SIX-POINTED STARS IN KOCHI
MY FIRST VISIT TO Fort Kochi (Fort Cochin) in Kerala was in 1994. By then, I already knew that there was one or more Jewish communitis in Fort Kochi (‘Kochi’). As we drove into Kochi, I noticed many six-pointed stars, all identical to Jewish Stars of David (‘Magen David’). For a while I was amazed by the sight of so many of what I believed then to be Jewish shops and other establishments. Not long after this, I became aware that like the Om and the swastika, the six pointed star is a commonly used Hindu symbol. For example, the Canara Bank, not a Jewish outfit, uses the six pointed star as its logo.
Several communities of Jewish people lived in Jew Town, which is in the district of Mattancherry. Today, flocks of tourists visit the area to explore its numerous handicraft shops and the beautifully preserved Dutch (Paradesi) Synagogue, whose floor is paved with blue and white tiles made many centuries ago in Holland.
Apart from the much-visited synagogue, there are very few other buildings that have recognisable marks that indicate their former Jewish connections. On previous visits, I spotted what must have been another synagogue; a house bearing Magen Davids; and a locked up, well maintained Jewish cemetery.
Today, the 10th of February 2023, I spotted a building with Hebrew lettering above its main door. This edifice, which is undergoing restoration, is close to the Masjid Aisha on Jew Street, and about 0.5 miles south of the Dutch Synagogue. In need of much work, this is what remains of the Kadavumbhagam Mattancherry Synagogue (constructed by 1544 AD).
Another building with well-documented Jewish connections, but no obvious marks, is currently being used to house exhibitions contemporary with the 2022/23 Kochi Muziris Art Biennale. Called the Kashi Hallegua House, this grand dwelling is about 150 yards south of the Dutch Synagogue. Above its carved wooden framed front door is the date 1761. This was during the period that the Dutch were the dominant European presence in the area: they were intimately connected with Kochi between 1663 and 1814.
For over 250 years, the Dutch house, formerly known as Krathi Veedu, was home to many generations of the Hallegua family. From where they originated, I have not yet found out but they were Paradesi – European Jews who arrived in Kerala from abroad, as opposed to Jewish people whose origins were other than European (no one knows from where they arrived in Kerala).
The last Jewish residents of the house, 85 year old Mrs Juliet Hallegua and her daughter Yael, left for Israel in 2019. The place was then purchased by Edgar Pinto, who converted the huge family home into an art gallery. Although the furnishings used by the Hallegua family have been removed, many of the original wooden window frames and cupboard doors are in place. The kitchen, now a gallery space, has a huge oven and a special carved stone workspace used for grinding food ingredients with a stone rolling pin.
The two Hallegua women were amongst the last of the Kochi Jews living in the town. There was another, Sarah Cohen (1922-2019) who lived very close to the Dutch Synagogue. Until she was in her nineties, she had a shop selling tablecloths and other handmade cloth items, many of them with Jewish decoration. Today, the only Jews in Kochi’s Jew Town are visiting Jewish tourists, a few of whom might have had ancestors who lived there.
Since our last visit in 2019, a couple of shops have opened. Named Shalom, their signboards bear the Jewish six pointed star. The company sells ready-made garments, but I suspect that apart from the name, it has no Jewish connections … but I might be wrong!