Kashmir, Kerala and Jew Town

A small community of Kashmir businessmen have found a home in the god’s own country, which is home to the first Church, Synagogue and Mosque in India. Shams Irfan reports.

The view of Jewish Synagogue in Kochi, Kerala. Photo: Shams Irfan

As soon as you enter the Kerala skies a sense of homecoming prevails upon you. Lush green fields with coconut plantations spread across miles tempts you to touch down quickly and experience the serenity that this place is famous for.

Squeezed between sea on one side and the state of Tamil Nadu on the other, Kerala is famous for its tall coconut trees and beaches.

 But it is the coconut that actually binds the people of Kerala together like a strong coir rope. And it is everywhere in Kerala: every house, every street, every piece of land is covered with what people of Kerala consider “god’s gift”. The tall tress with green fanned leaves add to the beauty of the state and they are preserved, revered and at some places worshiped for being an integral part of life of Keralites since centuries.

Kerala: the God’s own country has something for everyone. The distinction of being a complete tourist destination comes from its vast natural beauty that is spread across the state. From golden beaches of Kovllam to eye catching tea gardens of Munnar; from backwaters of Alappuzha to ancient Mattancherry Palace in Kochi, Kerala is full of surprises for a tourist.

The annual rush of tourists, both domestic and international tourists (domestic 96 lakh and international 7.5 lack in 2011) shows how Kerala has successfully managed to tag itself on the world map as a must-see tourist destination in South Asia in a short span of two decades.

During my sojourn in Kerala, my guide told me that Kerala is eager to present itself as an alternative tourist destination for those who wish to visit Kashmir but cannot do so for various reasons. But at the same time he pointed out that Kerala will never take on the path of development at the cost of its environment.

Development doesn’t mean that one has to build big concrete infrastructures to lure tourists in to a particular place. The preservation of natural habitats and ecology has always been the foremost priority of the people of Kerala and its tourism department.

“We always considered Kashmir as a challenge in order to build a sustainable tourism industry in Kerala,” said U.V.Jose, Director Kerala Institute of Tourism and Travel Studies. He admitted that the tourism department in Kerala studied Kashmir before embarking on a successful journey of presenting itself as a competitive tourism destination in South Asia. “We have introduced the concept of responsible tourism in Kerala where environmental conservation and development go hand in hand and without any conflict,” he added. “We never promise anything which we cannot provide to tourists.”

The strong Panchayati system ensures active participation of the people, at all levels, in all decision making processes concerning them or the overall development of the state. The top-down form of governance in Kerala has benefited the ordinary masses as they are not deprived of their share in the progress of the state. “Participation of people in all development related works is important. If people are not benefited directly from tourism then how can they help in sustaining it?” said CM Oman Chandy.

Kashmiris in Kerala

Kashmiris started moving to Kerala in early nineties when militancy erupted in Jammu and Kashmir. Most of them were small time traders who started setting up small traditional business in areas around Mattancherry (Cochin), Idukki and some parts of Thiruvananthapuram. Another small population consists of those Kashmiris who visit Kerala for studies or those who work in the Technopark Thiruvananthapuram. However the total population of Kashmiris in Kerala remains around five thousand.

And the major concentration of Kashmiris is in Jew Town, Mattancherry (Kochi district), where they have set up handicraft shops on the either side of the road that leads to a 16th century Jewish Synagogue.

Mattancherry is a small town situated on the banks of Kochi backwaters. The town is buzzing with tourists at all times as people make it a point to visit the famous Portuguese architectural marvel known as Mattancherry Palace. This 16th century Palace is famous for its mural painting depicting scenes and characters from Hindu mythology.

The town also has some of the oldest population of Jews in India tracing their roots to the times of King Solomon. After the formation of Israel in 1948, a vast majority of the Jews from Mattancherry emigrated there and those who stayed back are on the verge of extinction as there is only one woman of childbearing age left in the whole Jew Town. It is said that forty year old, Yaheh Hallegua, who is in charge of the Synagogue and sells tickets to the visitors, holds the key to save the centuries old Jewish race in India from extinction.

While Jewish population in Jew Town is facing existential threats, another community is slowly finding an alternative home in Mattancherry. A small but strongly-bound Kashmiri business community which has made Mattancherry its home since early nineties is slowly making itself acceptable in the Jew Town.

“I came to Kerala in early nineties when there were no business opportunities in Kashmir. Since then, this place is my home,” said the owner of Sofi Arts, a middle aged businessman who deals in handicrafts and papier-m?ch? items.

During my hour long interaction with Kashmiris in Jew Town, one question kept on repeating throughout. How safe is Kerala for Kashmiris? “I am in Jew Town since early nineties and never ever there was any problem with police or authorities. Yes, with that Jewish Lady (Yaheh Hallegua), there is always a problem. But overall Kerala is best place for business,” said another middle-aged businessman.

However the arrest of a Kashmiri salesman from Idukki district in 2008 in connection with his alleged links with Hizbul Mujaheedin brought almost every Kashmiri living in Kerala under suspicion.

In 2009 a Kashmiri journalist based in Delhi who was in Kochi on an reporting assignment was detained for 10 hours by Kerala police and grilled for his motive to visit the state.

“That time (January 2008) was really tough for us as we thought that we have to wind up our businesses from Kerala now,” said one young Kashmiri businessman who deals in antiques and has one shop each in Idukki and Jew Town Mattancherry.

“It was really heartbreaking and scary too. We had huge investments at stake in Kerala at that time,” he added. “But thank God, it was only short lived. Now things are back to normal and you are not under scanner for being a Kashmiri in Kerala.”

Another Kashmiri whom I met during Friday prayers at Medavathukkal Juma Masjid, who works in Technopark Thiruvananthapuram said, there are only a handful of Kashmiris working here in Kerala and we almost live invisible lives. “Being a Kashmiri in any part of India one has to be careful. And Kerala is no exception,” he added.

Illiteracy Banned

With cent per cent literacy rate Kerala has succeeded in making itself a knowledge hub in the south. Kerala being the gateway of India for foreign travelers since early ages has been under the influence of Portuguese, Dutch and then finally English traders who were attracted to this state for pepper and other spices. The people of Kerala are very proud of their culture and they often boast about religious tolerance of its people. According to some historians the first Church, Synagogue and Mosque in India were built in Kerala.

Kottayam is the most literate district in Kerala. During my visit to Madappally block, I had chance to meet eighty-year old Vinni, a student of 4th standard, who flashing her toothless smile said that she felt embarrassed for being the only illiterate person in whole district. “People would often tease me for being illiterate but now with the help of local Panchyat members I am a regular student and can read Malayalam now,” she said proudly.

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