Jews of India

Alternative names: Cochinis, Bene Israel, Baghdadis, Manipur Jews
Location: Bombay, west coast, Manipur
Population: 5,000+
Religion: Judaism
Language: various

There are three main Jewish communities in India, each of a different origin and with different characteristics; Cochinis, the Bene Israel and the Baghdadis. None has faced persecution but they are all declining in numbers due to immigration to Israel.

The Malayalam-speaking Jews from the city of Cochin in Kerala claim to have arrived in the sub-continent after the destruction of the Temple, although the earliest documentary evidence dates from the ninth century. They are divided into three endogamous groups; the White Jews, a mixture of indigenous Indian Jews and Middle Eastern and European Jews; the Black Jews, who are in most ways indistinguishable from local Indians; and the Meshuhrarim, descend-ents of Indian slaves who were attached to both groups. The Cochin Jews maintained trading and religious links with Middle Eastern Jewish communities but, although they numbered 2,500 in 1948, immigration to Israel has reduced them to a handful.

The Bene Israel lived for centuries on the Konkan coast and, later, in Bombay, isolated from Jews elsewhere but maintaining some Jewish religious practices. From the nineteenth century they made efforts to bring their customs into line with Orthodox Jewish practices. In 1951 there were 20,000 Bene Israel but today there are no more than 5,000. Also based in Bombay is the most recent Jewish community of Middle Eastern and Iraqi origin who came to India from the early nineteenth century. As white non-Indians the Baghdadis enjoyed a special status and much prosperity under the British, but after independence most left for Israel or other countries and today there may be no more than 300-400.

More recently, tribal groups in the north-east of India have claimed themselves to be Jewish. These belong to the Shinlung tribes, usually called Kuki in India and Chin in Burma. They claim to be the descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel and to have maintained Jewish practices until their conversion to Christianity in the last century. These “Manipur Jews” have established a number of synagogues and have gained thousands of converts. Some observers have seen this conversion as a way of escaping the constraints of the caste system.

(See also Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Middle East and North Africa)