Kerala Jews


Compiled by Mrs. Benedicta Pereira


Like India in general, Cochin is warm and friendly, with an ancient and multifaceted Jewish community that, tradition relates, is as old as the Diaspora. It is a city whose indigenous inhabitants have welcomed, befriended and protected Jews for centuries.
Located in the tropical state of Kerala and alternately referred to as Venice of the East and queen of the Arabian Sea, Cochin is one the 3 largest ports on India's west coast and one of the finest natural harbors in the world. The markets are filled with the scent of spices and the shouts of vendors; the docks are lined with merchants' houses and cargo ships and the countryside is sprinkled with shady lagoons and wooded islands. The crystal-blue sky and tropical foliage, the pastel houses, the bright raw silk of the clothes and the ever-present smiles blend into one exquisite rainbow.

Cochin is a handy name for a cluster of islands and towns sprinkled with shady lagoons, tropical forests and canals winding past houses on stilts. This is a multicultural land where, in addition to the Jewish sights, one can see Portuguese churches, Dutch architecture, mosques, Hindu temples and a British village green.
One legend holds that the Jews first settled in India during the time of King Solomon, when there was trade in teak, ivory, spices and peacocks between the Land of Israel and the Malabar Coast, where Cochin is located. Others put their arrival at the time of the Assyrian exile in 722 B.C.E., the Babylonian exile in 586 or after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE No reliable evidence exists, but most contemporary scholars fix the date at some time during the early Middle Ages.

It is the bible that contains the first mention of Jews in connection with India. The Book of Esther, which dates from the second century B.C.E., cites decrees enacted by Ahasuerus relating to the Jews dispersed throughout the provinces of his empire from Hodu to Kush. Hodu is Hebrew for India; Kush is Ethiopia. Talmudic and midrashic literature also mention spices, perfumes, plants, animals, textiles, gems and crockery which either bear names of Indian origin or are indigenous to the country. The earliest documentation of permanent Jewish settlements is on two copper plates now stored in Cochin's main synagogue. Engraved in the ancient Tamil language, they detail the privileges granted a certain Joseph Rabban by Bhaskara Ravi Varma, the fourth-century Hindu ruler of Malabar. According to the inscription, the ruler awarded the Jews the village of Anjuvannam, meaning "five castes," as the Jews were believed to be the lords of the five castes of artisans. The plates also state that Anjuvannam shall remain in the possession of the descendants of these Jews "so long as the world and moon exist."
Twelfth-century Jewish, Christian and Muslim travellers described Jewish settlements around Cochin. The main community was in Cranganore, north of Cochin. For a time the Jews of the Malabar Coast served as a way station to the Jewish community in China. In 1167 Benjamin of Tudela wrote of 1,000 Jews on the Malabar Coast "who are black like their neighbours and are good men, observers of the law, and possess the Torah of Moses, the Prophets, and some little knowledge of the Talmud and the halakha."
The Jews prospered in Anjuvannam for more than a thousand years after the grant of the copper plates. Then, with the extinction of the line of Rabban, dissension arose between two brothers of a noble family for the chieftanship of the principality The younger brother has supporters killed many on those who came under his elder brother, and neighbouring prioces intervened and dispossessed the Jews. In 1341 the brothers fled to Cochin with their followers and established the Kochangadi synagogue there.
In 1524, on the pretext that the Jews were tampering with the pepper trade, the Moors attacked the remaining Jews of Anjuvannam, burning their homes and synagogues.

The destruction was so complete that when the Portuguese arrived a few years later they found only destitute Jews, who continued to eke out a miserable existence for 40 more years. Finally, the remaining Jews deserted their ancient settlement and fled to Cochin.
As the Portuguese made inroads along the coast more Jews arrived in Cochin, which remained under Indian protection.

Spanish and Portuguese exiles came after the Inquisition, and others arrived fleeing persecution in the Middle East. In 1560 the Portuguese set up an office of the Inquisition in Goa, halfway between Bombay and Cochin, and even more Jews sought the protection of Cheraman Parumal, the raja of Cochin, soon labeled the "King of the Jews" by the Portuguese authorities.

The Jews could not have survived under Portuguese rule (1502-1663) had it not been for Parumal. In 1565 he gave them a strip of land next to his palace and in 1568 permitted them to build a synagogue not 30 yards from his temple. He appointed a hereditary mudaliar (chief) from among the Jews and invested the position with special privileges and jurisdiction in all internal matters in the Jewish community. This office continued in force under subsequent rajas and even under Dutch and British rule. The Hallegua family, which still holds the title, continues to be influential in Cochin.

There are few places in the world where Jews can claim centuries of peaceful coexistence with the local population . The district of Jew town in Cochin on the Malabar Coast of Southern India is one of them .

The Jewish community which has survived for more than a thousand years, witnessing successive waves of conquerors and traders, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. These foreigners, as well as the Jews who came before them, were enticed by the rich spices of this tropical coast: cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, and above all , pepper. But today most of the Jews have immigrated.

The present leader (elder) of the Cochin Jewtown Samuel Hallegua, whose own family came to Cochin in 1590 from Spain via Syria. The Pardesi synagogue in Cochin's Jewtown is a living history of the vibrant Jewish community of Cochin-Kerala.

With only few dozens of Jews left here yet a strong sense of community still exists in Cochin . Jewish identity is infused with the history of their ancestors in India. There is no contradiction that the Jews of India have pride in being both Indian and Jewish.

Their identity is infused with the history of their ancestors in India. Some scholars put it that Jewish settlers came to India almost 1500 years ago it was a local Hindi Mahraja who offered them sanctuary and land to build a synagogue.

The festivals are celebrated with a joyous enthusiasm. There is no rabbi so the elders lead the service and visitors and others join in. There are prayer books hand-written Hebrew as well as the local language Malayalam, and many of the melodies sung are unique to Cochin Jewry.

Kerala is diversified as can be when it comes to religion. Even though the majority of the population is Hindu ,there exists major minorities of Moslems and Christians and minor minorities of Jains and Jews. Most people do not know that there are Jewish people in India but these Jews have very much kept their traditions from the ancient times

People of Kerela and all of India in general do not marry out of their religion (although time are a changing) Many cinemas, satirical and serious , have been made depiciting the consequences of marrying out of religion .

Pardesi (foreigners) Jews known also as "White Jews" and Malabar (or Black) Jews make allusion to the long past of tension between them,the Pardesi Jews although they were a minority ,always managed to win a privileged position in relation to other Jews within the context of local society . Based on their influence and economic power , and occupying the high ground of purity of origins - fundamental aspect in the caste-based society - the White or paradesi Jews ,despite the fierce criticism of the rabbis, managed to "push" the majority of Malabar Jews into an inferior social situation , at least until the advent of Mahatma Ghandi's liberation.

The synagogue and community of Parur - one of the Malabar synagogue to be found in various places - is closely linked with the Portugues presence . It is the oldest of the remaining synagogues - the original building dated from 1164 and was rebuilt in 1616 on the orders of David Jacob Castiel, the fourth Mudaliar according to the inscription on one of the walls .

MY Fathers ancestors came from Portugal to Cochin in around the 17th century along with the mother's ancestors. As told by elders to me there were 4 families who came to geather 1.Pereira 2.Lyons 3.Jacob's 4.Malabre

Also some families from Portugal settled in Goa in early 15th century because of persecutions in Portugal but later on the conquest of Goa they fled to other parts of which Cochin had an influx of Jewish settlers from the Middle East, North America and Spain ,Portugal etc.

There are three distinct Jewish groups traceable in India 1.Bene Israel 2. Cochin Jews 3. The white Jews from Europe. Each group practiced important elements of Judaism and had active synagoguges.

The Sephardic rites predominated among the Indian Jews. The most prominent  Bene Israel ("sons of Israel") whose main population centers were Bombay, Calcutta, Old Delhi and Ahmedabad. The native language of the Bene Israel was Marathi, while the Cochin Jews of southern spoke Malayalam. The Bene Israel claim to be descended from the Jews who escaped persecution in Galilee in the 2nd century BCE .The Bene Israel resemble the non-Jewish Maratha people in appearance and customs, which indicates intermarriage between Jews and Indians. However , the Bene Israel maintained the practices of Jewish dietary laws, circumcision, and observation of Sabbath as a day of rest.

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. The teachers from Baghdad and Cochin taught them mainstream Judaism in the 18th and 19th centuries.

During the medieval period Jewish merchants travelled from Europe to India for the purpose of trade and some of them formed small permanent settlements in Indian coasts and in South especially.

The evidence of Jews living in India comes from the early 11th century

The first Jews of Cochin (south India ) were the so called "Black Jews" who spoke the Malyalam tongue and they had very distinct Jewish traditions of dietary kosher and inter marriages in Jewish community and observance of Sabbath etc.

The "white Jews" settled later ,coming to India from the western European nations such as Holland Spain and Portugal .

The Jews of Cochin say that they came to Cranganore (south-west coast of India) after the destruction of the Temple in 70 ce. They had very strong financial and cultural life and lived very comfortably in Cochin until dispute for leadership broke out between two brothers in the 15th century . And the dispute led neighbouring princess to dispossess them both of their rights on the land and 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 protection of the Hindu Raja (ruler) there . He granted them a site for their own town which later acquired the name of "Jew Town" by which it is still know.

Unfortunately for the Jews of Cochin ,the Portuguese occupied Cochin in this same period and indulged in the persecutions of Jews until the Dutch displaced them in 1660 but due to the persecutions and fear many Jews converted or were not discovered because of their assimilation in the culture of Cochin and names identical to Christians . 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.

Today most of the Cochin's Jews have immigrated to United Kingdom, America and principally to Israel. During the 16th and 17th century migrations created important settlements of Jews from Persia ,Afghanistan ,and Khorsan (Central Asia) in the northern India and Kashmir.

By the late 18th century ,Bombay became the largest Jewish community in India . In Bombay were Bene Israel Jews as well as Iraqi and Persian Jews.

Near the end of the 18th century the third group of Indian Jews appears. They are middle eastern Jews who came to India through trade . They established a trading network stretching from Alepo to Baghdad to Basra to Surat/Bombay to Calcutta to Rangoon to Singapore to Hong Kong and eventually as far as Kobe in Japan . There were strong family bonds amongst the traders in all these places and rarely marriages outside Jewish community occurred.

The significant of these 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 (Bombay) 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.

The Jews of India achieved their maximum population and wealth during the British rule and the community of Jews at Calcutta 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 5000 during the WW-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 the WWII, nationalism fever caught the Indians rather strongly and it became less comfortable for the Jews who came to be identified with English by the Indians. India's Jewish population declined dramatically starting in the 1940s with heavy immigration to Israel ,England and the United States. It is in these three nations where the most significant settlements of Indian Jews exists today. Today there is just handful of old people and the once vital community with its 7 synagogues is no more.

As told by the ancestors of family my family fled the Persecutions of the Portuguese around the 17th century along with other few families and came to Malaysia to the town of Kolatranganore and settled there and some family members further went to the Cochin now the business capital of Kerala estate in India where the Jewish community was very vibrant and safe . As the different Christian sects like Marthomite, Syrian Catholics ,R Catholics and Protestants whose names were very similar to the Jewish names did not feel intrusion and were reluctant to take any note of the Jewish presence also due to the cultural background in India my family along with above mentioned other families settled in India but in Malaysia our families too had very strong presence until the late 70s after that they immigrated to Singapore, America and Canada including Israel.

Although the presence of Jews in Kerala did not meet any strong resistance but still the culture forced the Jewish people to adapt to the culture of Kerala including the Cochin Jewishery spicy foods, dress and even to some extent the habits and religious style too had strong impact of the Hindi culture on the Jewish people. Because of the fear and sufferings in Portugal and Spain the Jewish families living among areas populated by the Hindus almost adapted secretive ways of worship which were identical to Hindus or Christians so as not to feel alienated , for example the Jewish homes use clay pots filled with olive or Coconut oil to light the Shabbat candles and while attending the prayers in synagogue or at home they take off their shoes and pray the women cover their heads with the extra cloth of their traditional Indian dress (sari's) .

Mostly the older people prohibited the use of milk and meat the same day in the house and to scare the young Jew's so as not to be inspired by the culture there were stories of bad Omens for those who dare to think even of milk and meat together.

Chicken curry laced with the hot chillies, coconut and coriander of Kerala at tempting dishes on festivals.

Although the Jews were never persecuted for their faith in Kerala but still the fears of their ancestors and cultural pressure and religious alienation has led them to take many cultural habits of the place they lived for centuries .

. The divisions between Jews began to break down after 1948, when large scale emigration forced everyone together. The majority of Jewish marriages are still arranged; married couples and their children live with the husband's parents. Jewish women now wear bindis, the small marks in the middle of their foreheads that at one time signified a woman's marital status but are now merely a fashion statement.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Indian Jewish experience is the complete absence of discrimination by a host majority. The secret of India's tolerance is the Hindu belief which confers legitimacy on a wide diversity of cultural and religious groups even as it forbids movement from one group to another.

The Jews have adopted and modified many of their host country's customs; Colour full oil lamps hang from synagogue ceilings in keeping with Hindu tradition; all synagogues are entered barefoot and for hardala flowers are sniffed and then tucked into the pockets signifying shabbat's end. Those Jews who stayed back and did not immigrate were the wealthiest ; they did not want to risk losing their fortunes in the move and are today left with the burden of sustaining the community.(not forgetting that Cochin Jews ,or Malabaris (85 percent of Cochinis) ,who regard themselves as descendants of original settlers, and White Jews , or Paradesim (14 percent) , descendants of immigrants from various Middle East and European countries. There are also few Brown Jews, or MESHUHURARUM, who are descended from emanicipated slaves. They became spice merchants business owners and professionals and spoke the local language - Malayalam as well as English .