Indian culture, Jewish tradition Hanging on: For two millennia, the world's cultures have mingled in Cochin, India. But the long-present Jewish tradition is ebbing. Fewer than 50 Jewish families are left in the ancient commercial crossroads.

Sun Journal

September 23, 1995|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

COCHIN, India -- On this island of ancient Indian culture, with its red-tiled roofs and winding alleyways, the question seemed XTC out of place:

"Will you join us for Sabbath prayers?" Mr. Ashkenazi asked.

And so, instantly, a visitor becomes linked to the dwindling Jewish heritage of Cochin, India's beguiling and mysterious trade center, where the world's cultures have mingled and merged and existed peacefully for two millennia.

There on the road stood six men, at the foot of the steps of the synagogue built in 1568, when Portugal ruled this part of the Indian subcontinent. As twilight crept up on a Friday evening, ushering in the Sabbath, they waited for the 10th man required by Jewish law to conduct a public service. The other four never showed.

But the six entered to pray individually and mark the arrival of the traditional day of rest. Looking up at the jeweled chandeliers, it was easy to imagine the millions of words of prayer that have echoed off its ceilings and understand that the Jewish community is having its share of difficulties maintaining its presence here.

"Jewish people have lived here for centuries," said K.T. Joy, the guide and gatekeeper of the old synagogue. "It is a lovely place where they were accepted."

Now, less than 50 families are left -- the rest having departed for bigger cities like Bombay or the more religious communities in Israel. When Mr. Joy isn't organizing the Sabbath prayers, he serves as watchman and tour guide in the synagogue, welcoming visitors from around the world.

"The young people, they are leaving for business opportunities," Mr. Ashkenazi added. "Business is not what it used to be, so some have moved away. But this is still a lovely city, a city of history."

The influence of Portuguese and Dutch invaders, as well as Chinese and Jewish traders, is still felt in this crossroads of commerce. In addition to the synagogue, Cochin features India's oldest European-built church. St. Francis Church was built in 1503 by Franciscan friars from Portugal; it was the temporary resting place for Vasco de Gama after the explorer died here in 1524.

From the seventh floor of the Malabar Hotel, overlooking Old Cochin, the sweep of historic forces is clearly visible: the red-tiled roofs of Portuguese legacy, the sleek, Chinese-style touring boats and fishing nets that dot the harbor and the giant oil tankers that offload their cargoes in this busy port.

Each year, 1.5 million tons of tea sail for ports in Russia, the Middle East and the United States. Here you can trade September pepper futures at the spice exchange, the only one in India; watch fishermen cast giant Chinese-style fishing poles using rocks as giant sinkers; look on as women squat in hot warehouses, packing Kerala's famed tea for export; or visit the baronial palace built by the Dutch in 1557 and presented to the raja of Cochin as a gesture of goodwill. Its famous murals continue to draw visitors from across the nation.

Though some of the history is obscure, it is clear that Jews escaping persecution in Iraq and Iran fled to Cochin beginning perhaps as early as 55 A.D. A Roman merchant ship reported finding a Jewish colony in a nearby settlement of Cranganore in the second century. Many more Jews would arrive later to escape persecutions in Europe.

Whatever the precise date of the community's beginnings, a Jewish presence already was well established by the late 900s, as attested by copper plates from the Hindu ruler of the area. In the lengthy message engraved on the plates in Tamil, the ruler grants the Jewish community the right to collect tolls on elephants and taxes on land and commerce -- a remarkable concession for the era.

The community would flourish under the Dutch, who pushed out the Portuguese in 1663. For the next hundred years, there would be a flow of advice and prayer books from the Jewish community in Amsterdam to Cochin, plus a flow of Dutch immigrants.

The Portuguese destroyed Cochin's original synagogue in 1662, about 100 years after it was built. With glistening candelabras and elaborate embroidery, the rebuilt temple, housed at the end of a narrow street, boasts a series of unique blue-and-white, hand-painted floor tiles imported from China in the mid-18th century. A red brocaded curtain protects the Ark where the Holy Scriptures are housed.

In a nation often known for its violent ethnic turmoil, Cochin seems a tranquil harbor of equanimity, where neighbors seem to get along and where trading across oceans is the principal route to prosperity.

Though the Jewish community is ebbing, Cochin remains very much alive. But there have been difficulties. The Soviet Union had been one of India's main trading partners, and the Soviet Union's collapse made Cochin's exporters doubt that their businesses would survive. But they are still thriving. Cochin also is becoming a tourist center for vacationers from Bombay and Bangalore.

While old, clay, two-story buildings and narrow streets still define Cochin, modern Ernakulum, built across a causeway during the past 15 years, boasts high-rise office buildings and broad shopping boulevards.

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