A Brief History of the Jews of Kochi

There is no consensus of opinion among historians about the arrival of Jews in Kochi. Trading contacts from the Pre-Christian era onwards between the small kingdoms of India’s southwestern shores and ancient Israel, the Roman Empire, Arabia and China, resulted in the formation of the earliest Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities in India. According to local legends, contact with ancient Israel dates back to 950 B.C., to the time of King Solomon. Earliest Jewish settlers came for trade in teak, ivory, peacocks and spices. Other legends put the date to 597 B.C. following the destruction of their first Temple. After the destruction of the second temple of Jerusalem, another group of Jews followed. It is believed that they brought the silver trumpets saved from the second temple with them. With the permission of the king these early Jewish immigrants settled down in the ancient port town of Kodungallur (Cranganore), known as Shingali in local Jewish tradition.

The earliest verifiable historical evidence about the arrival of Jews, perhaps several generations after their arrival, goes back to the Jewish Copper Plate Grant of Kerala King Bhaskara Ravi Varman. This document, engraved on copper plates, is a record of the royal gift of rights and privileges granted to the Jewish Chief Joseph Rabban. In recognition of their services and contributions to the society and local economy, the king honored them with privileges of high status that were traditionally reserved for the feudal lords of the upper castes. Another is a document in the possession of the Jews, handed down from their ancestors. It is a narrative of the events about their first arrival, written in Hebrew.

The Jews prospered in Kodungallur for hundreds of years. At the height of its glory there were eighteen synagogues in and around Kodungallur. However, after the extinction of the line of Joseph Rabban, conflict arose for the leadership. A native prince intervened and expelled many feuding Jews from Kodungallur. In 1341A.D. substantial and lasting geographical changes took place along Kerala's coast line. A great flood totally destroyed the ancient port of Kodungallur and opened up a large natural harbor at Kochi. With the formation of this new harbor the king moved his capital from Tiruvanchikulam, a town near Kodungallur, to the new harbor town.

In 1524 A.D. blaming that the Jews were interfering with their pepper trade, the Arabs attacked the remaining Jews. They burned Jewish homes and synagogues and totally destroyed the Jewish settlement. A large number of Jews were killed. Most of the remaining Jews deserted their ancient settlement and fled to Kochi. The king welcomed the Jewish immigrants there, gave them land to build homes and synagogues very close to his own palace, and granted them religious and cultural independence. The Jews repaid his kindness by helping him in his military endeavors and advising on economic and diplomatic affairs.

Unfortunately for the Jews, the Portuguese arrived at Kochi by 1500 A.D. The Portuguese burnt the Paradesi synagogue. Many Jews fled the coast again to the safety of interior Kerala. When the Portuguese king wanted to persecute Jews of Kochi, it was prevented by the Portuguese Viceroy himself, who feared that Kochi’s king’s displeasure would affect the price of pepper. Under the rulers of Kochi Jews enjoyed prosperity and protection from both the Arabs and the Portuguese. There is an interesting anecdote that in 1550 A.D. the king’s army joined the Portuguese and fought against a local chieftain the Raja of Vadakkmkur. The Portuguese captain planned to attack the enemy on a Saturday, but the king of Kochi objected because on that day his Jewish soldiers would not fight.

In 1662 A.D. the Dutch attacked the Portuguese with the support of Jews. The Dutch Protestants were far more tolerant and the Jews prospered. The period under the Dutch control was the second golden age of Jews. Dutch rule brought unparalleled prosperity to them. The close contact between the Jews of Amsterdam and Kochi lasted throughout the 125 years of Dutch colonial rule. There was another wave of new Jewish immigration in the 16th century; Sephardic Jews came from Portugal, Spain and Holland. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Kochi received several groups of Jewish settlers from the Middle East, North Africa and Spain.

In 1795 A.D. Kochi passed into the hands of British colonists. Under British rule, the Jews achieved their maximum wealth. In the 19th century, several Jews lived in nearby towns of Ernakulam and Parur. The spice trade was dominated by Jewish community. During early 20th century the Government of Kochi excused Jews from school tests and government duties on Jewish holy days. The Jews were guaranteed a seat in the Legislative Assembly as well as admission to colleges and professional education. Jews occupied virtually all the houses on Jew Town Road, where they sold spices, fruits and vegetables.

India gained independence form the British in 1947. With the establishment of Israel in 1948, most of the Jews immigrated to Israel leaving only a few behind in Kochi. In 1968 India issued a postal stamp to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Paradesi synagogue. In Israel in 1970 the Jews from Kochi numbered around 4,000. To mark the 50th anniversary of their immigration, these Jewish immigrants are turning their settlement in Nevatim into a replica of the place of their origin in Kochi. There is a reproduction of the Paradesi Synagogue in southern Israel. A well similar to the one near the synagogue in Kochi was inaugurated in August 2004. In February 2005, the Jewish organization B'nai Brith honored the Kochi Royal family with a humanitarian award.

AMMINI RAMACHANDRAN