Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Short History Of The Jewish Community Of Cochin

By Bala Menon
One of the tiniest and most ancient of all Jewish communities in the Diaspora is the Cochinim or the Cochin Jews in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala. They trace their history on the Malabar coast 2,000 years ago, first landing on those pristine shores as sailors in the fleets of King Solomon to purchase spices, apes, peacocks and precious metals.
Songs and oral traditions of this community give us a glimpse of their early settlements in Malabar in places like Paloor, Madai and the port of Cranganore (today’s city of Kodungalloor), soon after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. They call this the ‘First Diaspora’. One of the stories suggests they are descendants of Jews taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century BCE and came to India after being freed by Persian king Cyrus the Great.

The community is today disappearing quickly with only about 40 left in Kerala state, seven in the town of Mattancherry in Kochi and the rest spread around the city of Ernakulam and surrounding areas. There are no services or prayers although one of the most famous of the synagogues, the Paradesi in Mattancherry, is still open and functional during festival days when Israeli tourists gather or when a Chabbad Rabbi visits from Mumbai. Most members of the seven Jewish congregations left en masse for Israel during the 1950 with the stragglers following them in the ensuring decades.

Recorded history shows that Jews were present in Kerala in 849 CE. Hebrew names were engraved on copper plates granted by a Kerala Hindu King Ayyan Adikal Thiruvadikal of Venad (near modern-day Kollam or old Quilon) to Syrian Christian settlers, led by one Mar Sapir Iso, who were part of a trade guild called Manigramam. The Jews signed these Tharissapalli plates as witnesses, along with others who signed in the Pahlavi and Kufic languages. The plates were given on behalf of the Chera ruler Sthanu Ravi Varman.*

In 1000 CE, the legendary Kerala emperor Cheraman Perumal Kulashekhara Bhaskara Ravi Varman, from his palace at Mahodayapuram in the Cranganore area, issued two copper plates to a Jewish merchant Issappu Irrappan ( Joseph Rabban), believed to be of Yemeni descent. The plates conferred on the Jewish community 72 proprietary rights equivalent to those held by the Nairs, the then nobles of Malabar.** This was during the 100-year war between the Kerala Cheras and the Imperial Cholas of the Tamil kingdoms and it is believed that the Jewish community contributed men and material (especially naval forces) to help the Chera emperor in the war efforts.***

Replicas of these plates were presented to a delighted then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres on September 09, 1992, when he visited India6 - a heart-warming piece of evidence that there was a safe haven for Jews in this little corner of India, centuries before the dream of Israel became a reality.•

The original copper plates are preserved in the magnificent 460-year  old Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin, the oldest functioning synagogue in the Commonwealth. (Israeli president Eizer Weizman visited the synagogue in January 1997, hailing Cochin as a “symbol of the persistence of Judaism and of aliyah ... I pay tribute to India for taking care of the Jews and their places of worship ...”).••

The copper plate inscriptions mention that several land rights and other honours were being given to the Jews in perpetuity “as long as the earth and the moon remain”. Rabban was also made chief of a powerful trade guild called Anjuvannam. (Many early Western writers believed Anjuvannam to be a princely state.) Thus began the privileged existence of the Jews in Kerala. For almost five centuries, they thrived in their major settlement of Cranganore as traders and artisans.

By the 17th century, there were 11 congregations with their own synagogues – three in Mattancherry (Kadavumbhagam, Thekkumbhagam and Paradesi), two in Ernakulam (Kadavumbhagam and Thekkumbhagam- yes, same names!), one each in Chennamangalam, Mala, Paloor,  Muttam and Tirutur, and a splendid one in Paravur (at that time under the control of the King of Travancore). Cochin Jewish songs also tell of a synagogue in a place called Southi (this has not yet been identified!)†

In his 1920 book Jews of Asia, Sidney Mendelssohn tellingly wrote: “While the Jews of Europe, from the 10th to the 16th centuries, were living under conditions, which, for a portion of the period, were stigmatized by Milman14 as the ‘Iron Age of Judaism’, and while persecutions drove the scattered race in turn out of England, France, Spain, Portugal, Holland and Germany, as well as other less important regions, their brethren in the Far East, in the lands of the ... potentates of India, were living  a life of peace and plenty, far away from the bigots, the robber kings, the conversionists, the Inquisitors, and the Crusaders."††

It is of interest to note here that in the late 18th century, Cochin was more important to the Jews than New York.Walter Fischel, a scholar of Oriental Jewry, wrote: “Cochin, one of the oldest Jewish settlements on Asian soil, had a much larger Jewish community than New York and surpassedit not only numerically, but also culturally. The Cochin Jewish community in 1792 had about 2000 Jews ... and 9 synagogues of considerable antiquity, while New York had only 72 Jewish families and only one synagogue."†††

Today, there are several flourishing Cochini moshavim (settlements in Israel) - Nevatim and Shahar in the south, Aviezer, Mesilat Zion and Taoz. near Jerusalem and Kfar Yuval in the far north. (Mesilat Zion boasts signs like Rehov Cochin and Rehov Malabar - rehov means street in Hebrew - dating to the early 1950s.) Sizeable numbers of Cochinis live in Binyamina,Petah Tikva, Rishon Le Zion, Ashdod, Jerusalem and Haifa. Moshav Nevatim also boasts a beautiful Cochini synagogue. The interior is a copy of the Kadavumbhagam synagogue of Ernakulam and the Holy Ark and the Torah scrolls were all brought from various synagogues in Cochin. A Cochin Heritage Museum has been set up near the synagogue.

* Aiyya, V. N. Nagom, Travancore State Manual, p. 244.
 ** Menon, Sreedhara A., A Survey of Kerala History, p. 45.
***  M.G.S. Narayanan, Cultural Symbiosis in Kerala, Kerala Historical Society, Trivandrum, p .34.
•• From video of Weizman’s visit to the Paradesi Synagogue. In possession of Bala Menon
  This was documented by a delegation of Jews from Amsterdam, led by Moses Pereyra de Paiva, that visited Cochin in 1685. Pereyra wrote about this visit in his Nostesias os Judeos de Cochin in 1687. (The synagogues  of Paloor, Muttam and Tirutur have disappeared - believed to have been abandoned or destroyed.)
††  Mendelssohn, Sidney, The Jews of Asia, Chapter VIII, p. 99. 
††† Walter Fischel - From Cochin, India, to New York, pp. 265-67, cited by Katz on page 102. Harry Austrynn Wolfson Jubilee Volume. Jerusalem: American Academy for Jewish Research, pp. 255-75.


  1. Awesome post :)
    Congrats for this magnificent work :)

    There are some attempts without any inscriptional or literary evidences to establish the fact that St. Thomas converted Jews in Kerala. It is claimed without any evidence that there were Jewish settlements in Kerala from the days of King Solomonn It is true that Solomon's ships came to India but it was not for bringing Jews to settle in Kerala but for the purpose of trade. Guided by Phœnician pilots, manned by Phœnician sailors, Phœnicians and Jews sailed forth together on their distant voyages, into the southern seas. They sailed to India, to Arabia and Somaliland, and they returned with their ships laden with gold and silver, with ivory and precious stones, with apes and peacocks. It was a trading mission and Jews were not brought in the ships for staying permanently in India. In those days when the Jews were living in all comfort and luxury in their own country there was ne need for a Diaspora
    Another claim of St. Thomas Christians without any basis is that they are the descendants of the Jews who came to Kerala during Diaspora. In their fanatical bid to disown their original caste of their own country and to appropriate for themselves the Jewish link they have been propagating the view that they are the progeny of the Jews of Diaspora. But the historical events of the period and the significance of Jewish Diaspora will prove their cunning attempts are nonsensical. The first Diaspora of the Jews in recorded history is the Baylonian exile. The Jewish Diaspora actually began in the year 597 BC with the seige and fall of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Known as the Babylonian Captivity, a significant portion of the population of Judea was deported to Babylonia, not to Kodungalloor in Kerala. A second deportation began in 587 BC when the First Jewish Temple was destroyed. In approximately 582 BC, the Babylonian governor of Judea was assassinated and many Jews fled to Egypt and a third deportation most likely began. Many of those Jews never returned to Israel.The Diaspora continued with the Great Jewish Revolt, otherwise known as the First Jewish-Roman War, which began in the year 66 AD and ended in 70 AD with the destruction of Jerusalem. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Jews during this diaspora fled to Babylonia, Persia, Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Russia, and the United States. They did not come to India.

  3. (continuation)
    After the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 ce, the Jews spread throughout the Mediterranean world. A major community eventually formed in the towns of the Iberian peninsula. The Sephardim, from the Hebrew for Iberia (“Sepharad”), played a prominent role in the culture and economy of both Muslim and Christian Spain and Portugal. But in 1492 But that same year, Spain's monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, also ordered the nation's Jews either to convert to Christianity or to leave the country under pain of death. At least 50,000 Jews--some believe as many as 300,000--were banished from Spain. Known as Sephardim from the Hebrew word for Spain , the banished settled in the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, Yemen, Italy and they did not flee to Kodungalloor in Kerala, india. A website of Syrian Malabar Nasrani makes a fake claim that during Shepherdic diaspora Jews from Yemen who came to Kodungalloor are the ancestors of Nasrani Christians. The foolishness of this argument is quite obvious in view of the fact that the Shepherdic diaspora occurred because the Jews wanted to avoid forcible conversion to christianity. Unlike other countries, only few Jews had come to Kerala. They (White and Black Jews) did not become Christians but remained Jews and worshipped in their synagogues and not in Christian churches. How foolish it is to calain phony geneology for the Syrians from these Jews! Dr. M. Vijayalakshmi, in a paper presented at the South indian History Congress, has, after examining the Geniza documents of the Jews, pointed out that the Jews of Yemen who came to Kodungalloor were involved in trade and had depots in Kollam and Pantalyani Kollam. So they were not Christians but Jewish traders.
    Why some haughty Syrian Christians are struggling hard to usurp the caste of others? Before Internet became popular, they used fake family history suchas Niranam Granthavari and manipulated dance songs to expropriate Namboothiri and Jewish caste. They were not contemporary accounts but produced in the 18th century. When Kerala historians such as William Logan, Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai, Keasavan Veluthat and M.G.S. Narayanan pointed out that there were no Namboothiris in the 1st century in Kerala, Syrians gradually gave up Namboothiri descent. Now the new infatuation is about Assyrian and Jewish descent. At the time of persecution, the Assyrians migrated to Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Persia and not India. Even 5th century B.C. migrations of the Sakhas, Bacterians and huns are recorded in Indian History. But there is absolutely no reference to assyrian migration. It is a new distorted invention of some Syrians. CMS Missionary diaries and Reports tell us about largescale conversion of untouchables and slaves in Kottayam, Mallappally, Mundakkayam, Kochi, Alappuzha, Kodukulanji, Chengannur, Mavelikara and other areas. At the Coonen Cross episode there were 200,000 people to take the pledge. Was it possible to get 50 Jews or 1000 Namboothiris from Mattancherry. So they were all lower castes. And yet, manipulated DNA is produced to show that a descendant of an Ezhava converted by Norton has Jewish blood. Why these tricks?

  4. These many words in Malayalam are loaned from Iberian peninsula and even the word marichu is from there, In 70 ce Jewish spread across the world and when split in Judaism happened students of Jesus went to these areas and converted most of them to Christianity, this includes Cochin in India also at that time it was not a part of India since Kerala never ruled by North Indians. A Syrian merchant who led a group of 72 immigrant families(Knanaya) from Şanlıurfa Turkey in 8th century, now become 3 lakhs. Some upper caste people of Kerala believes that they were Nairi people who were rules of Mitanni and moved to India when they lost the power.