The Indo-Jewish embroidery, spinning and shadow work is found in a quiet heritage corner of Mattancherry in Ernakulam district in the state of Kerala. Near one of the oldest Jewish Synagogues (Jewish place of worship) in the world is the largest settlement of Jews in India following their expulsion from Portugal in 1492 by the Alhambra Decree and stayed in what is now called Jew Street and cultivated the intricate art of Jewish embroidery that came to be known as Indo-Jewish embroidery as time passed and the art style started reflecting Indian styles.
The Cochin Jews migrated from Kodungallur and back to Israel in 1948 upon its formation that led to a fast dwindling settlement but the art was taught to localities allowing it a longer life term than it should have had.
The first recorded usage of the Jewish style of embroidery and spinning in Kochi was in the Synagogue itself and the Jewish burial ground close by where many residents were laid to rest along with a embellished hand embroidered “pardah” as it is known in the native language describing the family members, details and achievements of the deceased.
The Menorah lamp (for 7 candles) cover, crochet handkerchiefs, bejewelled jewish skull caps, challah-cover (shabbat-bread cover) or a kippah (yarmulke) -now influenced by surrounding Malabar Muslim regions resulting in an amalgamation of a kippah and taqiyah- ,table runners, hamotzi covers, mats etc on organza, silk, organdy, satin and other strong rich fabrics are created by hand. The very fine stitches are used to decorate and record religious texts, a huge tradition in Jewish life where almost every detail, however repetitive in a woman’s life was recorded in the well received but time consuming process of hand embroidering.
Other than ritualistic textiles and decorative pieces for a traditional home,coconut shell goblets, cups, hanukkah candle stands, gold-plated menorah candle stands and wooden toys are displayed on a tree shaped stand in the home of the local favourite Pardesi Jew, Sara Cohen. Her centuries old home has books, pictures, unique home decor elements and a sewing machine from 1935 at her favourite spot by the window that have barely withstood the test of time.
The significant usage of Indo-Jewish embroidery extends beyond function and is a method of storytelling and works as a piece of living memory of the struggle faced by Jewish families on the run and is a reminder of the strict traditions followed despite adaptations to the Malayalam language and Indian culture.
Fabric, tapestries and embroidery play a huge role in Jewish traditions and temples and even have prime examples of history in The Jewish Museum in New York that has curated a collection from many communities that got wiped away during the Holocaust. Fabric had a history that rendered it more valuable for purposes of worship as the religious text of the Torah was embroidered with the same delicate cross stitch into fabric often donated to Synagogues as brocade and silk became expensive in the 17th and 18th century. Many levels of symbolism exist in the various Torah cloths. There is that of the cloth itself, which represents the veil in the original tabernacle’s Holy of Holies. There is the imagery appliquéd to and woven into the pieces.
The Torah curtains offer a personalised vision of the spiritual, while other types of objects reveal religion’s spiritualized vision of the personal. Sacred Sabbath cloths cover the table, the matzoh and the challah at feast meals, and special towels are used during ritual ablutions. Representing the bridal chamber, the place of marriage’s consummation, wedding canopies are integrated into the marriage ceremony. All of these items are meaningfully decorated in ways that reflect their use.
The circumcision ritual, considered the most personal aspect of the Covenant with God, utilises sacred swaddling clothes. In Eastern Ashkenazic tradition, family members embroider, appliqué or block print these clothes with the child’s birth date and the important events of his life. These same clothes will come to bind the Torah at the child’s Bar Mitzvah and his wedding. The Hebrew language and traditions, though deeply rooted in King Solomon’s time, have travelled to India and were strictly passed down to younger generations in a different country surrounded by different people to become the surviving Malabar Jews with their own unique set of customes borrowed from the natives.
The Assyro-Babylonians and Egyptians were highly proficient with ornamental embroidery reminiscent of the zari-zardosi work with origins in Persia found in Bhopal today as many Jews practising the art fled to Persia, Baghdad (like Sarah Cohens ancestral line), etc cultivating beautiful variations of the fine embroidery style across the world that evolved or stuck to its original roots with minimal influence.
History has proved that Jews are constantly learning and adapting to and from their neighbours. Materials, designs, fashion, style and motifs have taken inspiration right from the Baroque period, typical malayali culture or both as seen in Indo-Jewish embroidery amongst the Cochin Jews.
The earliest mention of this ceremonial embroidery is traced to Biblical times with significant mentions in the Bible itself. The Exodus 25-28 where the “Sanctuary in the Desert” is mentioned with the colours blue, purple, scarlet and “linen” is possibly the first recorded mention of this sacred art. Traditional craftspeople have used these symbolic colours and text along with religious motifs and those of pomegranates, flowers and grapes along the hem to create tapestries that are said to separate areas of lesser and greater holy values in the religious sanctuary, the First and Second Temples. They survive even today in the “parochet” hanging at the entrance of the Ark. A richly coloured and heavily embroidered/ appliques golden fringed curtain in front of the Lord at the Sanctuary is given a detailed description in various holy texts though often described as Babylonian work.
Biblical mentions of gold embroidery on the mantle that is said to have tempted Achan (Josh. vii. 21, 24). Ezekiel, the Hebrew prophet, speaks intricately embroidered byssus, the fine textured linen used to wrap mummies in ancient Egypt (Ezek. xxvii. 7). In the early days of Israeli invasion, embroidered cloth was considered a bounty of war to declare superiority over the Jews cementing its importance to Jewish culture.
Exodus 15:2 says “This is my God and I will glorify him” and was often seen by Rabbis as a sign from God itself to create beautiful items in honour of the Lord. Religious texts, components of the Jewish festival of Sukkot and curtains hung at their places of worship were always adorned if not written with fine embroidery. The same could be said for curtains, table runners and handkerchiefs found at a Jewish home.
The formation of Israel around the same time as Indian Independence meant the community that once numbered into the 1000’s dwindled into less than 5 to none today with Sarah Cohen’s demise in 2019. Lovingly called Sarah Aunty by the localities, her humble yet colourful abode and hand embroidery shop standing along with a few architectural symbols of neighbours long gone towards their life long dream of returning to their homeland after forced displacement. Her house has now been converted into a small museum/ store filled with pictures and artefacts tracing the story of Paradesi jews maintained by Thaha Ibrahim who she considered like her son blurring lines between religious discrimination amongst communities.
European Jews fled to India as a result of religious intolerance from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century and formed the Paradesi Jews or Jews from outside the country. The word “Paradesi” is an indicator of their faith and history that was continued to be practised in a different tolerant country and the small community take pride in being known as “Mayokaasims” or pure Jews.
The fragmented Jewish nation was destroyed and the inhabitants were made to be slaves by the Babylonian (present day Iraq) King Nebuchadnezzar in his quest to acquire Assyria and other nations as the King Zedekiah of Judah (present day Jerusalem and Israel) refused to pay tribute giving rise to the ongoing and bloody Iraq-Israel war.
A fighting group of these European or White Jews escaped on ships and reached Muziris in Kerala, an ancient harbour and urban centre on the Malabar coast (Kodungallur today) with significant focus in the princely state of Kochi as they gained sanctuary from Portuguese persecution that declined their right to practise their culture in the 16th century. Many Jews were born as a result of inter-racial mixing with the natives believed to be impure or Black Jews or “meshuchrarim” that led to discrimination and a divide mainly due to the differences in opinion about the “Yichus” a Jewish tradition and skin colour.
Abraham Barak A.B Salem, a Black Jew and first Jewish attorney made it his life long mission to unite the 2 communities and did so successfully after arranging a marriage between his own son and a White jew woman, the original inter-racial love story for the ages recited even in recent times at the few weddings held at the Kochi Synagogue. Often referred to as “Jewish Gandhi” thanks to his role in the Indian freedom movement as well.
Jew Town in Mattancherry is on land given to Jews by the King of Kochi, HH Kesava Varma (1567) when Jewish families were forced to evacuate their initial homes. “Mattan” in Hebrew even means to donate, indicating a donation towards the Jewish families that the King is said to have a soft corner for thanks to Joseph Rabban, another Black jew that settled in Kochi centuries ago and earned the quaint community the right to practise their religion freely. Even their place of worship, the Synagogue was built next to the Pazhayannoor Sree Krishna Temple where the King and his family used to pray. The King was another local hero and considered a protector of the Jews and even found a place in their daily prayers; “O, King of Perumbadappu, We say this prayer for you, The invincible King! Lord of all fourteen worlds, We plead to you to protect our King.”
On the withdrawal of Dutch settlement in the 17th century the Portuguese once again plundered the settlement and Synagogue built a century prior. Books and chronicles of Jewish events were also destroyed and burned. The houses and Synagogue was rebuilt as the Dutch made a reappearance in 1665 but is struggling to be maintained today and is conserved as a region of heritage importance by the Kerala Archaeological Society. The architecture and embroidery, though nearly falling apart and disappearing, are the only lasting memories of a previously thriving Jewish community.
As history suggests Jewish embroidery designs reflect influences from day to day life. A major part of a traditional Jewish day is prayers and offerings. Letters of the Hebrew language in a fine geometric cross stitched format taken from the holy script, Torah is regularly incorporated into the ceremonial embroidery style. The 7 candles Jewish menorah lamp, pomegranate flowers, pomegranate fruits, grapes, wine, stars etc are popular motifs and patterns incorporated into products like pillow covers, curtains, table runners, etc.
Items important for Jewish rituals and traditions like the kippah or Jewish cap, a tourist favourite, are also found adorned with gold plated silver thread and other sequined embellishments.
Jew town is located in an area that attracts heavy tourism with surrounding shops selling all types of antiques. So it goes without saying that covid-19 had hit the little store/ museum hard especially as primary customers are Cochin Jews settled in Israel, Europe and America travelling all the way back to their ancestral homes to restore or replenish traditional and religious kippahs, wedding “mundu” (dhoti in the local language) and other tapestries. It was impossible to get materials and orders for almost 2 years following the pandemic and the artisans still fight to recover.
The other primary challenge is the survival of the art itself as the original customs and style continue to be watered down over the years with no living resident family member from the community of Cochin Jews to keep the embroidery alive. That being said, localities headed by Thaha Ibrahim, Sarah Cohens student and caretaker have put in strong effort to keep original examples of the art and society customs alive with museums and visuals for tourists to see.
Shadow work along with petit point and hand bobbin stitch was a popular element of the fine cross stitch and is seen across items in a traditional Jewish home. The Hem of curtains, handkerchiefs and table runners are often decorated with a special type of weaving using a wooden spindle that creates a delicate lace/crochet effect
Wooden frame: The fabric to be embroidered is stretched over this wooden frame to create a workable tension. It is tied to the frame with simple oblique stitches. The frame has two longitudinal lengths of wood and the other two which hold them together . The fabric is wound onto the loom horizontally and the embroiderer can work on it sitting down.
Needles: Different types of needles are used according to the fineness required. For example, the Ari needles which are the Muthi Ari with a wooden handle and Teeli ki Sui without the handle. These needles have hooked or crooked tips.
wooden block: to wrap the zari thread. This makes easier to use the thread while working.
Scissors: Different types and sizes of scissors are used to cut the fabric, the silk cotton cord, the threads and the zardozi embroidery threads.
Large adjustable wooden stands are kept parallel to each other firmly on a level ground. The frames are then placed across the stands for support. Linen, brocade, silk and other delicate rich fabrics are placed on a cotton canvas fabric stretched across the frame held in place by the corners. The portions of the fabric that are required to be worked upon are opened and spread according to the directions given on the initial drawings done on paper with pencil. The remaining portions are not held down by sewing threads on the canvas and are rolled away.
New designs are first drawn on paper, transferred onto the fabric and then filled with the fine cross stitch, shadow work, petit point or stem work depending on the customisation, requirement and artisan. Fabrics chosen are usually plain in colour and are sometimes transparent to allow for easier filling in of threads. For religious purposes and other occasions satin and silk are chosen that require cotton lining and expert hands to complete the embroidery.
If a repetitive design is to be executed a stamp is made to be dipped in ink and lightly pressed on the areas of embroidery with the right spacing and pattern. The embroidery threads are stitched in a swift manner with equal attention paid to both sides. The artisan’s hands are placed on the bottom and top guiding the thread around the needle to attain the required pattern similar to the function of a bobbin in a sewing machine. After the embroidery work is completed the fabric is cut and completed with a hem stitch generally with hemp yarn.
List of craftsmen.