vernacular architecture. This architectural style was adapted to Jewish ritual and liturgical requirements, to produce a synagogue that is simple yet beautifully embellished. Another synagogue nearby in Parur, which was earlier in a state of disrepair, has now been restored, and we will visit that also.

After lunch, we will drive to Fort Kochi. Here, we will visit the ‘Jew Town’ area, where Cochin’s Jews were given land by the Cochin raja to build their homes and trading houses. We will visit the Paradesi synagogue, known for its hand-painted tiles and its quaint old chandeliers. We will go on a walking exploration through the narrow streets of this area, to absorb the atmosphere and to see the homes of Cochin’s Jewish community. You can also take a brief look at the Jewish cemetery if interested.

This is a custom tour, so if time permits, you can also see other sites in Fort Kochi, such as the Matanchery Palace (Dutch Palace) and St Francis Church. We do not guarantee that time will be available, as it is difficult to accurately predict drive times as well as how much time you will spend on each site outlined above.

Duration: Full day (8 hours)

Cost and how to book: The price depends on the number of people sharing the tour and the date of the tour. Please write to us to enquire. The price usually includes air-conditioned transport from/to your hotel in Ernakulam/Fort Kochi, English-speaking driver with cell phone, illustrated handouts, all entrances, bottled water, and all taxes. We can also pick up/drop from/to other nearby locations, or the airport. When you write in, please tell us which hotel you are at, so that we can advise you on travel time and price the tour correctly.

This tour is led by a knowledgeable guide who is familiar with not just the history of the Jewish people on the Malabar coast, but also the history of other communities in this region. Prior reservation is required to ensure tour availability