The number of several thousand Jews living in India is incommensurable with the almost 1.5 billion population of this country. One could assume that Jewish people remained unnoticed in the life of such a big South Asian sub-continent but let us assure you that such conclusion is at odds with reality. The Jews of India did not only create several unique versions of the Jewish religious and cultural model that developed in the unusual for the Jewish history Hindu-Muslim environment, but they also claimed their right to be fully-fledged element of the Indian society, at least, in the states of Maharashtra and Kerala.
Like in most other big countries, the Jews of India have always been a mixture of various ethnic Jewish groups, partly formed in India and party having migrated from other parts of the world. Fully “aboriginal” groups that formed in India in the process of centuries-old evolution and that embraced numerous elements of their regional cultures include two Jewish communities: the Kochi Jews of the Kerala state and Bene Israel in Maharashtra. At the end of the eighteenth century, Jews from Iraq and sometimes from Syria began to immigrate to India which at the time was already under the British law. In the course of the nineteenth-twentieth centuries, they replaced their Hebrew-Arab dialect Kyltu with English, and formed a separate Jewish ethnic group. In the literature and even in everyday life it is known as Baghdadi. After the war, a new group of Judaizing Bnei Menashe or Shinlung found themselves in the arena of Indian Jewish history. They lived in the far east of the country, in the states of Mizoram and Manipur and maybe in the adjoining territories of Myanmar and Bangladesh. In recent years, news also came of the existence of another very small group of Judaizers among the Telugu-speaking population of the state of Andhra-Pradesh who call themselves Bnei Efraim. And finally, a number of Ashkenazi Jews resides in India, at least some of them are descendents of refugees from Central Europe who fled the Nazi threat in that British colony. Another part came from the British Jews who had lived and worked in the colony, while the rest are recent immigrants from different western countries.
The population of Indian Jews reached its peak in late 1940s, when they numbered 26 thousand. Most of them were Bene Israel. In the 1950s, massive aliyah begins from India to Israel, threatening the very existence of this community. Most of the descendents of Indian Jews are currently residing in Israel, among them around 50 thousand Bene Israel, around 4.5 thousand Kochi Jews, and around one thousand Bnei Menashe.
The Bene Israel
There are around 12-14 thousand Jews in India in general. Their largest edah, or ethnic group, remains Bene Israel – around six thousand. Most of them live in Mumbai (former Bombay). Some continue to live scattered in small towns around Mumbai in the state of Maharashtra; some families live in Puna, Ahmadabad, New Delhi, and Kolkata (former Calcutta). The Bene Israel community of Karachi, Pakistan, disappeared after the 1950s, having moved partly to Mumbai and partly to Israel. Small groups of Bene Israel Jews also disappeared from the villages of the Raigad district (former Colaba) to the south of Mumbai on the Konkan coast of Maharashtra. Bene Israel speak Marathi – one of the Indo-Arian languages, the official language of the state of Maharashtra. Since the nineteenth century, English language rapidly penetrates the Bene Israel community, becoming mother tongue for many Jews of Mumbai today. Immigrants from Maharashtra in Israel speak mostly Hebrew, while Marathi is getting out of use. Under the influence of the Israeli community of Bene Israel, Hebrew is penetrating the community of their Bombay countrymen. Many young Jews from Mumbai spend a lot of time in Israel, visiting or studying, so they master modern Hebrew. On top of that, practically every Indian Jew speaks Hindi – the official language of their country, which all of them have to learn at school.
Bene Israel lived in India for a very long time. According to their ethno-genetic legends, they all come from seven couples who survived a shipwreck near the village of Navgaon in Konkan. Historiographer and researcher of local lore S. Kehimkar even tried to estimate the date of the shipwreck. He believes it was in 175 B.C. should the refugees be those Jews who fled persecutions of Antioch Epiphanes. Many opinions on the appearance of Jews in India can be found both in research literature and in the folklore of Bene Israel. Most of them tie in the coming of Jewish ancestors to India with a significant event in sacralized Jewish history: the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the journeys of ambassadors of King Solomon to Ophir, the exile of ten “lost” tribes, etc. Historical sources make the first mention of Bene Israel as a special caste of Jews among the population of West India only in 1738. Author of that note, Danish Christian missionary J. Sartorius, mentioned that they lived in Surat and Rajapur, called themselves Bene Israel, did not know the Bible or the Hebrew language but prayed Shema Israel, kept circumcision, and celebrated Shabbat. In the eighteenth century, a Kochi Rabbi David Rahabi taught and instructed them in the Jewish faith. He appointed three of his disciples to be a kind of religious instructions with the title of Kazi. Their descendents continued to be respected as teachers of the Law among Bene Israel up till the end of the nineteenth century. At the end of the eighteenth century, Bene Israel began to move to the British Bombay where these illiterate and outdated Marathi peasants came face to face with the bright world of India, English, Parses, and – which was of the greatest importance to them – with the Baghdadi, immigrants from Iraq and Syria who began to settle in India at that time.
In the eighteenth century India was no longer a mysterious or an unknown country to the Jews from Arab countries. Many of them visited the west of the Hindustani peninsula and spent a lot of time trading there, mostly in the port of Surat in Gujarat. Up until the coming of the British, that was the center of trade in the eastern part of the Arabian Sea. However, after the British founded Bombay, these “Babylonian” (as they called themselves) Jews began to move their business trips to India and to go serve Raj. This word meant something close a “kingdom” or an “empire”. The locals used this word to describe the British colonial dominion in Southern and South-Eastern Asia. Most of these rich traders came from Iraq; as a result they were later called Baghdadi, although among them were immigrants from Haleb and Damask, Lebanon, Yemen, and other Arab countries. They first appeared in the west of India back at the end of the eighteenth century. At about the same time, they founded a settlement in the new capital of Raj – Calcutta at the mouth of the Ganges River. From there, since the nineteenth century, they gradually penetrated South-Eastern and Eastern Asia: Rangun (then a part of India), Singapore, Batavia (modern Jakarta), Hong Kong, and Shanghai. But the true prosperity of the Baghdadi in India, along with their separation into an edah, came with the settling of a group of major entrepreneurs. Using today’s terminology, they could be described as the oligarchs. The first and most prominent of them was David Sasun who settled in Bombay in 1832. He spent the next thirty years building his trade and financial empire and died in Puna in 1864. Trade in opium was a major part of it due to its high profits. Sasun’s descendents got assimilated among the British trade bourgeois in the twentieth century in England. But in Bombay and other towns of India and the Great East, they left the memory of themselves as founders of charity and educational establishments, trading and industrial companies, builders of docks and ports, as well as numerous synagogues in places they’d never been before. Today, in India there are 34 functioning synagogues in Mumbai, Puna, small towns around Mumbai, Ahmadabad, New Delhi and Kolkata as well as in the Cochin district. Except for the latter (its foundation is dated back to the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries or even earlier) most of the synagogues were built by the Baghdadi with active participation of the Bene Israel.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Baghdadi started separating ethnically from their Iraqi countrymen. Most of them switched from speaking Arabic to speaking English, while their everyday culture was a mixture of English, middle-eastern, and local Hindu elements. From the very beginning of their settlement in Raj, the Baghdadi strove to get the status of equality with the Europeans. They received it only in the 1930s, not long before they quit their existence as a special element of India’s colonial system. This striving led to a certain separation from everything of the “native Hindu” nature and from the Bene Israel whom they met in Bombay and whose numbers prevailed. In the beginning, the Baghdadi did not even consider the Bene Israel “real Jews”. They refused to marry them or eat with them, although in the beginning they had to pray in the same synagogues with them. After Sasun built his first synagogue for the Baghdadi, religious segregation also took place. The situation changed only in independent India in the second half of the twentieth century, after the small group of the remaining Baghdadi fully lost their privileged position. Today, the English-speaking Mumbai Baghdadi and Bene Israel have integrated into a somewhat common Jewish religious community. After India obtained independence in 1947, most of the Baghdadi left the country. Some settled in Israel after 1948, but most of them moved to England and the United States. Some have settled in Burma, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaya, and Hong Kong. In India, there are a little less than a thousand Baghdadi. They live in Mumbai, Puna, New Delhi, and Kolkata.
The Kochi Jews
There are only 52 Kochi Jews left in the southern state of Kerala: 14 of them are “white” Jews, or Paradesi, and 38 are “black”, or Malabar Jews. Around 4,000 Kochi Jews, including around 200 Paradesi, live in Israel preserving their ethnic and (to a lesser degree) language identity. Traditionally, this group speaks the Dravidic language of Malayalam – the official language of the state. Practically all of them also speak English and Hindi. Young people also speak Hebrew and are in general Israel-oriented.
Just like Bene Israel, the Kochi Jews have long lived in India, especially in its south-western part on the Malabar Coast. Documents on the existence of an organized Jewish community in the south of Malabar seem to be dated back to late first – early second millennia A.D. Keeper of the Paradesi synagogue in Cochin, S. Halegua, has three copper plates that maharaja gave to a Joseph Rabban who seems to be one of the rich Jews of Malabar. The text in Vateluttu (ancient south-Indian script) was decoded and translated from the old-Tamil language by Kochi-Jewish public figure Jehezkel Rahabi (1693–1771). He also quoted the traditional Kochi dating of this text. According to the modern calendar, it is 379 B.C. Future experts reviewed this date, and today most of them agree that the tablets were written either in the middle of the eighth or in the tenth century. This is what the text said, according to Rahabi’s translation:
“Health and prosperity! He who shouldered the burden of King of Kings made a generous gift. His Majesty King Sri Parkaran Iravi Vanmar, whose ancestors possessed the scepter for many hundreds of thousand years, during the thirty-sixth year after the second year of his enthronement in Muirikota, generously made this gift. We have granted to Joseph Rabban the village of Anjuvannam together with the 72 proprietary rights, tolls on boats and carts, the revenue and title of Anjuvannam, the lamp of the day, cloth spread in front to walk on, a palanquin, a parasol, a Vaduga drum, a trumpet, a gateway, a garland, decoration with festoons, and so forth. We have granted him the land tax and weight tax; moreover, we have sanctioned with these Copper plates that he need not pay the dues which the inhabitants of the other cities pay the Royal palace, and that he may enjoy the benefits which they enjoy. To Joseph Rabban the Prince of Anjuvannam and to his descendants, sons and daughters and to his nephews, and to the sons-in-law who married his daughters in natural succession. So long as the world and moon exist, Anjuvannam shall be his hereditary possession. Hail!
This has been granted with the knowledge of
Govarthan Marthandan – Chief of Venadu,
Kodal Chirkandan – Chief of Venapalinadu,
Manavepala Manavian – Chief of Eralanadu,
Trairan Chathan – Chief of Vallunadu,
Kodal Travi – Chief of Nedumpurayurnadu,
Moorkan Chathan – Sub-commander of the forces,
and Vandalacheri Kandan – the Prime Minister.
Written by Kelappan”
The Kochi Jews still respect Joseph Rabban as their ancestor and believe this gift was made in the city of Cranganore, about 50 km to the north of today’s Cochin. Jewish people view Cranganore that they call Shingli as their “old homeland” where their customs and minhagim were formed, better known as “Shingli customs”. Muslim traders in the fourteenth century, and Portuguese colonizers later, in the sixteenth century, forced the Jewish people to leave Cranganore and move to Cochin under the patronage of maharaja Travancore-Cochin. The latter did not only invite them to his lands but also allocated a special land plot near his own palace to them. At that time, the Kochi edah got divided into several smaller groups. Back in the sixteenth century, or possibly earlier, refugees from Spain move there; their descendents still live in those places. In 2005, I met with one of them, Samuel Halegua, keeper of the synagogue. Right after the introduction he told me his ancestors came to Cochin from Spain in 1541, while ancestors of his neighbor Sarah Kohan who owns a Jewish souvenir shop in Jewtown also came from Spain, but later – in 1573. Apart from the Spanish Jews, historical documents and oral genealogical legends mention Jews from different European and Middle-Eastern countries, including the Ashkenazi, Iraqi, and Yemen Jews who merged with the Kochi Jews during the sixteenth-eighteenth centuries. In appearance, descendents of these Jews that were called Paradesi – foreigners – look completely different from the dark skinned residents of the Malabar Coast. They have full rights to be called white Jews, as they look like their European brothers. On the contrary, the Malabari, or the black Jews, who claim to come from Joseph Rabban and his ancestors, look exactly like the surrounding population of Malayali – the main ethnic group of Kerala. Relations between the Paradesi and the Malabari had always been strained and – which is typical for Jewish groups in India – filled with constant doubts about the purity of each other’s blood. The situation was even more complicated because both groups had slaves and servants, as well as libertines called Meshuarim (seems to come from the Hebrew word meshuhrarim – freed). By the way, origins play a very important role in the context of the general caste mentality of the Hindu society.
The position of the Kochi Jews changed radically at the end of the 1940s, when after India obtained independence, the Travancore-Cochin monarchy and maharaja said goodbye to their loyal Jewish subjects. At the end of the 1940s, mass repatriation of the Malabari began, and in the early 1950s, almost all the Paradesi moved to Israel. Interestingly enough, in Israel, the two groups of the Kochi Jews do not merge but represent two different edahs. The same can be said about the handful of Jews in Cochin. The 14 Paradesi who live in Jewtown also live separately from the small community of the Malabari. Nevertheless, despite the tiny numbers, the cultural and partly economic and social presence of Jewish people in the state of Kerala has not stopped.
The symbol of the lasting Jewish presence in Cochin is the famous Paradesi synagogue (“the synagogue of foreigners”) located in the old town of Cochin, Mattancheri, next to the palace of former Maharaja of Travancore-Cochin. Only the building of the court Hindu temple of Sri Krishna separates the palace from the synagogue.
On the other side of the synagogue a long street runs, still called Jewtown and officially – the Synagogue Lane. The synagogue was built in 1568 in the land granted by maharaja Bhaskara Rami Varman to the community of Jewish refugees from Cranganore.
The closeness of the synagogue and its quarter to the ruler’s palace symbolized the special status of the Jews of Cochin as a patronized community. Until the very end of the maharaja rule in 1949, Jewish people were a sort of a court group of advisers. Monarchs constantly consulted the Jewish quarter, visited it, gave valuable gifts of golden and silver utensils to the synagogue. Besides the amazing beauty of the building, its internal decorations, and the bell tower built in 1760, the Paradesi synagogue has a number of other unique characteristics. The most notable one is the presence of two platforms (bamot): one in the center of the main hall like in every eastern synagogue, another – in the women’s balcony. The second platform was used for Torah readings on Saturdays and holidays. The Kochi Jews believed it reminded them that the Torah was given from “above”, from the Mount Sinai. An unusual element in the synagogue is the bell tower. Until 1986, it had the bell that called Jewish people to prayer every day except Saturday. Three clocks are hanging on the tower with Malayalam, Roman, and Jewish numbers. In the eighteenth century, the synagogue was decorated inside with famous white-and-blue handmade Chinese tiles. People believed that patterns on the tiles gradually changed, and that if one could understand the hidden meaning in those patterns, one would learn one’s destiny. At the entrance to the synagogue, just like at the entrance to every sacred place in India, people are required to take off their shoes.
The Paradesi synagogue is very famous in the East. Rulers of Cochin, as well as many public and state figures visited it, leaving signs of their visits. Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia gave a parochet veil to cover its aron kodesh. In 1968, the whole India celebrated the 400th anniversary of the Paradesi synagogue, with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi attending it and a special post stamp printed in its honor. The synagogue is still considered one of the most remarkable sights of Southern India. Visits to the synagogue and to the adjoining quarters of the “Jewish town” are included into all tourist routes to Cochin, so the decline in the Jewish population there did not cause their cultural heritage to be forgotten.
The number of the Maharashtra and Bnei Menashe in the east of the country can be compared to another group – descendents of the Judaizers who began to claim their belonging to the Jewish people only after the Second World War. Census of 1979 showed six thousand of them in the states of Mizoram and Manipur. Today, there are likely to be more of them due to proselytizing efforts of the founders of that community and of the Israeli Amishav society which had a goal to find descendents of the ten lost tribes of Israel and to get them back to the Holy Land. Ethnically, Bnei Menashe belong to the ethno-linguistic Kuki-Chin group whose languages are related to the Tibetan-Burmese group of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Tribes of this group call themselves Mizo, or Zomi. They reside in the mountainous area between the Chindwin river in Burma and Brahmaputra in India. In Burma, they are called Chin, in India – Kuki. In British India, some Kuki-Chin who lived in today’s state of Mizoram were called Lushei. Today, Kuki-Chin can be found in three countries – India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, and they number around 4 million people. At the end of the nineteenth century, they were converted to Christianity of various Protestant denominations, which replaced to most of them their old tribal religion. The latter can still be found in some faraway corners of Myanmar. Like all other similar religious complexes of South-Eastern Asia, the tribal religion of Mizo was based on well-developed mythology, including myths and legends of the journey of their ancestors from their ancient homeland to the places of current residence. Some researchers who analyzed those places have come to a possibly well-based conclusion of the province of Yunnan in south-western China as their ancient homeland.
Having been embraced by a tribal society, Christianity often causes the development of so-called millenaristic or revivalistic religious sects. Along with the mystical expectations of a “golden age” or a “millennial kingdom of justice and happiness” (hence the name “millenaristic cult”), they also strive for a revival (but on a new foundation!) of a “golden age” which is usually tied to the abandoned tribal beliefs. The fate of the Kuki-Chin in the last century was quite dramatic. The British conquered them in the 1890s and made them part of different provinces of British India that later were divided among three states. The tribe had no understanding of what was going on. The second half of the twentieth century passed in endless riots and rebellions of the Mizo, Kuki, Chin, and the related Naga again the central Indian government. Riots alternated with mass hunger strikes and epidemics. And only in 1987, the National Mizo Front and the Indian government signed an agreement on creation of a separate state of Mizoram and termination of all military actions. It is no wonder that all kinds of revivalistic movements blossomed on such a background. Mizo Neo-Judaism became one of the most exotic of them.
It was first mentioned in the 1920s, but the real movement began in the 1950s with the preaching that claimed the descent of the Mizo from Menashe, son of biblical Joseph. This assertion was based on phonetic similarity between the name Menashe (often pronounced Manasseh) and the name of one of the cultural heroes of Mizo. First, as should be expected, the movement was developing within the framework of Presbyterian Church but in the 1960s, the Jewish community separated itself and began seeking relations with Israel and Bene Israel. In the 1970s, the Bombay ORT School granted several scholarships to the Mizo, but the local community refused to relate to them as Jewish people. In early 1980s, due to contact with the proselytizing Jewish Amishav society, the first Mizo came to study in Jerusalem yeshivas. In 1989, the first 25 Bnei Menashe made aliyah, and in the 1990, Mizo repatriation won the support of the extreme rightists in Israel, including millionaire Moskovich who sponsored the settlement movement in Gush Katif. As a result of this support, the Mizo could undergo formal giyur at home and then go to Israel according to the Israeli Law of Return. They usually settled in the hottest spots of the Palestinian territories under Israel’s control – Gush Katif (inside the Gaza sector) and Kiryat Arba (near Hebron). There, they replaced Palestinian workers who were a threat to the settlers. In 2005, in the process of Sharon’s one-sided demarcation, Bnei Menashe and other Jewish residents of Gush Katif were moved out of their homes and deported to Israel.
Bnei Menashe aliyah continues, although with certain difficulties. In 2006, the government of Mizoram prohibited giyurs in the territory of the state in protest against the missionary activities that tore people away from their motherland. This decree is unthinkable in the Hindu part of the country but looks understandable in the Christian states of Mizoram and Manipur. Consequently, while in the past, the Mizo underwent giyur and entered Israel according to the Law of Return and with full support of Sohnut, now they come only as tourists and try to undertake giyur, which is very difficult as Israeli laws hinder the conversion of tourist into Judaism.
How and When Did Jews Come to India?
The first material traces of Jewish settlements in India are dated back by the end of the first millennium A.D. They include the above mentioned copper plates from Cochin. But there are a lot of testimonies showing that in reality, Jews could come to Southern Asia much earlier. The very fact that the Jewish groups we know about preferred to settle along the Malabar Coast speaks of their involvement in the international trading system. It is clear that numerous ethno-genetic legends spread around different groups of Indian Jews get concentrated on other events or causes. The meaning of an ethno-genetic legend, Jewish in particular, boils down to tying them to the general pattern of Jewish and world history. This is essentially the task of all etiologic and exegetic narratives, both written and folklore, up to the new times and the development of critical historical thinking. No wonder both the Kochi and the Bene Israel Jews tell different variations of how their coming to India is tied to significant events in the biblical history: exile of ten tribes to Assyria, exile to Babylon, destruction of the First and Second Temples, etc. The allusion to the voyage of King Solomon’s messengers to Ophir breaks somewhat out of the beaten track but it still brings the history of the group in line with the common Jewish history.
Until the beginning of the epoch of geographic discoveries, the Eucumena consisted of two parts – eastern and western. The border between the two was fundamental, stretching to a very far past, to the times of formation, as scientists believe today, of the first continental separations of human branches. The western part of Eucumena, that is, Western Asia, all Africa and Europe, since formation of productive economy, has been based on plough farming with prevailing cultures of wheat, rye, and various forms of millet. Milk-and-meat husbandry and cattle stock farming ranked second. So consumption of dairy products spread everywhere in this part of Eucumena and was usually regulated by various restrictions. An interesting example of such restrictions are the religious dietary norms of Judaism on not mixing meat and dairy products. Dogs took a firm place among domestic animals in western Eucumena and were not considered an edible. Clothes consisted of tunics – solid pieces with holes for head and arms.
The eastern part of Eucumena covered Eastern and South-Eastern Asia. Unlike in the western part, people here knew nothing of production and consumption of dairy products but instead included dog’s meat as culturally accepted diet. Rice prevailed in agriculture but not along with meat-and-milk husbandry. The only well developed branch of husbandry was poultry farming and pig breeding – none of which would make nomadic lifestyle easy. Clothes consisted not of tunics but of robes. I believe the above described differences between the two parts of Eucumena are enough to understand the truly deep-running archetypal distinction between them.
The geographical border between the two parts ran along the Indian subcontinent. To the west, it left Indo-Arian cultures originating from ancient nomadic cattle breeders of the Great Steppe, and to the east – Sino-Tibetan and Mundar-speaking tribes that ethno-genetically relate more to South-Eastern Asia than to India. To the north of India, the border ran eastward, leaving Tibet, Xinjiang, and Mongolia to the west, reaching Far North and probably separating the Tunguses who belonged to the eastern part, from the Turks who belonged to the western part. Eastern Eucumena had its center in China and adjoining far-eastern cultural complexes of Japan, Korea, and the Tungus-Manchu world and further on northward to Chukotka. In the south, the eastern part of Eucumena included all South-Eastern Asia up to the border with New Guinea and Australia.
It is interesting that the wide Jewish Diaspora that formed since the middle of the first millennium B.C., almost fully spread out within the boundaries of the western part of Eucumena. The only exclusion is the Jewish penetration to China along the Great Silk Way in the first millennium A.D., but this experience of Jewish Diaspora remains almost the only place where total assimilation put an end to Jewish presence.
Diaspora creates a new social type of human community, different from the preceding ethnic compact groups. The most obvious social characteristic becomes economic and professional selectiveness. It can be seen in mandatory specialization in one area and exclusion from the cultural-economic life of other kinds of labor which are widely spread among the non-Diaspora communities. These include first of all, productive agriculture, farming, and husbandry, including nomadic types.
The system of land and sea intercontinental trade in the Asian continent was formed approximately in the second half of the first millennium B.C., simultaneously with the formation of the Jewish Diaspora that fully replaced compact existence of this ethnos by the middle of the first millennium A.D. It would be really interesting to find out (as far as I know, this question has not been included into the scholarly historical discourse) whether the emerging sea and land trade played any stimulating role in creation of the Jewish Diaspora. It could play a role because the influence of intercontinental trade ways upon ethnic processes was undoubtedly serious and non-trivial. In my early works, I analyzed the so-called “trading ethnic groups” in the main part of South-Eastern Asia that emerged as societies servicing the international trade. These “trading ethnic groups” included the Malays and a number of related ethnically amorphous populations that settled along the coast of the Malay Archipelago.
Among other cultural features that characterize trading ethnic formations we can note a tendency to make idioms on the basis of Pidgin-Creolization of some “normal” native idioms. This might have been the mechanism of creation of the Malay language in the very beginning of common era on the basis of so-called “Malay-Dayak” idioms of north-western Borneo. Similar to it was the mechanism of formation of such “Jewish languages” as Yevanit, Targum, Ladino, etc. Jewish involvement in the servicing of international trade ways is well known. Many sources of the first millennium B.C. mention it. In his famous message about the Radanites, Ibn Khordadbeh attributes to the Jews almost a dominating role in transcontinental Eurasian trade. His message is dated to the ninth century. In many respects, Jewish people reached such position due to the “neutrality” of their religion towards Christianity and Islam, which made their travel possible both to the western and Muslim countries.
In general, India’s relations with the outside world are as ancient as the Indian civilization itself. Widely known are cultural parallels between the ancient Hindu culture of Mohendjo-Daro and Mesopotamia back in the third millennium B.C. During the Vedic period in the first millennium B.C., the Hindu developed wide land and sea trading connections. But an intercontinental trading route that connected Europe, Far East and South-Eastern Asia emerged later. Its initial stages can be seen in a wonderful monument of “Peripla of Eritrean Sea” dated back to the very beginning of the first millennium A.D. It does not yet mention commodities from South Asia but description of trading centers in the area of the Red Sea and western shores of the Indian Ocean in tropical Africa leaves no doubt that the whole region was covered with a network of trading base stations, markets, and warehouses, all leading towards Eastern Mediterranean with the center in Alexandria. Almost at the same time, the Greek-Roman world was introduced to the monsoons. Their discovery helped understand the seasonal changes behind world trade in Southern and South-Eastern Asia. Back in the first century A.D. such a unique product of Eastern Indonesia as carnation (or cloves) was mentioned in Roman sources. This means that trade was already linking two opposite ends of Eucumena. Approximately at the same time, India becomes a real participant in international relations.
We know exactly when the first Jewish communities were formed on the Indian subcontinent. The name of the country can be found even in the Biblical text. The Scroll of Esther mentions Achaemenid ruler Ahashverosh who “reigned from India (Hoddu) even to Ethiopia (Kush), over a hundred and twenty-seven provinces”. Talmud and midhrashim often mention India too. This lets us assume there were trade ties even during the Second Temple period. Hebrew has several borrowings from Hindu languages, mostly Dravidic ones, and even from the Malay language. Most of them are names of different spices or exotic animals. We can also assume that the first settlements of Jews in India emerged due to international trade. No wonder they are localized in two main Indian trade centers of ancient times and middle ages – in Gujarat and Kerala.
The trade hypothesis seems most likely and it fits historical realities more than, for instance, the opinion that Jews in India are the ten lost tribes of Israel or refugees from Antioch Epiphanes’ persecutions. However, it is not flawless. Jews of India, at least Bene Israel, were never involved in trade, unlike most oriental Jewish communities who built their well-being on trade and took active part in the international trading system. Bene Israel’s former involvement in oil-making cannot be considered a form of trade. We can only assume that some Jewish groups were pushed out of trade to assimilate with the local population. This was probably the fate of the ancestors of Bene Israel. Had they not been “discovered” in the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries by Jewish people from other countries who restored their knowledge of Judaism, Bene Israel would have probably fully assimilated in the surrounding Maratha population. On the contrary, the Kochi and the Baghdadi Jews demonstrated the kind of social adaptation that was more typical to the Jewish people, with trading as its dominating element.
Jews in the Context of Hindu Society
The Jewish civilization in the Diaspora always existed discretely, in separate specific fragments-communities (edah) that were interspersed in the Christian and Muslim societies. In both societies, they always had a definite if not always privileged status. Up until comparatively recent times, the Christian world had viewed Jewish people as a visible remnant of god-killers. According to an early medieval dogma, Jewish people could exist in Christian states only as a persecuted and segregated minority to remind them of their alleged crime against Jesus Christ. In Muslim countries, Jews, just like Christians, had the special status of dhimmi which was granted to the so-called “people of the Book”, predecessors of Islam. This status did not permit them to take active part in the life of the Muslim society, but neither did it envisage their forced conversion to Islam.
In India, Jewish people found themselves outside the Muslim and Christian surrounding for the first time in Middle Ages. The dominating religion at that time was Hinduism that had no special norms against followers of other religions. Public life was regulated through the system of castes that penetrated every social aspect of the Hindu society. Population was divided into four so-called varnas: the Brahmins (clergy), the Kshatriya (aristocracy), the Vaishya (urban and trading population), and the Sudra (farmers and cattle-breeders). Every varna had a huge number of castes, jatis, that united people around their main profession, cult specifics, language, or place of residence. Each caste was endogamous, that is, allowed marriages only within itself. Moreover, every caste had its own religious customs that usually were part of the Hindu civilization but allowed for numerous variations.
The caste system, with its archaic nature and social rigidness, was a flexible mechanism that allowed full-fledged inclusion of foreign elements of different religions into the Hindu society. Foreigners created castes of their own, whose status and belonging to which outlined their place among the surrounding population. That place was not necessarily discriminated. Bene Israel is the best example of such integration within the Hindu society. At the time of their first contact with South-Indian or European Jews in the seventeenth century mentioned in written sources, they all had lived in Konkan, Raigad district, former Colaba, to the south of Mumbai, in the territory of today’s state of Maharashtra. Their main profession was oil making, so they made a caste called Shanvar Teli – “Saturday Oil-Pressers” because they never worked on Saturdays. It seems that the Bene Israel were the only oil makers in the area before the nineteenth century. This caste was not prestigious and some sources put it even among the untouchable because by breaking oil grains they destroyed the life hidden in them.
Until the mass move to Bombay in the twentieth century, the Bene Israel lived dispersedly in a dozen villages in the Colaba district, among Hinduists. They made oil, worked as carpenters, and were involved in small trade. They were fully integrated in the Maratha village society and were similar to their Hindu neighbors in their appearance, language, clothes, houses, everyday culture, and even poor lifestyles that often bordered on poverty. They had good and close relations with their Hindu neighbors. Their only difference was religion. In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Bene Israel moved on from oil production to other activities, but in the mind of the Hindu population, they continue to be a caste. In modern Mumbai, Jews and Parses – descendants of Zoroastrians who moved back to India from Iran around 1.5 thousand years ago, are called Pragati, that is, “foreign castes”. With the coming of the British to Maharashtra in the middle of the eighteenth century, the Bene Israel began to relate to the British authorities and move from the Konkan coast to Bombay. However, contrary to expectations, they did not become traders in the service of the new power, but go to serve in the military, and after the Marathas and Rajputs crowded them out, they joined the new Indian westernized intellectuals and officials.
The caste nature of the Kochi Jews was less obvious. Unlike the Bene Israel, they were no doubt closer to the higher castes, positioning between the Brahmin Nambudiri caste and the most influential caste of south-western India, the Nayar of Kshatriya. The highest and most respected place in the Kochi society belonged to the Paradesi, or the “white Jews” who lived in Jewtown around the Paradesi synagogue. They did not belong to any particular caste apart from being Paradesi – “foreigners”. But in that capacity, they were singled out as Nayara-like advisers and Kochi maharaja court officials. For several ages, the Paradesi helped connect rulers to the outside world and controlled trade in pepper and spices. Most of the Paradesi looked different from the Kochi Jews with their lighter skin color. In all other aspects, they were quite integrated in the local Malayali society. They spoke Malayalam – the main language of the Kerala residents, wore local clothes, and were part of the ruling class of the local monarchy. The position of the Malabar – “black” – Jews of Cochin was not as elite as that. They lived further away from the palace and their rank could be compared to that of the Nayara.
Indian Jews in Today’s India
Jewish organizations as a special form of community function emerged in the twentieth century among the Bene Israel. During the First World War, some Bene Israel fought in the British military (General Allenby’s army had a Bene Israeli doctor who entered the re-conquered Jerusalem together with the British). In 1917, the Bene Israel Conference was organized in Bombay. Almost immediately, it was divided into two competing structures – the Conference itself and the All-Indian Israeli League. Conference leaders tried to avoid the politization of their organization and the life of the community in general, which was quite a feat in those years. Bene Israel sprouted followers of various Hindu national movements. In the 1920s, medical doctor A. Erulkar, one of the doctors attending M. Gandhi, even founded the Jewish Nationalistic Party, following the pattern of similar Muslim and Christian organizations united in the Indian National Congress. All of these organizations however did not exist long. They fell apart, having left a sense of mistrust to the local leaders among the population. At the same time, different representatives of the communities began to take prominent positions in Bombay, Maharashtra, and India at large. D-r E. Moses was Mayor of Bombay in 1937–1938.
After the Second World War, an attempt was made at creating a federation of synagogues which also got divided almost immediately after its creation into two competing factions. One of them was oriented at the Conservative movement in American Judaism, while another tried to win the support of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of the United States. Later, a new organization of Bene Israel was formed to join the Union of Jewish Communities of the British Commonwealth of Nations.
Thirty-eight Malabar, or “black”, Jews of Cochin who lived in Kerala united in 2005 into the Association of Jews of Kerala headed by medical doctor A. Yehoshua. Fourteen Paradesi, or “white”, Jews , whose leader was keeper of the Paradesi synagogue Samuel Halegua, did not join the Association and lived in their own houses around the synagogue.
In 2002, the Indian community joined the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress (EAJC). Its two representatives – Bombay lawyer Albert Talegavkar and G. Samuel, entrepreneur and manager of the Indian branch of the Israeli El Al airlines, entered the EAJC General Council. That same year, the Jewish Congress of India was created in Mumbai. It was the first all-Indian Jewish organization that was headed by Solomon Sofer, major industrialist and owner of a stud-farm, who comes from the Baghdadi community. This new structure faces a complicated task of uniting different edot under one roof. This goal has never been achieved yet. Perhaps, the support of a big regional union – the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress – will help this almost disappearing community to consolidate their efforts and survive in the Indian Diaspora.
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