Indian Jews: This little known minority community has a rich heritage
Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on the Jewish community in India
Last week the Maharashtra state government bestowed minority status on a minuscule and ancient community — the Indian Jews. This official recognition by Maharashtra, the second state to do so after West Bengal, is imperative to the very survival of its Jewish community. Maharashtra (part of erstwhile Bombay State) has always been home to a majority of Indian Jews, it today has 2466 Jews out of the all-India total of 4,650 Jews.
Community numbers in the post independence era have always hovered precariously around 5000 because of large scale immigration in the 1950s and 1960s to Israel. Hence being classified as a minority will help the Indian Jewish community preserve its religious and cultural traditions, educational and community institutions, and its unique heritage on the Indian subcontinent. This present recognition has raised the community’s hopes of being recognised as a minority by the central government.
Indian Jews hold the distinction of being the only community of Jews in the world who throughout their two millennia long history on the Indian subcontinent have never faced any form of racial persecution. This is in spite of the fact that it is not one homogenous community but made up of three traditional communities (five altogether, if one counts the Manipur Jews, Bnei Menashe, and the recently discovered Telugu Jews of Andhra Pradesh) who settled on the West, South, and East coasts of India.
Moreover, even within these three settlements there are distinct communities of Jews co-existing, with very different narratives of displacement from their original homeland, settlement in India and migration to Israel and the West. What holds these kaleidoscopic histories together is the fact that most of these communities reached the subcontinent by sea or originally visited as maritime traders who eventually settled here.
It is in the constant ebb and flow of the ancient Indian Ocean trading world that the stories of India’s three traditional Jewish communities — the Bene Israel (children of Israel), the Baghdadi Jews, and the Cochini Jews — needs to be contextualised.
A history written in porcelain blue and white ceramic tiles: the Paradesi Jews
India’s Jewish heritage is known internationally largely due to the Paradesi (foreign) Jewish community of Kochi (erstwhile Cochin) and their beautiful 500 year old synagogue at Mattancherry. The Paradesi Synagogue has been eulogised by author Salman Rushdie in his novel The Moor’s Last Sigh, particularly in his description of its Chinese blue and white floor tiles, a reminder of the spice trade that this community of mercantile Jews had with China.
Rushdie writes that no two tiles are identical and each has their own tale to tell…
“Legends had begun to stick to them. Some said that if you explored long enough/ You’d find your own story…because pictures on the tiles could change, were changing, /Generation by generation, to tell the story of the Cochin Jews.”
Interestingly, the Paradesis have throughout their history never exceeded 200 individuals (today they are just six in Jew Town) making them not just the smallest group among the Cochini Jews but also the most recent arrivals.
The Paradesis being fair-skinned and light-eyed came to the Malabar Coast in waves, some fleeing persecution from the Spanish Inquisition and others as traders, mostly settling in the domain of the rajah of Cochin during the 14th and 15th centuries. There were Jews from Baghdad, Yemen, Kurdistan, Spain, Germany and Portugal, mostly from trading families engaged in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean trading world.
It is the survival of this community of Jews that is most precarious, particularly the preservation of community properties in the vicinity of Jew Town in Mattancherry, like its heritage Jewish homes, the cemetery, and the daily conduct of prayers in the Paradesi Synagogue. Jew Town is today overrun by shops selling tourist souvenirs, books and antiques, an outcome of the fact that the synagogue and the adjoining royal temple and “Dutch” Palace are prime tourist attractions.
The proximity of these two heritage sites, they share a common compound wall, indicates the privileged position of the Paradesis in the eyes of the rajahs of Cochin.
The golden era for this community of merchants was during the rule of the Dutch East India Company (1663-1773), particularly when Ezekial Rahabi II (b. 1694-d. 1771) was appointed Joode Koopman (chief merchant) to the Company and the chief diplomat through whom the Dutch negotiated with the rajah of Cochin as also with other pepper growing kingdoms like Calicut, Travancore and Kollatiri.
The Jewish kingdom of Anjuvannum and the Jewish copper plates
Probably the oldest Jewish community in India are the Malabari Jews of Kochi, who today number just a little over 20 individuals. They arrived on the subcontinent sometime around 68 CE, about the same time that the Bene-Israel Jews of Maharashtra’s Konkan Coast were shipwrecked at Navgaon (south of Mumbai).
This ancient community of Jews, unlike their brethren the Marathi-speaking Bene-Israel, possess epigraphical evidence of their history on the Malabar Coast. The sasanam (grant) inscribed on the Jewish copper plates gives the principality of Anjuvvanam (present day Kodungallur), with its 70 villages and its revenue, to Joseph Rabban and his family in perpetuity.
Though the community believes the copper plates date to the 4th century or early Chera period, translation of the plates have yielded evidence that they date to the late Chera period or the 10th century.
It is this principality of Anjuvannam, close to the ancient entrêport of Muziris (where there is an ongoing Archaeological Survey of India excavation), which is the legendary medieval Indian Jewish kingdom of Shingly. That this kingdom existed is reiterated by a body of Hebrew songs composed during the period Anjuvannam existed, after its abandonment, and almost till the 17th century, known as the Shingly tunes.
This joyous legacy of the Malabar Jews is kept alive by both Cochini Jewish communities by singing the Shingly tunes on religious and community occasions.
The theme of royalty is also consciously played out by the Cochin Jews in the observance of festivals like Simchat Torah, or rejoicing in the Torah (the five books of the Pentateuch or Jewish scriptures), where in addition to the traditional carrying of the torah scrolls in seven circuits within the synagogue, which Jews the world over observe, there is also a royal procession in the compound of the synagogue.
Also combined with the theme of celebrating the memory of a Jewish kingdom on the subcontinent, is the ritual of mourning its destruction by Arab and Portuguese armies, which is observed by Cochin’s Jews on the ninth of the Jewish month of Av.
This is also a day of mourning for Jews the world over, as on this very day it is believed that the First and the Second Jewish temple in Jerusalem were destroyed.
The Jews of Cochin
The melding of the distinct histories of the Malabar and Paradesi Jews is epitomised in the Paradesi (Mattancherry) Synagogue, where the foundation stone of the first synagogue in Cochin built by the Malabar Jews — Kochanggadi (built in 1344) — is embedded in the wall of this synagogue.
Migrations from the Malabar Jewish community to Cochin is believed to have begun sometime in 1341, and combined with the steady decline of Anjuvannam (Shingly), settlements were established in the vicinity of Cochin at Ernakulam, Parur, Mala, Chendamangalam, and Mattancherry. The last named though associated with the Paradesis was originally founded by settlers from Anjuvannam — Samuel Castiel, Joseph Levi, David Belila, and Ephraim Sala.
Just like their co-religionists, the Paradesis, the Malabar Jews were also loyal to the Perumal royal family of Cochin because of their religious tolerance and protection of Jews. Members of this community were mostly small traders, oil-pressers and stevedores, suppliers of foodstuffs to ships that anchored off Cochin.
A turning point arrived in the history of the Malabar Jews with the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. A strong Zionist fervour to return to their Biblical homeland gripped the imagination of this orthodox community. Entire village communities, like the Jews of Mala, uprooted themselves to settle in agricultural settlements across Israel, a marked contrast to their urban lifestyle on the Malabar Coast.
The Paradesi Jews too immigrated to Israel, settling in the cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa. What is interesting is that this once mercantile community now largely consists of professionals, like doctors and engineers.
It would not be out of order for the Kerala state government to recognise its Jewish community as a minority, in order to protect their synagogues, community institutions and properties, and preserve a Jewish legacy redolent with memories of the medieval and colonial spice trade, of an Indian Jewish kingdom, and a community that retained its distinct religious identity on the subcontinent for close to 2,000 years.
Read about the Bene-Israel and Baghdadi Jews in part 2 of this series, on July 3
Sifra Lentin is adjunct fellow, Mumbai History, Gateway House