The history of the Jews in Indiareaches back to ancient times.
A map of India, showing the main areas of Jewish concentration.
Judaism was one of the first foreign religions to arrive in India in recorded history. Indian Jews are a religious minority of India, but unlike many parts of the world, have historically lived in India without any instances ofantisemitism from the local majority populace, the Hindus. The better-established ancient communities have assimilated a large number of local traditions through cultural diffusion.The Jewish population in India is hard to estimate since each Jewish community is distinct with different origins; while some allegedly arrived during the time of the Kingdom of Judah, others are seen by some as descendants of Israel’s Ten Lost Tribes. In addition to Jewish expatriates and recent immigrants, there are five Jewish groups in India:
- The ‘black’ Malabar component of theCochin Jews, according to Shalva Weil, might have arrived in India together with Solomon’s merchants. The Cochin Jews settled down in Kerala as traders. The ‘white’ component is of European and other Jewish descent.
- The Spanish and Portuguese Jewsand British arrived at Madras during the 17th century, mainly as traders and diamond businessmen. They also have a large presence in the formor Portuguese colony of Goa, where theGoan Inquisition was initiated in 1560.
- The Bene Israel or Bani Israel arrived in the state of Maharashtra 900 years ago.
- A nother branch of the Bene Israelcommunity, resided in Karachi when until the Partition of India in 1947 when they fled to India (in particular: Mumbai). Many of them also moved to Israel. The Jewish from Sindh, Punjab or Pathanarea are often called incorrectly identified Bani Israel Jews. The Jewish community who used to reside in other parts of what became Pakistan (such asLahore or Peshawar) also fled to India in 1947, in a similar manner to the larger Karachi Jewish community.
- The Baghdadi Jews arrived in the city of Surat from Iraq (and other Arab states), Iran, Afghanistan about 250 years ago.
- The Bnei Menashe are Mizo and Kukitribesmen in Manipur and Mizoram who are recent converts to Judaism.
- The Bene Ephraim (also called “Telugu Jews”) are a small group who speak Telugu; their observance of Judaism dates to 1981.
Main article: Cochin Jews
Arrival of the Jewish pilgrims at Coachin, A.D. 68
The oldest of the Indian Jewish communities is in Cochin. The traditional account is that traders fromJudea arrived in the city of Cochin,Kerala, in 562 BCE, and that more Jews came as exiles from Israel in the year 70 CE. after the destruction of the Second Temple. The distinct Jewish community was called Anjuvannam. The still-functioning synagogue in Mattancherry belongs to the Paradesi Jews, the descendants of Sephardimthat were expelled from Spain in1492.
Central to the history of the Cochin Jews is their close relationship with Indian rulers, and this was eventually codified on a set of copper plates granting the community special privileges. The date of these plates, known as “Sâsanam”,is contentious. The plates themselves provide a date of 379 CE, but in 1925 tradition was setting it as 1069 CE,The Jews settled in Kodungallur(Cranganore) on the Malabar Coast, where they traded peacefully, until 1524. The Jewish leader Joseph Rabban was granted the rank of prince over the Jews of Cochin, given the rulership and tax revenue of a pocket principality inAnjuvannam, near Cranganore, and rights to seventy-two “free houses”.The Hindu king gave permission in perpetuity (or, in the more poetic expression of those days, “as long as the world and moon exist”) for Jews to live freely, build synagogues, and own property “without conditions attached”. A link back to Rabban, “the king of Shingly” (another name for Cranganore), was a sign of both purity and prestige. Rabban’s descendants maintained this distinct community until a chieftainship dispute broke out between two brothers, one of them named Joseph Azar, in the 16th century.
In Mala, Thrissur District, the Malabar Jews have a Synagogue and a cemetery, as well as in Chennamangalam, Parur and Ernakulam.
Main article: Bene Israel
Bene Israel women and children inside the Synagogue of Ahmedabad
Foreign notices of the Bene Israel go back at least to 1768, when Yechezkel Rahabi wrote to a Dutch trading partner that they were widespread in Maharatta Province, and observed two Jewish observances, recital of the Shema and obvservation of Shabbat rest. The legend of their origins closely resembles that of the Chitpavans, in claiming that they descend from ancestors, 14 Jewish men and women, equally divided by gender, who survived the shipwreck of refugees from persecution or political turmoil, and came ashore at Navagaon near Alibag, 20 miles south of Mumbai, some 17 to 19 centuries ago. They were instructed in the rudiments of normative Judaism by Cochin Jews.Their Jewishness is controversial, and initially as not accepted by the Rabbinate in Israel. Since 2009 however they intermarry throughout Israel and are considered Israeli and Jewish in all respects.
They are divided into subcastes, which do not intermarry: ‘Black’ (Kara) and White (Gora), the latter believed to be lineal descendants of the shipwreck survivors, while the former are considered to descend from concubinage of a male with local women. They were nicknamed theshanivār telī (“Saturday oil-pressers”) by the local population as they abstained from work on Saturdays, Judaism’s Bene Israel communities and synagogues are situated in Pen, Mumbai, Alibag, Pune and Ahmedabad with smaller communities scattered around India. The largest synagogue in Asia outside Israel is in Pune (Ohel David Synagogue).
Mumbai had a thriving Bene Israel community until the 1950s to 1960s when many families from the community emigrated to the fledgling state of Israel, where they are known as Hodi’im (Indians). The Bene Israel community has risen to many positions of prominence in Israel. In India itself the Bene Israel community has shrunk considerably with many of the old Synagogues falling into disuse.
Unlike many parts of the world, Jews have historically lived in India without any instances of antisemitism from the local majority populace, the Hindus. However, Jews were persecuted by thePortuguese during their control of Goa.
South Asian Jews & Baghdadi Jews
Main article: Baghdadi Jews
The first known Baghdadi Jewish immigrant to India, Joseph Semah, arrived in the port city of Surat in 1730. He and other early immigrants established a synagogue and cemetery in Surat, though most of the city’s Jewish community eventually moved to Bombay (Mumbai), where they established a new synagogue and cemetery. They were traders and quickly became one of the most prosperous communities in the city. As philanthropists, some donated their wealth to public structures. The DavidSassoon Docks and Sassoon Library are some of the famous landmarks still standing today.
The synagogue in Surat was eventually razed; the cemetery, though in poor condition, can still be seen on the Katargam-Amroli road. One of the graves within is that of Moseh Tobi, buried in 1769, who was described as ‘ha-Nasi ha-Zaken’ [The Elder Prince] by David Solomon Sassoon in his book ‘A History of the Jews in Baghdad’.
Baghdadi Jewish populations spread beyond Bombay to other parts of India, with an important community forming in Calcutta (Kolkata). Scions of this community did well in trade (particularlyjute and tea), and in later years contributed officers to the army. One, Lt-Gen J. F. R. Jacob PVSM, became state governor of Goa (1998–99), then Punjab, and later served as administrator ofChandigarh. Pramila (Esther Victoria Abraham) became the first ever Miss India, in 1947.
Main article: Bnei Menashe
The Bnei Menashe are a group of more than 9,000 people from the northeastern Indian states of Mizoram andManipur who practice a form of biblical Judaism and claim descent from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Many were converted to Christianity and were originally headhunters and animists at the beginning of the 20th century, but began converting to Judaism in the 1970s.
Main article: Bene Ephraim
The Bene Ephraim are a small group ofTelugu-speaking Jews in eastern Andhra Pradesh whose recorded observance of Judaism, like that of the Bnei Menashe, is quite recent, dating only to 1981.
They were few families in Andhra Pradesh who follow Judaism. Many among them follow the customs those followed by Orthodox Jews like hair customs of having unshaved long side locks, having head covering all the time etc.,
Judaism in Delhi is primarily focused on the expatriate community who work in Delhi, as well Israeli diplomats and a small local community. In Paharganj,Chabad has set up a synagogue and religious center in a backpacker area regularly visited by Israeli tourists.
Jews also settled in Madras (now Chennai) soon after its founding in 1640. Most of them were coral merchants from England who were of Portuguese origin and belonged to the Paiva or Porto families. In 1688, there were three Jewish representatives in theMadras Corporation. Most Jewish settlers resided in the Coral Merchants Street in Muthialpet. They also had a cemetery in the neighbouring Peddanaickenpet. The Jewish population in Madras began to dwindle at the turn of the 18th century and it is not known whether there are any Jews still residing in the city. The last of the tombstones in the cemetery date to 1997.
The majority of Indian Jews have “madeAliyah” (migrated) to Israel since the creation of the modern state in 1948. Over 70,000 Indian Jews now live in Israel (over 1% of Israel’s total population). Of the remaining 5,000, the largest community is concentrated in Mumbai, where 3,500 have stayed over from the over 30,000 Jews registered there in the 1940s, divided into Bene Israel and Baghdadi Jews, though the Baghdadi Jews refused to recognize the B’nei Israel as Jews, and withheld dispensing charity to them for that reason. There are reminders of Jewish localities in Kerala still left such as Synagogues. Majority of Jews from the old British-Indian capital of Calcutta (Kolkata) have also migrated to Israel over the last six decades.
In the beginning of the 21st century, new Jewish communities have been established in Mumbai, New Delhi, Bangalore, and other cities in India. The new communities have been established by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement which has sent rabbis to create those communities. The communities serve the religious and social needs of Jewish business people who have immigrated or visiting India, and Jewish backpackers touring India. The largest centre is the Nariman House in Mumbai.
Notable Indian Jews