Episodes in Culture

The Jews of Muziris region

The Jews have a long history of living in many different countries. The Jewish Bible is called the Tenakh. It contains 24 books, written by different authors, which were collected together in the 10th century. The first five books make up the Torah. This collection of books, forms the core of their belief. It contains a series of 613 commandments which are God's instructions to the people of Israel. For them, these instructions are binding.

The Torah scrolls are kept covered by an embroidered mantle or in a rigid container. There are handles to support the Torah scrolls because it is too sacred to touch. In the Torah, God has revealed teaching about himself, his purposes, and how he wishes his people to obey him in every part of their life.

The life of the Jews and their history has an important place in the Muziris Heritage Project. Jews had settled in Paravur and Kodungallur regions of Kerala and the two synagogues at Paravur and Chendamangalam still exist as a testimonial to their glorious past. The Jews who lived in the Muziris Heritage Site area followed their religious practices ardently. An important part of the worship of the Jews in the Muziris heritage region was reading the Torah aloud in the Synagogue.

Holy days and festivals of Jews in the Muziris region

The Jews in the Muziris heritage project site area celebrated different kinds of festivals. Pesach festival was one of the main festivals celebrated by the Jews of the Muziris region. The primary observances of Passover are related to the Exodus from Egypt after 400 years of slavery as told in the biblical Book of Exodus from chapters 1 to 15. On the festival day of Pesach, Jews eat only non-fermented food. Men and women join in preparing Pesach Appam/cake. On this day Jews clean their household articles and houses.

'Chukkunda Perunnal' is also celebrated by the Jews in connection with the Pesach festival. On 'Saboth' day Jews religiously get back their 'Torah'- the sacred text of the Jews, and this day is popularly known as the 'Chukkunda Perunnal'. This is also known as the 50th perunnal/festival since this is the 50th day after Pesach.

The Jews year begins in autumn with New Year Festival. 'Roshhasana' is New Year day. Special morning prayers will be offered, thirty days prior to this day and also Jews won't sleep on this day of the festival. Ten days later comes the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. This is the most solemn event in the Jewish calendar; Jews spend the day praying, fasting, and seeking God's forgiveness.

Even after religiously getting back their sacred text - Torah, if Jews feel that they are not totally dedicated to God they will soft-heartedly pray and dedicate them totally to God. They observe this day with whole day prayers at the Synagogues and also twenty four hours fasting.

Jews in the Muziris region believe that the departed souls are wandering in the surroundings on the day of Yom Kippur. 'Purim' Perunnal/festival is another festival celebrated for the remembrance of the Princes Esther.

Lights used by the Jews in the Muziris region

Lights are important in life of Jews in the Muziris. It has got a symbolic value well attuned to their rigorous religious practices. Different kinds of lights were used in the Jewish synagogue and houses for religious purposes.

As part of the beginning of Sabbath rites (Sabbath a day of religious observance and abstinence from work, kept by Jews from Friday evening to Saturday evening) Jews used to light up a stone light placed in front of their houses. For this, they take fire from the daily light, keeping in front of the Arc of the Jewish Synagogue.

It was customary for the Jewish women to recite prayers after lighting 'Chattomvilakkum' to begin a Sabbath day. Glass lamps were popular among the Jews of the Muziris region after the contact with the western culture. Later, when the electricity was in vogue the customary rite of lighting the lamp became rare. Besides this, people started using candles. Menorah is a nine-branched candlestick used by the Jews in the Muziris area.

'Hanukkah' festival of Jews

Hanukkah is an eight-day long midwinter festival that is marked by the lighting of candles. It celebrates the rededication of the temple of Jerusalem after it was recaptured from the enemies in 164 BC. Like several other festivals in the Jewish religious year, Hanukkah reminds Jews of God's faithfulness to his people in the past.

Hanukkah light is a series of lights. As in the way 'Diwali and 'Karthika' festivals are celebrated in Kerala; the Jews in the Muziris region decorate houses, streets and Synagogues with lights, as part of celebrating of the festival. Both sides of the Jewish streets were illuminated with lights and decorated with plantain trees with a bunch of fruits during this festival. Setting fire on figures made up of hay and grass was also common. They also dance, sing and distribute sweets during this time. On the first day of Hanukkah festival Jewish women participate with 'kaikottikkali'.

'Nercha' of Jews

Nercha is an offering to God. People belong to all religious groups in the Muziris region of Kerala considered, Nercha as an important religious activity, so do the Jews lived in that geographic region. Jews used to offer Nercha to God and sing special songs like 'Everai' during Nercha time. Nercha was offered on Nehmiya Motha's Remembrance Day also. Nehmiya Motha was a Jewish mystic and poet and he came to Kochi, Kerala from Yemen. Motha died in 1916 and his grave is considered to be a centre of religious activities.

The Ark of the Covenant

The core of Judaism is the Torah, the sacred text of God. The Torah scrolls are kept in the Ark of the Covenant - sacred chest where the ancient Hebrews kept the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments.

The Ark of the Covenant inside the synagogues of the Muziris region was built with wood and is a cabinet that sits behind a curtain in the synagogue wall that faces towards Jerusalem. The Ark of the Covenant is beautifully decorated with engravings and art works. Decorations were done under the influence of the art works of Spain and Italy. The decorated wooden boxes in which the Torah is kept is taken out side during religious ceremonies. According to Jewish practices Torah is like a decorated bride.

'Manara' and 'Theva'

It is believed that the Jews in the Muziris region who had immigrated to Kerala had become an integral part of Kerala. They adapted many Malayalam words into their language. 'Manara' is 'Manavara' in Malayalam, and it is a decorated room where the newly wedded couple lived. As part of the Jewish festival - Simchat Torah, Torah box is decorated and that is also named as 'Manara'. The concept comes from the idea that symbolically the Torah is considered as a beautiful bride.

Silk shawls were also used for decoration and we can see the symbol of lion in it. The crown in the decoration symbolizes the Torah as the crowning glory of Jewish life. There were some properties used for religious requirements in the Synagogues of the Muziris region. 'Theva' or 'Theba' was used in Jewish Synagogues as a pedestal for placing Holy Book while the spiritual recitation is going on. Another name of 'Theva' is 'Bema'. In the Synagogues of the Muziris region one Theva was placed in the Balcony.

Jewish Cemetery, where the dead await resurrection

There are cemeteries associated with the Synagogues in the Muziris region of Kerala. Every Jewish Community has their Synagogues with their cemeteries also. According to Jewish belief, the dead rests in the cemetery. So till the resurrection day the graves should be protected. Kottayil Kovilakom, which is near to the Chendamangalam synagogue, has a Jewish cemetery too. Close to that lie the Hindu temple, a mosque and the Holy Cross church. Jews used to decorate the coffins with silk spreads. Their anxieties over the departed souls are described in the Jewish songs as well.

Rabbis - the teacher of Torah

Paravur, in the Muziris region, was the main spiritual centre of Jews in Kerala. Imparting spiritual knowledge and transcription of scrolls of the Torah was done by Rabbis. Rabbis were originally teachers and they devoted themselves to studying the Torah. Spiritual study centers are known as Rabbanim. Spiritual study centre above the gatehouse of Paravur synagogue is a Kerala model of Rabbanim. A body of writing containing teachings, commentaries on the Bible and learned debates is called the Talmud.

Jewish women in Muziris

Jewish women in the Muziris region of Kerala were spiritually inclined and knowledgeable. They were well versed in religious texts, spiritual literature and Jewish mythology. Jewish 'penpattukal' - female songs specially mention this. Discovery of 'Kola' - about 50 notebooks containing Jewish songs from Kerala became historically significant. Jewish women in Kerala acquired spiritual knowledge through the female songs they sang which gave them confidence and pride also. Torah was recited throughout 52 weeks and concluded before the religious festival in the month of 'Kanni' (Virgin).

The 'home' and 'family' are important in their religion, and there are many rules to guide behaviour. These rules affect every aspect of daily life, from getting up in the morning, when the hands are ritually washed, to going to bed at night, when benedictions are said. Other rules concern food and dress also. Jewish women played an important role in the spiritual life of Jewish community in Kerala as such.

Jewish Houses: a tradition of its own

The Jew Street that exists near the Paravur market and the Paravur Jewish synagogue in Kerala has a history to tell. There were many houses of Jews in the Muziris region of Kerala. There were two identification marks, the stone light in front of the house and 'mesossa'. 'Mesossa' is typical of Jewish houses which are made up of metal or bamboo and it is fixed in the gate. Hebrew teachers used to write two lines from the Torah in the 'mesossa'. When the Jews go out from their houses and come back to their houses they used to kiss the 'mesossa'.

Most of the Jewish houses were two storied buildings and the openings of the houses were facing the street. Generally the kitchen and the dining room were constructed in the downstairs and the bedrooms in the upstairs. In olden days floors of the kitchen and the rooms were besmeared with a paste of cow dung.

Sabbath of Jewish people in the Muziris

Jews in the Muziris region of Kerala lived a religiously active life. Sabbath is the weekly day of rest - from dusk on Friday to after dark on Saturday- commemorating the way God rested after the creation. Jews calculated their day from sunset to sunset. On the Sabbath, Jews dress in their best clothes, and do not cook, work or use transport. They offer prayers, study and rest on Sabbath days.

On Friday the woman of the household lights the Sabbath candles and attend the synagogue. On Friday evenings and Saturday mornings common prayers were held in the synagogues. Jewish synagogue was the place for community prayers, readings from the Torah, and for learning about the faith. On weekdays there were prayers for morning, afternoon, and evening; on the Sabbath and on festivals there were longer services. Jewish areas would be silent on Sabbath days.

The path in front of the Paravur Synagogue was closed on the Sabbath days. Two pillars used for closing the path can be seen in front of the Paravur synagogue even now. Sabbath day's food was prepared and ate after observing religious rites.

Food of Jews on Sabbath days

Jews in the Muziris heritage region used to have their food by sitting on the floor. Only on Sabbath day - the weekly day of rest- they used to take food served on the table which was covered with a white cloth. Except on Sabbath days, food preparations of Jews were similar to Kerala food. Vinegar and tamarind were used in abundance.

On Sabbath days, 'appam' or cakes prepared with wheat was an important food item. Wine was also prepared on special days. They did not cook on Sabbath days instead they kept certain food items on hot hearth. A preparation with a mix of rice, coconut, onion and meat kept in a hot hearth was a special Sabbath food. 'Kubba' was prepared by putting steamed meat inside rice flour. 'Pasthel' was prepared by fried refined wheat filled with meat. Baked stone cake, black gram cake etc were also Sabbath eatables.

Kosher food of Jews

Foods of Jews in the Muziris heritage region of Paravur were very different from others. For Jews, food is religiously significant and they used to eat in a peculiar manner and that is known as kosher food. In Jewish centres and tourist centers kosher foods are mentioned specifically. Certificates will be issued by the religious authorities where the kosher food is sold. 'Pessaha appam'-cakes were jointly made by the family members of the Jews.

Cake named, massa, is prepared without fermentation and it is carefully done with religious practices. Grape wines were prepared locally and kept in jars and it is used as pessaha wines. Animals that do not have cloven hoofs and chew the cud are forbidden, as are birds of prey and sea creatures without fins and scales. Animals that Jews eat must have been slaughtered according to specific rules.

Historical aspects in Jewish Songs

The two Jewish Synagogues in the Muziris Heritage project area of Kerala, and which stands in Paravur and Chendamangalam were once very active with color and sound and that is very evident from their songs. Some important information related to the history of Kerala is also seen in some of the Jewish church songs.

Paravur church was attacked by the Portuguese and this is depicted in Paravur church song. History of Mala Church is also available in song form. Mala church community is formed according to Kodungallur King's wish and he liked to have people from all community under his reign. From Mala church songs we can understand that there were few Jewish societies in which representatives of seven Synagogues were assembled in the decision making process.

Female Jewish Songs

The Jews who lived in the Muziris region of Kerala could very easily identify with the culture of Kerala and they learned Malayalam, adapted cultural signs of Kerala and also very interestingly they wrote and sung Malayalam songs. The two Jewish synagogues will play a major role in the project as the first two museums. Some special songs were meant for Jewish women and these songs were known as 'pen paattukal' which candidly reveals the dress, ornaments and also character of Jewish women.

Jewish women's songs mention of two different section of Jewish community in Mattancherry region of Kerala. Jewish women used to loudly recite the church songs in the Synagogues of Kerala when in many parts of the world, loud female voices inside the Synagogues were not welcomed. Vidyarambham - initiation in to the alphabet is a sacred ceremony conducted in Kerala society from time immemorial. Jewish community adapted this holy ceremony and made it into their custom and they very beautifully depicted it in their songs.

Jewish Marriage Songs

Jews in the Muziris heritage region adopted Kerala's life style without leaving their culture and custom and which is very well revealed in their songs. One important segment in Jewish songs is marriage songs. The collection of these songs was published in 2005 in the name Kaarkushali, compiled by Dr. Scaria Zachariah.

There are 'Thaali' (Mangal Sutra) songs and from this it is evident that Kerala concept of Thaali is adapted among Jews during marriages. While bride and groom enter the church the Hebrew songs in Shingli tune was sung.

Prayers held at Jewish Synagogues of Kerala were also unique. The language of these songs was Hebrew and the tune set for the prayer was Shingli which was purely based in the Kerala style of music.

Jews as religious singers

Researchers and writers who have made valuable contributions towards the study of Jews and Jewish life in Cochin, writes that apart from the many religious texts and prayers the Jews used, their communities produced religious singers also. They produced their own unique songs and prayers, and thus composed hundreds of Hebrew songs to be sung on festive occasions, festivals etc. Mostly these were sung during the service in the synagogue or at the end of the formal part of the prayer, or in their houses. Their further writings were known as 'kollas' were collected among Cochin Jews and got published under the name 'Book of Songs and Praises'. This book was found to be used by members of the Ernakulam, Chendamangalam and Mala communities.

Peculiarities of Jews Songs

The songs that the Jews sing bear memories of the past, the present, and their hopes about the future. Noteworthy among them are the 2 Kili/ parrot songs and both of these songs almost have the same event as the theme. The first parrot song tells the story of the Jews who lived in Kodungallur , where 'they sat like birds in one row on trees in a golden forest'. The second story carries the narration on their persecution, their migration and their final settlement in their new home, the coast of Paravur in Kerala.

Much of Kerala culture, landscape and unique features related to Kerala found an expression in their songs. The songs indicate that the Jews lost their family homes and were on their way to search a new settlement in a foreign land.

Church Songs of Jewish Community

The Jews have been a vibrant and colorful religious minority living in the Muziris region. Jewish community had a very rich song collection as their own, one important category among those were church songs. Usually Jewish communities and their synagogues were depicted in these songs. These songs also reveal the divinity of each Jewish community in its spiritual aspects. Topics like relationship between different Jewish Communities, relationship of Jews with the Kerala society, importance of synagogues in Jew's life, construction of synagogues were also dealt with in the church songs.

Spirituality of Kerala Jews was also revealed through the church songs. Beginning and end of all the church songs were songs of praise so they can be viewed as hymns also. Another interesting fact is that the construction of churches, the builder's and his family name were also included in the Jewish church songs.

The exchange market or Matta Chantha

Chendamangalam and the Paliam palace have important positions in the Muziris Heritage Project. At a time when there were no coins with money value in use, there functioned the exchange market at Chendamangalam in North Paravur. On the 10th April 2013, the market was resurrected at the village.

On the Paliam school ground, vendors from different places sell their wares. Many people visit the place for shopping even now. Things like pottery, mats, carpets, knives, toys, vegetables, fruits, fish etc are there on sale. In the olden times, these things arrived there by waterways. Bartering system was followed, things were given in exchange for other things. This is not the state of affairs today. But the market is still known as an 'exchange market' or Maatta Chantha.

Devotional places around Muziris region

Places of religious importance around the Muziris region in Paravur- Kodungallur area of Kerala attract devotees from all around the world. Each place has got its own history, rituals and religious practices apart from the annual festivals being celebrated. The Chendamangalam region is well known as a place that tolerated people of all religions. The many temples, mosques, churches and synagogues are living examples of the harmony that existed in the region.

The St. Stephen's church at Gothuruthu is popular in connection with the annual church festival, the Chavittunatakam performance and the annual Gothuruthu boat race. The Jewish Synagogues at Chendamangalam and Paravur synagogue have a long history to tell. Azhikode Marthoma Church. Kottakkavu St. Thomas church are other churches of importance. The Cheraman Masjid is said to be the very first Mosque in India built in 629 AD by Malik Ibn Dinar.

Thiruvanchikulam temple, Kizhthali Siva temple, The Alwar temple complex, Shringapuram Mahadeva temple, Kannankulangara temple, Mookambika temple, Kurumbakavu Bhagavathi temple, Kunnathi Thali temple, Puthiyathrikkovu Siva temple, Shree Shankara Narayana Moorthy temple, are among the many temples of importance in the region.

People Lifestyle

In the olden days, people's livelihood was dependant on the nature of their habitat, and they lived accordingly. A number of different trades were in vogue in the different areas covered by the Muziris Heritage Project. The town and Kodungallur were coastal regions. The people who lived there made a living out of salt - crystallization, fishing, shell gathering or diving for beads. For the people at 'maruthanilam' which were paddy fields, the main occupation was paddy cultivation. The meadows and foothills were ideal for cattle-rearing. The higher hill ranges were used for the cultivation of pepper and corns. These regions were also home to a variety of wild animals.

One of the major occupations in the region is associated with coconut palm. They made coir, out of which they produce carpets, door mats and mattresses and many other useful and decorative articles. Visitors will be able to view closely the entire processes of the production of these items from the beginning to the end.

Inland fishing techniques, traditional fishing nets and traditional boats of various sizes and shapes used by the people here speak volumes about the kind of life that has been here for ages. People go up the river in country boats and dive to collect shellfish from the river bed. Papad making was another traditional occupation. Chendamangalam is known for its bell metal work, an ancient art of Kerala. People here have made bells and lamps for temples and churches and they still do it. Thus, people's lifestyles were determined by the nature of the regions they lived in.

The Early Markets

In the olden days, people in Muziris had to be engaged in the trades that suited their habitats. Those who grew paddy had to exchange their produce for items like fish and salt. They understood that life would not be possible unless they made exchanges of their products. It was natural that people found convenient places where they could gather to make their exchanges. Bartering systems could have thus evolved - crude forms of the business of selling and buying, or of marketing. These places grew busier and busier as days went by, and our early markets including the Kottappuram market must have grown out of them. Foreign trading vessels were greeted by a very interesting cross section of daily life - extremely variegated in character and bustling with activity

Paanan Paattu

The Muziris Heritage Project tries to bring back to life many art forms which are facing the threat of extinction. In the Paravur -Kodungallur regions of Kerala, festival days provide a venue for a number of artistic performances.

The paanans had special privilages during the bygone era, because they were believed to be in possession of certain powers. A paanan and his wife together would visit houses in order to bring blessings upon the household. They would sit on the open ground in front of the house and sing. When a baby was born, it was customary for the paanan to visit that house and to sing for the well- being of the new born. The household gifted them with presents. Each locality had its paanan, and the paanan enjoyed the goodwill of the entire locality. They have now become a forgotten part of our tradition.

Traditional trades

The Muziris region, Paravur- Kodungallur , still boasts of a number of traditional trades and industries. This region is still famous for its hand - woven fabrics, coir products, and pottery and fishing nets. The small locality called Vavakkad is known for its coir industry. Attempts at modernization have helped this industry to survive the onslaught of time. There was a time when this place used to employ as many as 3000 people directly and about 5000 indirectly. But, today the place has a capacity to employ only about 40 people. This clearly testifies to the decline of traditional trades, but this locality still holds hope for a good future for its traditional industry.

Visitors to the Muziris region would find it very interesting to watch coir and coir products still being made in the traditional way. While industrialization poses a threat to the art that coir-making originally is, that perhaps is the only way the trade can survive a future which thinks only in terms of speed and efficiency of production.


Chavittunatakam is a dance drama of the 16th century Kerala that closely resembles European Operas. The professionals who practice it nowadays still use the old techniques for depicting characters and scenes. Dazzling make-ups, elaborate costumes and well-defined body movements are the hallmarks of Chavittunadakam. The whole drama is performed in the cast of a musical. The actors' pounding on the stage in accordance with the rhythm of the songs emphasizing the dramatically subtle moments is the appeal of this dance-drama. The name Chavittunadakam owes to this feature of the drama. This art form dates back to the arrival of the Portuguese on the shore of Kerala. This art form takes stories from the Bible and from other popular stories describing the gallantry of Christian saints and warriors.The musical instruments used in these performances are an assortment of Eastern and Western items like the 'chenda', ' mridangam', and the 'elathalam' on the one hand and the violin, the tambore and the clarinet on the other hand.

Rich Heritage of Chendamangalam

Chendamangalam is a village lying adjacent to River Periyar in Paravur Taluk, Ernakulam District. This village, because of its historical importance, customs and practices and traditional trades, has earned its niche in the Muziris Heritage project. As there are many natural canals in this region, there are tiny islets on the northern part of this Taluk. Chendamangalam is one of them. This village bears the rare stamps of Hindu- Muslim- Christian-Jewish memories. Paliam, located here, was home to the famous Paliathachans, the chief ministers to erstwhile Kochi Kingdom. Fabrics, woven at Chendamangalam were known for their excellent quality that testified to the dexterity of the Chendamangalam weavers of those days. The handloom products of this region represented the entire Kerala handloom industry. Chendamangalam 'mundu' and sarees are still famous today.

The biggest partition deed in Asia

Paliam is an ancient Nair family in the erstwhile Cochin state of Kerala. Paliam has its main tharavad (ancestral home) located at Chendamangalam in Ernakulam district, about 4 km from North Paravur. The famous Achans of Paliam were hereditary prime ministers to the maharajas of Cochin from 1663 to 1809. In family size and structure, Paliam was the biggest joint Hindu family till its partition in 1952. On the 15 day of the Malayalam month of Thulam in the Malayalam year 1111, the Paliam administration was entrusted to the Govt of Cochin, through a vachozhiadharam (a kind of document). In 1956, individual partition (alohari bhagam) also took place. At the time of partition, there were 213 members in the tharavad. An elaborate and comprehensive document consisting of 9 volumes, 15 schedules and 2436 pages, it is considered to be one of the biggest partition deeds in Asia. The deeds stand as a testimony to the enormity of the assets of Paliam.

Connected via water

The lifestyle in the Muziris region was shaped up by its waterways. Country boats were the chief means of transport in olden times; modern boats will continue the tradition in these days. The Periyar and Chalakudy rivers flowed through this area and drained into the Arabian Sea. The network of natural canals and islands thus formed, endow the landscape with an unmatched kind of beauty. These have always been and still are a great tourist attraction. A sunset cruise in these parts is an enticing experience. The waterways provide the visitors with the most convenient approach to places of interest such as the Kottappuram fort, the Azhikode church, activist Sahodaran Ayyappan's house and the Kottappuram market.

Kothikkallu - not just a stone

The Muziris Heritage Project is not about tourism alone. 'Kothikkallu' is not just a stone. Lend your ear to it to hear the pulse of history; you can listen to the war cries of invasions and conquests. This stone awakes you to the memories of two princely states. 'kothi' is an acronym formed by the two Malayalam letters 'ko' and 'thi', standing for 'Kochi' and ' Thiruvithamcore' the Malayalam variant of Travancore. Therefore, 'kothikkallu' means the stone that marks the boundary between the two adjacent states of Kochi and Thiruvithamcore.

These 'kothi' stones, thus stand as monuments of the pulsating history of the old princely states. They have now become the namesake remnants of the boundary stones erected by the rulers of the princely states. Among other places, one can still see a 'kothikkallu' at the entrance to the Kottappuram Fort, and one close to the house where activist Sahodaran Ayyapan was born.

Paliam joint family system

The joint family system prevailed that time and there were 30-35 families staying together in separate suites or rooms. Every family was offered the service of a maid and a male servant and a common kitchen. The dining hall could serve food for 60-70 people at a time. At the nalukettu only women and children were allowed to stay. Boys over 12 years had to move out to a boy's hostel. Only during festivals and birthdays they were allowed to come to the main building and share the common food.

The family affairs were totally managed by Valiachan, the senior-most male member who had an office with about 30-40 staff members. The elder member of the Paliam family built the Paliam Nalukettu in the year 1786 for the women and minor boys. The last members left from this Nalukettu after partition, and so the building is no longer occupied. As in the way Paliam family has a Historical Importance in the Kerala History, Paliam Nalukettu and also the Paliam Dutch palace too has a very significant place in the Muziris Heritage project.

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