Nehemiah Ben Abraham Motha was a Jewish Mystic/Kabbalist who lived in Kochi, and is considered to be one of the Indian subcontinent’s greatest. A poet who used to write in Hebrew, Nehemiah Motha was a Yemenite who navigated to Kochi and lived there till his death.
The Jews of Kochi were divided into two groups: Paradesi Jews and Malabari Jews. This division was based on arguments of racial purity. In Mattancherry, there are two synagogues: the Paradesi synagogue and the Kadavumbhagam synagogue. The Paradesi synagogue is a tourist attraction while the Kadavumbagham synagogue is an abandoned structure. This was used by the Malabari Jews of Mattancherry, all of whom migrated to Israel on its formation. Nehemiah Motha was a Malabari Jew.
The existence of the Malabari Jew cemetery or the Kadavumbhagam cemetery is not known to many. The only evidence left behind is a lone tomb in a very congested colony. The introduction of Land Reforms in Kerala in 1957 led to encroachers destroying and demolishing the entire cemetery. It was later converted into a colony called Chakkamadom.
All the tombs were expunged except for that of the 17th century Yemenite Jewish mystic Nehemiah Ben Abraham Motha locally known as Nehemiah Motha. Mootha is ‘elder’ in Malayalam, whereas muttan refers to ‘old man’ or ‘grandfather’. Of the many stories among the locals around this tomb, one is that when the local people started destroying the tomb the earth shook and a great fire broke out. Since then his tomb has been venerated not only by the Jews of Kochi but also by the local Christian, Muslim, and Hindu communities.
Nehemiah Motha was born somewhere between 1570 and 1580. Most people believe that he was from Yemen but there are also others who believe that he was from either from Iraq, Turkey, Italy, Morocco, or Poland. Motha had a sister known as Saidi. She is said have made a major contribution in the construction of the Paradesi Synagogue. Motha married a Malabari Jewish woman. The Jewish Encyclopedia of 1907 calls him the “false messiah” of the Cochin Jews. After Nehemiah Motha’s death, he was gradually transformed into a cult figure to whom several miracles and healing powers have been attributed. There is even a legend that Motha could fly in the air to reach home for Sabbath prayers. Motha is believed to have died in 1615.