Indians With Biblical Roots

India has had resident Jewish communities for almost two millennia. The first mention of Jews in connection with India occurs in the Bible itself. In the Book of Esther, which probably dates from the second century B.C.E., mention is made of the decrees of the Persian monarch Xerxes (Ahasuerus in the Bible) relating to the Jews dispersed throughout the 127 provinces of his empire stretching “from India even unto Ethiopia” [Esther 1:1].

It is known that at its height the Persian Empire extended well into Baluchistan, then geographically regarded as part of India and now partly in Pakistan and partly in Iran. It is quite likely that there were Jews settled in the area named India in the Book of Esther. But none of those Jews are known to have survived. When we speak of Indian Jews, we mean Jews who were to be found settled in India much later.

Since Independence, the Indian census, conducted periodically every ten years, did not treat Indian Jewry, with a history of almost two millennia, as a separate religious group but as belonging to the category “other religions”, due to its small numbers. For the first time, the 1991 census religion tables published in 1995 provided data on the number of Jews by their state wise distribution as well as their urban/rural distribution.

Despite the lack of quantitative data regarding their demographic and socio-economic characteristics, experts have managed to conclude after a study of the census data available for the period 1881-1941, that the population of Jews in India steadily increased from 11,805 in 1881 to 22,480 in 1941. Indian Jewry continued to be a microscopic minority, constituting much less than one percent of the population of India. Today its population is 5271.

The main reason for this fall in Jewish population has been migration to Israel. Such migration is encouraged by the Law of Return, one of the first laws passed by the Government of Israel, after the State was founded in 1948. This law entitles every Jew to immigrate into Israel, no matter where he/she lived.

According to the 1991 Indian census report, the number of persons reporting themselves as Jews is 5,271 (males: 2,766; females: 2,505), with 3,921 living in urban areas; and 1,350 living in rural areas. The majority are found to be living in the State of Maharashtra (3,294, i.e. 62.49 percent).

According to a demographic and socio-economic survey of Indian Jewry (published in 1997), done by O.R.T. India, 84.9% of Indian Jews live in Maharashtra and 81% speak Marathi as their mother tongue. From the point of view of educational attainment, the Jewish population above the age of 6 was found to be almost 100% literate, which is a great achievement in the face of a figure of 51.6% literacy in the entire Indian population according to the 1991 census.

Indian Jewry can be broadly divided into three distinct groups: Bene Israel, Cochini and Baghdadi. Bene Israel is numerically the largest; Cochini, the smallest; and Baghdadi, the latest to settle in India. It cannot be said conclusively who came earlier, the Bene Israel or the Cochini, as no authentic contemporary record exists of the first arrival in India of either group.

The Bene Israel have lived for generations in the villages of Maharashtra. Their traditional occupations were production of oil, tilling the soil and carpentry. Under British rule from the end of the seventeenth century onwards, many community members moved to cities and acquired various professions in public services, especially in the postal and telegraph services, customs, railways, and medicine. Before aliyah (immigration to Israel) there were 20,000 Bene Israel in India; now there are about 5,000, mostly in Mumbai (Bombay), with communities in Thane, Pune, Ahmedabad and Delhi, and individuals scattered throughout India.

The Cochini community, centered in the Keralite port of Cochin, has been in India for at least a thousand years. Medieval Muslim and Jewish travellers wrote of their high status. According to their own tradition they are in India for nearly 2000 years, since the destruction of the Second Temple.

The earliest Cochini settlements may have dated from Solomon’s time, since such luxury items as ivory, peacocks and linen were imported from India during his reign. These Jews never numbered more than 2,500. By 1951 their number had fallen to 370, largely due to mass exodus to Israel. By 1971 their number had declined further to 112. As of today it is estimated that there are not more than 50 to 70 Cochinis left in India.

The Baghdadi community consists of Jews from West Asia, mainly from Baghdad, who came from time to time in the 19th century as traders or as seekers of fortune under the patronage of individuals who had preceded them and established large business houses or industrial establishments. These Jews were collectively known as Baghdadis, though several of them came not from Baghdad itself but from other Iraqi cities, or Syria, Yemen, Iran and Afghanistan.

The Baghdadi settled mainly in Mumbai and Kolkata (Calcutta), though a few settled also in Pune. The Baghdadis numbered around 5,000 in 1951, but as of today they do not number more than 250, mainly in Mumbai and Kolkata. Most of them emigrated to the English speaking world after 1947.

One of the interesting findings of the 1991 census is that in Manipur and Mizoram, 373 and 792 persons respectively have been recorded as Jews. The other groups that claim affiliation to Judaism in some form or the other are 570 persons in Mizoram who are reported as belonging to “Mesianic Judaism”; and 497 persons, again all from Mizoram, reported under the religious group “Enoka Israel”. If all these persons, who are collectively called Shinlung, are included, the number of Jews in India comes to 6,338.

Besides the Shinlung, who practise Judaism as best as they can, there are many Muslim groups which claim affiliation to the Tribes of Israel, but have not yet moved towards Judaism, viz., the Afridi of Malihabad (district Lucknow) and Qaimganj (district Farrukhabad) in Uttar Pradesh; the Yudu of Yusmarg valley; and the villagers of Gutlibagh near Gandarbal in Kashmir. A non-Muslim group comprising the tribes of Guntur (Andhra Pradesh) also claims a similar Jewish connection.

According to the Biblical narrative, there were Twelve Tribes of Israel (“Israel” is an alternative name of Abraham’s grandson, Jacob). These were viewed as the descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin and Joseph. The Tribe of Levi was scattered among the other tribes, where its members served as a hereditary priesthood.

The remaining eleven Tribes were restructured into twelve groups — the number twelve having sacred properties perhaps corresponding to the twelve months of the year. To achieve this the Tribe of Joseph was divided into two tribes: Ephraim and Manasseh. The unity of the Twelve Tribes was short-lived. Soon they were divided into two kingdoms: The northern kingdom, which retained the name “Israel” and consisted of ten of the Tribes; and the southern kingdom which included Judah, Simeon and most of Benjamin.

As a result of the invasion of the Assyrian kings, Tiglath-Pileser III (732 B.C.E.) and Sargon II (721 B.C.E.), the Kingdom of Israel was brought down and the northern Tribes were exiled in two stages chiefly to Assyria, Media and the neighboring Aram-Naharim. These Ten Tribes subsequently went into oblivion and were thus lost to history.

For centuries, scholars have searched for the Lost Tribes, periodically claiming to have found them in various corners of the world. Most of these claims have been dismissed as the fantasies of eccentrics.

“But”, as Yossi Klein Halevi puts it, “with the restoration of Jewish sovereignty, the whereabouts of the vanished tribes and their possible emigration to Israel has transformed quaint speculation into practical demographics. Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the return of millions of Jewish refugees and immigrants to the Land, a new and more practical aspect of the question of the Lost Tribes has developed”.

The Jerusalem Report, a major Israeli English language weekly news magazine, had a startling cover story entitled, “Return of the Lost Tribes”, in the September 9, 1993 issue. It raised the alarming possibility that the State of Israel could literally be inundated with millions of Africans and Asians claiming to be of Jewish or Israelite descent.

All across the globe, dozens of groups, including those in India, are pressing their claims to be recognized as descendants of the Ten Tribes of Israel. Recently, members of the Shinlung Tribe on the Indo-Burmese border have been brought to Israel, claiming to be from the Lost Tribes. Thousands are desirous of coming.

A Jerusalem based group called Amishav (“My People Return”, founded 1975), led by Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, has spearheaded these recent efforts both to locate and facilitate the immigration of such groups to Israel. Rabbi Avichail is regularly in touch with Shinlung (north-east India) and the present author, who represents the Afridi in Malihabad (U.P., India).

Besides the three Jewish communities mentioned above (Bene Israel, Cochini and Baghdadi), there are a few non-Jewish groups which claim Israelite descent. The Shinlung of northeast India are unique among the self-professed “Lost Tribes of Israel” in having created Judaizing communities. In the early 1950s a farmer named Chala from the Shinlung Tribe saw God in his dream telling him that the Shinlung was actually the lost Israelite tribe of Mannasse and that it was time for them to return home, to Israel.

Inspired by Chala’s dream, a group of Shinlung Tribesmen packed up; and, though no one knew the way, started walking to Israel. They were stopped by police and sent back. Now, the Shinlung, who began their journey to Israel with their aimless trek in the early 1950s, are finally reaching their destination.

In August, 1993, thirty six Shinlung from Manipur and Mizoram were flown to Israel by the Jerusalem based group Amishav, which searches for traces of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel in India. The Shinlung are popularly known in Israel as B’nei Menashe. Genetic research at the Central Forensic Science Laboratory, Kolkata, has almost proved their Israelite connection. In April, 2005, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel formally recognized them as Israelite by decent.

Afridi is a Pathan/Pakhtun/Pashtun/Afghan tribe inhabiting the hill country from the eastern spurs of the Safed Koh (Aghanistan) to the borders of the Peshawar district (Pakistan). A sprinkling of them is also found in certain parts of India such as Malihabad (District Lucknow) and Qaimganj (District Farrukhabad) in Uttar Pradesh, where they settled down between 1748 and 1761 during the five invasions of Ahmad Shah Abdali.

Afridis call themselves Bani-Israel (“Children of Israel”) and are identified by some historians with Ephraim, one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Right now, the D.N.A. samples of 50 paternally unrelated Afridi males collected by me during a joint research expedition with Professor Tudor Parfitt and Dr. Yulia Egorova (S.O.A.S., London University) are being analyzed by Dr. Mark Thomas and Dr. Neil Bradman (University College London).

A Muslim tribe called Yudu inhabiting the Yusmarg valley of Kashmir identifies itself with the Lost Tribes of Israel, while the villagers of Gutlibagh near Gandarbal (about 20 kms north of Srinagar) trace their descent to Judah, progenitor of one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. After years of effort, a Kashmiri village of self-professed Israelites was successful in migrating to Israel under the Law of Return. However, soon after their arrival in Israel, they disappeared, as informed by Seymour “Sy” Scheinberg of the Department of History, California State University, Fullerton in K. Primack, ed., “Jews in Places You Never Thought of” (U.S.A., 1998).

There are some tribesmen in Guntur (Andhra Pradesh) who consider themselves lost Israelites, but their claim of Jewish origin is doubtful. Dr. Parfitt conducted D.N.A. tests among them, but did not find anything that could support their claim of Jewish descent.

It is said that one of the five branches of the Muslim community of Qidwai centered in Barabanki in Uttar Pradesh is Israelite by descent. Their progenitor Qazi Qidwatuddin is said to have settled in India in 1191.

The Muslim clan of Bani Israil (Arabic for the Hebrew Bnei Yisrael) in Sambhal (District Moradabad) and Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh traces its lineage from a Jewish sahabi (companion of Mohammad), Abdullah ibn-i-Salaam. Members of this clan believe that their ancestors came to India a millennium ago to propagate Islam.

For Further Reference:

Farzand Ahmad, “Is it the Lost Tribe of Israel” (India Today, November 6, 2006, pages 78-79).

Navras Jaat Aafreedi, “Indian Jewry and the Self-Professed ‘Lost Tribes of Israel’ in India” (Raphael Ezekiel Jhirad, Mumbai, 2006, e-book/CD-Rom).

Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Graduate School of Historical Studies, Tel Aviv University, Israel; author of the e-book (CD-Rom) The Indian Jewry and the Self-Professed ‘Lost Tribes of Israel’ in India, Mumbai, 2006 : “Believed to be the first book to combine study of the Lost Tribes of Israel in India with that of the Indian Jews, and a rare major work by a non-Jew on the subject of the Lost Tribes of Israel.” Jerusalem Post (Online Edition), Sunday, December 17, 2006; the first writer to make any worthwhile contributions to Jewish Studies in the Urdu language.

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