Origins of Cochin Jews
By Shalva Weil
The settlement of Jews on the Malabar coast is ancient. One theory holds that the ancestors of today’s Cochin Jews arrived in south India among King Solomon’s merchants, who brought back ivory, monkeys and parrots for his temple. Sanskrit- and Tamil-derived words appear in 1 Kings. Another theory suggests that Cochin Jews are descendants of captives taken to Assyria in the eighth century BCE. The most popular and likely supposition, however, is that Jews came to south India some time before or in the first century CE, after the destruction of Solomon’s second temple.
The presence of Jews already settled on the Malabar coast in ancient times is mentioned in local South Indian Christian legends, according to which Thomas the Apostle and Abbanes, an Indian merchant, arrived at Cranganore, the ancient capital of Cochin, on the wedding day of the king's daughter. Thomas recited poetry in Hebrew and only a young female Jewish flautist understood him.Thomas subsequently converted her to Christianity. The implication of this narrative is that the advent of the Jews preceded the Christianity brought by Thomas the Apostle to south India.
Documentary evidence of Jewish settlement on the southern Indian coast can be found in the famous Cochin Jewish copperplates in the ancient Tamil script (vattezuthu). These copperplates are the source of numerous arguments, both among scholars as to their date and meaning and among the Cochin Jews themselves as to which particular subgroup of Cochin Jews are the true owners.
Until recently, the Jewish copperplates were dated 345 CE, but contemporary scholars agree upon the date 1000 CE. During the reign of Bhaskara Ravi Varman (962-1020 CE), that the Jews were granted 72 privileges. Among these were the right to use a day lamp; the right to erect a palanquin; the right to blow a trumpet; and the right to be exempt from and to collect particular taxes. The privileges were bestowed upon the Cochin Jewish leader Joseph Rabban, “proprietor of the ‘Anjuvannam’, his male and female issues, nephews and sons-in-law.” The meaning of the word ‘Anjuvannam’ is also the subject of controversy. The theory that the word refers to a kingdom or a place has been superseded by newer theories that it was an artisan class, a trade center, or a specifically Jewish guild.
When the Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela visited India in about 1170, he reported that there were about 1000 Jews in the south, "all of them black". After Vasco de Gama’s expedition to India, some European and Middle-Eastern Jews know as the “Paradesi” (Foreigners), and sometimes referred to as “Whites” settled in Cochin. They came from Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Syria and Iraq. The Paradesi synagogue, which they built, was established in 1568.
In 1686, Moses Pereira de Paiva listed 465 Jews residing on the Malabar coast. In 1781 the Dutch governor A. Moens recorded 422 families or about 2000 persons. In 1948, 2500 Jews were living on the Malabar Coast. In 1953, 2,400 Cochin Jews immigrated to Israel. Only about 100 Paradesi Jews remained on the Malabar Coast, while the others emigrated to Israel or English- speaking countries.
Within what is now the state of Kerala, the Malabar Jews were dispersed in different locations over the centuries. In 1341, a type of tsunami occurred; the Periyar river was silted up and it diverted into two tributaries at Thottummukham. The Jews, who were then living in Cranganore, were forced to move, and they established communities in Cochin and elsewhere. The first synagogue of Cochin is attributed to a man named Joseph Azar at Cochangadi. In time, the Malabar Jews concentrated in five major settlements in eight communities (yogi) in Kerala: Cochin, Ernakulam, Chendamanglam, Mala and Parur.