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.

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      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.

      Myths & Legends:

      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.

      Introduction Process:

      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

      Raw Materials:

      • Fabrics like organdy, linen, cotton and sometimes silk, brocade and satin depending on the occasion and use of the final product were chosen.
      • Embroidery thread used were generally in cotton or silk which are rare to find and for traditional occasions gold plated silver threads were used.
      • A size 10 embroidery needle is used to complete the designs on the chosen fabric.
      • Wooden embroidery frames/ slate frames were used by the Cochin Jews to hold the fabric in place and is still seen in use.
      • A wooden spindle like contraption is used to complete designs woven on the hems of traditional Jewish items like table runners and handkerchiefs.
      • Sewing machines are also in use for the base product to be created. Sarah Cohen’s original 100 year old sewing machine is also still at her abode, a loving gift from her husband, Jacob Cohen on his visit to America that began her little venture that grew into so much more.

      Tools & Tech:

      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.


      No waste

      Cluster Name: Kochi


      District / State
      Kochi / Kerala
      Malayalam, English, Hindi
      Best time to visit
      Any time
      Stay at
      Many hotels, guest house
      How to reach
      Bus, Train, Flight
      Local travel
      Auto, Walkable Distance
      Must eat
      Sea Food


      An important Port city for the Dutch, Portuguese and French as seen in the surrounding architecture, Cochin was a fishing village in pre-colonial era before its discovery and conversion into an important trading centre with the building of Fort Manual, now in ruins, an important strategic symbol of alliance between the the Kochi Maharaja and the Portuguese and also the final resting place of Vasco da Gama in St. Francis church, the only building that escaped destruction in a gory battle between the Dutch and Portuguese as they fought for the prime piece of land. The Dutch found favour in the eyes of the Maharaja Varma at the time by remodelling his home, now the Mattancherry-Dutch palace.

      The first European fort on Indian soil was on the collection of islands together known as West Cochin in the state of Kerala, once just marshy mangroves. The important point of trade rose only along with the sea levels to create sand banks and the coastal area we see today after the flooding of the River Periyar forced the busy, bustling harbour in Muziris (present day Kodungallur) to shift to new grounds, much like the Jews itself.

      Muzirirs was once a harbour of extreme importance amongst the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians as they regularly engaged in trade of spices and oils that were said to be a significant step in mummification of bodies and the beautification of women.

      The name Cochin comes from Co- chin meaning like China as described by Chinese travellers upon their arrival in the 14th century and installed the famous chinese fishing nets still in use today. Pedro Álvares Cabral, a Portuguese navigator, was the first to set up a European settlement in Indian soil in the late 15th century and begin active trade lines that led to the construction of massive godowns and warehouses in use even today along with beautiful examples of churches and bungalows.

      The 1700s meant the Industrial revolution in Britain had begun which led to ruthless exploitation of Kochi for raw materials to fuel their factories. By 1795 the Dutch were overthrown and Queen's rule was established giving rise to the Anglo-Indians in Fort Kochi, their homes and descendants still found in some parts of the island. As Kochi was forced into being a port for the British Empire it worked tirelessly for freedom.


      Fort Kochi is a locality in the Ernakulam district of Kerala, India. The locality is 16 km away from Cochin city and takes its name from Fort Manuel of Cochin, the first European fort on Indian soil, annexed into the Portuguese East Indies. Kochi lies at the northern end of a narrow neck of land, about 19 km long and less than 1.6 km wide in many places, and is separated from the mainland by inlets from the Arabian sea and by the estuaries of rivers draining from the Western Ghats. As a result, Kochi is a natural harbour.



      Weather is generally humid like any other south indian state with refreshing bouts of wind thanks to surrounding coastal regions. Many Muslim businesses have set up warehouses in surrounding areas along with multiple antique stores in a wall to wall format sometimes seen with a colourful mural as part of the rich art culture in Kochi.

      The multi-cultural influences surrounding the small craft cluster has changed the embroidery to create amalgamations of many cultures and traditions in major functions like weddings, funerals, etc.


      Within Fort Kochi and Mattancherry the best way to explore is by foot or with local rickshaws. Localities would be more than happy to guide newcomers inside and out the winding lanes filled with prime examples of ancient Dutch, British, Portuguese and other colonial architecture as well as modern murals and wall art. The Naval museum, palaces, synagogue, beach, food (cafes and outdoor “you buy, we cook” seafood options along the coast) and many shopping (antiques, spices and jewellery) and sightseeing (churches, boutique hotels of heritage importance) options along the streets make for a wholesome day out best enjoyed on foot or cycles readily available on rent.

      Government and private schools (The Delta Study, an example of European architecture by itself) are found in the area along with a prominent police station. Fort Kochi bus stop is the first stop in the town with direct access all over the city beyond the island to metro stations and the airportl. The ferry service is found close to the bus stop with direct access to Vypin island that is used as a shortcut to Ernakulam town. Multiple clinics and hospitals, both government and private are found in the area catering to residents of the area.

      The city of Cochin, 2 bridges away from the island is well connected with bus routes and metro services as well as a readily available system of local rickshaws and taxi cabs.

      A number of malls, shopping complexes multi storeyed residential areas, villa complexes, large flyovers, restaurants and cafes and excellent educational facilities, etc are sprinkled all over the city and is in stark contrast to the quiet heritage island that is Fort Kochi (also easily accessible via road and waterways) often referred to as separately despite a common administration.


      The embroidery unit has small windows with colourful metal grills making the traditional Jewish star. Homes are placed close to each other and sometimes even share a wall. Thin balconies and more windows are seen in the first floor and are usually not more than a single storey.

      The island of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry has a similar European church style of architecture with large french windows and double doors, large arched entries, coloured glass windows (mosaic), terracotta clay tiles or tessera mosaic tiles (much like the ones seen in typical houses in Kerala). Off white plastered walls and pitched roofing styles generally seen in coastal regions to allow for active runoff of rainwater as the state receives 6 months of monsoon were also adopted. Koder House, vasco house and the Santa Cruz Basilica in Fort Kochi is a prime example of European architecture in India with Jewish, Dutch, French and native influence untouched by the degrading effects of time, water logging and chipping paint. Most of these prime pieces of architecture have been converted to museums or boutique hotels.

      Cochin city is connected to the tourism centric island by 2 major bridges and is a busy metropolitan city with one of the largest malls in South India (Lulu Mall), the world's largest fully solar powered airport (CIAL) and many 5-7 star resort and business hotels. Multi storeyed apartments and flyovers are a common sight, usually in stark contrast against the quant tourism centric island of Fort Kochi.


      Christmas and New Year, Onam, Eid, Ganesh Chathurthi, Navaratri, Konkani festivals and lastly Jewish rituals are all still seen in the city of Cochin in varying degrees but still strongly survive as the melting pot of culture and people that have begun residency continuing in the path of their ancestors or migrating from other regions keep them alive. Christmas and new year means the whole of Fort Kochi is lit up and decorated with lights and stars, the Mother Tree is a sight to see in this time which is where the annual parade of elaborate floats begin. Onam and Vishu mean festivities all over the state originating from temples with decked up elephants and crowds of people putting on a show.

      The residents are calm and give strong focus on business and education maintaining the state's highest literacy rate of the country (96%) which was once a perfect 100 in 2016, especially in the city. Fort Kochi is juxtaposed against the metropolitan city centre with a slower lifestyle and tourism and cafe culture prevailing especially amongst the youth.

      The kind of prayers and rituals still seen in the Synagogue and otherwise kept alive by the localities. Parades as seen in churches and temples are also conducted in front of the Synagogue where excellent examples of Jewish embroidery are brought out as decoration and are seen in all its glory.

      The Jewish kippah or small circular cap began to take in Muslim influences and slowly began to resemble the taqiyah worn by Muslims as the resident Jews began to take in local influences.

      Upon the weddings of Cochin Jews, especially inter-racial occasions meant the bride used to wear a heavily embellished “mundu” (dhoti in the local language) or “pudava” as seen in traditional Muslim weddings. Jews living abroad with ancestral lines tracing back to Kochi continue to adopt these traditions.


      Kochi has a diverse, multicultural, and secular community consisting of Hindus, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, Konkanis and Buddhists among other denominations. Today, the population of the city is a mix of people from all parts of Kerala and most of India. The city's pan-Indian nature is highlighted by the substantial presence of various ethnic communities from different parts of the country.The presence of the headquarters of the Southern Naval Command adds to the cosmopolitan nature of the city.

      Famous For:

      Other than the obvious Jewish influences in Jew town it is also famous for its backwater cafes surrounded with antique stores and structures from the time of the Maharaja itself now prominent museums and the heritage walks situated around the Kochi Muziris Biennale between December and May.

      Antique stores and an elaborate array of spices reminiscent from the port's trading days are still found. The Chinese fishing nets and seafood delicacies around the coastal region are also a major tourist attraction said to be gifted by the Chinese itself during an ancient trade deal.


      List of craftsmen.

      Documentation by:

      Process Reference:,Bar%20Mitzvah%20and%20his%20wedding.

      Cluster Reference: