Where history and the dead coexist
Wherever there is a Jewish community a cemetery follows. The land where the Jewish dead lie is strictly left undisturbed, the community spokesmen from Fort Kochi tell PRATIMA ASHER
As you enter Jew Town through one of the small by-roads in Mattancherry, you pass a large plot of land enclosed by a high wall and a grilled gate decorated with a symbol of the Jewish sacred lamp.
On either side of the gate are marble plaques with the legend in English and Hebrew that this compound wall and the shed inside were erected by Jacob Hai Ephrain Cohen in memory of his father, Mr. Ephraim Jacob Daniel Cohen and his sister Miriam, on the 15th of September, 1898.
This is the present Jewish cemetery in Mattancherry, and while the outer wall is just a little over a hundred years old, the cemetery itself is reputedly at least two and a half centuries old.
Mr. Samuel H. Hallegua of Cochin makes an interesting comment: ''Wherever there is a Jewish settlement, the community has to buy a Torah and build a cemetery.'' One may obviously conclude that very often the cemetery precedes a synagogue, and the grave yards of the Jews provide invaluable records of the men and women of the community who have made Kerala their home over the centuries.
It is a recorded fact that there were four synagogues in Cochin and two in Angiceymal, indicating the presence of reasonably sized Jewish communities. The famous Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin was built in 1568, and it was one of the synagogues constructed at various periods of time in Cochin and Ernakulam. #The earliest synagogue in Cochin came up in the thirteen-hundreds, indicating that there must have been a cemetery here, before the present two and a half century old one.
Mr Hallegua agrees with this observation and points out that there are remains of an older Jewish cemetery in Mattancherry, a little away from the present one. This cemetery on what was perhaps poramboke land was vandalised when many members of the congregation left the place.
A single tomb dating to the sixteen-hundreds is still intact, he says, the resting place of Abraham Nehemiah Mota, a Jewish scholar, and it is venerated by the Jews and non-Jews alike, more often by the non-Jews, who light candles at this spot.
Early Jewish belief does not have much to say about ideas like resurrection, nor is it commented on in the Torah, though there is some evidence of this in the Rabbinical Judaism which existed between 2100 and the 5th century, he says.
In short, a belief in ghosts or concepts like intervention are not intrinsic to the religion, though at a popular and individual level such beliefs are noticeable.
Traditional Jewish belief eschews the use of coffins as the body has to be lowered into the grave as it is, a practice not particularly observed today. Close relations observe a seven-day period of mourning, when they do not leave the house, and prayers are recited three times a day.
The severe period lasts for a year with the tombstone on the grave constructed during the eleventh month, or earlier. It is possible for graves to contain more than one occupant, a man buried on a man, or a woman on a woman, with six inches of earth in between. This, however, is a practice which is not followed in Mattancherry.
That the Jews are sensitive about any disturbance of their burial grounds in evident from several well publicised incidents involving Jewish cemeteries.
One such incident, for instance, involves the burial grounds adjacent to St.Teresas College in Ernakulam, which have been the centre of some controversy. When the convent sought to extend their premises, there was a protest and the then abdicated Maharaja of Cochin refused to let the spot be disturbed.
When the Viceroy, Lord Willingdon, and Lady Willingdon visited Cochin, it was brought to the notice of Lady Willingdon that the spookiness of the place frightened the students in the institution who believed that it was haunted.
Instructions were given to the Diwan to stop further Jewish burials there, and another plot was allotted to the Jews. This cemetery has, in the past, been the subject of periodic controversies.
Jewish Law, says Mr. I.S.Hallegua, forbids the disturbance of burial grounds. Jews believe, he continues, that their ancestors rest undisturbed and undisturbing, till there is one race, one law, one religion.
A Jew may, he states emphatically, sell anything, he may even sell the synagogue, but he would never sell a piece of the spot where his ancestors rest.
Heritage is not merely fodder for the tourism industry, but a tool which a civilised person often uses to understand himself and the world he lives in. In a growing city where every vacant or unused bit of land is longingly eyed, clashes of interest do occur, and they require not only a balanced but a sensitive response, a very carefully constructed response.
Such a response is becoming more and more difficult to come by.
Send this article to Friends by