As Jews in the Roman and Byzantine empires faced varied degrees of Christian persecution, a group of Jews on the southern Malabar coast of India found a quiet, prosperous life as artisans and spice traders. The first group of Cochin Jews is said to have arrived in India in the days of King Solomon (500 BCE), as merchants or as one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Other stories suggest they were exiled by King Nebuchadnezzar or fled Assyrian takeover. Some left Jerusalem at the destruction of the Second Temple by Romans in 70 CE for Cochin to join the already existing community there.
The Hindu rulers of southern India welcomed this small Jewish minority and granted them religious and community autonomy. In an era where political contracts were inscribed on bronze tablets, the fourth ruler of Maliban, Bhaskara Ravi Varma, bestowed two brass tablets to Joseph Rabban on behalf of his people. The tablets granted to the Jews the village of Anjuvannam, 72 free houses, the rights to worship freely, build synagogues, own property “without restriction”, seek and approve marriages within their faith, and named Rabban and his male descendants as Prince of the area with the salary of a pocket principality. The flowery language of the tablets stated this beautiful friendship should last, “so long as the world and moon exist.”
The direct Rabban line died out, and a succession dispute between two Azar brothers of a secondary line was interrupted by invasion from neighboring principalities from the north. The Jews of Anjuvannam relocated to the newly created port of Cochin in 1341, no longer protected by the rights of the bronze tablets (but preserving the relics all the same.) In 1492 when European troubles we will get to later in this series caused severe hardship for Jews in Spain, the Cochin Maharajah offered these Sephardic Jews protection as well. Syrian Jews persecuted by Christians there also came as refugees to India.
These new arrivals came to be known as Paradesi “foreigners” or “white Jews” for their lighter complexion, while the more established community became known as Malabari or “black Jews” (though to Americans their complexion would appear more olive or brown). The two communities had some growing pains as they adjusted to one another’s approach to Judaism. Cochin Jewsh did not celebrate Hanukkah or follow Rabbinical Judaism, both of those being established in Israel after the Malabar Cochin settled in India. They also sang all their prayers and had no prohibition against women singing these publicly.
Over the centuries even as India was under Portuguese, Dutch, and British rule, the local Indian rulers of Cochin always protected the Jewish minority. One maharaja even permitted Jews to build their synagogue inside his palace grounds, not thirty feet from his own private Hindu temple. Today the largely Muslim population of Cochin features shops that proudly display the Star of David with the word “Shalom!” as greeting for the scant 26 remaining Jewish residents, almost all elderly citizens, called “uncle” and “auntie” by their neighbors.
Western news outlets that visit Cochin, where synagogues and Jewish cemeteries threaten to outnumber Jewish people, misinterpret the situation. The think this is a sad story: a dying race, a dying people. But the Jews of Cochin did not disappear. After more than 2,000 years in India, more of it in neighborly peace than in antisemitic fear and loathing, they were able to go home. In 1948 when the modern state of Israel came into being the Cochin Jews began to makje aliyah to Israel. By the 1980s the majority had moved. Today there are over 7,000 Cochin Jews in Israel.
“Some people write the Cochin community of Jews is dying. They don’t realize that a root from that tree is shooting up in Israel and starting to blossom. As long as we keep up some of our traditions, I hope that this community will never die.”
– Ruby Daniel, Cochin Jewish author
My Jewish Learning – Cochin Jews
Jews in India – Cochini Jews
Jews of Malabar (a blog run by a Cochin Muslim local and calligraphy translator working to preserve Judeo-Malayan scriptures of the synagogues)