The Virtual Jewish History Tour
India has a legacy of three distinct Jewish groups: the Bene Israel, the Cochin Jews and the White Jews from Europe. Each group practiced important elements of Judaism and had active synagogues. The Sephardic rites predominate among Indian Jews.
The Bene Israel (“Sons of Israel”) lived primarily in Bombay, Calcutta, Old Delhi and Ahmadabad. The native language of the Bene Israel was Marathi, while the Cochin Jews of southern India spoke Malayalam.
The Bene Israel claim to be descended from Jews who escaped persecution in Galilee in the 2nd century B.C.E. The Bene Israel resemble the non-Jewish Maratha people in appearance and customs, which indicates intermarriage between Jews and Indians. The Bene Israel, however, maintained the practices of Jewish dietary laws, circumcision and observation of Sabbath as a day of rest.
The Bene Israel say their ancestors were oil pressers in the Galil and they are descended from survivors of a shipwreck. In the 18th Century they were “discovered” by traders from Baghdad. At that time the Bene Israel were practicing just a few outward forms of Judaism (which is how they were recognized) but had no scholars of their own. Teachers from Baghdad and Cochin taught them mainstream Judaism in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Jewish merchants from Europe traveled to India in the medieval period for purposes of trade, but it is not clear whether they formed permanent settlements in south Asia. Our first reliable evidence of Jews living in India comes from the early 11th century. It is certain that the first Jewish settlements were centered along the western coast. Abraham ibn Daud’s 12th century reference to Jews of India is unfortunately vague and we do not have further references to Indian Jews until several centuries later.
The first Jews in Cochin (southern India) were the so-called “Black Jews,” who spoke the Malayalam tongue. The “White Jews” settled later, coming to India from western European nations such as Holland and Spain. A notable settlement of Spanish and Portuguese Jews starting in the 15th century was Goa, but this settlement eventually disappeared. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Cochin had an influx of Jewish settlers from the Middle East, North Africa and Spain.
The Jews of Cochin say that they came to Cranganore (south-west coast of India) after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. They had, in effect, their own principality for many centuries until a chieftainship dispute broke out between two brothers in the 15th century. The dispute led neighboring princes to dispossess them. In 1524, the Moors, backed by the ruler of Calicut (today called Kozhikode) attacked the Jews of Cranganore on the pretext that they were “tampering” with the pepper trade. Most Jews fled to Cochin and went under the protection of the Hindu Raja there. He granted them a site for their own town that later acquired the name “Jew Town” (by which it is still known).
Unfortunately for the Jews of Cochin, the Portuguese occupied Cochin in this same period and indulged in persecution of the Jews until the Dutch displaced them in 1660. The Dutch Protestants were tolerant and the Jews prospered. In 1795 Cochin passed into the British sphere of influence. In the 19th century, Cochin Jews lived in the towns of Cochin, Ernakulam and Parur. Most of Cochin’s Jews have emigrated (principally to Israel) and only about a dozen remain.
Sixteenth and 17th century migrations created important settlements of Jews from Persia, Afghanistan and Characin (Central Asia) in northern India and Kashmir. By the late 18th century, Bombay became the largest Jewish community in India. Bene Israel Jews lived in Bombay, as did Iraqi and Persian Jews.
Near the end of the 18th century, a third group of Indian Jews appears. They are the middle-eastern Jews who came to India through trade. They established a trading network stretching from Aleppo to Baghdad to Basra to Surat/Bombay to Calcutta to Rangoon to Singapore to Hong Kong and eventually as far as Kobe, Japan. There were strong family bonds amongst the traders in all these places.
Typical is the founder of the Calcutta community, Shalom Aharon Ovadiah HaCohen. He was born in Aleppo in 1762 and left in 1789. He arrived in Surat in 1792 and established himself there. He traded as far as Zanzibar. In 1798 he moved to Calcutta. In 1805 he was joined by his nephew, Moses Simon Duek HaCohen, who married his eldest daughter Lunah. Soon the community was swelled by other traders and Baghdadis outnumbered those from Aleppo.
Under British rule, the Jews of India achieved their maximum population and wealth, and the Calcutta community continued to grow and prosper and trade amongst all the cities of the Far East and to the rest of the world. The Indians were very tolerant and the Jews of Calcutta felt completely at home. Their numbers reached a peak of about 5,000 during World War II when they were swelled by refugees fleeing the Japanese advance into Burma.
The first generations of Calcutta Jews spoke Judeo-Arabic at home, but by the 1890s English was the language of choice. After WWII, the rise of Indian nationalism made Jews feel less comfortable because they were identified with the English by the Indians. India’s Jewish population declined dramatically starting in the 1940s with heavy immigration to Israel, England and the United States. This is where most Indian Jews live today.
In March 2005, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar decided to recognize the members of India’s Bnei Menashe community as descendants of the ancient Israelites. The Bnei Menashe community consists of close to 7,000 members of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo tribe, which lives in northeast India near the border of Myanmar (formally Burma). For generations they kept Jewish traditions, claiming to be descended from the tribe of Menashe, one of the ten lost Israeli tribes that were exiled by the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C.E. and have since disappeared. At the beginning of the 20th century, the tribe’s members converted to Christianity, but about 30 years ago, some of the community began moving back to Judaism and set themselves apart from the rest of the tribe. India later expressed concern about the plan to convert the Bnei Menashe and bring them to Israel so the effort was suspended in November.