Commonwealth of Nations Essay

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Inside Jewish Synagogue

The Paradesi Synagogue is the oldest active[1] synagogue in the Commonwealth of Nations,[2] located in Kochi, Kerala, in South India. It was built in 1568 by the Malabar Yehudan people or Cochin Jewish community in the Kingdom of Cochin. Paradesi is a word used in several Indian languages, and the literal meaning of the term is foreigners, applied to the synagogue because it was historically used by White Jews, a mixture of Jews from Cranganore, the Middle East, and European exiles. It is also referred to as the Cochin Jewish Synagogue or the Mattancherry Synagogue.

The synagogue is located in the quarter of Old Cochin known as Jew Town,[2] and is the only one of the seven synagogues in the area still in use. The complex has fourbuildings. It was built adjacent to the Mattancherry Palace temple on the land gifted to the Malabari Yehuden community by the Raja of Kochi, Rama Varma[disambiguation needed]. The Mattancherry Palace temple and the Mattancherry synagogue share a common wall.


The Malabari Jews formed a prosperous trading community of Kerala, and they controlled a major portion of world wide spice trade. In 1568, the Jews of Kerala constructed the Paradesi Synagogue adjacent to Mattancherry Palace, Cochin, now part of the Indian city of Ernakulam, on land given to them by the Raja of Kochi. The original synagogue was built in the 4th century in Kodungallur (Cranganore) when the Jews had a mercantile role in the South Indian region along the Malabar coast now called Kerala.

It was later moved to Kochi from Kodungallur. The first synagogue of the Malabari Jews in Cochin was destroyed in the Portuguese persecution of the Malabari Jews and Nasrani people of Kerala in the 16th century. The second synagogue, built under the protection of the Raja of Cochin along with Dutch patronage, is the present synagogue. It is called Paradesi synagogue because it was built with Dutch patronage at a time when Kochi was under Dutch occupation, thus the name paradesi synagogue or foreign synagogue. In 1968, the synagogue celebrated its 400th anniversary in a ceremony attended by Indira Gandhi, the Indian Prime Minister.

Social composition and traditions
The Paradesi Synagogue had three classes of members.

* White Jews were full members. The White Jews, or Paradesi Jews, were the recent descendants of Sephardim from Holland and Spain. * Black Jews were allowed to worship but were not admitted to full membership. These Cochin Jews were the original Jewish settlers of Cochin. * Meshuchrarim, a group of freed slaves who had no communal rights and no synagogue of their own sat on the floor or on the steps outside. However, in the first half of the 20th century,Abraham Barak Salem, a meshuchrar, successfully campaigned against this discrimination. As is normal for Orthodox Jewish synagogues, the Paradesi Synagogue has separate seating sections for men and women. The Paradesi Synagogue is the only functioning synagogue in Kochi today with a minyan (though this minyan must be formed with Jews from outside Kochi, as the number who still reside there is not sufficient).

In conformity with the Hindu, Nasrani and Islamic traditions of Kerala, the worshippers are required to enter the Paradesi Synagogue barefoot.[3] Other facets which are unique to the Cochin Jewish community, and which are results of Hindu influence, include special colors of clothing for each festival, circumcision ceremonies at public worship, and distribution of grapes soaked myrtle leaves on certain festivals. In addition, the Cochin Jews currently have no rabbis, as the community is led by elders. The synagogue is also open to visitors; the ticket-seller, Yaheh Hallegua, is the last female
Paradesi Jew of child-bearing age.

Objects of antiquity

The Paradesi Synagogue has the Scrolls of the Law, several gold crowns received as gifts, many Belgian glass chandeliers, and a brass-railed pulpit. It houses the copper plates of privileges given to Joseph Rabban, the earliest known Cochin Jew, dating from the 10th century, written in Tamil on the two plates, by the ruler of the Malabar Coast. The floor of the synagogue is composed of hundreds of Chinese, 18th century, hand-painted porcelain tiles, all of which are unique. There is also an oriental rug, a gift from Haile Selassie, the last Ethiopian Emperor.[5] The most visible part of the synagogue is the 18th century clock tower, which, along with other parts of the complex,which underwent repair work under the direction of World Monuments Fund, between 1998 and 1999.[6] Hebrew inscription at the Mattancherry synagogue

A tablet from the earlier synagogue in Kochangadi in Kochi (built in 1344) is placed on the outer wall of the Paradesi synagogue. The inscription states that the structure was built in 5105 (in the Hebrew Calendar) as an abode for the spirit of God


The temple was built in first millennium during the time of Kamarupa. Allahabad rock inscriptions of Samudragupta mentioned about it. Temple was destroyed during the middle of second millennium and revised temple structure was constructed in 1565 by Chilarai of the Koch dynastyin the style of medieval temples.[2] The current structure has a beehive-like shikhara with delightful sculptured panels and images of Ganeshaand other Hindu gods and goddesses on the outside .[3] The temple consists of three major chambers. The western chamber is large and rectangular and is not used by the general pilgrims for worship. The middle chamber is a square, with a small idol of the Goddess, a later addition.

The walls of this chamber contain sculpted images of Naranarayana, related inscriptions and other gods.[4] The middle chamber leads to the sanctum sanctorum of the temple in the form of a cave, which consists of no image but a natural underground spring that flows through a yoni-shaped cleft in the bedrock. During the Ambuvaci festival each summer,the menstruation of the Goddess Kamakhya is celebrated. During this time, the water in the main shrine runs red with iron oxide resembling menstrual fluid.

It is likely that this is an ancient Khasi sacrificial site, and worshiping here still includes sacrifices. Devotees come every morning with goats to offer to Shakti.[5] The Kalika Purana, an ancient work in Sanskrit describes Kamakhya as the yielder of all desires, the young bride of Shiva, and the giver of salvation.Shakti is known as Kamakhya. Kamakhya Temple in Himachal Pradesh.

The Kamakhya temple in the forest region of Polian Purohitan in Una District of Himachal State is situated at about 600 mt above sea level. The Pindi,was brought over by the Rajpurohits of Brahaminical Aryan descent of the sage Vatsayan some 800 years ago after the invasion of the Shans in 1200C, with the destruction of the first tantric ritual site. The worshippers escaped in mass migration from the Garo-Khasi hillregion of Assam, via the Tibet Himalaya silk route to Kashmir .While some left for the north west frontiers, a few families of the Brahamin Vatsayan Rajpurohits sanctified the tantric Kamakhyakuldevi in the wilderness of an isolated forest hill in Polian Purohitan.

Sculptures carved on the temple

The first tantric Kamakhya Temple was destroyed during the Mongol invasion in the Nilachal hills in the 12 BC, so was the fate of the second tantric temple destroyed in the Muslim attacks, probably by the Hindu convert Muslim warrior Kala Pahad. The Brahaminical legend of the Shakti in the later period led to the worship of the tantric goddess as Hindu Shakti goddess. The worship of all female deity in Assam symbolizes the fusion of faiths and practices of Aryan and non-Aryan elements in Assam.[6] The different names associated with the goddess are names of local Aryan and non-Aryan goddesses.[7]

The Yogini Tantra mentions that the religion of the Yogini Pitha is ofKirata origin.[8] According to Banikanta Kakati, there existed a tradition among the priests established by Naranarayana that the Garos, a matrilineal people, offered worship at the earlier Kamakhya site by sacrificing pigs.[9] The goddess is worshiped according to both the Vamachara (Left-Hand Path) as well as theDakshinachara (Right-Hand Path) modes of worship.[10] Offerings to the goddess are usually flowers, but might include animal sacrifices. In general female animals are exempt from sacrifice, a rule that is relaxed during mass sacrifices.[11]


A complete view of the temple

Vatsayana,a Vedic Sage in Varanasi during the later first Century was approached by the King in the Himalayan region (now Nepal) to find a solution to convert the tribals and their rituals of human sacrifice to a more socially accepted worship. The Sage suggested the worship of a tantric goddess Tara that spread towards the eastern Himalayan belt till the Garo Hills where the tribals worshipped a fertility yoni goddess Kameke. It was much later in the later Brahaminical period Kalika Purana that most tantric goddess were related to the legend of Shakti and began to be erroneously worshipped as a devi by the Hindus.

According to the Kalika Purana, Kamakhya Temple denotes the spot where Sati used to retire in secret to satisfy her amour with Shiva, and it was also the place where her yoni fell after Shiva danced with the corpse of Sati.[12] This is not corroborated in the Devi Bhagavata, which lists 108 places associated with Satis body, though Kamakhya finds a mention in a supplementary list.[13] The Yogini Tantra, a latter work, ignores the origin of Kamakhya given inKalika Purana and associates Kamakhya with the goddess Kali and emphasizes the creative symbolism of the yoni.

Kamakhya during Ahom era

According to a legend the Koch Bihar royal family was banned by Devi herself from offering puja at the temple. In fear of this curse, to this day no descendants of that family dares to even look upward towards the Kamakhya hill while passing by. Without the support of the Koch royal family the temple faced lot of hardship. By the end of 1658, the Ahoms under king Jayadhvaj Singha had conquered the Lower Assam and their interests in the temple grew. In the decades that followed the Ahom kings, all who were either devout Shaivite or Shaktacontinued to support the temple by rebuilding and renovating it. Rudra Singha (reign 1696 to 1714) was a devout Hindu and as he grew older he decided to formally embrace the religion and become an orthodox Hindu by being initiated or taking sharan of a Guru, who would teach him the mantras and become his spiritual guide.

But, he could not bear the thought of humbling himself in front a Brahmin who is his subject. He therefore sent envoys to Bengal and summoned Krishnaram Bhattacharyya, a famous mahant of Shaktasect who lived in Malipota, near Santipur in Nadia district. The mahant was unwilling to come, but consented on being promised to be given the care of the Kamakhya temple to him. Though the king did not take sharan, he satisfied the mahant by ordering his sons and the Brahmins in his entourage to accept him as their spiritual guru.

When Rudra Singha died, his eldest son Siba Singha (reign 1714 to 1744), who became the king, gave the management of the Kamakhya temple and along with it large areas of land (Debottar land) to Mahant Krishnaram Bhattacharyya. The Mahant and his successors came to be known as Parbatiya Gosains, as they resided on top of the Nilachal hill. Many Kamakhya priests and modern Saktas of Assam are either disciples or descendants of the Parbatiya Gosains, or of the Nati and Na Gosains.

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