Sara's Story

The Island of San Diego - Cochin


Once upon a time, not so long ago ….

That is how this story will start, like most stories. Alas! My children have grown up and do not listen to my tales anymore (and my wife, only at unavoidable times). But there was a time, when the three of us would snuggle together and I would tell them stories, on most nights before they retired to sleep. They are all grown up now, one is busy with corporate finance and the other studying medicine. In their busy lives, they have no time to listen to my long winded and somewhat exaggerated stories based in India, but I believe wistfully that perhaps someday when they do, one or both of them will read some of this stuff I spent a lot of time studying.

This is a story, most of it real, some of it bent, stretched and twisted over time after much retelling. It is the story of a determined woman, scorned by her folk, the story of a group of people who came to our lands, who lived happily for many thousand years and left some 50 years ago. But then, the woman, a steadfast person, our story’s heroine, became victim of the times, she lived in. This is her story and I thank my humanities teacher Prof Jussay for introducing it in his book, and two other women Ruby and Edna for retelling it, through their own books.

We go back a hundred years to a place close to Cochin called Parur (now North Paravur). This town had been an old trading post, had a Jewish synagogue and had a thriving Jewish community. In Parur and surroundings lived the Malabari Jews (Black Jews) while the wealthier Paradesi Jews (White Jews) lived in Mattanchery Cochin (Jew town). Of course there were other settlements like Chendamangalam (Chennamangalam), Mala and so on, but we will not get into too much history lest it get boring for the lay reader with little time and interest. Needless to say that the two communities quarreled often, especially since the Paradesi considered themselves superior to the Malabari due to their fair skin and slightly differing but more conforming traditions. History is replete with stories of their quarrels and this is one of them, though casteism is supposedly quite un-Jewish. In this case, even though the Malabari Jews were lower down on the Kerala Jewish caste ladder, were quite wealthy and hardworking, so they did have a loud voice in these communities, which they made sure was heard. As you could imagine, their fights and quarrels reached the Hindu rulers and Nobles of the area many a time, for arbitration and later at the courts of law. In some cases, the warring factions took law into their own hands and physical confrontation resulted. This story has both of them and will sometimes remind you of one of those Achayan movies we see on the Malayalam silver screens today.

Sara, that is the name of our lady, though I do not know her last name or other details. Ah! She must have been a very comely and pretty woman, of that I am sure and so is confirmed in the books I read and of course, her personality was enough to set man against man, so she must have been one helluva lady!! Now she was from a wealthy Jewish family and as you can imagine, was married off at a young age. But as fate would intervene, the husband died soon after. The young and pretty, but unlettered widow was left with two young daughters and a huge amount of wealth by way of landed property.

There were many males in both families who desired all that wealth and property, and you will agree with me saying ‘but naturally, we see it all the time, these fellas, they don’t want to work, just usurp the fruits of somebody else’s toil’. In this case, Sara’s brothers-in-law were pitted against her own brothers. Those hardy men argued a lot and came to an agreement that the two daughters of Sara be married to eligible men of their respective families so that the fortunes were equally divided and would stay within the families.

One thing you should note is that most Malabari Jews lived in the area close to Cranganore or Kodungallur (termed Shingly in ancient history). The eventful history of Kodungallur ended and that of Cochin began with the massive and historic flood in AD 1341. It closed the port of Kodungallur and threw open the estuary at Kochi, till then a land locked region, turning it into one of the finest natural harbors in the world. Many of the areas around Paravur Taluq were Jewish settlements during and after the floods of 1341. Almost all of the white Jews moved to Mattanchery after this flood. The local Nair chieftain of the area was the immensely rich Paliath Achan and the virtual owner of the Cochin area. The Cochin raja or the Perumpadappu Swaroopam Moopil also moved his palace to Cochin after the floods. The area was full of newly created islands, mud banks, small rivers and rivulets.

Sara’s husband’s family hailed from the nearby hamlet of Chendamangalam (Chennamangalam) and that is where she lived after marriage. But as you will recall, the two daughters were promised to Parur and Chendamangalam grooms. Still, the brothers were still not contended; they wanted to take over the wealth that was in the hands of Sara. Sara smelled a rat and refused to cede control. She decided to take charge of her wealth management and in this effort was enjoined by a faithful servant, the Jew named Eliahu.

You can imagine how tongues start wagging in Kerala, the men whose ego were hurt (in those days women just stayed put at homes and tended to home work and children) started spreading rumors that Sara was upto no good and was socializing with all kinds of men at odd hours and so on. Perhaps there was some fact in this, perhaps not, as we will see later. Sara was not bothered; she just did what she felt was right for her children’s future.

A few miles to the North of Chendamangalam, where Sara now lived her merry life, is the island of Gothuruth, also known as the San Diego Island (formed after the floods), approachable only by boat in those days. It was home to some very rich St Thomas Christians. The people of the island were very creative, in fact the Chavittu natakam (Street drama) tradition is said to have originated here. More popular was the fact that it was the watering hole of that period and sometime later, with many liquor shops dotting the waterfront. Anyway as it happened, there was a rich, handsome and virile young man on this island who took a fancy to Sara. Thomman, that was his name, was also the local leader and well trained in martial arts (it seems he and his friends styled themselves around the Red Cross Knights of Britain). Sara enjoyed his company and they became intimate. This of course added further fuel to the fires and Sara was quickly cast into an image of a shameless slut tarnishing the prestige and reputation of the Jew folk of Paravur.

Now the story takes a filmy turn, but then again, reel life gets inspirations from real life, as film people argue. Sara became pregnant, but there was no question of marrying Thomman, a Christian, so she quickly married her servant, Eliahu. Naturally the brothers and brothers in law as well as the other Jews of Parur and Chendamangalam got furious over the incident, cornered and beat up Eliahu (as he was yet another potential recipient of her wealth now) and cast him off by the road side, thinking he was dead. Thomman’s friends across the river, hearing the groans of the poor man, admitted Eliahu to the Cranganore hospital for treatment. Sarah then filed a complaint with the courts in Cochin and appealed to the Paliath Achan for justice. The Paliath Achan prodded Thomman to provide support to Sara and give them asylum in their island of Gothuruth. Whether she was accompanied by Eliahu or not and what his role in future arrangement was, is not stated in Jussay’s account, not do I want to speculate. But I assure you my friends, you will soon find out.

As living in Chendamangalam was becoming intolerable, Sara fled to Gothuruth with her daughters where Thomman provided them accommodation in a nice two storied house. The incensed Jews of Parur and Chendamangalam decided to take the law into their own hands and decided to physically extricate Sara and her daughters. Armed with sticks and swords, they crossed over to the muddy banks of Gothuruth in a row boat or two, on a fateful Monday, a day when they expected Gothuruth to be empty of menfolk as they were usually off to the Monday market at Kodungallor.

The Jews snuck up the shore, crept up to the building were the women were ensconced and were about to make the grab, when a brother of Thomman spotted them and raised a hue and cry. Sara fled to the nearby Pattayapura or rice pounding shed, while the girls scrambled upstairs and locked themselves in the bedroom. Bedlam followed, for the remaining people of Gothuruth reached the scene, armed for retaliation. As the people fought hand to hand, fist to fist, stick to stick and sword to sword, outside, Sara’s brother broke open the bedroom and dragged one of her daughters, perhaps the one who was to come to his village, down the stairs. Thomman’s friends hacked off the man’s arm and rescued the struggling girl. In the melee, somebody fired a pistol and soon the entire motely crowd ran helter-skelter, and somebody was trampled upon or killed. As this was going on, the Gothurth menfolk were speeding back from the market for support. The Jews were soon outnumbered and humiliated, they fled in shame and filed a criminal complaint against the Christians, but the court sided rightly with the Gothuruth people and a few Jews landed up in jail.

Sarah was excommunicated or ostracized by her community, but she never gave up. Her children were brought up well, provided college education, and well settled, but Sara was NEVER accepted back, though she was victorious in the fight. Finally, as promised, she married off her daughters to Parur and Chendamangalam grooms.

Is that it? Well, what you just read, perhaps with a little bit of hair tingle, was just one side of the story, the Christian version. The story is as narrated in the poem ‘Sara Vijayam’ (Victory of Sara) written by the famous Kattakayathil Cheriyan Mappila and narrated by Prof Jussay in his book and repeated mostly by Edna Fernandez in hers. Cheriyan Mappila wrote about evangelical matters, Christian legends and Villarvattom, which included the Gothuruth Christians. The story was from his time (1859-1936) and though Dr Jussay attributes the poem to a rustic bard, K Balachandran Nair in his ‘In Quest of Kerala’ names Mappila as the author of Sara Vijayam.

How about the Jewish version? Well, it can be found in Ruby’s accounts. Ruby of course views this from the other side of the fence as she was a Pardesi or White Jew, but is sympathetic to Sara as a co-religionist, and decries the way Sara was boycotted by the Malabari Jew community.

According to Ruby who knew the lady and her daughters; the story was not exactly like you read, and certainly not as colorful. Ruby’s account was narrated to her by Sara’s daughter. Sara the beautiful, it seems, was actually married off while very young to an elderly but wealthy Chendamangalam Jew, who died as you read previously; on the same day that he forecast his own death. Following this, the two sets of brothers tried to swindle the illiterate Sara off her inheritance by getting her to sign all kinds of deeds. Eliahu, an agent of her late husband stepped in and helped her ward off the brothers, who were obviously furious. According to this account, Sara was then living in Gothuruth and the brothers tried to take away the daughters from her by force. The natives of the island, who liked Sara, helped her out of the trouble. Apparently there was a person called Thomma who helped her by putting her up in his friend’s house during these troubles. When the irate mob approached her house, Thomma asked them to leave and was instead threatened by the brothers. An altercation ensued and Thomma cut off the arm of a brother who was holding the child. Another fleeing brother of Sara got bogged down in mud and was hammered to death with oars.

That was not the end; it appears that the Jews filed a case against Sara for inciting murder and she was soon on the run. Finally she reached Cochin’s Pardesi Jew town where she was given refuge by Jospeh and Isac Hallegua. Fort Cochin was then British Cochin and here the Cochin state police had no jurisdiction. Sara was thus saved, after which she married Elaihu and bore him a son and three daughters (I think it was only one daughter named Seema). The six Malabari Jewish communities excommunicated Sara and forbade anybody from helping her. After six years of exile in the Pardesi community, she was finally accepted by the Kadavumbagam Jews who incidentally had broken off from the six aforesaid communities for some other reason.

Sara got her elder daughters married off, whereas Seema went to college, becoming the first Jewish college graduate of Cochin (or so it seems). She too fell in love but that did not work out as the boy was scared of what could happen if he married the infamous Sara’s daughter.

Nothing more is known of the family. I am sure Sara’s descendants are alive and perhaps living in Israel (or in the general Cochin area as Christians), happy or not I cannot say, for anybody living in the desert with bombs whistling around and aircraft zooming overhead will always dream of their own secure and placid life back in the backwaters of Cochin. I will most definitely not believe them if they say they have forgotten the land that was kind to them. If they quarreled, it was only amongst themselves and Kerala as you know is always the most affable host then, now and will be in the future, to any visitor from afar.

Kerala on the other hand has a majority of women today compared to men, and their lot is slightly better off compared to the rest of India. Nevertheless, the women of Kerala continue to set an example much like our Sara and writers like Robin Jeffrey write a lot about such phenomena, for it is a phenomenon in India.

Gothurth does not remember Sara, but they still have a lot of Chavittu natakam shows and many other festivals. As Jay and Shalva explain, In the 1990s, the interior of the Kadavumbagam synagogue, located down the street from the Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin was taken to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and is a great attraction there. In February 2006, the abandoned and derelict synagogue which had in the past served the Kerala Jews in the verdant village of Chennamangalam, was re-opened as a tourist site. In 2010, the Kerala government decided to fund a new project to restore the abandoned synagogue in the town of Parur.

But as Isaac Mosheh Roby said in a Malayalam poem– The hope we have had since ancient times, to return to the land given to us by the one god, has not faded. The Jew town in Mattanchery, though bereft of Jews is a tourist attraction with only a handful of the Pardesi old-timers left and everybody has gone to the Promised Land on Aliyah. The other locales where Jews lived, around Paravur still have a few Malabari Jews left, though here too, most went to Israel and thrived cultivating roses and vegetables, even mixing with the Pardesi’s, after all. Eventually the 4,000 or more Jews of Cochin left their sanctuary of two thousand years and went back to Israel, while about 40 remained. May their next two thousand years bring them peace and glory and may they still remember their acquired language, Malayalam!! May there be many more Sara’s in theirs and our midst.

As Dutch records stated - The affairs of the Cochin kingdom as a rule are administered by the Paliath Achan. He is a considerable land owner, permanent Commander-in-Chief and Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cochin. He is hereditary Chief of Chennott (Chendamangalam) and of the part of the Island of Baypin (Vypin). In both these places he has palaces of sorts, but he usually resides at Chennott which is near Crangannore (Kodungalloor). The little old Kingdom of Vilwarvattom also belongs to him. He got this in ancient times from the Raja of Cochin, who had inherited it from a Nair chief. Members of the Paliath family still live on and figure prominently in Kerala.

As for the Cochin Royals, the many members of the family are now spread all over the world. The family is one of the world's largest royal families, numbering over a thousand, and members of the family still live in and around Trissur, Tripunithura and other parts of Kochi.

You may wonder why I spent a lot of time retelling a perfectly ordinary filmy kind of story. Well, for one, it was based on some historic facts and tells you a little bit about the times this minority lived in, their character, their behavior and how somebody chose to stand firm in spite of imminent ostracism, perhaps the worst thing that can happen to an individual. She was a person who stood up single handedly, and that is why I liked Sara and her story, so much that I wanted to retell it to you.

Saras world in a larger map

Those who would like more details and the full story from a descendant of Sara, please check Ilanit's blog- On the left click translate and English

References

The Jews of Kerala - P. M. Jussay
Ruby of Cochin: An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers - Ruby Daniels, Dr. Barbara C. Johnson
The Last Jews of Kerala - Edna Fernandes
The Jews of India: A Story of Three Communities - Orpa Slapak
The Parur Synagogue in South India - By Jay Waronker and Shalva Weil


NB: In my search for Sarah, I found a curious mention related to her, again no last name, in conjunction with an island called Valiya Panickan Thuruth close to Chendamangalam. Pilapully Vadakkedath Valiya Panickan was gifted with what is now known as VP Thuruth (island) by the Maharaja of Cochin. From Valiya Panickan, the island came into the possession of a Jewish lady called Sarah who sold it to joint family known as the ‘Ambukkan’. Well, that was just about the only legal mention of our lady in the records. How was this Pilapully Valiya Panickan, not possibly a Jew and thus not her husband, involved in a business deal with Sara, especially land acquisition? She would have only sold land in her time, not purchased it. If VPT was acquired by her, what were the circumstances?? Hmm…..

Comments

Happy Kitten said…
Is the Island still there?

Loved your story...and Sara...I hope her children/grand children sees your blog and let us have some more truth
Maddy said…
Thansk HK
Yes, Gothuruth (and VPT) are still there, they have a lot of events going on at Gothuruth. Also today with the roads and bridges, you will not even know it is an island!!
This is the second Sara I am coming across. Earlier I found a tomb stone (the earliest) placed in front of a Synagogue in Chenamangalam.
Maddy said…
thanks PNS,
long time no hear...
that Sara belongs to the 1268 time frame...
windwheel said…
Such an interesting story written in such an artless/artful manner as to create a lot of dhvani ripples and echoes in the mind of the reader without drawing attention to the writer's skill!
Kadambari said…
Rest assured, your dedicated readers hang on to every word you have typed :)
Interesting read, and as usual nicely related.

Is there a way to subscribe to your posts?
I tried the link below your post, and ended up seeing a lot of html.
Maddy said…
Thanks kadambari..
Glad that you liked this
To subscribe, look to the righht of the blog. Under the copywright comment is a Box withthis title - Follow by Email but leave a comment.
here you enter your email address, it will open teh feedburner verification window where you enter the word verification. Then I believe you get an email which you have to check and click. After this you are subscribed and the posts will come to you by email when posted.
Maddy said…
Thanks Windwheel..
I was actually studying the reasons behind the departure of all the Jews from Cochin and stumbled upon this..
It was fun researching it...
Anil Nair said…
Nice Post, Maddy.

Btw, you need not worry about your busy children; they will surely return to you when they search for stories themselves some future day. Meanwhile, here we are, all 'eager eyes and willing ears'..

:)

Anil
Maddy said…
thanks Anil..
I enjoyed writing this, though i was left a little stranded not knowing what happened to the Sara family..
plenty more on the way
Pius said…
Contact the Puickathara family at Kottapuram and Gothuruth near Parur for full details. Sara had taken refuge in the Pulikathara Tharavad (house) at Gothuruth. Vareed (Malayalam for George) Pulikathara was at home on the day they were attacked by a group which came in several odi vanghis (War Canoes) It was market day that day and all the men folk of the island had gone to the market. Vareed Pulikathara was the lone man at home He stood his ground and with his sword held of the attackers till the men arrived from the market and defeated the attacking party My wife is from the same family and she is the
Great grand child of Vareed Pulikathara.
Maddy said…
thanks pius..
nice to get the details..
rgds
Hi
My name is Ilanit Menachem and I'm one of Sarah's descendant ...
I live in Israel and I'm one of the Cochin Jewish community.
I'm so excited to find this story ...I'm trying to fined a clue for it for a few months.
My grandfather - Mordechai Yosef Hai died a few months ago and before his death he told us the story.
He asked us to fined the book poet that was written on Sarah, since this is the story of my grandmother's family.
I am Sarah's seventh generation. My grandmother - Rebbeca was her great-granddaughter. She came from the Pallivathukkal / Elyahu family .
Please contact me. We have so much to talk about ...I can share with you a lot of stories about my family including the great love story of my grandmother and grandfather.
Hi
My name is Ilanit Menachem and I'm one of Sarah descendant ...
I live in Israel and I am a part of the Cochin Jewish community.
I'm so excited to find this story ...
My grandfather- Mordehai Yosef Hai, died a few months ago and before his death he told us the story. He asked us to find the book/ poet that was written about Sarah since this is the story of my grandmother's family.
I am Sarah's seventh generation. My grandmother - Rebecca was her great-granddaughter. She came from the Pallivathukkal/ Elyahu family. Since my grandfather was dead, we are trying to look for the story.
Please contact me. We have much to talk about ...
Maddy said…
Thanks Ilanit...
It is a pleasure hearing from a descendant of a character I have studied!!
feel free to email me at umanmadhan@gmail.com
rgds
Ramachandran said…
I had met few Cochin jews in Israel in 1995 but was not aware of the Sara story.Legend has it that the Villarvattam dynasty was under King Thomas ,the only christian King of Cochin area.He had abdicated & given off the Villarvattam land to Paliath family after an adoption pact was agreed upon.But Paliath family went back from the promise after they inherited the land.Several historians has said that the story of Thoma Rajavu is just fiction.Maddy should attempt a blog on King Thomas.
Ramachandran
Maddy said…
thanks ramachandram,
i will work on the King Thomas story soon, have been trying to collect some facts & background, and any recommendations are welcome.