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Synagogue Project Sparks Neighborhood's Revitalization

At the far end of a long, narrow commercial street in the Mattancherry section of Kochi (formerly known as Cochin), in the southern Indian state of Kerala, is Paradesi Synagogue. This remarkable building is the oldest synagogue in India and the British Commonwealth. It's also the only remaining active synagogue in Kochi, which for over a thousand years had a thriving Jewish population and seven houses of worship.

On a recent visit, this place was absolutely bustling with school groups and tourists. It was a building unlike any other I've been in, a curious amalgam of styles and objects, including 18th-century hand-painted Chinese porcelain floor tiles (featured in Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh), 10th-century copper plates written in Tamil, early-20th-century glass chandeliers from Belgium, and a rug from Hailie Selassie. Ancient gravestones in Hebrew script are dotted around the walls of the inner courtyard.

But perhaps the most striking feature of the synagogue complex is the 18th-century clock tower (pictured), which WMF restored between 2001 and 2006. It once had four clocks, one on each side, but only three remain. Each face is in a different script: the Roman-lettered clock faces the street, the Hebrew one faces into the courtyard of the synagogue, and the one in Malayalam (the local language) faces the former palace of the maharajas.

With few Jews left to take care of this synagogue (many moved to Israel after that country's founding in 1948; some 52 remain in Kerala, and of that number scarcely more than a dozen are in Kochi), the building had significantly declined by the 1990s, when WMF stepped in and identified it as one the priority projects of its Jewish Heritage Program, helping to revitalize not just the synagogue, but this entire neighborhood where many of Kochi's Jews once lived.

The historic cores of Fort Cochin and neighboring Mattancherry are a fascinating mix of cultures. This blend is evident in the architecture, food, and people. Kochi was one of my favorite stops on my trip to India and Paradesi Synagogue was one of the highlights of that visit. Without WMF's help, the synagogue might very well have become a crumbling place forgotten by everyone but the locals.