Chendamangalam synagogue of former Murizis is must visit

Chengamangalam Synagogue
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It were some sign boards that led me to Chendamangalam, while returning from a function at North Paravur. The village of Chendamangalam had caught my attention during the post-flood cleaning campaign in that region. The serenity of its surroundings has been alluring, and this visit was already on the anvil. Till then, the word 'Chendamangalam' was just something heard at the handloom pavilion at exhibition halls.

Chendamangalam is a tranquil countryside which is the meeting point of three rivers and seven routes, a verdant and neat village where ancient history blends with the contemporary times with smooth ease. It had formed an important portion of Muziris, the ancient port town of Kerala.

Negotiating the small roads covered in greenery, the car slid up the small hillock of Kottayil Kovilakam. The Chendamangalam Synagogue stands by a small road there. I had always held a passion for the remnants left behind by that people who were forced to spread out over the world, abandoning their dreams of a motherland.

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The Paradesi synagogue and Jew Town of Mattancherry are sights familiar to all of us. While the Mattancherry Synagogue was considered as belonging to the 'White' Jews, the Chendamangalam Synagogue was believed to belong to the 'Black' Jews.

According to historical documents, the synagogue built by the Jews who reached here in 1420 modeling on the Jerusalem synagogues was gutted in a fire. It was rebuilt two centuries later. Even though the space is not too large, the synagogue flaunts an alter rich with decorative works and a hall dotted with wooden pillars.

Staircases on both sides of the hall lead up to the balcony for women. Here, you can read the Torah, the holy book of the Jews. The synagogue offers a feast for the eyes with deep bay windows and glass chandeliers. The Jewish festivals were always famed for spreading light!

The Jewish cemetery lies close by, with the tombstones peeping out from between the bushes. The ancient well rests in another corner. An engraving in Hebrew found in the courtyard dates back to 1269 – 'Sarah bath Israel.' (Sarah, beloved daughter of Israel, rests here). The endearing memory of someone who must have returned to the Promised Land forever.

The places of worship found in and around Chendamangalam offer sufficient samples for the warm and open hearted reception accorded to the religions from aboard on this soil. The synagogue, the Paliyam temple, the Juma Masjid (believed to have been the last one among the ten mosques established by Malik Dinar), and a church all are located just within the radius of barely one kilometer. And here Periyar and Chalakudy Rivers meet each other before flowing out into the Kodungallur backwaters.

The next destination was the residence of the Paliyam family, who were the trusted servants of the Royal Family of Kochi for three centuries. The Paliyam palace lay around four kilometers from North Paravur. The palace complex spread out over three and a half acres with 8 double storied buildings, many temples, ponds, 100 room palace and many smaller residences (madham-s). The Paliyathachans (as the elder male members of the family are addressed) were the prime ministers of the Kochi Maharaja. Second in power to the Maharaja in Kochi, the Paliyathachans had managed to frighten even Lord Macaulay, the British resident.

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The Paliyam palace is enriched with Dutch architecture. The wide staircases and thick walls bear testimony to the excellence of Dutch engineers. Upstairs, a special wooden cot, made of more than sixty medicinal trees, was laid out so that the Paliyathachan can take a break from his hectic schedule. (Interestingly, this was exactly where the grandmother portrayed by Kaviyoor Ponnamma had rested in the film 'Nandanam'). The mizhavu (percussion instrument) used by Kunchan Nambiar, the ancient brass lamps and the decorations used for elephants were all part of the treasures possessed by the Paliyathachans.

The Palace even had make-shift timber walls so as to create new rooms so that any number of guests could be accommodated. The punishment rooms for culprits is enough to take one's breath away. Two doors lead to a narrow space between two walls. The punished person will be led into the space that has no air circulation, and the doors will be closed. The rest can be guessed. Looking down through the windows of an upstairs room, an old Kalari could be seen, which is just a green maidan now.

The Paliyam Naalukettu which lies close by was the place for the women of Paliyam family. The building is more than 450 years old. The TV screen arranged in the downstairs hall displays images of the erstwhile days of the royalty. The smart guide led us to the interiors of the Naalukettu. The rooms had enough provisions including holes to ensure free flow of air. The women's palace has many rooms for privacy including a labour room. Sitting on the 'Aattukattil' (the swinging cot) of Valiyamma's room (as the eldest woman of the family is addressed), one can easily get a bird's eye view of everything that happens in the big house. Valiyamma was also the custodian of the ornaments kept in the locker room.

The kitchen that could prepare food for a thousand people is huge. The utensils, like the 'uruli-s,' 'chembu-s,' and the chattukam's, including the 'Gomukhi' used for keeping buttermilk, were equally massive. Photography is not allowed inside the Naalukettu.

The whole complex is governed by the Paliyam Trust, with the Government having given beautiful modifications to the buildings. The decorative roof tiles, hidden lighting and surrounding lawn add to the beauty of the existing structures. This complex is also the main attraction of the Kochi-Muziriz Tour Package. The Muziris Heritage Project could be termed as India’s largest heritage conservation project.

(Those who are interested to know more about Chendamangalam could read the Malayalam books, 'Muzirisiloode,' written by Manoj Raveendran Niraksharan and Sethu's 'Marupiravi.')

There is a Hop-On Hop-Off Boat Tour Service from North Paravur – Pallippuram – Kottappuram – Gothuruth, via the backwaters. The cruise is called 'A Cruise through the Golden Age of Spice Trade.'

The Jewish Synagogue of North Paravur can be visited before the boat trip, which begins from the Boat Jetty near the Paravur vegetable market. It is conducted by Tourism Department. More details could be obtained from 9020864649. 

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