Gentiles in fight to save Kerala’s rare Jewish monuments
Construction works have been temporarily stopped in India’s largest Jewish cemetery thanks to tireless campaigns against violation of a 1955 deed
For Jews, Mala, a small town in southern India, is unique in many ways.
Some 50 families are said to have lived there peacefully for over a thousand years – something that is quite rare in Jewish history.
Mala also has the largest Jewish cemetery in India and one of its oldest synagogues. These are the monuments of their existence that the Jews of Mala handed for preservation to the local government before they left en masse for Israel, after its formation in 1948,
The wood used for building the Mala synagogue was gifted in the 10th century AD to Joseph Rabban, a Jewish merchant who enjoyed royal privileges, by the raja (king) of Kodungallur (then called Muziris, under the sovereignty of which Mala belonged at the time). This is recorded in a Jewish Malayalam folk song.
The raja, who seems to have been at ease with cultural diversity, helped Jewish migrants to settle and prosper in Mala, whether they came for business opportunities, or were fleeing floods or Portuguese invasion.
Today, a group of Gentiles has been fighting a battle to save the two monuments left behind by Jews – the 1000-year old, 900 square meter synagogue, and the four-acre cemetery.
“These monuments are not just symbols of Jewish history. They stand for the religious tolerance and cultural pluralism of locals who lived here for centuries,” says Professor C. Karmachandran, a retired historian who heads the Mala Heritage Protection Committee (‘Mala Paithruka Samrakshana Samithy’). The Committee has representation from Christians, Muslims and Hindus.
Before leaving Mala, Jews wanted to ensure the final resting place of their ancestors was preserved as a historical monument – one that both locals and visiting Jews can be proud of.
To that end, three of their representatives – E. Avorony, P. Eliacha, and C. Elibai – signed a deed in 1955 with the then president of the local administration (panchayat), A. Joseph, to protect the two monuments.
The deed explicitly stated that the monuments should not be used for any other purpose. No digging, unearthing, trespassing or encroaching was to be allowed; tombs, walls, gates and name boards were to be protected. And the panchayat was to undertake any repairs using its own funds.
Initially, no violations took place. But before long, the then panchayat turned the synagogue’s prayer hall into a community hall and allowed a primary school to run classes in it.
The cemetery gradually became a no man’s land. Trees were cut. Footpaths began to emerge. It became a playground and grazing ground for locals and a firing range for home guards and National Cadet Corps. Soon, the number of tombs was reduced from over 30 to just three.
In 1994, the Association of Kerala Jews moved the high court against Mala’s panchayat, alleging violation of minority rights. The case was technically dismissed in 2005, on the grounds that all Jews in Mala had left for the Holy Land, but it helped in halting construction activity for a decade.
The court also directed the petitioner to approach a lower court to fight the deed violation.
After the high court’s dismissal, the then panchayat gave the go-ahead for construction activities at the cemetery, making false claims that the court had approved them. The public realized the truth only in 2012 after Karmachandran sought information under the Right to Information Act. By then, though, the damage had been done.
The panchayat’s first move was to build a low wall dividing the cemetery into a 1.5 acre plot on the western side for a heritage park and a 2.5 acre sports facility on the eastern side.
A 62-meter open-air gallery with concrete steps for seating – which the then authorities called a stadium and named after India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehruwith – was hurriedly built on the eastern side and opened just before the 2005 panchayat elections. Its foundation plaque contained the words “Jewish monument” in brackets.
Equally shocking was the way the then panchayat later renamed the stadium for K Karunakaran, a Congress leader and former chief minister of Kerala who represented Mala from 1965 to 1995. The attempt to play on local sentiments was blatant. (Another example of this was when the previous panchayat gave up two meters of land around the cemetery for road-widening.)
“What the Jewish cemetery faced was not negligence but assault,” says Karmachandran. “Panchayat officials and lawmakers of the time kept quiet as construction work resumed. For them, there was not a single Jew left in Mala to play vote bank politics.”
Dr. MGS Narayanan, a noted historian who backed the heritage protection group’s campaigns, stresses: “There is only trusteeship for the panchayat. It has no rights to infringe upon the deed.”
In 2013, the Congress-led United Democratic Alliance government in Kerala started construction of the new K Karunakaran Sports Academy Indoor Stadium in the cemetery without any consideration as to how the 1955 deed might be affected. The local authority in fact failed even to inform the government of the history of the ground selected for the stadium.
According to the heritage protection group, activity on the eastern side of the cemetery is particularly disruptive. Due to its being less rocky that the western side, they believe most burials over the centuries would have taken place on the eastern side. The construction of the stadium therefore occasioned significant desecration, they say.
Records show that some 50 Jewish families lived in Mala over the centuries and that in all probability around 2,000 people were buried in the cemetery over its lifespan.
Earlier, when the plan for the heritage park was proposed, in 2012, by the then state tourism minister, activists had objected to 14 of the projects, which they thought would convert the cemetery land into a concrete park. They also pushed the panchayat to replace the cemetery’s broken name board – but when it finally succumbed, the new board was installed near the roadside, not in prominent position at the front. It seemed the panchayat was trying to systematically wipe out all signs of the monument.
The campaigners claim efforts were made to turn the public against them by alleging that the cemetery was being used as a waste dump, illegal parking lot and grazing ground, and as a haven for anti-social elements at night. The heritage group, the authority alleged, was stalling development – and worse, politicizing the issue in order to get funding from Jewish benefactors.
Turning the tide?
In April 2013, two descendants of Mala’s former Jewish population, Dan Elias and Abbey Abraham, lodged a case with the nearby Irinjalakuda sub-court seeking to have the synagogue and cemetery returned to them as the panchayat had violated the 1955 deed. The court ruled construction activities must be suspended.
Four years later, work remains paused and two cases are ongoing in the Thrissur district court and Kerala high court.
The synagogue too has faced problems. After a shopkeeper encroached the space which served as the main pathway to the synagogue, the heritage protection group lodged a court case. Miscreants retaliated by breaking windows at the synagogue.
When the heads of the Israeli Consulate in Bangalore and the Archaeological Department of Kerala made visits to the cemetery and synagogue, the then panchayat assured them that all steps were being taken to preserve the two monuments.
On July 27, 2016, however, an Israeli delegation of Kerala Jews led by Yosi Oren visited the cemetery and asked the officials: “Where is the thing we handed to you?”
The panchayat had no answer.
A new panchayat took over in December 2015. Its president, PK Sukumaran, is said to be willing to address issues relating to the monument but was not available for comment when Asia Times tried to contact him.
“The best way to preserve the two monuments is to hand them to the Archaeological Department of Kerala and declare them as protected monuments,” Karmachandran says. “The department has the resources and expertise to preserve them.”
The two monuments, he believes, should be included within the ambit of the Keralan government’s Muziris Heritage Project, the goal of which is to reinstate the port town’s historical and cultural significance.
“Mala Jews have an uninterrupted history of over a thousand years, something rare. It’s a matter of pride for all Indians to preserve what is left behind by them.”