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[cochin, pt. i]
[cochin, pt. ii]

Subject: Cochin, pt. I
Date: Sat Mar 1, 2003

When I approach the synagogue, the heavy blue doors are closed, but I notice they're not locked. I hesitate: I'm early for the Friday evening prayers that welcome the Sabbath. Perhaps the doors will open in another ten minutes? An Indian man sees me wavering, leans towards me and says, "Knock first, then go in." I do as he says, feeling as if I am stealing my way into some secret conclave. I half expect someone to be waiting just behind the door, ready to bark "Shalom aleichem!" at newcomers to see if they know the password response: "Aleichem shalom." But of course no such thing happens. I knock, I enter, and I see a small group of old men and younger Israelis gathered together by the entrance of the main sanctuary. There's a pile of sandals by the door, and a pile of mismatched yarmulkes unceremoniously dumped on a ledge. I select a mauve satin number, slightly tattered; printed on the inside is "Cochin Synagogue, 1568 - 1968: 400 Years."

The state of Kerala, formerly known as Travancore, is a fertile strip that stretches inland no more than 100 miles, hemmed in by the Western Ghats, India's highest mountain range south of the Himalayas; it has always looked outward toward the sea, and the Malabar Coast was known to the Phoenicians and the Romans, as well as the Arabs and the Chinese. As Salman Rushdie puts it in The Moor's Last Sigh, they came for the hot stuff: the ginger, the cardamom, the cinnamon, and above all the Malabar black pepper.

When the first Jews arrived is a matter of debate. Some say that they came as traders during Solomon's reign in the 10th century BCE, and there is a shred of linguistic evidence: the Hebrew and Tamil words for "peacock" are almost the same. The Babylonian Talmud, written in the 6th century BCE, mentions a rabbi who converted from Hinduism, though it fails to mention where in India he was from. Certainly Jews were here in Roman times, and legend has it that Saint Thomas the Apostle was greeted on his arrival by a Jewish girl playing the flute. And the local community traces its origins to the Roman expulsion in 70 CE.

More curious still, and no less imprecise, is the history of the Jewish kingdom at Cranganore, a bit north of Cochin. The Pardesi Synagogue in Cochin still houses the copper plates on which King Bhaskara Ravi Varman I granted to one Joseph Rabban all the rights of kingship, including tax revenues and the use of the palanquin and the parasol. The local tradition holds that the concession was made in 379 CE, but scholars have placed the date anywhere from centuries earlier to as late as the 10th century. Whenever it started, however, there is no doubt that the Jewish community of Cranganore was destroyed by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and eventually the survivors settled in Cochin and grew rich in the spice trade.

As for the synagogue itself, it was first built in 1568, then destroyed by the Portuguese in 1662 and rebuilt two years later. For all its age and fame, it's a bit of a dumpy affair, which makes it a lot like pretty much every other orthodox synagogue I've ever been in. It's a squarish wooden box that's been haphazardly fancied up with various touches that don't quite go together: a forest of chintzy glass chandeliers, some of them green and blue and red, to hold oil lamps; a great carpeted wooden bimah (pulpit) stranded out in the middle of the room like the prow of a sinking ship; and of course the famous blue-and-white Chinese tiles, brought from Canton in the 18th century by Ezekial Rahabi. The synagogue's promotional material declares proudly that each tile is unique, but in fact they're all painted with one of two patterns, and the uniqueness comes simply from the fact that they were hand-painted, and not all that nicely either. Seating is on mismatched wooden and wicker benches that ring the open floor, or occasionally wander into the middle of it.

I have come to this ancient synagogue here on the eastern edge of the Jewish world because I want to see and hear the ceremony and compare it with my own Jewish experiences. (I came here also in 1998, but at the time I was badly sunburned and possibly feverish, and my memories of the event are gauzy at best.) During one of our struggles over Judaism, I remember my father telling me that I should learn to daven (to recite the Hebrew prayers) because I would then be able to walk into any synagogue anywhere in the world and know what to do. Now, as I pick up a prayer book from a heap of non-matching editions on a bench, I am pleased to discover that I recognize most of the prayers, even though this synagogue is Sephardic, coming from the older Near Eastern stream of Judaism rather than the European Ashkenazic tradition with which I'm more familiar.

It turns out I'm the tenth man, so my arrival leads to a fair bit of shuffling about by the old men who are the remnant of Cochin's Jewish community. (Most of the Cochin Jews have now moved to Israel.) Two old men peer closely at the hand-scrawled Jewish calendar on the wall, while another -- the only man in shoes -- strides purposefully toward the bimah, then veers left and stands next to it. I notice that these men don't look Indian at all. Unlike many of the Israelis in their tattered lungis and kurtas, the Cochin Jews wear slacks and short-sleeved shirts with collars. But it's more than that. The Jews I've known look like the people among whom their recent ancestors lived: they look Polish, Russian, Gypsy, Turkish, German. But these Jews look only Jewish, with skin a bit dark for Middle Europe but several shades paler than anyone else's in India, and their noses are Hebraically prominent but not hooked like the noses of Central Asia. There are no beards.

The prayers begin without preamble, and they go fast. Despite my father's exhortation, I'm lost almost immediately, and whenever I find my place again, it's usually three pages past where I thought we were. There's very little singing. L'chah Dodi, the beautiful prayer for which the Ashkenazim have so many wonderful melodies, flies past in a mumbled blur. I am suddenly struck by just how unorthodox is my own brand of so-called Orthodox Judaism, an American reinterpretation of a Chassidic sect that arose in Russia in the 17th century as a reform movement among the Ashkenazim, who themselves are mere upstarts of the last thousand years or so. While never exactly isolated from the main body of Jews, the Cochin community simply never experienced the vicissitudes of European Jewish reform and counter-reform. I feel like a Baptist among Coptics.

Part way through there's a power cut, and for a few moments we pray in the light of the oil lamps, but then the non-Jewish caretaker finds the switch for the backup power, and fluorescent tubes flicker to life. After the prayers, there's a quick kiddush (sanctification of wine), and plastic cups are handed around. I assume they get their kosher wine from Israel these days, and certainly it tastes like the classic syrupy rot-gut of Jewish ritual the world over. And then it's done. Having begun at 6:40, we're finished with the whole thing by ten after seven. There's a little bit of socializing afterward, but it's all in Hebrew, so I wander alone out into the unlit streets.

Despite the lack of light, I decide to walk back to the hotel via the road that curves along the edge of the narrow Cochin peninsula. The sultry night air smells of cardamom and tea. Here and there shops are lit with candles or kerosene lamps or backup generators, and passing rickshaws and motorcycles cast their light as well. I walk past Mattancherry Palace, a red-tiled Portuguese construction that was later renovated by the Dutch -- hence its alternate name, the Dutch Palace -- and is most famous for a spectacular series of erotic Hindu murals. Soon after I pass a church, then a mosque, then a Catholic shrine as crowded and chaotic as any Hindu temple. Eventually I reach the great cantilevered Chinese fishing nets, gifts from Kublai Khan, and opposite them I see Shana's Chinese Shopee (sic). When I come to the theater where Kerala's traditional Kathakali dance is performed each night, I turn off the main road, walk past the basilica, and at last reach our hotel.

Next time, Cochin in daylight.


"Avoid irritation more than exposure to the sun ... In the tropics one must before everything keep calm." - Joseph Conrad, "Heart of Darkness"

Subject: Cochin, pt. II
Date: Wed Mar 12, 2003

Cochin is one of those places where the whole world seems to have converged. The same can be said of some of the world's biggest cities -- New York, London, Shanghai -- but Cochin is a cultural melange on a smaller scale, like New Orleans or San Francisco. Like those cities, it came to prominence as an outpost of Catholic Europe -- in this case the Portuguese, who arrived in 1510. Vasco da Gama's tomb can still be seen in the St. Francis Church, which went from Portuguese Catholic to "the Calvinist Cult," as the church's literature puts it, then became Church of England and is now Church of South India.

What drew the Portuguese, and everyone after them, was the fantastic harbor. A collossal flood in 1340 carved out a deep, long bay that merges into a series of backwaters -- narrow channels and tiny islands that line the coast for miles. The Portuguese quickly built a fort on the Cochin peninsula and established a powerful trading post. In those days it served as a way station on the route from southern Africa to Java and the Spice Islands further east. It was a place to provision the ships, and also to pick up Indian cotton fabrics to trade with the Indonesians.

As the fortunes of various European powers rose and fell, Cochin changed hands, but it remained throughout an important trading center. Eventually spices were planted in the backwaters and in the Western Ghats -- the mountain range that runs parallel to the coast -- as were rubber, tea and coffee trees. Cochin never became a commercial hub on a par with Bombay (born Bon Bahia, or "Good Bay" in Portuguese), Calcutta or Madras, but the spice trade kept it wealthy, and it became a cosmopolitan cultural center, which it remains to this day.

Today, Cochin consists of a few well-heeled neighborhoods on the old peninsula, while the bulk of shipping lands at man-made Willingdon Island, and the real urban center is Ernakulam just across the bay on the mainland. This arrangement has been very good for Cochin, which has managed to retain and even enhance its charm. Portuguese and Dutch buildings with red-tiled roofs mingle with whimsical modern houses, and everything is painted in bright colors that fade marvelously into mottled pastels in the tropical heat and humidity. Tucked here and there are spacious grass fields that fill up each Sunday with casual cricket players; overhanging them are giant trees whose canopies spread as wide as 200 feet across.

We stayed at Hotel Kapithan, a family guest-house that faced one of these spacious fields. Our hosts were a Christian brother and sister -- the brother tended to wear a lungi, a gold cross, and very little else, and he proudly told us that he *loves* beef. When we arrived the sky was clouding over, and by late afternoon the rumbling thunder fulfilled its promise and the rain came pouring down onto the coconut palms and the broad leaves of the banana trees.

For days we lingered in Cochin, charmed by its sleepy beauty and its thriving cultural life. We started our days at Kashi, an art cafe run by a woman from Michigan and her Indian husband. There we would eat whatever they were serving for breakfast that day -- French toast with honey and fruit, cheese-tomato omelettes -- and wash it all down with excellent cold coffee. Here, after all, was a place where you could trust the ice! We would usually be back for lunch, too, to linger and listen to the blues or the Edith Piaf or the Indian fusion on the stereo. Other than that, well, we just sort of hung around and read and did work on the Internet, mostly. We were coming towards the end of our trip, and it was nice to give up on the slogging for a while.

We did make it down to Mattancherry a couple of times, the neighborhood with the synagogue and the spice warehouses and the amazing antique shops. Throughout India, "antique" and "craft" shops have achieved an astonishing uniformity: the bronze Shiva dancing in his ring of fire, the Kashmiri carpets and embroidered jackets and pashmina shawls and papier mache, the boring cotton hippie-wear, the wooden Buddha, the camel-bone boxes, the block-print tapestries. Sometimes the absurdity of it strikes home, as when we were in Mamallapuram and I had to go to the Indian shops to get a lungi in the local style; the shops on the tourist strip sold only the sort of sarongs you find from Pokhara to Goa to Cape Cormorin.

Cochin has its share of these standard-issue tourist traps, and they charge probably the highest prices anywhere in India. But it also boasts a collection of genuine antique shops that are simply bursting with the fascinating flotsam of 500 years of history. For the right price you can get Hindu tribal masks taller than you; old 78-rpm record players and the Telugu classics to spin on them; holy Catholic vestments and other Catholic toys like chalices and censers; cornices, archways, lintels and other architectural details in fabulously carved wood; boxes, boxes, boxes; roll-top writer's desks; bottles from long-vanished brands of unguents and potions that utterly failed to keep the Europeans alive in the malarial heat; sexy St. Sebastian, scantily clad and bound to his tree; stacks of photographs of Keralans frowning earnestly at the camera for their Very Serious Portraits. Here you might find a Tibetan mask, there an Indonesian box, around the corner a shelf full of Chinese Buddhas. You might want to purchase that old ship's wheel to steer your way through the mazey backwaters of the larger shops. For you are sailing through history, possibly even your own history.

Consider this: Elihu Yale, I just discovered, was not only the founder of the vaunted university, he was also president of Madras in the 1690s. And here, more or less, is how the trade worked in those days: The Spanish brought over silver from Mexico; the English and the Dutch (and Portuguese, but less and less) traded for that silver with spices, molasses, cottons, silks, indigo, saltpetre and other treasures from the East; loaded with bullion, the English and Dutch (and Portuguese) ships headed south, restored themselves at Table Bay in South Africa, then headed to India and Indonesia to buy spices, Bengal for fabrics, Gujarat for Saltpetre; and perhaps they stopped somewhere in Arabia on the way back, or simply swung back and forth across the Arabian Sea for a while to engage in what was known as "the country trade." You might be waylaid by a pirate from Carolina on the way, or killed by savages in Madagascar, or die of pretty much any disease then available; one early English settler at Bombay suggested that the lifespan of a man there was three years, but he was contradicted by another who claimed it to be two monsoons. But if you didn't die, you could make a fortune. (Bizarrely enough, the legends about pirates are more or less accurate, right down to the striped shirts and gold earings and bandannas.) With all that backing and forthing, Cochin received visitors who had been just about everywhere there was to be.

Today, of course, Cochin is about as swashbuckling as Connecticut. But as in New Orleans and San Francisco, the legacy of all that cultural mixing remains in the form of tolerant attitudes, cultural sophistication and very good food. Cochin boasts some of the finest boutique hotels and the best restaurants in India. At the five-star Brunton Boatyard, the chef at the History Restaurant has created a kind of culinary archive. The menu contains a lengthy history of the city, and the actual dishes are a mix of traditional Keralan, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Portuguese and British recipes -- pork in pineapple wine sauce, chilli potatoes, jaggery-sweetened custard -- along with numerous contemporary fusions. As we ate we were serenaded by a couple of violinists playing Karnatic classical music, and the spiced ginger wine with honey was on the house.


"Avoid irritation more than exposure to the sun ... In the tropics one must before everything keep calm." - Joseph Conrad, "Heart of Darkness"