Of all the communities that immigrated into India, Jews were probably the most steadfast in retaining their communitarian identities intact all through their presence in the subcontinent. They had a fairly pronounced sense of their communitarian identity even before they came to India – and the experience of a society that did not persecute them for their economic activities or religious beliefs did nothing to obfuscate. The destruction of the Temple of the Mount in 70 A.D. and the expulsion of the Jews by the Roman Governor of Judea, Titus, is said to have been the starting point of Jewish immigration to different parts of the World. The Jews who migrated to the countries bordering the Mediterranean and subsequently into Europe and Asia became known as the “Diaspora Jewry”. Almost everywhere in the world, the Jewish diaspora has experienced persecution on account of their confessional faith; this persecution, if anything,  tended to reinforce the Jewish identity of the diasporas, although the manifestations of that  ‘Jewishness’ or conduct of Jewish peoples did not always take the same forms.

The Jewish community in India, unlike any other of the immigrant peoples, was so heterogeneous that it is difficult to suggest that they were a single community at all. The Three principal Jewish centers – Coachin, Bombay and Calcutta – emerged in three different periods, and developed along three entirely different trajectories till their eventual inter-linkage in the 19th century. Not only were these centres demographically of different character, such differences also occasioned corresponding divergences in practices of the Jewish people in India in both their public and private lives. The community centres of older vintage, i.e. Bombay and Cochin generally tended to be more integrated (sometimes even exhibiting more assimilationist tendencies) with the local society than Calcutta, which was of relatively later vintage. But the confessional affiliation of Judaism somehow managed to hold the three centres of Jewish life in India together, to the extent that for academic purposes, it would be legitimate to speak of one Jewish community in India.


Early Jewish communities in India: Cochin and Bombay

The history of the Jews of India down to the 19th century is obscure and there are practically no written records and traditions are unreliable. The presence of Jews in India can be traced from the period of the advent of the Portuguese in Indian waters from around 1500. The First Jewish individual to come to India was Gasper da Gama, originally from Poland, who then served as the Shah-I Bandar for the state of Bijapur. Thereafter, handful of Jewish merchants to India trickled into India from the Jewish diaspora in Europe. Malabar was the first area where they settled in, but Surat and the entire Konkan coast (including Goa, Calicut, Tellicherry, Golkunda, Madras, Fort  St. David, Negapatam, Masulipatam, Pondicherry ) soon emerged as favoured destinations. Over time Ahmadnagar, Benaras and Lucknow began to host Jewish settlements as their trading networks expanded.

Jewish immigrants made their mark in the economic life, contributing greatly to the expansion of trade and commerce of India as well as acting as a link, between India and Europe. Besides engaging in the export of Indian commodities to London, Amsterdam and other European trading centres, the Jewish merchants also developed the Asiatic trade on an international scale. The Jewish traders in Surat and Madras had close commercial connections with Manila, Burma, Sumatra, China, Mecca, Muscat and the Persian Gulf. Many of the Jews had a monopoly of commodities such as pepper, spices, indigo, timber, cotton- goods, amber, diamonds, precious stones, etc. They also took keen interest in country-trade (i.e. trade in low value high-quantity trade within India).

In terms of available historical evidence, the Jews of Cochin probably constituted the oldest of Jewish settlements in India. Claims of the community dating back to King Solomon of the legends, or to expulsion after the destruction of the Temple of the Mount by the Romans are common in the local traditions. The earliest documentary evidence however seem to suggest either the fourth or eighth century as possible dates of arrival of the Jews in Cranganore, an important port some 20 miles north of Cochin. By the 14th   century, the accounts of Ibn Batuta and Marco Polo testify to a flourishing Jewish settlement in Malabar. It was around that settlement of the Jewish merchants that the port city of Cochin came into existence in 1341, when a great flood silted up the entrance to the port of Cranganore. There the Jews built their first synagogue in 1344.

The Cochin Jews fared particularly badly during the 16th century when the Portuguese began to emerge as a major power in the Konkan region and to dominate the commerce of the Indian Ocean. Wanton persecution of the Jews- occasioned ostensibly by the confessional differences, but probably also because of Jewish involvement in the Indian Ocean commerce – prompted the Jews to extend support to the Dutch when the latter contested Portuguese supremacy in the 17th century and took over Cochin. The Tenure of Dutch rule of Cochin, 1663-1795, was characterized as a period of prosperity for the Jews. The Dutch intended to make use of the local trading contacts of the Jews (as the British did the Armenians), hence they extended the Jews great civic freedom and religious tolerance. The Jews were also given commercial privileges and monopolies – especially with regard to low-value high-quantity country trade – which reinforced their existing commercial networks. This served as a ‘pull-factor’ that drew Jews from Palestine, Syria, Iraq, North Africa, Germany, Persia, and Spain. In fact, only two of the twenty-five Jewish families inhabiting Cochin towards the close of the 17th century were among those who had come from Cranganore. Upon British conquest of Cochin in 1795, the civic freedoms granted to the Jews by the Dutch were continued, but the commercial privileges were withdrawn. As a result, economic health of the Jewish community of Cochin began to decline in the 19th century, paving the way for migration within the subcontinent.

The Jewish community of Konkan coast, who constitute the principal component of the Jews of Bombay, traces its origin quite independent of the Jewish community of Cochin. Known primarily as the Bene-Israel (i.e. Children of Israel), the Konkan Jews claim to have immigrated into India even before the Cochin Jews. Some theories contend the Bene-Israel to have come from Palestine; others variously subscribe to theories of Persian, Yemenite and Egyptian origins. There is a controversy over the period of their migration as well-some maintain the Bene-Israel came to India before the Christian era; others favour some uncertain age after the Christian era. There is no reliable evidence either way. However, if the popular reason assigned for the naming of the community Bene-Israel is any indication, it would seem that the community is of much later vintage. It is said that the Konkan Jews chose to style themselves thus as opposed to Yehudi (a term much maligned by the Qur’an) because they wanted to escape persecution by local Muslim rulers – which could not have been before the 14th century. As there is no corresponding evidence of the existence of any such community from the pre-Muslim chronicles of the region, it is fairly probable that the Bene-Israel community do not date much long before that date. Although there are several legends associated with the community’s evolution in the Konkan region, none of these can be corroborated any way. What is fairly certain is that the Bene-Israel began to migrate to Bombay only in the mid-18th century, in the wake of the settlement there of Jews from Cochin. It was also in Bombay that the Bene-Israel had their first synagogue erected (1796) – from this point began a new phase in the religious life of the Bene-Israel community, with a centralized place of worship. Faith until then had been a part of one’s private life.

The East India Company records of 18th century mention the Jews of the Malabar and Konkan regions on account of their role as merchants, negotiators, diplomats and pioneers in the expansion of trade and commerce. Once the British displaced the Portuguese from hegemony of the Arabian Sea after the battle of Ormuz (1622), there was a considerable reorientation of the Arabian Sea. Unlike the Portuguese who were concerned principally with overseas trade, between Asia and Europe, the British systematically cultivate commercial relations with the Kingdom of Persia and the Ottoman Empire – which coincided with the rise of the ‘Islamic ate’ in the Indian Ocean world (i.e. greater involvements of Safavid Persia and the Ottoman Empire). As a consequence, Ottoman Mesopotamia and especially its centre, Baghdad became a major entrepot of European products. The New route to India and the Far East via Basra turned India into a major business and financial centre. This served as a major ‘pull-factor’ that attracted Jewish merchants from Baghdad. The opportunities for profitable trade that India offered under the growing British domination, together with the relative peace and stability, lured the Jews to India.

Owing to the fact that the Jewish settlements in India founded at different times by people of different geographical provenance, their course of evolution was not uniform. They had varying degrees of intercourse with the local society in completely different circumstances, hence the character of the Jewish experience in India proved extremely heterogeneous. To a large extent, the political and economic context of the foundation of particular Jewish settlements seemed to influence the manner of this intercourse and also the outcome of such interaction.

The Jewish community of Cochin, for instance, evolved in close communion with the local society, having begun its Indian adventure under licence from Indian rulers. Beginning with a handful of families, the Jewish community of Cochin began to expand principally due to hypergamous marriages with the local communities – i.e. Jewish men with local women. This practice had become so widespread that a 17th century survey commissioned by the Jewish community of Amsterdam (conducted by Moses Pereira de Paiva) found three distinct castes among the Cochin Jews – namely, Meyuhasim or ‘the white Jews’, Meyuhasim or ‘the Brown Jews’ and Malabar or ‘the Black Jews’. The white Jews constituted the social elite among the Cochin Jewry, being generally traders by profession, and benefiting from the Dutch connection they were also the wealthier element among the Cochin Jewry. The Black Jews were, by contrast, generally engaged in agriculture, cattle rearing and trade in dairy products. It is not quite certain what marked the Brown Jews off from these two (except perhaps having at least one parent of local origin), but what is certain that these three categories were not encouraged to engage either in commensality or conjugality. Absence of such practices of inter-dining and intermarrying was antithetical to the accepted norms of Judaism, and were probably a replication of the rigid caste-system that was one of the defining features of contemporary Malabar society. The low social status of the Malabar Jews to be rationalized in terms of their being born of parent/s any one of whom were slaves – this could be taken to mean that this ‘caste’ emerged through conversion of the lowest element of the local society. The caste-distinction was so pronounced that the White Jews had their own synagogue, and the Black Jews had several of their own; the Brown Jews were allied to worship in that of the White Jews.

For all their differences, all three castes were equally well-entrenched in the local society. Malayalam was the language they were most proficient in, since their principal economic activities were with the local people. Even when either Dutch or British ascendancy took place, they continued to function as the social intermediaries – at least till the 18th century in Cochin. Hebrew or Yiddish was the expertise of an exclusive group of White Jews, who performed the crucial function of Hazan (Reader, of the sacred texts) and Kohen/Cohen (Priest). In the early 19th century, when the White Jews of Cochin had either mostly died out or migrated to Bombay and Calcutta, it was necessary to make one Jacob David Cohen (who as the name suggests was a Cohen) of Baghdad – who was visiting Cochin on a business matter – to settle down in order to perform some essential religious services.


The Jewish community of Bombay, by contrast with that of Cochin, was demographically of a more mixed character – having the Cochin Jews, the Bene-Israel as also Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. While the Cochin Jews might have been among the earliest to settle down there, the Bene-Israel comprised the most numerous and also the most influential of the Bombay Jews – presumably owing to their commercial contacts with Konkan region. Preponderance of the Bene-Israel occasioned a tension among the Bombay Jewry that was absent elsewhere in India. This was because of certain peculiarities associated with the Bene-Israel. For instance, while observing many Jewish rites and performances, they also performed sacrificial offerings to the Lord in the local Hindu manner – they also rationalized this by saying that sacrifices were integral to Judaism before the destruction of the Temple Mount and expulsion of the Jews in 70 A.D. (hence also substantiating their claim of being in India from before the Christian era). They also chose to amend their dietary prescriptions by replacing cow or bullock with sheep or goat in order to honour religious sensitivities of the Hindus. Nor indeed, as mentioned earlier, did they have any synagogues before they came to Bombay.

The Bene-Israel proved to be the most assimilations of all the Jewish peoples in their orientation to the society amidst whom they settled down. As with most immigrant communities anywhere in the world, a segment of the Bene-Israel, too, was concerned about preserving the purity of their stock – they refrained from marrying into the local non-Jewish families. It is commonly believed that the more fair-skinned among the Bene-Israelis (called the Gora-Israel) descended from this relatively pure Israeli stock. The overwhelming majority of the community though are dark complexioned (hence, Kala-Israel); while the community ascribes such a complexion to the Indian sun, scholarly consensus attributes this to brisk intermarriage with local women, both heathen and converts. Partly owing to the numbers, unlike either the communities of Calcutta or Cochin, the Bene-Israeli social elite tend to come from the mixed-race people more than those of supposedly pure stock. Earlier, the Kala-Israel were not allowed the privilege of donning the prayers shawls (tsitsith), but by the time the community settled down in Bombay the Kala-Israelis had wrested that privilege from the Gora-Israelis.  Their tendency towards assimilations is borne out even more clearly by their preference for Hinduised/Islamicised nomenclature as against purely Hebraic in order to blend in with their neighbours.

Assimilationist propensities of the Bene-Israel occasioned confusion over their religious identity among the Jews themselves. Some of their festivals/observances have name of Sanskritic origin (viz. Holica San) and some of Hindustani or Islamic origins (such as Sababi Roja or Eliyahu Hanabich Oorus). This caused a major doubt over the ‘Jewishness’ of the Bene-Israelis that persisted well into the mid-20th century. Their personal law differed to a large extent from standard Jewish positions on issues as divorce, levirate marriage. Adopting Hindu practice they refrained from divorce altogether; levirate marriage was also irrelevant for the community as they did not allow their widows to remarry, following Hindu practice. When they settled down in Bombay in late-18th century, a Cochin Jew, David Rahabi, tried to introduce some standard Jewish practices that till then had little place in Bene-Israeli life. They had still further problems in the late-19th century, especially after the opening of the Suez Canal, with the synagogues and cemeteries, but in absence of definitive knowledge about the community from Rabbinic or even Bene-Israeli sources, they gradually began to hold themselves at a distance socially and religiously. It began with separate synagogue and cemeteries, and swiftly led onto separate schools for the indoctrination of the children in the ways of their particular variant of Judaism.

However, by the early 19th century, the Bene-Israelis were definitely more aware of their Jewish identity than any other time in the past – owing to the activities of Cochin Jews and ironically of the Christian missionaries. Translations of biblical Book of Genesis made available by American missionaries spread awareness of the cardinal tenets of Judaism; the Church of Cochin sent an Apostate Jew – Michael Sargon – was sent to educate the Bene-Israel into Jewish ways, who pioneered the foundation of schools for the community in 1826 and 1832, and personally held the reins of the Bombay School till his retirement in 1859.

Still more crucial, perhaps was the role of the Yemenite Jew from Cochin, Hakham Shelomo Salem Shar’abi. A bookbinder by trade, over and above being a Hazan(Reader), Preacher, Mohel and Shohet, he developed greater awareness of Jewish heritage among the Bene-Israelis. The literary movement he launched came to produce a veritable crop of literary tracts through translation of the prayer book and other religious treatises, alongside newspapers of distinctly Jewish vintage (viz. Israel Ashram, Ner Israel, etc).

By the turn of the century, the assimilationist propensity of the Bene-Israel began to diminish somewhat in its intensity as a Jewish identity premised upon the love for the Holy Land and longing to be there began to surge; this longing was further reinforced by the rise of the international Zionist movement. When the state of Israel came into being, the Bene-Israelis left India in their thousands, depleting the size of the community that remained behind – being mostly men either well settled in their professional lives, or elderly people with deep associations with India.

Unlike the Bene-Israelis, the Jewish community of Calcutta already had a pronounced sense of their being Jewish from the very time they began to settle down in the city. This becomes clear as one looks deeper into the life and times of the early settlers, in a bid to understand the context in which such a pronounced set of identity emerged.

The Calcutta Jews: Early Settlers

Calcutta – being the capital of British India from 1772 to 1911 – and Bombay being the foremost metropolises of the East became for Jews from Baghdad, Aleppo, Syria, and other regions of the Middle East. The Baghdadi Jews constituted the latest wave of Jewish migration to India from late 18th to early 19th century. A close-knit group, they were the heirs of a rich culture and tradition, deeply rooted in Jewish learning and following their own liturgy and rites. The Calcutta Jews, though, comprised of both Sephardic (of whom the Baghdadis were a sub-group) and Ashkenazi are exclusively European by origin. Some of the Jews of Cochin and even the Bene-Israel also settled in Calcutta in the 19th century. The Calcutta Jewry was thus a heterogeneous community retaining their own cultures, traditions, customs and rituals.

The Baghdadi Jews who formed the first major segment of the community migrated to Calcutta as a result of the persecutions of David Pasha in Baghdad (1817-31) and the forcible conversion of the Mashhad Jews in Persia in 1839. They found a welcome haven in India, a land of tolerance, where they could live in perfect freedom and security, preserving their culture and traditions unmolested. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 transformed the trading patterns and gave a huge boost for European commerce. It was only after that number of Jewish immigrants reached its peak, and multiplied the middle-eastern element of India’s Jewish society dramatically.

The earliest Jewish settler in Calcutta was a Shalom Ben Aharon Ben Ovadya ha Cohen from Aleppo who landed in Calcutta on 4th August 1798, after visiting Cochin and Madras. Being a jeweller by trade, he made his fortune as an accessory in the remittance of private fortunes of Company servants and other European merchants from Bengal. Soon after, he persuaded his Jewish employees from Aleppo and Cochin to settle down in Calcutta; some of his relatives followed suit with the opening up of the trade in muslin, silk and, after 1829, indigo. By the 1830s Calcutta had a growing Jewish population; after 1869 the number multiplied several times – from 100 in 1822 to 986 in 1881 and 1339 in 1891.

Most of Calcutta Jews were Sephardic, and Baghdadi Jews constituted the largest sub-group among them. Their mother tongue was Judeo-Arabic and they continued to use Hebrew characters in their writings as a vehicle of expression. Though the Jews in Bengal learnt to speak Bengali, Hindustani and English, they never cultivated any Indian language seriously, unlike their brethren in Bombay and Cochin. The Baghdadi Jews in Bengal did not change their religion, customs, food habits and dress – all of which were essentially Arab in character. The forbearers of the community were mainly traders, most of them in small business, conservative in their outlook and orthodox in their practice of faith. The segments of Cochin Jewry and Bene-Israel that came to Calcutta in very small numbers could never succeed in integrating themselves with the Baghdadi Jews to any major extent – so much so, that while they were allowed to share the synagogue and cemetery with the Sephardic Jews, they were assigned separate conclaves within such cemeteries.

Although the majority of the settlers came from Baghdad, Aleppo had the distinction of sending the first Jew to this metropolis. Shalom Ben Aharon Ben Ovadya ha Cohen was born in Aleppo in 1762. The descendant of an exile from Spain at the time of the Inquisition, Shalom Cohen left Aleppo in 1789 in search of fortune, and in the process founded Jewish settlement of Calcutta. He landed in Calcutta on 4th August 1798, after visiting Cochin and Madras. His decision to move to Calcutta was dictated by the emergence of Calcutta as the capital of British India, and as the centre of trade of entire Southeast Asia and China. The city was easy to reach by the seas by way of the Bay of Bengal, and inland cities by following the Ganges and its subsidiary waterways. Dutch, French and Danish factories and settlements in the vicinities of Calcutta turned the city into an international emporium as well. The guns of Fort William afforded protection to millions in Calcutta.

A jeweller by profession, Shalom Cohen was drawn towards trade in diamonds, silk, indigo and Dacca muslin. His Jewish employees from Aleppo and Cochin were induced to settle down in Calcutta. His lucrative business attracted his relatives to seek their fortunes in Calcutta too. The business of Shalom Cohen set up in partnership with Jacob Semeh in Calcutta became prosperous and the firm diversified from jewellery into export-import in silk, muslin, indigo etc. from Baghdad.  E.M.D. Cohen, editor of Paerah an Arabic-Hebrew periodical published in Calcutta, claimed that Shalom was the court jeweller of Ranjit Singh. He left Calcutta in September 1812 with his family to serve as the court jeweller of Nawab of Awadh, leaving the community to the care of his son-in-law Moses Simon Dwell Cohen.

Moses Cohen was elected the first President of the community and was an honorary rabbi, a Mohel (performer of ritual circumcision), and Mekkhadesh (marriage ceremony performer) and Hazan (leader of religious services) from 1825 to 1861. Although a merchant, he was better known for his honorary services rendered to the community in almost every religious rite. The purchase of land for two of Calcutta’s synagogues Neveh Shalom (the Abode of Peace) in 1825 and Beth El (the House of God) was affected under his guidance. His grandson Elias Moses Dwell Cohen was the influence behind the first Jewish school in Calcutta in 1881.

Next to the Cohens were the Ezras, who were the most prominent among the Calcutta Jews. Joseph Ezra, with his two sons David and Nissim reached Calcutta on th 22nd February 1821. The Ezras played such a conspicuous part in the social and mercantile history of Calcutta that the Calcutta Corporation named two sisters after them. Ezra Street is well known in the crowded business quarters of Calcutta. David Joseph Ezra proved to be the more enterprising of the two brothers in trade and commerce, and later in real estate. Export of Indigo and silk in the Near East and of opium on a large scale to Hong Kong and to the Far East constituted his main business. David’s son, Elia Shalome Gubbay took keen interest in civic affairs. He was appointed an Honorary Presidency Magistrate and when David Ezra died in 1882, he was given full civic honours, having held the office of the sheriff in 1879.

The Gubbay family was perhaps the most prominent Jewish family in Calcutta, next to the Ezras. David Hokham Aaron Gubbay came from Baghdad. His nephew Elias S. Gubbay became a leading Jewish merchant in Calcutta and invested his wealth in real estate. In a while their wealth, and accordingly their influence within the community grew.

Benjamin Nissim Elias, who founded the mighty business house B.N. Elias & Co. was another prominent member of the community. B.N. Elias & Co. was one of the biggest consumer product-manufacturing firms in Eastern India. The company also had interests in tea, jute, tobacco (National Tobacco Company of India ltd.), bone crushing (Empire Bone Mills), dairy (Alpine Dairy), advertising (Advertising Corporation of India pvt. Ltd.), printing (National Lithographic and Printing Press), power (West Bengal Power Supply Co. ltd, Oriental Electric and Engineering Co.), etc.

In 1868, Nahoum ibn Israel arrived in Calcutta from Baghdad. He was a baker by profession. He settled in Calcutta, where he saw good business prospects, as the community was growing steadily here, both by birth and by immigration. The entire Jewish community in Calcutta relied upon the Nahoums for their daily supply of confectionary items as well as for family and religious functions.

Meyer Barook Meyer and Seemha Meyer came to Calcutta along with their parents from Baghdad towards the end of the 19th century. M. Barook Meyer was a Hebrew teacher in the Jewish Boys School as well as the Jewish Girl’s School, besides being a priest at the Neveh Shalom Synagogue.

By the late 19th century, the wealth and influence of several individual Jewish families grew sufficiently for the sense of a Jewish community to emerge. These families came with their own approach to the world, their own values, their sense of the relation between a human being and its maker. This body of beliefs, along with the practices that sustained these, defined the Jewish identity and what it meant to be a Jew.

(Author: Abeda Razeq)

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