Jewish communities in India

There are about 12,000 Jews in India according to the Joshua Project. Most of them live in Bombay, where there are several synagogues and a Jewish community center. Other places with Jewish communities are Pune, 150 miles southeast of Bombay, and Cochin on the Kerala coast. There are also some in Calcutta and New Delhi. There were around 24,000 Jews nationwide in India at the time of independence in 1947.

Jews have been in Kerala since the first century A.D. but most India Jews have migrated to Israel in the last few decades. Some don't speak English but they speak Hebrew. India Jews like to point out that India is the only country in the world where the Jews have never been persecuted.

Some Indian Jews have adopted Hindu concepts about purity and customs such as holding weddings under canopies. The bride receives a ritual bath and is given an Indian-style pendant. “Ascetic” practices conducted during Passover are not that different from those observed by Hindus. Jew have traditionally buried their dead not cremated them.

Aharon Daniel wrote: “The Jews of India aren't one singular community. Among themselves they are divided into different communities. Each community has its own different culture, background and origin. Each community claims its arrival in India in different ways and it is not always clear how they really came to India. The three main Jewish communities of India are: Bene Israel, Cochini and Baghdadi. Besides there were Ashkenazi Jews and a community in east India which claim Israeli origin and call themselves Bne Menashe. The first three communities had some social religious connections with each other but most of the social religious connections of each community were within their own community and they regarded the other as ‘outsiders’.” [Source: Aharon Daniel, 1999-2000, ]

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History of Jews in India

Jewish tombstones in Kochi

The first group of Indian Jews are said to have migrated from West Asia and to have settled in Cranganore (also the traditional first site where Muslims later arrived in India) on the Malabar Coast of Kerala in the first century A.D. A second group of Jews fled the Arabian Peninsula in the face of Muslim ascendancy in the seventh century. [Source: Library of Congress] *

Trade contacts between the Mediterranean region and the west coast of India probably led to the presence of small Jewish settlements in India as long ago as the early first millennium B.C. In Kerala a community of Jews tracing its origin to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 has remained associated with the cities of Cranganore and Kochi (formerly known as Cochin) for at least 1,000 years. The Pardesi Synagogue in Kochi, rebuilt in 1568, is in the architectural style of Kerala but preserves the archaic ritual style of the Sephardic rite, with Babylonian and Yemenite influence as well. The Jews of Kochi, concentrated mostly in the old "Jew Town," were completely integrated into local culture, speaking Malayalam and taking local names while preserving their knowledge of Hebrew and contacts with Southwest Asia. *

A separate community of Jews, called the Bene Israel, had lived along the Konkan Coast in and around Bombay, Pune, and Ahmadabad for almost 2,000 years. Unlike the Kochi Jews, they became a village-based society and maintained little contact with other Jewish communities. They always remained within the orthodox Jewish fold, practicing the Sephardic rite without rabbis, with the synagogue as the center of religious and cultural life. A third group of Jews immigrated to India, beginning at the end of the eighteenth century, following the trade contacts established by the British Empire. These Baghdad Jews came mostly from the area of modern Iraq and settled in Bombay and Calcutta, where many of them became wealthy and participated in the economic leadership of these growing cities. *

The population of the Kochi Jews, always small, had decreased from 5,000 in 1951 to about fifty in the early 1990s. During the same period, the Bene Israel decreased from about 20,000 to 5,000, while the Baghdad Jews declined from 5,000 to 250. Emigration to Australia, Israel, Britain, and North America accounts for most of this decline. According to the 1981 Indian census, there were 5,618 Jews in India, down from 5,825 in 1971. The 1991 census showed a further decline to 5,271, most of whom lived in Maharashtra and Mizoram. *

Jews in the Caste System

inside the Kenesseth Eliyahu Synagogue in Bombay

Aharon Daniel wrote: “In modern India the caste system has lost most of its features. The Jews do not see themselves as part of the Hindu caste system, but in the past the Hindus did treat the Jews according to their traditions. According to orthodox Hindu rules any one who does not belong to the four Varnas (castes) is an outcast and untouchable. It means, all foreigners and non-Hindus are all supposed to be untouchables. But in reality neither all foreigners nor non-Hindus were treated as untouchables. Different religion followers got different status in different parts of India. [Source: Aharon Daniel, 1999-2000, ]

“The Bene Israels had a different status from the Cochini Jews. The Bene Israels professed oil pressing and they had a status equal to a Hindu caste called Somvar Teli, which also professed oil pressing and were part of Sudra level (see caste system). Some orthodox Hindus treated anyone who wasn't one of them as untouchable and therefore treated the Jews also as untouchables. But even though the Jews in west India had low status there were among them some who were landlords, businessmen and high rank officers in local armies.

“The Cochini Jews had higher status. The Jews in Kerala were the business community of Kerala. They even ruled a small principality. They had aristocratic rights, such as use of elephants and sedans. They even had servants whose job was to announce their coming to the streets so that the low castes could move away from their way.

“The relations between the Jewish communities of India are sometimes explained as affected by the Indian caste system but these relations can also be explained according to Jewish religious laws. The Baghdadi Jews were much strict about religious laws than the Bene Israel Jews. The Baghdadis did not mingle with Bene Israel Jews. The Baghdadis did not allow marriages between their children and the children of Bene Israel. They did not eat food prepared by Bene Israel and they refused to count the Bene Israel as part of the Minyan (the ten necessary to start a Jewish prayer). Many explain these relations as an influence of the Indian caste system on the Jewish communities. According to this explanation, the Baghdadi Jews referred to themselves as higher caste than the Bene Israel Jews and therefore did not mingle with them. But these relations between the Jewish communities can also be explained according to the Jewish Halacha laws. The Baghdadi Jews who were much strict about Jewish laws and diet did not mingle with the Bene Israels because the Bene Israels were secular Jews and they perceived in Bene Israel Jews as impure Jews.

Bene Israel Jews

The Bene Israel Jews have traditionally lived in Bombay and villages on the Konkan Coast, south of Bombay. Today around, 5,000 of them live in India and 32,000 of so live in Israel. They claim they originated in Israel and were members of a “lost tribe” shipwrecked in the Indian coast in 175 B.C. Their name means “Children of God” in Hebrew.

The Bene Israel speak Marathi, the language of their neighbors. In coastal areas they traditionally worked as oil pressers. In Bombay, they have traditionally lived in tenement buildings and were employed as white color workers, mechanics and skilled laborers in factories and workshops. Some served in the armed forces. A minority were doctors, lawyers and teachers.

The Bene Israel Jew embraced some Hindu beliefs about caste and were incorporated by Hindus into the caste system. They were also divided into White (Gora) and Black (Kala). They married only other Jews and intermarriage between Black Bene Israel and White Bene Israel was very rare. Black Ben Israel are descendants of offspring of mixed marriages with Hindus, maybe Dalits (untouchables). Many Israel Bene marriage customs are in line with Hindu concepts of marriage. They have traditionally preferred cross-cousin marriages, discouraged the marriage of widows, practiced some polygamy and conducted a prewedding henna ceremony.

Bene Israel Jews

According to tradition, the original shipwrecked Bene Israel Jews lost all their prayer books and kept their religion alive by what they knew about in the their heads—namely some prayers and dietary customs. They practiced circumcision, celebrated many Jewish festivals but didn’t have synagogues and had adopted many Hindu customs.

The Bene Israel community was discovered in the 18th century and was brought in to line with mainstream Judaism. They established their first synagogue in Bombay in 1796. Some Cochin Jews assisted them by acting as cantors, ritual slaughterers and teachers. In the 19th century some Jews from Bagdad, including the legendary Sassoon family, joined the Bombay community.

The number of Bene Israel increased from 6,000 in the 1930s to 20,000 in 1948. After Israel became an independent state in 1953 large numbers of Bene Israel began emigrating to Israel. In the 1950s, many rabbis refused to marry Bene Israel with other Israelis due to doubts about their purity and Jewishness, The Ben Israel staged some protest in the early 1960s. In 1964 the Chief Rabbinate declared them “full Jews in every respect.”

Cochin Jews

The Cochin Jews are a small but very ancient Jewish community in Kerala. Also know as the Cochinis, they have traditionally lived in several towns along the Malabar Coast: Attencammanal, Chenotta, Ernakulam, Mallah, Parur, Chenemangalam and Cochin. Like their neighbors they speak Malayalan,a Dravidian language similar to Tamil. Few of them speak Hebrew.

The Cochin Jews are one of the smallest Jewish communities in the world. In 1948 there were 2,500 of them and three synagogues. . In 1953, 2,400 of them emigrated to Israel. Only around 30 remained in Cochin as of the early 1990s. While the Cochin Jews kept mainly to themselves they were well liked by other religious groups.

In Kerala there were 65 Jews as of 2000. Isolated from the mainstream Jewish community, Cochin’s Jews developed some unique customs as a result of their small size. The main synagogue has no rabbi. During marriage ceremonies the rites are read by the groom. They make their own Sabbath wine from local grapes. Their daily prayers are chanted in “shingli”, a unique version of standard Jewish Prayers.

Aharon Daniel wrote: “They are called Cochini Jews because they lived in the city of Cochin in south India. But actually the first settlement of the Cochini Jews wasn’t in Cochin but a little north from Cochin in the town of Kudungallur (formly Cranganore). The arrival time of the first Cochini Jews isn’t clear. But one fact is sure about the Cochini Jews, that they weren’t a single emigration. At different times Jews arrived and settled in south India at Kudungallur. According to one version the first forefathers of the Cochini Jews arrived in India during the King Solomon’s period. King Solomon had commercial business with a kingdom probably existing in the present state of Kerala in south India. Other version claims that the Cochini Jews are from the Lost Tribes. Another version claims that the Cochini Jews arrived in India after they were exiled from Land of Israel by Nebuchadnezzar. Later on in the history Jews from Spain, arrived in Cochin. The Spanish Jews lived separately from the veteran Jews and considered them as Indian proselytes to Judaism. [Source: Aharon Daniel, 1999-2000, ]

Cochin Jews in India

“The Keralans take pride in the fact that the kingdoms of Kerala were world famous and merchants from around the world frequently visited Kerala, since the times of King Solomon and later on Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Chinese and others. Among the merchants, also arrived in Kerala many Jewish merchants and some of them settled in Kerala. The main center of the Jewish community in Kerala was at Kudungallur (referred to in English as Cranganore). The existence of the Jewish community in south India was known to other Jewish communities outside India and some other Jewish merchants also arrived in India. The Jewish merchants were influential community in their state and outside their state and were main reason for the prosperity in their kingdom. As a gratitude for their contribution to the kingdom, the ruler Sri Parkaran Iravi Vanmar gave to the head of the Jewish community Joseph Rabban the village of Anjuvannam and pronounced him the Prince of this village. These Jewish rulers had all the rights preserved to the ruling families of the Indian kingdoms. But till today there isn’t an agreement among the scholars on the exact date when this ‘Jewish kingdom’ was established. Different scholars give different dates to the establishment of this principality. Some claim it to be in the 4 century A. D. Others claim it to be at a much later period around10 century A. D. According to the Cochini Jews the ‘princely rights’ (written on copper plates and therefore called Copper Plates) were given to them in 379 A. D.

“Another fact not clear is : Which Cochini Jews received the ‘Copper Plates’? The Cochini Jews are divided in three groups. The biggest group is called ‘Meyuhassim’ (meaning ‘privileged’ in Hebrew) or Malabari Jews (Malabar is the name of the coast on which Kerala is situated). These Jews forefathers are considered to have arrived in India as merchants during the period of King Solomon. The second group is called ‘Pardesi’ (meaning ‘foreigner’ in some Indian languages). The Pardesi Jews are Jews who came to Kerala at different periods from different countries namely Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Spain and Germany. These two groups were merchants and had slaves who were converted to Judaism and later on released from their status as slaves and are called ‘Meshuhararim’ (meaning ‘released’ in Hebrew). These groups were sometimes referred to by colors. The ‘Privileged’ Jews were called ‘black’ Jews, the ‘Pardesi’ were called ‘white’ Jews.

“The ‘Pardesi’ Jews looked at the ‘Privileged’ Jews as impure Jews and as Jewish proselyte. Both these communities claim that the ‘prince’ was from their community. The Jewish principality survived till the 16th century A. D. In 1524 the Jews were attacked by Moorish Arabs because of the monopoly Jewish merchants had in some commodities. The Jews who were a principality with no real army deserted their principality and asked for shelter from the king of Cochin. The king received them in his kingdom and so was established the Jewish community of Cochin. The area where they lived and did business is even today called ‘Jew Town’.

“The Cochini Jews knew all of the Jewish traditions and preserved all Jewish traditions. They were particularly strict of Passover and didn’t even allow the non-Jews to touch the cooking utensils during this period. As stated before the Cochini Jews were very influential in their society. Numerically the Cochini Jews at their height were 3000 and that was in the 1940s. Of that the Pardesi were only 200. Today there are about 70 Jews in Cochin.

arrival of the first Jews in India

History of the Cochin Jews

Some believe the Cochin Jews are the descendant of Jewish merchants under King Solomon, who brought back ivory, monkeys and parrots for his temple. Others believe they are descendants of captives taken to Assyria in the 8th century B.C. A more plausible theory is that they arrived in the A.D. 1st century after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. This theory is backed up by local South Indian Christian legends.

The first definitive proof of the Cochin Jews’ existence dates to the 1300s: the Cochin Jewish copper plates. Much of what is known about the early Jewish settlement comes from these copper plates, written in Tamil script and once dated to A.D. 345 but now believed to date to around A.D. 1000 or 1300, the year the Chochin Jews were granted 72 privileges, including the right to walk on decorative cloths and light lamps during the day. Some think that many Cochin Jews came from Spain in the late 1400s via Europe and Syria.

The Cochin Jews engaged in petty trading in towns where they lived along the Malabar Coast. For a while Jewish merchants dominated the local spice trade and thrived under the Dutch and a liberal-minded raja. Beginning in the 18th century they had regular contacts with the Jewry in Palestine. In 1948, 17 Cochin Jewish families sold their property and moved to Israel. Others followed, pushed by deteriorating economic conditions and establishment of the state of Israel in 1953.

The Book of Esther, which dates from the second century B.C., cites decrees enacted by Ahasuerus relating to the Jews dispersed throughout the provinces of his empire from Hodu to Kush. Hodu is Hebrew for India; Kush is Ethiopia. Talmudic and midrashic literature also mention spices, perfumes, plants, animals, textiles, gems and crockery which either bear names of Indian origin or are indigenous to the country. The earliest documentation of permanent Jewish settlements is on two copper plates now stored in Cochin's main synagogue. Engraved in the local language, they detail the privileges granted a certain Joseph Rabban by Bhaskara Ravi Varma, the fourth-century Hindu ruler of Malabar. According to the inscription, the ruler awarded the Jews the village of Anjuvannam, meaning "five castes," as the Jews were believed to be the lords of the five castes of artisans. The plates also state that Anjuvannam shall remain in the possession of the descendants of these Jews "so long as the world and moon exist."

“Twelfth-century Jewish, Christian and Muslim travelers described Jewish settlements around Cochin. The main community was in Cranganore, north of Cochin. For a time the Jews of the Malabar Coast served as a way station to the Jewish community in China. In 1167 Benjamin of Tudela wrote of 1,000 Jews on the Malabar Coast "who are black like their neighbors and are good men, observers of the law, and possess the Torah of Moses, the Prophets, and some little knowledge of the Talmud and the halakha."

Cochin White Jew town

“The Jews prospered in Anjuvannam for more than a thousand years after the grant of the copper plates. Then, with the extinction of the line of Rabban, dissension arose between two brothers of a noble family for the chieftanship of the principality The neighboring princes intervened and dispossessed the Jews. In 1341 the brothers fled to Cochin with their followers and established the Kochangadi synagogue there.

“In 1524, on the pretext that the Jews were tampering with the pepper trade, the Moors attacked the remaining Jews of Anjuvannam, burning their homes and synagogues. The destruction was so complete that when the Portuguese arrived a few years later they found only destitute Jews, who continued to eke out a miserable existence for 40 more years. Finally, the remaining Jews deserted their ancient settlement and fled to Cochin.

“As the Portuguese made inroads along the coast more Jews arrived in Cochin, which remained under Indian protection. Spanish and Portuguese exiles came after the Inquisition, and others arrived fleeing persecution in the Middle East. In 1560 the Portuguese set up an office of the Inquisition in Goa, halfway between Bombay and Cochin, and even more Jews sought the protection of Cheraman Parumal, the Raja of Cochin, soon labeled the "King of the Jews" by the Portuguese authorities.

“The Jews could not have survived under Portuguese rule (1502-1663) had it not been for Parumal. In 1565 he gave them a strip of land next to his palace and in 1568 permitted them to build a synagogue not 30 yards from his temple. He appointed a hereditary mudaliar (chief) from among the Jews and invested the position with special privileges and jurisdiction in all internal matters in the Jewish community. This office continued in force under subsequent Rajas and even under Dutch and British rule. The Hallegua family, which still holds the title, continues to be influential in Cochin.”

Black Jews and White Cochin Jews

Black Jew of Cochin

There are two primary communities of Cochin Jews: 1) the Malabar (“Black”) Jews and 2) the Paradesi (“White” or “Foreign”) Jews. The White Jews are mostly descendants of Jews from Spain, Portugal and Iraq who arrived after the 16th century and have rarely intermarried with local people. The Black Jews claim they are descendants of Jews that came to India in the A.D. 1st century. The Black Jews generally have darker skin. It is believed that they intermarried more with local people. [Source: New York Times]

The Black Jews believe they were the original recipients of the copper plates and the descendants of the original Jewish community.. However the plates are in the hands of the White Jews and have traditionally been kept in a White Jew synagogue that Black Jews were not allowed to enter. For their part the Black Jews built synagogues that the White Jews couldn’t enter. This synagogues was shipped to Israel in 1991 and placed in a museum there. It is not clear how the divisions between the Cochin Jews occurred.

The “White” Jews generally enjoyed a higher standard of living, and some became prominent spice merchants, lawyers and doctors. In Israel, there mainly work in agriculture in communities known as “moshavim”, raising avocados, olives, pecans, cotton, flowers and chickens.

Cochin Jews have traditionally married only Cochin Jews. There hasn’t even been much intermarriage between White and Black Jews. The Black and White are divided into privileged and less privileged. There has hardly been any intermarriage between privileged White Jews and less privileged White Jews or intermarriage between privileged Black Jews and less privileged Black Jews.

Current Cochin Jewish Community

In 2000, their were only 16 Cochin Jews left in India. Most were elderly. There was a functioning 16th century synagogue that contained unique blue-and-white floor tiles, scrolls of the New Testament and Hebrew texts inscribed on copper plates. The synagogue had no rabbi. It was kept going by a community of elders. On most Saturdays the synagogue had difficultly attracting the necessary 10 men needed to conduct prayers. After the Black Jew synagogue was shipped to a museum in Jerusalem, the Black Jews and White began praying together at the Paradesi temple in Cochin, built in 1568 and one of India’s oldest synagogues. [Source: New York Times]

Most of the young Cochin Jews have gone to Israel or the United States in search of mates. The Cochin Jews in Israel live primarily in the agricultural settlements of Nevatom and Mesillat Zion. About 100 Jews remained in Kerala. The community of White Jews is shrinking and in danger of becoming extinct. The Black Jews are doing well. Their numbers in Israel are growing.

The last Black Jew in India, Aaron Abraham, died in February 2000. When a White Jew died a few month earlier one newspaper ran a headline that said: “Jewish population down by 6 percent. One White Jew told the Financial Times, “It’s a great pity the younger generation left. I went to Israel for one month, but it was not home. This is home, and naturally I am an Indian. Soon it will end.”

Baghdadi and European Jews

Aharon Daniel wrote: “In the late 18th century, Jews from Arab countries and Iran arrived in India. And they are called collectively ‘Baghdadi Jews’. Most of ‘Baghdadi’ Jews did arrive from Baghdad but there were among them Jews who arrived from Syria, Iran, Yemen and other places in Iraq. Sometimes these Jews are collectively called ‘Iraqi Jews’. And as stated earlier the Bene Israel Jews were called ‘Israel’ and the ‘Baghdadi’s as ’Yehudi’. [Source: Aharon Daniel, 1999-2000, ]

Baghdadi Jew tombstones in Calcutta

“The ‘Baghdadi’ came to India because of religious persecutions in their countries and also because of commercial reasons. Most of the ‘Baghdadis’ were big merchants and businessmen before they arrived in India. They settled in the main commercial cities of India. First in the city of Surat (in present day Gujarat) and later on as the commercial importance moved to Bombay and Calcutta the ‘Baghdadis’ moved to these two cities and also to Rangoon, now capital of Myanmar (formerly Burma and part of British India). These Jews were successful businessmen and they brought their families and other Arab country Jews to India.

“Some of the Baghdadi Jews had small businesses like clothes shop. But there were also Baghdadi businessmen who were the main figures in the Indian economy. Many Baghdadis owned factories all over India mainly in the textile section. One of the famous rich families of the Baghdadis was the Sasson family. Besides their business activities, the Sasson family contributed many things to India. In many cities of India they built hospitals, schools, libraries, monuments and other things.

“But alongside with their contribution to India the Baghdadi Jews kept themselves aloof from Indian society including the veteran Indian Jews. The rich Baghdadis built synagogues, schools, cemeteries and departments in hospitals where the rights were reserved for the Baghdadi Jews only. The Baghdadis whose mother tongue was Arabic slowly started adopting English as their first language. They also adopted other English customs like dressing. They even began to identify themselves with the British culture. Sometime in the late19th century, the richer Baghdadis began immigrating to England and were very active in the upper classes of the British society. The Baghdadis who remained in India slowly started approaching the Indian society and culture and also to other Indian Jews. In some sense the Baghdadis who emigrated from India, became more Indianized outside India than they were in India. The Baghdadis at their height numbered about 7000 and that was in the 1940s. Today there are less than 50 Baghdadis in India.

Lost Tribes of India?

In India there are a million or so Indians who believe that they descended from the Israelite tribe of Manasseh, which was expelled by the Assyrians 2,700 years ago. About of 5,000 of these follow religious rules listed in the Bible—including animal sacrifices.

Bnei Menashe

Several hundred lost tribe members have come to Israel as immigrants and have been allowed to become Israeli citizens if they converted to Judaism. One Indian tribe member interviewed by the Wall Street Journal was a university graduate with a degree political science who came from Manipur, near the Burmese border. He said he came to Israel so he could follow his religious commandments. After his arrival he got a job working on a farm and spent much is his free time studying Hebrew, Judaism and Jewish customs.

The Mizo — an ethnic group that lives mainly in the small northeastern Indian states of Mizoram, Manipur and Tripura — claim to be one of the lost tribes of Israel. They have a tradition of songs with stories that are similar to those found in the Bible. Also known as the Lushai and Zomi, the Mizo are a colorful tribe with a code of ethics that requires them to be hospitable, kind, unselfish and courageous. They are closely related to the Chin people of Myanmar. Their name means “people of the high land.” [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

The Bnei Menashe ("Sons of Menasseh") are a small group with about 10,000 members within the indigenous people of India's North-Eastern border states of Manipur and Mizoram near India's border with Myanmar. They say they are descended from Jews banished from ancient Israel by the Assyrians to India in the eighth century B.C. Over the centuries they became animists, and in the 19th century, British missionaries converted many to Christianity. Even so, the group says they continued to practice ancient Jewish rituals, including animal sacrifices, which they say were passed down from generation to generation. Jews in the Holy Land stopped animal sacrifices after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. [Source: Lauren E. Bohn, Associated Press, December 25, 2012]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Library of Congress, CNN, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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