Kerala, the southernmost coastal state in India, is today home to seven synagogue buildings, although only the famed Paradesi Synagogue in the Mattancherry area of Kochi (Cochin) remains a functioning house of prayer. Included in this collection of religious buildings is the former synagogue in the small town of Parur (or Paravoor), located some twenty miles to the north of Kochi and easily accessible by hired car or public bus.
The synagogue’s history dates back to medieval times, and over the centuries it was rebuilt for a range of reasons. But in the mid-1950s, most of its congregation emmigrated to Israel, and the synagogue has not been an active place of worship since the mid-1970s. In recent years, the condition of the Parur synagogue deteriorated and there was concern for its structural survival. Fortunately, the Kerala government is now renovating the building as part of a larger plan to protect and preserve the state of Kerala’s cultural and religious heritage.
In response to domestic and international interest and broad-based local recognition of the cultural importance of regional architecture, the State of Kerala, with support of the government of India, embarked on a long term plan called the Muziris Heritage Site in 2009. The popularity of the government-restored synagogue in nearby Chendamangalam, which opened as a museum in 2006*, played a key role in inspiring the plan. The new archaeological site will be one of the highlights of an impressive effort of protecting, restoring, and sustaining a number of natural and built sites. These will be linked by existing canals, bike paths, and roadways within the central region of the state of Kerala.
Among the first of the structures to be restored is the Parur synagogue. During the spring and summer months of 2009, the Kerala government negotiated with the Association of Kerala Jews to assume ownership of the Parur synagogue while the Jewish community maintained a right of use. Once these details had been worked out, the restoration effort formally began in April 2010, and work is scheduled to be completed by the spring of 2011.
This ambitious undertaking is being coordinated by several government divisions, particularly the Kerala Departments of Tourism and Archaeology. The Parur synagogue will be brought back to form by a team of restoration experts and skilled craftsmen, under the advisement of those familiar with the history and architecture of the building. It will also be linked with a number of other important Kerala cultural sites, both religious and secular.
Unique to the synagogue at Parur is the way its parts are formally arranged in a highly axial, extended, and ceremonial fashion. Of all Kerala’s extant synagogue buildings, the one in Parur has the longest procession: from the street, through the gatehouse, out into a walled outdoor room, past a foyer flanked by twin storage rooms, along a narrow columned breezeway, into the azara (name of the courtyard space of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem), then by the sanctuary with its low balcony, spilling into a double-height space containing the central tebah (stage), and finally to the heckal (ark) as the termination point.
Some historic Hindu temples of Kerala and other religious buildings in the immediate region, including Syrian Christian and Catholic churches and Muslim mosques, are similarly organized. As a local building type, there is little doubt that buildings belonging to the larger religions influenced neighboring synagogue architecture, as did regional secular design traditions. Perhaps most interesting are the broad similarities between the Parur synagogue and the ritual linking of spaces that existed in the Court of the Temple in Jerusalem, and its use of terminology identical to that in the ancient sacred Jewish places.
Photographs by V. Issac Sam with the support of Marian Scheuer Sofaer
*The museum was co-founded by Jay Waronker and Marion Sofaer of the USA and Shalva Weil of Israel.