Jew: South India

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This article is an excerpt from
Castes and Tribes of Southern India
By Edgar Thurston, C.I.E.,
Superintendent, Madras Government Museum; Correspondant
Étranger, Société d’Anthropologie de Paris; Socio
Corrispondante, Societa,Romana di Anthropologia.
Assisted by K. Rangachari, M.A.,
of the Madras Government Museum.

Government Press, Madras

It has been said by a recent writer that “there is hardly a more curious, and in some respects one might almost say a more weird sight than the Jew town, which lies beyond the British Settlement at Cochin. Crossing over the lagoon from the beautiful little island of Bolghotty, where the British Residency for the Cochin State nestles in a bower of tropical vegetation, one lands amidst cocoanut trees, opposite to one of the old palaces of the Cochin Rājahs, and, passing through a native bazaar crowded with dark-skinned Malayālis, one turns off abruptly into a long narrow street, where faces as white as those of any northern European race, but Semitic in every feature, transport one suddenly in mind to the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem, or rather perhaps to some ghetto in a Polish city.” In the preparation of the following note, I have been much indebted to the Cochin Census Report, 1901, and to a series of articles published by Mr. Elkan N. Adler in the Jewish Chronicle.

The circumstances under which, and the time when the Jews migrated to the Malabar Coast, are wrapped in obscurity. They themselves are able to give accounts of only isolated incidents, since whatever records they had were lost at the destruction by the Portuguese of their original settlement at Cranganūr in 1565, and by the destruction at a later period of such fragments as remained in their possession in the struggle between the Portuguese and the Dutch, for the Portuguese, suspecting that the Jews had helped the Dutch, plundered their synagogue in Cochin.

It is recorded by the Dutch Governor Moens that “when Heer van Goens besieged Cochin, the Jews were quite eager to provide the troops of the Dutch Company with victuals, and to afford them all the assistance they could, hoping that they would enjoy under this Company the greatest possible civil and religious liberty; but, when the above-mentioned troops were compelled to leave this coast before the end of the good monsoon, without having been able to take Cochin, the Portuguese did not fail to make the Jews feel the terrible consequences of their revenge. For, no sooner had the Dutch retreated, than a detachment of soldiers was sent to the Jewish quarters, which were pillaged and set fire to, whilst the inhabitants fled to the high-lands, and returned only after Cochin was taken by the Dutch.

“The Jews, who still hold that the Malabar Israelites were in possession of an old copy of the Sepher Thora, say that this copy, and all other documents, got lost on the occasion when the Portuguese destroyed the Jewish quarters, but this is not likely. For, whereas they had time to save their most valuable property according to their own testimony, and to take it to the mountains, they would not have failed to take along with them these documents, which were to them of inestimable value. For it is related that for a new copy of the Pentateuch which at that time was in their synagogue they had so much respect, and took such great care of it, that they even secured this copy, and took it along, and (when they returned) carried it back with great rejoicing, as it was done in olden times with the Ark of the Covenant.”

Writing in the eighteenth century, Captain Hamilton states that the Jews “have a synagogue at Cochin, not far from the King’s Palace, in which are carefully kept their Records, engraven on copper plates in Hebrew characters; and when any of the characters decay, they are new cut, so that they can show their own History from the Reign of Nebuchadnezzar to this present time. Myn Heer Van Reeda, about the year 1695, had an Abstract of their History translated from the Hebrew into low Dutch. They declare themselves to be of the Tribe of Manasseh, a Part whereof was, by order of that haughty Conqueror Nebuchadnezzar, carried to the easternmost Province of his large Empire, which, it seems, reached as far as Cape Comerin, which journey 200,000 of them travelled in three years from their setting out of Babylon.”

The elders of the White Jews of Cochin have in their possession a charter on two copper plates in Vatteluttu character, “the original character which once prevailed over nearly all the Tamil country and south-west coast, but which has long ceased to be used in the former place, and, in the latter, is now only known in a later form, used for drawing up documents by Hindu Rājas.” Concerning this copper-plate charter, Mr. Adler writes that “the white Jews say that they have always held it; the black Jews contend that it was originally theirs. The title-deed is quaint in many ways. It consists of three strips of copper, one of which is blank, one etched on both sides, and the third on one side only. The characters are made legible by being rubbed with whitening. The copper plates have a round hole in the corner, through which a string was passed to tie them together under seal, but the seal is lost. They are now kept together by a thin and narrow copper band, which just fits.”

Taking Dr. Gundert’s and Mr. Ellis’ translation of the charter as guides, Mr. Burnell translates it as follows:— Svastī Sri.—The king of kings has ordered (This is) the act of grace ordered by His Majesty Srî Pârkaran Iravi Vanmar wielding the sceptre and reigning in a hundred thousand places, (in) the year (which is) the opposite to the second year, the thirty-sixth year, (on) the day he designed to abide in Mûyirikkôdu. ]We have given to Isuppu Irabbân Ansuvannam (as a principality), and seventy-two proprietary rights (appertaining to the dignity of a feudal lord) also tribute by reverence (?) and offerings, and the profits of Ansuvannam, and day-lamps, and broad garments (as opposed to the custom of Malabar), and palankins, and umbrellas, and large drums, and trumpets, and small drums and garlands, and garlands across streets, etc., and the like, and seventy-two free houses. Moreover, we have granted by this document on copper that he shall not pay the taxes paid by the houses of the city into the royal treasury, and the (above-said) privileges to hold (them). To Isuppu Irabbân, prince of Ansuvannam, and to his descendants, his sons and daughters, and to his nephews, and to (the nephews) of his daughters in natural succession, Ansuvannam (is) an hereditary estate, as long as the world and moon exist. Srî. The charter is witnessed by various local chiefs.

A somewhat different reading is given by Dr. G. Oppert who renders the translation as follows:— “Hail and happiness! The King of Kings, His Holiness Srî Bhaskara Ravi Varma, who wields the sceptre in many hundred thousand places, has made this decree on the day that he was pleased to dwell in Muyirikodu in the thirty-sixth year of his reign. We have granted unto Joseph Rabban Anjavannan the [dignity of] Prince, with all the seventy-two rights of ownership. He shall [enjoy] the revenues from female elephants and riding animals, and the income of Anjavannan. He is entitled to be honoured by lamps by day, and to use broad-cloth and sedan chairs, and the umbrella and the drums of the north and trumpets, and little drums, and gates, and garlands over the streets, and wreaths, and so on. We have granted unto him the land tax and weight tax. Moreover, we have by these copper tablets sanctioned that, when the houses of the city have to pay taxes to the palace, he need not pay, and he shall enjoy other privileges like unto these. To Joseph Rabbān, the prince of Anjavannam, and to his descendants, and to his sons and daughters, and to the nephews and sons-in-law of his daughters, in natural succession, so long as the world and moon exist, Anjuvannam shall be his hereditary possession.” It is suggested by Dr. Oppert that Anjuvannam is identical with the fifth or foreign caste.

Dr. E. Hultzsch, the latest authority on the subject of the copper plates, gives the following translation: “Hail! Prosperity! (The following) gift (prasāda) was graciously made by him who had assumed the title ‘King of Kings’ (Kōgōn), His Majesty (tiruvadi) the King (kō), the glorious Bhāskara Ravivarman, in the time during which (he) was wielding the sceptre and ruling over many hundred thousands of places, in the thirty-sixth year after the second year, on the day on which (he) was pleased to stay at Muyirikkōdu. We have given to Īssuppu Irappān (the village of) Anjuvannam, together with the seventy-two proprietary rights (viz.), the tolls on female elephants and other riding-animals, the revenue of Anjuvannam, a lamp in day-time, a cloth spread (in front to walk on), a palanquin, a parasol, a Vaduga (i.e., Telugu?) drum, a large trumpet, a gateway, an arch, a canopy (in the shape) of an arch, ]a garland, and so forth. We have remitted tolls and the tax on balances. Moreover, we have granted with (these) copper-leaves that he need not pay (the dues) which the (other) inhabitants of the city pay to the royal palace (kōyil), and that (he) may enjoy (the benefits) which (they) enjoy. To Īssuppu Irappān of Anjuvannam, to the male children and to the female children born of him, to his nephews, and to the sons-in-law who have married (his) daughters (we have given) Anjuvannam (as) an hereditary estate for as long as the world and the moon shall exist. Hail! Thus do I know, Gōvardhana-Mārtāndan of Vēnādu. Thus do I know, Kōdai Srīkanthan of Vēnāpalinādu. Thus do I know, Mānavēpala-Mānavyan of Erālanādu. Thus do I know, Īrāyiram of Valluvanādu. Thus do I know, Kōdai Ravi of Nedumpuraiyūrnādu. Thus do I know, Mūrkham Sāttan, who holds the office of sub-commander of the forces. The writing of the Under-Secretary Van—Talaisēri—Gandan Kunrappōlan.”

“The date of the inscription,” Dr. Hultzsch adds, “was the thirty-sixth year opposite to the second year. As I have shown on a previous occasion, the meaning of this mysterious phrase is probably ‘the thirty-sixth year (of the king’s coronation, which took place) after the second year (of the king’s yauvarājya).’ The inscription records a grant which the king made to Īssuppu Irappān, i.e., Joseph Rabbān. The occurrence of this Semitic name, combined with the two facts that the plates are still with the Cochin Jews, and that the latter possess a Hebrew translation of the document, proves that the donee was a member of the ancient Jewish colony on the western coast. The grant was made at Muriyikkōdu. The Hebrew translation identifies this place with Kodunnallūr (Cranganore), where the Jewish colonists resided, until the bad treatment which they received at the hands of the Portuguese induced them to settle near Cochin. The object of the grant was Anjuvannam. This word means ‘the five castes,’ and may have the designation of that quarter of Cranganore, in which the five classes of Artisans—Ain-Kammālar, as they are called in the smaller Kōttayam grant—resided.”

In a note on the Kōttayam plate of Vīra Rāghava, which is in the possession of the Syrian Christians, Rai Bahadur V. Venkayya writes as follows. “Vīra-Rāghava conferred the title of Manigrāmam on the merchant Iravikkorran. Similarly Anjuvannam was bestowed by the Cochin plates on the Jew Joseph Rabbān. The old Malayālam work Payyanūr Pattōla, which Dr. Gundert considered the oldest specimen of Malayālam composition, refers to Anjuvannam and Manigrāmam. The context in which the two names occur in this work implies that they were trading institutions. In the Kōttayam plates of Sthānu Ravi, both Anjuvannam and Manigrāmam are frequently mentioned. Both of them were appointed along with the six hundred to be ‘the protectors’ of the grant. They were ‘to preserve the proceeds of the customs duty as they were collected day by day,’ and ‘to receive the landlord’s portion of the rent on land. If any injustice be done to them, they may withhold the customs and the tax on balances, and remedy themselves the injury done to them. Should they themselves commit a crime, they are themselves to have the investigation of it.’ To Anjuvannam and Manigrāmam was granted the freehold of the lands of the town (of Kollam?). From these extracts, and from the reference in the Payyanūr Pattōla, it appears that Anjuvannam and Manigrāmam were semi-independent trading corporations.

The epithet Setti (merchant) given to Ravikkorran, the trade rights granted to him, and the sources of revenue thrown open to him as head of Manigrāmam, confirm the view that the latter was a trading corporation. There is nothing either in the Cochin grant, or in the subjoined inscription to show that Anjuvannam and Manigrāmam were, as believed by Dr. Gundert and others, Jewish and Christian principalities, respectively. It was supposed by Dr. Burnell that the plate of Vīra-Rāghava created the principality of Manigrāmam, and the Cochin plates that of Anjuvannam, and that, consequently, the existence of these two grants is presupposed by the plates of Sthānu Ravi, which mention both Anjuvannam and Manigrāmam very often. The Cochin plates did not create Anjuvannam, but conferred the honours and privileges connected therewith to a Jew named Joseph Rabbān. Similarly, the rights and honours associated with the other corporation, Manigrāmam, was bestowed at a later period on Ravikkorran. Therefore, Anjuvannam and Manigrāmam must have existed as institutions even before the earliest of these three copper-plates was issued. It is just possible that Ravikkorran was a Christian by religion. But his name and title give no clue in this direction, and there is nothing Christian in the document, except its possession by the present owners.”

It is recorded by Mr. Francis Day that Governor Moens obtained three different translations of the plates, and gave as the most correct version one, in which the following words occur:—“We, Erawi, Wanwara, Emperor of Malabar ... give this deed of rights to the good Joseph Rabbān, that he may use the five colours, spread his religion among the five castes.” Mr. Burnell, however, notes that Dr. Gundert has ascertained beyond doubt that Anjuvannan (literally five colours) does not mean some privilege, but is the name of a place.

Concerning the copper-plates, Governor Moens writes thus. “The following translation is by the Jewish merchant Ezechiel Rabby, who was an earnest explorer of anything that had any connection with his nation. After this I will give another translation, which I got from our second interpreter Barend Deventer, who was assisted by an old and literary inhabitant of Malabar; and lastly I will add a third one, which I obtained from our first interpreter Simon of Tongeren, assisted by a heathen scribe of Calicut, in order thus not to allow the Jews to be the judges in their own affair, but rather to enable the reader to judge for himself in this doubtful matter. The first translation runs thus:—

“By the help of God, who created the universe and appoints the kings, and whom I honour, I, Erawi Wanwara, Emperor of Malabar, grant in the 36th year of our happy reign at the court of Moydiricotta—alias Cranganore—this Act of Privileges to the Jew Josep Rabaan, viz., that he may make use of the five colours, spread his religion among the five castes or dynasties, fire salutes on all solemnities, ride on elephants and horses, hold stately processions, make use of cries of honour, and in the day-time of torches, different musical instruments, besides a big drum; that he may walk on roads spread with white linen, hold tournaments with sticks, and sit under a stately curtain. These privileges we give to Josep Rabaan and to the 72 households, provided that the others of this nation must obey the orders of his and their descendants so long as the sun shall shine on the earth. This Act is granted in the presence of the Kings of Trevancore, Tekkenkore, Baddenkenkore, Calicoilan, Aringut, Sammoryn, Palcatchery, and Colastry; written by the secretary Calembi Kelapen in the year 3481 Kalijogam.

“‘The second translation differs in important statements from the first, and would deserve more attention when neutral people of Malabar could be found, who could testify to the credibility of the same; but, notwithstanding the trouble I have taken to find such persons, it has been hitherto in vain. The second translation runs thus:— “‘In the quiet and happy time of our reign, we, Erawi Wanwara, imitator of (successor to ?) the sceptres, which for many hundreds of thousands of years have reigned in justice and righteousness, the glorious footsteps of whom we follow, now in the second year of our reign, being the 36th year of our residence in the town of Moydiricotta, grant hereby, on the obtained good testimony of the great experience of Joseph Rabaan, that the said person is allowed to wear long dresses of five colours, that he may use carriages together with their appurtenances, and fans which are used by the nobility. He shall have precedence to the five castes, be allowed to burn day-lamps, to walk on spread out linen, to make use of palanquins, Payeng umbrellas, large bent trumpets, drums, staff, and covered seats.

We give him charge over the 72 families and their temples, which are found both here and elsewhere, and we renounce our rights on all taxes and duties on both houses. He shall everywhere be allowed to have lodgings. All these privileges and prerogatives, explained in this charter, we grant to Joseph Rabaan head of the five castes, and to his heirs, sons, daughters, children’s children, the sons-in-law married to the daughters, together with their descendants, as long as the sun and moon shall shine; and we grant him also all power over the five castes, as long as the names of their descendants shall last. Witnesses hereof are the Head of the country of Wenaddo named Comaraten Matandden; the head of the country of Wenaaodea named Codei Cheri-canden; the Head of the country of Erala named Mana Bepalamaan; the Head of the country Walonaddo named Trawaren Chaten; the Head of the country Neduwalur named Codei Trawi; besides the first of the lesser rulers of territories of the part of Cusupady Pawagan, namely the heir of Murkom Chaten named Kelokandan; written by the secretary named Gunawendda Wanasen Nayr, Kisapa Kelapa; signed by the Emperor. “‘The third translation runs as follows:—

“‘In the name of the Most High God, who created the whole world after His own pleasure, and maintains justice and righteousness, I, Erwij Barman, raise my hands, and thank His Majesty for his grace and blessing bestowed on my reign in Cranganore, when residing in the fortress of Muricotta. I have granted for good reasons to my minister Joseph Raban the following privileges; that he may wear five coloured cloths, long dresses, and hang on the shoulders certain cloths; that they may cheer together, make use of drums and tambourines, burn lights during the day, spread cloths on the roads, use palanquins, umbrellas, trumpet torches, burning torches, sit under a throne (?), and act as Head of all the Jews numbering seventy-two houses, who will have to pay him the tolls and taxes of the country, no matter in what part of the country they are living; these privileges I give to Joseph Raban and his descendants, be they males or females, as long as any one of them is alive, and the sun and moon shine on the earth; for this reason I have the same engraved on a copper-plate as an everlasting remembrance. Witnesses are the Kings of Travancore, Berkenkore, Sammorin, Arangolla, Palcatchery, Collastry, and Corambenaddo; written by the secretary Kellapen.

“‘The aforesaid copper-plate is written in the old broken Northern Tamil language, but with different kinds of characters, viz., Sanskrit and Tamil, and is now read and translated by a heathen scribe named Callutil Atsja, who was born at Calicut, and who, during the war, fled from that place, and stays at present on the hills. “‘When these translations are compared with one another, it will be observed at once that, in the first, the privileges are granted to the Jew Joseph Rabban, and to the 72 Jewish families, whereas, in the second, no trace is found of the word Jew; and Joseph Rabban is, in the third, not called a Jew, but the minister of the king, although he may be taken for a Jew from the context in the course of the translation, for he is there appointed as Head of all the other Jews to the number of 72 houses. It is equally certain that the name of Rabaan is not exclusively proper to the Jews only. Furthermore, the first and last translations grant the above-mentioned privileges not only to Joseph Rabaan, but also to the 72 Jewish families, whereas, according to the second translation, the same are given to Joseph Rabaan, his family and offspring only. The second translation, besides, does not at all mention the freedom granted, and the consent to spread the Jewish religion among the five castes. Thus, it is obvious that these three translations do not agree, that the first and third coincide more with each other than they do with the second; that, for that reason, the first and last translations deserve more to be believed than the second, which stands alone; but that this, for that very reason, does not prove what it, properly speaking, ought to prove, and, whereas I am not acquainted with the Malabar language, I prefer to refrain from giving my opinion on the subject. For hitherto I have been unable to come across, either among the people of Malabar and Canara, or among the literary priests and natives, any one who was clever enough to translate these old characters for the fourth time, notwithstanding the fact that I had sent a copy of these characters to the north and south of Cochin, in order to have them deciphered.

“‘The witnesses who were present at the granting of this charter differ also. The first and third translations, however, seem also to concur more with each other than with the second one. But the discrepancy of the second translation lies in this, that in it not the personal names of the witnesses are recorded, but only their offices or dignities, in which they officiated at that time; whereas the mistake in the first and third translations consists herein, that the witnesses are called kings, and more so of those places by which names these places were called some time after and subsequently when times had changed, and by which names they are still known. The second translation, however, calls them merely heads of the countries, in the same manner as they were known at the time of the Emperor, when these heads were not as yet kings, because these heads bore the title of king and ruler only after the well-known division of the Malabar Empire into four chief kingdoms, and several smaller kingdoms and principalities. It must be admitted, however, that the head of the country of Cochin is, in the first and third translations, not mentioned by that name, although the kingdom of Cochin is in reality one of the four chief kingdoms of Malabar. I add this here for elucidation, in order that one should not wonder, when reading this charter, that inferior heads of countries and districts of the Malabar Empire could be called kings, because the Empire being at that time not as yet divided, they were not kings. It seems, therefore, to have been a free translation, of which the translators of the first and third translations have made use, and which has been pointed out in the second translation.

“‘The other statements of this charter, especially the authority over the five castes, must be explained according to the ancient times, customs, and habits of the people of Malabar, and need not be taken into consideration here. Whether this charter has in reality been granted to the Jews or not, it is certain that not at any time has a Jew had great authority over his co-religionists, and still less over the so-called five castes. Moreover, the property of the Jews has never been free from taxes, notwithstanding the fact that the kings to whom they were subject appointed as a rule as heads of the Jews men of their own nationality. They were known by the name of Moodiliars, who had no other authority than to dispose of small civil disputes, and to impose small fines of money.

“‘There is, however, a peculiarity, which deserves to be mentioned. Although, in the charter, some privileges are granted, which were also given to other people, yet to no one was it ever permitted to fire three salutes at the break of day, or on the day of a marriage feast of one who entered upon the marriage state, without a previous request and special permission. This was always reserved, even to the present day, to the kings of Cochin only. Yet up to now it was always allowed to the Jews without asking first. And it is known that the native kings do not easily allow another to share in outward ceremonies, which they reserve for themselves. If, therefore, the Jews would have arrogated to themselves this privilege without high authority, the kings of Cochin would put a stop to this privilege of this nation, whose residences are situated next to the Cochin palace, but for this reason, I suppose, dare not do so.’”

Various authorities have attempted to fix approximately the date of the copper-plate charter. Mr. Burnell gives 700 A.D. as its probable date. The Rev. G. Milne Rae, accepting the date as fixed by Mr. Burnell, argues that the Jews must have received the grant a few generations after the settlement, and draws the conclusion that they might have settled in the country some time about the sixth century A.D. Dr. J. Wilson, in a lecture on the Beni-Israels of Bombay, adopts the sixth century of the Christian era as the probable date of the arrival of the Beni-Israels in Bombay, about which time also, he is inclined to think, the Cochin Jews came to India, for their first copper-plate charter seems to belong to this period. There is no tradition among the Jews of Cochin that they and the Beni-Israels emigrated to the shores of India from the same spot or at the same time, and the absence of any social intercourse between the Beni-Israels and the Cochin Jews seems to go against this theory. In one of the translations of the charter obtained by the Dutch Governor Moens, the following words appear: “Written by the Secretary Calembi Kelapoor, in the year 3481 of the Kali-yuga (i.e., 379 A.D.).”

This date does not appear, however, in the translations of Gundert, Ellis, Burnell and Oppert. The charter was given in the thirty-sixth year of the reign of the donor Bhaskara Ravi Varma. And, as all, except the last of the foreign Viceroys of Kērala, are said to have been elected for twelve years only, Cherumān Perumāl, reputed to be the last of Perumāls, who under exceptional circumstances had his term extended, according to Malabar tradition, to thirty-six years, may be identical with Bhaskara Ravi Varma, who, Mr. Day says, reigned till 378 A.D. Mr. C. M. Whish gives a still earlier date, for he fixes 231 A.D. as the probable date of the grant. In connection with the claim to the antiquity of the settlement of the Jews in Malabar, it is set forth in the Cochin Census Report that they “are supposed to have first come in contact with a Dravidian people as early as the time of Solomon about B.C. 1000, for ‘philology proves that the precious cargoes of Solomon’s merchant ships came from the ancient coast of Malabar.’

It is possible that such visits were frequent enough in the years that followed. But the actual settlement of the Jews on the Malabar coast might not have taken place until long afterwards. Mr. Logan, in the Manual of Malabar, writes that ‘the Jews have traditions, which carry back their arrival on the coast to the time of their escape from servitude under Cyrus in the sixth century B.C.,’ and the same fact is referred to by Sir W. Hunter in his ‘History of British India.’ This eminent historian, in his ‘Indian Empire’ speaks of Jewish settlements in Malabar long before the second century A.D. A Roman merchant ship, that sailed regularly from Myos Hormuz on the Red Sea to Arabia, Ceylon, and Malabar, is reported to have found a Jewish colony in Malabar in the second century A.D. In regard to the settlement of the Jews in Malabar, Mr. Whish observes that ‘the Jews themselves say that Mar Thomas, the apostle, arrived in India in the year of our Lord 52, and themselves, the Jews, in the year 69.’ In view of the commercial intercourse between the Jews and the people of the Malabar coast long before the Christian era, it seems highly probable that Christianity but followed in the wake of Judaism. The above facts seem to justify the conclusion that the Jews must have settled in Malabar at least as early as the first century A.D.”

At Cochin the Jews enjoyed full privileges of citizenship, and were able to preserve the best part of their religious and civil liberty, and to remain here for centuries unseen, unknown, and unsearched by their persecutors. But, in the sixteenth century, they fell victims by turns to the oppression of fanatical Moors and over-zealous Christians. “In 1524, the Mahomedans made an onslaught on the Cranganūr Jews, slew a great number, and drove out the rest to a village to the east; but, when they attacked the Christians, the Nayars of the place retaliated, and in turn drove all the Mahomedans out of Cranganūr. The Portuguese enlarged and strengthened their Cranganūr fort, and compelled the Jews finally to desert their ancient settlement of Anjuvannam.” Thus, with the appearance of a powerful Christian nation on the scene, the Jews experienced the terrors of a new exile and a new dispersion, the desolation of Cranganūr being likened by them to the desolation of Jerusalem in miniature. Some of them were driven to villages adjoining their ruined principality, while others seem to have taken shelter in Cochin and Ernākulam. “Cranganore,”

Mr. Adler writes, “was captured by the Mahomedan Sheikh or Zamorin in 1524, and razed to the ground. The Rajah Daniel seems to have previously sent his brother David to Europe to negotiate with the Pope and the Portuguese for an offensive and defensive alliance against the Zamorin. Anyhow, a mysterious stranger, who called himself David Rubbeni, appeared in Rome in March, 1524, and, producing credentials from the Portuguese authorities in India and Egypt, was received with much honour by the Pope, King John of Portugal, and the Emperor Charles the Fifth in turn. After some years he fell a victim to the inquisition, but his failure and non-return to India are more easily explained by the fact that he was too late, and that the State he represented was no longer existent, than by the cheap assumption of all our historians, including Graetz, that he was an impostor with a cock-and-bull story. Whether the famous diary of David Rubbeni is genuine or not is less certain. But I have elsewhere sought to re-establish this long-discredited ambassador, and here limit myself to drawing attention to his name, which seems to have been David Rabbani.

To this day David is one of the commonest names among the Cochin Jews, as well as the B’nei Israel, and Rabbani is the name of the ruling family under the copper grant. Its alteration into Rubeni was due to sixteenth century interest in the lost ten tribes, and a consequent desire of identifying the Royal family as sprung from Reuben, the first-born of Israel. Reuben, too, is a favourite name among the B’nei Israel. With the destruction of their capital, the Jews left and migrated, though to no great distance. Within 20 miles south of Cranganore are four other places, all on the Cochin back-water, where the Black Jews still have synagogues. Parūr, Chennan Mangalam, and Māla have each one synagogue, Ernākulam has two, and Cochin three, of which one belongs to the White Jews.

The Parūr Jews have also the ruins of another synagogue marked by a Ner Tamid, which they say existed 400 years ago, when there were eighteen Botē Midrash (schools) and 500 Jewish houses. This tradition further confirms the importance of Cranganore before 1524. With the advent of the Dutch, better times ensued for the Jews. The Dutch were bitter foes of the Portuguese and their inquisition, and friends of their enemies. Naturally the Jews were on the side of the Dutch, and, as naturally, had to suffer for their temerity. In 1662 the Dutch attacked the Rānee’s palace at Mattāncheri and besieged the adjoining town of Cochin, but had to retire before Portuguese reinforcements. The Portuguese therefore burnt the synagogue adjoining the palace, because they suspected the Jews, no doubt with justice, of having favoured the Dutch. In the following year, however, ‘the Dutch renewed their attack on Cochin, this time with complete success. The port and town fell into their hands, and with it fell the Portuguese power in India. By a series of treaties, Cochin and Holland became close allies, and the Dutch settlement became firmly established in Cochin.’ The Dutch helped the White Jews to rebuild their synagogue. The Dutch clock is still the pride of Cochin Jewry.”

It is well known that the Cochin Jews are generally divided into two classes, the White and the Black. Writing in the early part of the eighteenth century, Baldæus states that “in and about the City of Cochin, lived formerly some Jews, who even now have a synagogue allow’d them without the Fortifications; they are neither White nor Brown, but quite black. The Portuguese Histories mention that at a certain time certain blasphemous papers against our Saviour, with some severe reflections against the Jesuit Gonsalvus Pereira (who afterwards suffer’d Martyrdom at Monopatapa) being found in a box set in the Great Church for the gathering of Alms; and the same being supposed to be laid there by some European Jews, who now and then used to resort thither privately, this gave occasion to introduce the Inquisition into Goa.”

It is noted by the Rev. J. H. Lord that “Jacob Saphir, a Jewish traveller, who visited his co-religionists in Cochin in recent years, having described some of the Jews resident there as black, hastens to tone down his words, and adds, they are not black like the raven, or as the Nubians, but only as the appearance of copper. But Hagim Jacob Ha Cohen, another modern Jewish traveller, chastizing the latter for calling them black at all, declares that he will write of this class everywhere as the non-white, and never anywhere (God forbid!) as the Black.” The Black Jews claim to have been the earliest settlers, while the White Jews came later. But the latter assert that the former are pure natives converted to the Jewish faith. These two difficult, yet important, issues of priority of settlement and purity of race have divided antiquarians and historians quite as much as they have estranged the two classes of Jews themselves from one another.

According to the Rev. C. Buchanan, the White Jews dwelling in Jews’ town in Mattāncheri are later settlers than the Black Jews. They had only the Bible written on parchment, and of modern appearance, in their synagogue, but he managed to get from the Black Jews much older manuscripts written on parchment, goat’s skin, and cotton paper. He says that “it is only necessary to look at their countenances to be satisfied that their ancestors must have arrived in India many years before the White Jews. Their Hindu complexion, and their very imperfect resemblance to the European Jews, indicate that they had been detached from the parent stocks in Judea many ages before the Jews in the West, and that there have been marriages with families not Israelitish.” The Rev. J. Hough observes that the Black Jews “appear so much like the natives of India, that it is difficult at first sight to distinguish them from the Hindu. By a little closer observation, however, the Jewish contour of their countenances cannot be mistaken.”

In the lecture already referred to, Dr. Wilson states that “their family names, such as David Castile (David the Castilian) go to prove that they (the White Jews) are descended of the Jews of Spain, probably of those driven from that country in the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, and of German and Egyptian Jews. The real ancient Jews of Cochin are the Black Jews’ descendants, we believe, of Judea-Arabians and Indian proselytes. Some rather obscure references to the Jews of Cochin and Quilon are made by Benjamin of Tudela, who returned to Spain from his eastern voyage in 1173. He found no White Jews in India. Speaking of those in the pepper country near Chulam (Quilon), he says that all the cities and countries inhabited by these people contain only about 100 Jews (members of the synagogue), who are of black colour as well as the other inhabitants.” Referring to Jan Linschoten’s ‘Itinerary,’ published in Holland in 1596, Mr. Adler observes that “the Jews who interested our traveller were the ‘rich merchants and of the king of Cochin’s nearest counsellers, who are most white of colour like men of Europe, and have many fair women. There are many of them that came of the country Palestine and Jerusalem thither, and spoke over all the exchange verie perfect and good Spanish.’ This directly confirms the view that the White Jews were new comers from foreign lands. Their knowledge of Spanish is now quite a thing of the past, but it proves that they were Sephardim.”

In regard to the claim of the White Jews to being the only genuine Jews, it may be of interest to record the opinion of a Jew, Rabbi David D’Beth Hithel, who travelled in Cochin in 1832. He says that “the White Jews say of them (the Black Jews) that they are descendants of numerous slaves who were purchased and converted to Judaism, set free and carefully instructed by a rich White Jew some centuries ago. At his cost, they say, were all their old synagogues erected. The Black Jews believe themselves to be the descendants of the first captivity, who were brought to India, and did not return with the Israelites who built the second temple. This account I am inclined to believe correct. Though called Black Jews—they are of somewhat darker complexion than the White Jews—yet they are not of the colour of the natives of the country, or of persons descended from Indian slaves.” This passage bears reference to a tradition current among the Black Jews that they are the descendants of the Jews who were driven out of the land of Israel thirteen years before the destruction of the first temple built by Solomon. They are said to have first come to Calicut, whence they emigrated to Cranganūr.

“The White Jews,” Mr. Adler writes, “claiming that they, and they alone, are the true descendants of the aboriginal Jews of Cranganūr, retain the copper tablets in their possession, and boast that, about the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Rājah of Cochin invested the head of the Hallegua family with the hereditary title of Mudaliar or Noble [and a wand with a silver knob as a sign of his dignity], with the power of punishing certain crimes. The males of that family still bear the title, but their feudal rights have been abrogated. Nowadays the number of White Jews has dwindled to less than 200, so that it was easy to procure a list of all their names. From the foreign origin of their surnames (Kindel, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Koder, Roby, Sassoon), as well as for other reasons, it seems certain that the White Jews are late comers, who did not settle in India till after the destruction of Cranganūr.

They were traders, who came to Cochin; they prospered under the rule of the Dutch, and built their synagogue and quarter after the Black Jews were already established there. Though, now, they hold themselves jealously aloof from the Black Jews, they were at first quite intimate and friendly. The Indian environment has had the opposite effect to that which England has had upon our Ashkenazim and our no longer exclusive Sephardim. In India caste is varna, which means colour, and their difference in colour has produced caste distinctions among the Indian Jews. But, although the White Jews are fair, some of them are certainly not quite white, nor are the Black Jews quite black. Some of the ‘Black’ Jews are hardly distinguishable from their ‘White’ brethren. Their customs, ritual, and religious observances are the same.

Their synagogues are so alike that it needs some keenness of eyesight to detect that two pictures are not of the identical building. The only great (?) difference is that the White Jews have theirs tiled with rare old blue tiles, over which newspaper correspondents wax eloquent. They say the tiles are old Dutch, but really they are genuine Chinese [blue and white Canton China], whereby hangs a tale. The synagogue was built nearly 200 years ago in a corner of the Rājah’s palace-yard. At that time, the Dutch were in possession of what is now British Cochin, and they were the only people trading with China. The Rājah, through his allies the Dutch, had imported a large quantity of the best China tiles to pave his Darbar hall, but the Jews, says Mr. Thurston, thought they would just do for the synagogue they were building, so they told the Rājah that he could not possibly use them, inasmuch as bullock’s blood had been employed in their manufacture. His Highness, much perturbed at the indignity to so sacred an animal, bade them take the tiles away, and never let him see them again. Hence their presence in the synagogue. The other synagogue has tiles also, but they are of gleaming white.” The synagogues, it may be added, are square whitewashed buildings, surmounted by a bell-tower. It is said that the Kadyabagan synagogue of the Black Jews is admitted by the White Jews to be the oldest at present existing, having been built in the 12th century.

It is recorded by Governor Moens that “in the Jewish quarters (situated) next to the palace of the king of Cochin at Cochin de Sima there are two synagogues, viz., one for the White Jews, and the other for the Black Jews. The latter have readers of their own tribe, who hold the services, but, when a White Rabbi comes to their synagogue, the honour of conducting the service must be given to him.”

“The dates,” the Rev. J. H. Lord writes, “of the synagogues of the Black Jews altogether antedate those of the White. Thus, the date on the mural slab of the now disused and dilapidated Cochin Angadi synagogue is A.D. 1344 = 563 years ago. That of the Kadavambagom synagogue in Cochin is A.D. 1639, or = 268 years ago. That of the Cochin Theckumbagom synagogue is A.D. 1586, or = 321 years ago; while that of the synagogue of the White Jews is A.D. 1666 or = 241 years ago. Hence the institutions of the Black Jews are the more ancient. The tomb-stone dates of the Black Jews are also far more ancient than those of the White Jews. The earliest date of any tomb-stone of the Black Jews is six hundred years old.”

It is further noted by the Rev. J. H. Lord that “the Black Jews are still the ones who make use of the privileges granted in the copper-plate charter. They still carry a silk umbrella, and lamps lit at day-time, when proceeding to their synagogue on the 8th day after birth of sons. They spread a cloth on the ground, and place ornaments of leaves across the road on occasions when their brides and bridegrooms go to get married, and use then cadanans (mortars which are charged with gunpowder, and fired), and trumpets. After the wedding is over, four silk sunshades, each supported on four poles, are borne, with lamps burning in front, as the bridal party goes home. The Black Jews say that the White Jews use none of these, and never have done so. The White Jews aver that they were accustomed formerly to use such privileges, but have discontinued them.”

There is record of disputes between the White and Black Jews for as early a time as that of the Dutch settlement, or even earlier. Jealousy and strife between the two sections on matters of intermarriage and equal privileges seem to have existed even during the time of the Portuguese. Canter Visscher, in his ‘Letters from Malabar,’ refers to these party feelings. “The blacks,” he writes, “have a dark coloured Rabbi, who must stand back if a white one enters, and must resign to him the honour of performing the divine service in the synagogue. On the other hand, when the black Rabbis enter the synagogue of Whites, they must only be hearers. There has lately been a great dispute between the two races; the Black wishing to compel the White Jewesses to keep their heads uncovered, like their own women, and trying to persuade the Rājah to enforce such a rule. The dispute ended, however, with permission given to every one, both men and women, to wear what they chose.”

More than once, Jewish Rabbis have been appealed to on the subject of racial purity, and they have on all occasions upheld the claims of a section of the Black Jews to being Jews, and the White Jews have as often repudiated such decisions, and questioned their validity. The weight of authority, and the evidence of local facts, seem to militate against the contention of the White Jews that the Black Jews do not belong to the Israelitish community, but are the descendants of emancipated slaves and half castes. The White Jews appear to have maintained the purity of their race by declining intermarriage with the Black Jews. It must be admitted that, in the earlier centuries, the original settlers purchased numerous slaves, who have since then followed the religion of their masters.

It is recorded by Stavorinus that “when these Jews purchase a slave, they immediately manumit him; they circumcise him and receive him as their fellow Israelite, and never treat him as a slave.” It is noted by Canter Visscher that “the Jews make no objection to selling their slaves who are not of their own religion to other nations, obliging them, however, when sold, to abandon the use of the Jewish cap, which they had before worn on their heads. But slaves, male or female, once fully admitted into their religion by the performance of the customary rites, can never be sold to a stranger.” The Jews are said to have had former fugitive connections with the women of these converts, and brought into existence a mixed race of Dravidians and Semitics. It would be uncharitable to infer from this that all the Black Jews are the descendants of converted slaves or half-castes, as it would be unreasonable to suppose that all of them are the descendants of the original settlers. It is noted by Mr. Adler that “the Rev. J. H. Lord quotes an interesting pronouncement on the racial purity of the Black Jews of Malabar made by Haham Bashi of Jerusalem in 1892. The Rabbi is said to have referred to the Maharikash (R. Jacob Castro, of Alexandria), whose responsum in 1610 confirmed the ‘Jichus’ or the ‘Mejuchasim’ and decided likewise. He is even said to have allowed one of his relatives to marry a Brown Jew! Nowadays, the White Jews hold aloof from the larger community, black or brown, and profess to be of another caste altogether. But one of the most intelligent of their number, who took us round the synagogues, professed to think such exclusiveness exaggerated and unfair, and admitted that their own grandfathers had lived with Black Jewesses in a more or less binding marital relation, and it is abundantly clear that, till recently, the Black and White Jews were quite friendly, and the very fact of the White Jews holding the title-deeds merely proves that they were trusted by the true owners to keep them for safe custody, as they were richer and possessed safes. In an article in the ‘Revue des Deux Mondes,’ Pierre Loti, writing of the Black Jews, says that “le rabbin me fait d’ameres doléances sur la fierté des rivaux de la rue proche, qui ne veulent jamais consentir à contracter marriage, ni même à frayer avec ses paroissiens. Et, pour comble, me dit-il, le grand rabbin de Jérusalem, à qui on avait adressé une plainte collective, le priant d’intervenir, s’est contenté d’émettre, en réponse, cette généralité plutôt offensante: Pour nicher ensemble, il faut être des moineaux de même plumage.”

In recent years, a distinction appears to have grown up among the Black Jews, so that they now want to be distinguished as Brown Jews and Black Jews, the former claiming to be Meyookhasim or genuine Jews. In this connection, Mr. Adler writes that “the Black Jews are themselves divided into two classes, the Black Jews proper, who are darker, and have no surnames, and the noble, who have family names and legitimate descent, and claim to be the true descendants of the Cranganūr or Singili Jews.”

The White Jews are generally known by the name of Paradēsis (foreigners). This designation is found in some of the Sirkar (State) accounts, and also in a few Theetoorams or Royal writs granted to them. It is argued that they must have been so called at first to distinguish them from the more ancient Israelites. The existence for centuries of three small colonies of Black Jews at Chēnnamangalam and Māla in the Cochin State, and Parūr in Travancore, at a distance of five or six miles from Cranganūr, shows that they must have sought refuge in those places on being hard pressed by the Moors and the Portuguese. There are no White Jews in any of these stations, nor can they point to any vested interests in the tracts about Cranganūr, the most ancient Jewish settlement in the State.

The Jews wear a long tunic of rich colour, a waistcoat buttoned up to the neck, and full white trousers. They go about wearing a skull cap, and put on a turban when they go to the synagogue. The Black Jews dress more or less like the native Mahomedans. Many of them put on shirts, and have skull caps like the Jōnaka Māppilas. They generally wear coloured cloths. The Jews invariably use wooden sandals. These, and their locks brought down in front of the ears, distinguish them from other sections of the population. The Jewesses always wear coloured cloths. Hebrew is still the liturgical language, and is studied as a classic by a few, but the home language is Malayālam. The White Jews celebrate their marriages on Sundays, but the Black Jews still retain the ancient custom of celebrating them on Tuesdays after sunset. Though polygamy is not prohibited, monogamy is the rule. The males generally marry at the age of 20, while the marriageable age for girls is 14 or 15. Marriages are generally celebrated on a grand scale. The festivities continue for seven days the case of the White Jews, and for fifteen days among the Black Jews, who still make use of some of the ancient privileges granted by the charter of Chēramān Perumāl. The Jews of all sections have adopted a few Hindu customs. Thus, before going to the synagogue for marriage, a tāli (marriage badge) is tied round the bride’s neck by some near female relative of the bridegroom (generally his sister) in imitation of the Hindu custom, amidst the joyful shouts (kurava) of women. Divorce is not effected by a civil tribunal. Marriages are dissolved by the making good the amount mentioned in the kethuba or marriage document. In regard to their funerals, the corpse is washed, but not anointed, and is deposited in the burial-ground, which is called Beth Haim, the house of the living.

Like their brethren in other parts of the world, the Cochin Jews observe the Sabbath feasts and fasts blended intimately with their religion, and practice the rite of circumcision on the eighth day, when the child is also named. The Passover is celebrated by the distribution of unleavened bread, but no kid is killed, nor is blood sprinkled upon the door-post and lintel. The other feasts are the feast of Pentecost, feast of Trumpets, and feast of Tabernacles. The day of atonement, and the anniversary of the destruction of Jerusalem, are observed as fasts. On the day of atonement, the Jews pray in the synagogue from 5 A.M. till 7 P.M. The Jewish fasts commence from 5 P.M. on the day previous to the fast, and end at 7 P.M. next day. Their days begin and end with sunset. The feast of Tabernacles is observed with more pomp and ceremony than other feasts. A pandal, or temporary shed, with a flat roof, covered over with plaited leaves of the cocoanut palm, and decorated with festoons, is put up in the court-yard of, or near every house, beneath which the inmates of the house assemble and take their meals. On the last day of the feast, a large can filled with oil is lit up in front of the synagogue. On that day, the congregation assembles in the synagogue. Persons of both sexes and of all ages meet in the house of prayer, which is gorgeously decorated for the occasion. On this day, when the books are taken outside the synagogue by the male congregation, the females, who are seated in the gallery, come into the synagogue, and, when the books are taken back, they return to their gallery.

The genuine Jews are, as indicated, known as M’yukhasim (those of lineage or aristocracy), while converts from the low castes are called non-M’yukhasim. According to the opinion of Jewish Rabbis, Tabila, or the holy Rabbinical bath, removes the social disabilities of the latter. Those who have had recourse to this bath are free to marry genuine Jews, but respect for caste, or racial prejudice, has invariably stood in the way of such marriages being contracted.

From a recent note (1907), I gather that “the Jews, realising that higher and more advanced education is needed, have bestirred themselves, and are earnestly endeavouring to establish an institution which will bring their education up to the lower secondary standard. The proposed school will be open to both the White and Black Jews. In order to place the school on a good financial basis, one of the leading Jews, Mr. S. Koder, approached the Anglo-Jewish Association for aid, and that Society has readily agreed to provide a sum of £150 a year for the upkeep of the school. Generous, however, as this offer is, it is found that the amount is insufficient to cover the expenditure; so the Jews are going to raise a public subscription amongst themselves, and they also intend to apply to the Cochin Darbar for a grant under the Educational Code.”

I was present at the Convocation of the Madras University in 1903, when the Chancellor conferred the degree of Bachelor of Arts on the first Jew who had passed the examination. According to the Cochin Census, 1901, there were 180 White, and 957 Black Jews.

Jewish communities


Bene Ephraim of Guntur

Sharmila Ganesan, Hanukkah lights up hopes in AP village, Dec 25 2016 : The Times of India

Jews In Guntur Prep For Festival Of Lights

On Christmas eve, at Kotha Reddy Palem village in Andhra Pradesh's Guntur, 61-yearold Sadhu Devaprasad will don a skullcap and morph into Sadok Yacobi.

Sadok will welcome farm labourers from nearly 40 huts into the Bene Yacob Synagogue next to his house. “Shalom,“ he will greet each of them as the skullcap-toting men sit on one side and women, their heads covered with sari pallus, sit on the other. Having lit the first candle on the Menorah, they will then drink freshly-squeezed grape juice from trophy-shaped Kiddush cups to welcome the Jewish festival of lights -Hanukkah.

Devaprasad is the face of a scattered community in AP, whose members practised Christianity till they started following Judaism rituals in the 1980s.It wasn't until 2004 though when local cops discovered a terror outfit's alleged attempt to target “the Jewish community in Guntur“ that the state and later, the world woke up to this tribe where kids grow up with two names -an official Telugu name like Aruna, for instance, and a traditional Hebrew name like Leah.

Called Bene Ephraim, the 250-odd-memberstrong group claims to have descended from the Tribe of Ephraim, one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel that, after being exiled by the Assyrians, are said to have travelled through Persia, western Asia and China before entering India in 722 BC. This Telugu-speaking tribe has no records of its Jewish roots and the results of their recent DNA test by international researchers came up “neutral“.So far, their religious identity has steered itself solely through “oral tradition“.

“Our elders used to talk about our Jewishness at home,“ says Sadok. “My father and grandfather used to tell us about the Torah and about the difference between Christianity and Judaism,“ he says, adding that his ancestors may have lost their Jewish identity after “being clubbed with the Madiga Da lits“, a scheduled caste who subsisted on cobblery .

Anthropologists Yulia Egorova and Shahid Perwez from the UK, who studied the community for two years, found that every male member reported he had undergone circumcision either during childhood or at a later age. Most members also claim to know Jewish dietary laws.

Slowly, the younger generation -who introduce themselves with names like Leah, Abraham -is spawning a few Englishspeaking teachers, engineers and MBAs. They hope an official recognition as a lost tribe from the Israel government would help end their poverty . Organisations like Shevai Israel have funded trips for community members like Sadok, the latent dream is to immigrate. “As per the prophecy to scattered Jews, we want to go back to our homeland,“ says K Ratnagiri aka Korahi Yehoshuva.

See also

Bnei Menashe <> Cochin – The Dutch Portuguese and Jewish Influences <> Jew: South India <> Jewish beauty queens of India <> Jews of Bombay <> The Religions of the Indian sub-continent <> Jews in India

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