Interior of the Kadavumbagam synagogue
Cochin, Kerala State, India
Constructed 1539–44, decorated 16th–18th centuries
Carved and painted teak
5.5 x 5.2 x8.8
Gift of Della and Fred Worms, London and Jerusalem
Photograph: Nahum Slapak
According to varied traditions, Jews first settled in the southwestern region of Kerala over two thousand years ago. The Kadavumbagam synagogue, one of eight synagogues in the area, was in operation from the mid-sixteenth until the mid-twentieth century, when many members of the community immigrated to Israel. The abandoned building became a workshop for the production of ropes and mats, and the carved wooden interior was in danger of ruin. In 1990 the interior was purchased for the Israel Museum, brought to Jerusalem, and, after five years of acclimatization in a climate-controlled storeroom and painstaking restoration in the Museum’s laboratories, installed in the galleries.
The richness of the synagogue’s decoration and the quality of its wood carving are outstanding. The decorative details—including lotus blossoms, birds, and cobras—were no doubt inspired by local elements and motifs. One unusual feature, characteristic of Cochin synagogues, is the additional reader’s desk at the front of the women’s gallery, from which prayers were led and the Torah read on Sabbath and holidays.
Because the Kadavumbagam synagogue’s Torah ark had previously been transported to Moshav Nehalim in Israel, the reconstructed synagogue was furnished with a Torah ark, dated 1892, from the nearby Kerala community of Parur. (The reader’s desk [tevah] also comes from Parur.) The front of the ark is carved with a depiction of the seven-branched candelabrum from the vision of the prophet Zechariah, an emblem of redemption.