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soc.culture.jewish FAQ: Jews As A Nation (7/12)
Section - Question 13.9: Who Are The Jews of India, And What Are Their Origins?

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   India has a legacy of four distinct Jewish groups: the Bene Israel,
   the Cochin Jews, the Sephardic Jews from Europe, and the "Baghdadis"
   from Iraq. Each group practiced important elements of Judaism and had
   active synagogues. The Sephardic rites predominate among Indian Jews.
   One of the most important Jewish peoples of India are the Bene Israel
   ("Sons of Israel"), whose main population centers were Bombay,
   Calcutta, Old Delhi, and Ahmadabad. The native language of the Bene
   Israel was Marathi, while the Cochin Jews of southern India spoke
   The Bene Israel claim to be descended from Jews who escaped
   persecution in Galilee in the 2nd century BCE. The Bene Israel
   resemble the non-Jewish Maratha people in appearance and customs,
   which indicates intermarriage between Jews and Indians. However, the
   Bene Israel maintained the practices of Jewish dietary laws,
   circumcision, and observation of Sabbath as a day of rest.
   The Bene Israel say their ancestors were oil pressers in the Galil and
   they are descended from survivors of a shipwreck. In the 18th Century
   they were "discovered" by traders from Baghdad. At that time the Bnei
   Israel were practicing just a few outward forms of Judaism (which is
   how they were recognised) but had no scholars of their own. Teachers
   from Baghdad and Cochin taught them mainstream Judaism in the 18th and
   19th centuries.
   Jewish merchants from Europe travelled to India in the medieval period
   for purposes of trade, but it is not clear whether they formed
   permanent settlements in south Asia. Our first reliable evidence of
   Jews living in India comes from the early 11th century. It is certain
   that the first Jewish settlements were centered along the western
   coast. Abraham ibn Daud's 12th century reference to Jews of India is
   unfortunately vague, and we do not have further references to Indian
   Jews until several centuries later.
   The first Jews in Cochin (southern India) were the so-called "Black
   Jews", who spoke the Malayalam tongue. The "Sephardic Jews" settled
   later, coming to India from western European nations such as Holland
   and Spain. A notable settlement of Spanish and Portuguese Jews
   starting in the 15th century was Goa, but this settlement eventually
   disappeared. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Cochin had an influx of
   Jewish settlers from the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain.
   The Jews of Cochin say that they came to Cranganore (south-west coast
   of India) after the destruction of the Temple in 70ce. They had, in
   effect, their own principality for many centuries until a chieftanship
   dispute broke out between two brothers in the 15th century. The
   dispute led neighbouring princes to dispossess them. In 1524, the
   Moors, backed by the ruler of Calicut (today called Kozhikode)
   attacked the Jews of Cranganore on the pretext that they were
   "tampering" with the pepper trade. Most Jews fled to Cochin and went
   under the protection of the Hindu Raja there. He granted them a site
   for their own town which later acquired the name "Jew Town" (by which
   it is still known).
   Unfortunately for the Jews of Cochin, the Portuguese occupied Cochin
   in this same period and indulged in persecution of the Jews until the
   Dutch displaced them in 1660. The Dutch protestants were tolerant and
   the Jews prospered. In 1795 Cochin passed into the British sphere of
   influence. In the 19th century, Cochin Jews lived in the towns of
   Cochin, Ernakulam, and Parur. Today most of Cochin's Jews have
   emigrated (principally to Israel).
   16th and 17th century migrations created important settlements of Jews
   from Persia, Afghanistan, and Khorasan (Central Asia) in northern
   India and Kashmir. By the late 18th century, Bombay became the largest
   Jewish community in India. In Bombay were Bene Israel Jews as well as
   Iraqi and Persian Jews.
   Near the end of the 18th century, a third group of Indian Jews
   appears. They are the middle-eastern Jews who came to India through
   trade. They established a trading network stretching from Aleppo to
   Baghdad to Basra to Surat/Bombay to Calcutta to Rangoon to Singapore
   to Hong Kong and eventually as fare as Kobe in Japan. There were
   strong family bonds amongst the traders in all these places.
   Typical is the founder of the Calcutta community, Shalom Aharon
   Ovadiah HaCohen. He was born in Aleppo in 1762 and left in 1789. He
   arrived in Surat in 1792 and established himself there. He traded as
   far as Zanzibar. In 1798 he moved to Calcutta. In 1805 he was joined
   by his nephew, Moses Simon Duek HaCohen, who married his eldest
   daughter Lunah. Soon the community was swelled by other traders and
   Baghdadis outnumbered those from Aleppo.
   Under British rule, the Jews of India achieved their maximum
   population and wealth, and the Calcutta community continued to grow
   and prosper and trade amongst all the cities of the far east and to
   the rest of the world. The Indians were very tolerant and the Jews of
   Calcutta felt completely at home. Their numbers reached a peak of
   about 5000 during WW-II when they were swelled by refugees fleeing the
   Japanese advance into Burma.
   The first generations of Calcutta Jews spoke Judeo-Arabic at home, but
   by the 1890s English was the language of choice. After WWII,
   nationalism fever caught the Indians rather strongly and it became
   less comfortable for the Jews who came to be identified with the
   English by the Indians. India's Jewish population declined
   dramatically starting in the 1940s with heavy immigration to Israel,
   England, and the United States. It is in these 3 nations where the
   most significant settlements of Indian Jews exist today. Today there
   is just a handful of old people and the once vital community with its
   3 synagogues is no more.
   For more details, visit the [5]Jews of Chocin Website
   Lastly, note that there were a number of European Jews who lived, or
   settled in India. Some examples: Lady Mountbatten, and Haffkine, after
   whom the famous Haffkine Institute in Bombay (Mumbai) has been named.
   The mother of one of India's most glamorous film actresses, Zeenat
   Aman is said to be Jewish.
   Many Indian Jews have reached great prominence. For example, the
   Sassons after whom the Sasson docks, the Sasson hospital, and two of
   Mumbais well known sites- the Jacob Circle, and Flora Fountain have
   been named. In the past years, there has been a Jewish mayor of Bombay
   (Dr. E. Moses), and a Jewish Chief of the Navy. In the Indian Army,
   Jews have reached very high posts. A General Jacobs, now the Governor
   of Goa, supervised the surrender of the Pakistani Army in the
   Liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. Maj. Gen. Samson who was awarded the
   Padma Bhushan, and a few other Jews reached prominence in the Indian
   Army. Two of India's leading literary personalities, poet Nissim
   Ezeickel, and cartoonist Abu Abraham are Jewish. Also the late famous
   Hindi film actor David, and the late "Sulochana" the Queen of Indian
   Silent Films, and the actress/dancer Helen. A Dr. Erulkar was the
   personal physician/friend of Mahatma Gandhi. His father, also a Dr.
   Abraham Erulkar, donated land for the synagogue in Ahmedabad, Gujrat.
   Dr. Erulkar's daughter is currently the 1st lady of Cyprus, married to
   the President of Cyprus. Another prominent Indian Jew is Dr. Jerusha
   Jhirad, who was given the title of Padma Shri by the Government of
   A good book on this subject is Nathan Katz's Who Are the Jews of
   India?. University of California Press, November 2000. Hardcover.
   ISBN: 0-520213-23-8
   [6][Buy at Amazon:] 

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