Located on the island of Kochi, Jew Town is a bustling port area and centre of the Kochi spice trade.
The first Jewish settlers are said to have reached Kodungallur in the 1st century AD. Their settlement, then known as Shingly, prospered over the centuries. However, persecution by the Portuguese in the early 16th century forced them to migrate to Cochin (now Kochi), where they settled on land given by the raja, and built a synagogue in 1568.
Cochin’s Jewish community was divided into two distinct groups – the so-called Black or Malabari Jews, who claimed to be descendants of the original settlers, and the White or Paradesim Jews, who came here from the Middle East. A third, smaller group, the Brown or Meshuhurarum Jews, descended from converted slaves, many of whom were in the spice trade. Speaking fluent Malayalam, they made excellent go-betweens for foreigners seeking to establish contacts.
In 1940, there were 2,500 Jews in Kerala, but today only a dozen families remain, with many now settled at Moshav Nevatim in Israel’s Negev desert.
Today, scores of small firms huddle together in old, dilapidated buildings and the air is filled with the biting aromas of ginger, cardamom, cumin, turmeric and cloves. Nearby, the lanes around the Dutch Palace and synagogue are packed with antique and tourist-curio shops.
As you walk around the streets in Jew Town, look out for the Jewish names on some of the buildings. The white star that symbolises Jewish belief can also be seen atop some of the buildings in this area.
The most popular attraction in Jew Town is the Paradesi Synagogue, and nearby in Mattancherry is the Mattancherry Palace.
Getting to & from Jew Town
Near the Mattancherry Palace is a private bus depot with buses to Fort Kochi and Ernakulum. Nearby, there is also a boat jetty with ferries to Ernakulum, Fort Kochi and Willington Island. Alternatively, you can take a leisurely walk to or from Fort Kochi located about two kilometres west.
Below are the popular places to visit in Jew Town and nearby Mattancherry.
Located in the heart of Jew Town in Kochi, Paradesi Synagogue is India’s oldest active synagogue. The interiors of the synagogue are worth a visit simply for its beautiful hanging oil lamps, crystal chandeliers and blue willow-pattern tiled floor.
Also known as the Dutch Palace, Mattancherry Palace was built by the Portuguese in 1555 as a generous gift and gesture of goodwill to the Raja of Kochi, Veera Kerala Varma. The star attractions here are the astonishingly preserved 17th century Hindu murals, representative of Kerala’s temple art, which are religious, decorative and stylised.