Wednesday, November 7, 2012

One more Cochini Jew Bids Adieu

Johnny Hallegua of Jew Town, Cochin, India died on October 25th at the age of 90. He was ailing for sometime after breaking a leg. He was buried in the Jewish Cemetery near the ancient synagogue. The one to die before him was his relative Samuel Hallegua, two years back. Sam was the Warden of the Cochin Synagogue, and a scholar. Incidentally, he was a club mate of mine.

The Jewish contact with Kerala seems to have started much before Christ. Perhaps large scale Jewish settlements came into existence in Kerala State, India with the exodus during the siege of Jerusalem by the army of the Roman Emperor Titus. That was the First Jewish-Roman War. A painting of the siege by David Roberts (1796–1864) is reproduced below from the Wikipedia:

The year of the war was 70 CE. Thousands of people escaped from the battle devastated area. According to one estimate ten thousand of them migrated to Kerala, India - the Malabar Coast, as many historians call it. At that time there was no Cochin. That area, it is said, came into existence only in 1341 CE due to some geophysical phenomena in Arabian Sea. It started developing into a trading centre soon. Some historians claim that the Cochini Jews are of Sephardim origin from Holland and Spain.

The Jew Town in Cochin was built in 1567 on land granted to the community by the Raja of Cochin. A year later the famous Mattancherry or Cochin Synagogue was constructed. It is next to the Maharaja’s Palace and the Palace Temple. The clock tower (see photo) was added in 1760. 

There is a claim that a synagogue existed in a place called Kochangadi, Cochin in 1344. Perhaps it was on the inland and not at the location of the present synagogue. Kochangadi is a common locality name in Kerala. From ancient times there were synagogues in different regions of Malabar.  

During the Portuguese-Dutch War for control of the area, the building was damaged in 1662. Two years later repairs were done with the help of the Raja of Cochin and the Dutch who had driven off the Portuguese. It is believed to be one of the oldest synagogues outside Israel. This is its 444th anniversary.  
 The 4th centennial of the synagogue was a landmark in the history of Kerala. Mrs. Indira Gandhi who was the then Prime Minister of India came down to attend the ceremony. The Government of India also brought out a postage stamp (see photo) to commemorate the event.

The pictures of the synagogue and the stamp are by Ruth Johnson . They are reproduced with permission from her blog post Cochin Synagogue and Sarah Cohen ( Do have a look at it for more pictures of Cochin’s Jew Town and additional information on Cochini Jews.

In Cochini Jews – Dreams don’t die I had written that the Jewish era in Cochin is coming to an end. With Johonny Hallegua gone, there are just eight Jews left in Cochin – two men and six women. Most of them are seventy plus years old. There is not enough quorum of ten adults to conduct a miyan (a communal religious service of the Jews).

For those who remain, the dreams are confined to Cochin and visits of dear ones who are away.

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