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The Architecture of the Chennamangalam Synagogue
India has 34 Jewish houses of prayer dating from the 16th to the 20th
century, and the oldest ones are in Kerala. Earlier synagogues, built from
the 13th through the mid–16th century, no longer exist. The Jewish
community, living in and around the ancient port town of Cranganore (also
referred to as Muziris, Shingly, or other names at various times), were driven
away by the intolerant Portuguese and the Moors in the 16th century. In the
process, they were forced to abandon previously built synagogues.
Shifting to various places south of Cranganore, the Jews built new
synagogues. While some of these houses of prayer also do not survive since
the Cochin Jews remained in certain locations temporarily (among them
Muttath, Palur, and Southi), fortunately other synagogue construction dating
from the mid–16th century onwards survives – albeit often in altered states.
Until 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, who had lived in
Kerala far longer than their Paradesi coreligionists, had seven synagogues,
including the one in Chennamangalam. The
Paradesi Jews had just one building, of the same
name, which was originally built in 1568 (left). The
synagogue has become a prominent tourist
attraction and is the only Jewish house of prayer in
Kerala where religious services are still held. It can
be found in Jew Town in the Mattancherry area of
Kochi (Cochin).
A popular account goes that the town of
Chennamangalam was planned no later than the
1600s by a liberal and tolerant Maharajah who
wished to have four major religious faiths equally represented in town. He
designated a site on each of the cardinal points for the construction of a
Jewish synagogue, a Christian church, a Hindu temple, and a Muslim
mosque. At the crossing of the axis, so the tale continues, was the palace for
his minister set on a hill.
All four religious structures remain within one kilometer from one another,
although all have been altered, enlarged, or rebuilt over the years. It is
difficult to discern whether these houses of prayer were built to this formal
plan since there seem to be no direct roads or perceivable axial links from
one to another. The low–slung Hindu temple is a modest structure but is
built on the most impressive site overlooking the countryside and town. The
mosque, a recent concrete building, is located near the busy ferry jetty. The
church, the largest of the four and built closest to the synagogue, has an
interesting history. Along with a seminary, it was built in 1663 by the Dutch