History of the Jews in India

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A map of India, showing the main areas of Jewish concentration. Indian Jews communities map.png
A map of India, showing the main areas of Jewish concentration.

The history of the Jews in India reaches back to ancient times. [1] [2] [3] [4] Judaism was one of the first foreign religions to arrive in India in recorded history. [5] Indian Jews are a religious minority of India, but, unlike many parts of the world, have historically lived in India without any instances of anti-Semitism from the local majority populace. [6] The better-established ancient communities have assimilated a large number of local traditions through cultural diffusion. [7] While some Jews state their ancestors arrived in India during the time of the Kingdom of Judah, others identify themselves as descendants of Israel's Ten Lost Tribes. [8] It is estimated that India's Jewish population peaked at around 20,000 in the mid-1940s, and began to rapidly decline due to their emigration to Israel after its creation in 1948. [9]

Judaism The ethnic religion of the Jewish people

Judaism is the ethnic religion of the Jewish people. It is an ancient, monotheistic, Abrahamic religion with the Torah as its foundational text. It encompasses the religion, philosophy, and culture of the Jewish people. Judaism is considered by religious Jews to be the expression of the covenant that God established with the Children of Israel. It encompasses a wide body of texts, practices, theological positions, and forms of organization. The Torah is part of the larger text known as the Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible, and supplemental oral tradition represented by later texts such as the Midrash and the Talmud. With between 14.5 and 17.4 million adherents worldwide, Judaism is the tenth largest religion in the world.

India Country in South Asia

India is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by area, the second-most populous country, and the most populous democracy in the world. Bounded by the Indian Ocean on the south, the Arabian Sea on the southwest, and the Bay of Bengal on the southeast, it shares land borders with Pakistan to the west; China, Nepal, and Bhutan to the north; and Bangladesh and Myanmar to the east. In the Indian Ocean, India is in the vicinity of Sri Lanka and the Maldives; its Andaman and Nicobar Islands share a maritime border with Thailand and Indonesia.

Recorded history historical narrative based on a written record or other documented communication

Recorded history or written history is a historical narrative based on a written record or other documented communication. It contrasts with other narratives of the past, such as mythological, oral or archeological traditions. For broader world history, recorded history begins with the accounts of the ancient world around the 4th millennium BC, and coincides with the invention of writing. For some geographic regions or cultures, written history is limited to a relatively recent period in human history because of the limited use of written records. Moreover, human cultures do not always record all of the information relevant to later historians, such as the full impact of natural disasters or the names of individuals. Recorded history for particular types of information is therefore limited based on the types of records kept. Because of this, recorded history in different contexts may refer to different periods of time depending on the topic.


Jewish groups in India

"Malabarese Jews", as depicted by the Portuguese in the 16th century Codice Casanatense Codice Casanatense Jews of Malabar.jpg
"Malabarese Jews", as depicted by the Portuguese in the 16th century Códice Casanatense

In addition to Jewish expatriates [10] and recent immigrants, there are seven Jewish groups in India:

  1. The dark-skinned Malabar component of the Cochin Jews, according to Shalva Weil, claim to have arrived in India together with the Hebrew King Solomon's merchants. The Cochin Jews settled down in Kerala as traders. [2] The fair-complexioned component is of European-Jewish descent, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi. [11] [12]
  2. Chennai Jews: The so-called Spanish and Portuguese Jews, Paradesi Jews and British Jews arrived at Madras during the 16th century. They were diamond businesspeople [13] and of Sephardi heritage. Following expulsion from Iberia in 1492 by the Alhambra Decree, a few families of Sephardic Jews eventually made their way to Madras in the 16th century. They maintained trade connections to Europe, and their language skills were useful. Although the Sephardim spoke Ladino (i.e. Spanish or Judeo-Spanish), in India they learned Tamil and Judeo-Malayalam from the Malabar Jews. [14]
  3. Nagercoil Jews: The so-called Syrian Jews, Musta'arabi Jews where Arab Jews who arrived at Nagercoil and Kanyakumari District in 52 AD along with the arrival of St. Thomas. Most of them were merchants and had also settled around the town of Thiruvithamcode. [15] By the turn of the 20th century, most of the families made their way to Cochin and eventually migrated to Israel. In their early days, they maintained trade connections to Europe through the nearby ports of Colachal and Thengaipattinam, and their language skills were useful to the Travancore Kings. [16] As historians Rev. Daniel Tyerman and George cited the reason the Jews selecting Nagercoil as their settlement was for the towns salubrious climate and its significant Christian population. [17]
  4. The Jews of Goa: These were Portuguese Jews who fled to Portuguese Goa after the commencement of the Inquisition in Portugal. The community consisted mainly of "New Christians" who were Jews by blood and had converted under the duress of the Inquisition. This group was the target of heavy persecution with the start of the Goan Inquisition, which put on trial famed physician Garcia de Orta, among others.
  5. Another branch of the Bene Israel community resided in Karachi until the Partition of India in 1947, when they fled to India (in particular, to Mumbai). [18] Many of them also moved to Israel. The Jews from the Sindh, Punjab and Pathan areas are often incorrectly called Bani Israel Jews. The Jewish community who used to reside in other parts of what became Pakistan (such as Lahore or Peshawar) also fled to India in 1947, in a similar manner to the larger Karachi Jewish community.[ citation needed ]
  6. The Baghdadi Jews arrived in the city of Surat from Iraq (and other Arab states), Iran and Afghanistan about 250 years ago.[ when? ] [3]
  7. The Bnei Menashe meaning "Sons of Manassah" in Hebrew, are Mizo and Kuki tribesmen in Manipur and Mizoram who are recent converts to the modern form of Judaism, but claim ancestry reaching back to one of the lost ten tribes of Israel; specifically, one of the sons of Joseph. [19]
  8. Similarly, the small Telugu speaking group, the Bene Ephraim (meaning "Sons of Ephraim" in Hebrew) also claim ancestry from Ephraim, one of the sons of Joseph and a lost tribe of ancient Israel. Also called "Telugu Jews", their observance of modern Judaism dates to 1981.

Cochin Jews

Arrival of the Jewish pilgrims at Cochin, A.D. 68 Receiving jews.jpg
Arrival of the Jewish pilgrims at Cochin, A.D. 68
The Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi is an active 16th century synagogue Jewish synagouge kochi india.jpg
The Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi is an active 16th century synagogue

The oldest of the Indian Jewish communities was in the erstwhile Cochin Kingdom. [2] [20] The traditional account is that traders of Judea arrived at Cranganore, an ancient port near Cochin in 562 BCE, and that more Jews came as exiles from Israel in the year 70 CE, after the destruction of the Second Temple. [21] Many of these Jews' ancestors passed on the account that they settled in India when the Hebrew King Solomon was in power. This was a time that teak wood, ivory, spices, monkeys, and peacocks were popular in trade in Cochin. There is no specific date or reason mentioned as to why they arrived in India, but Hebrew scholars date it to up to around the early Middle Ages. Cochin is a group of small tropical islands filled with markets and many different cultures such as Dutch, Hindu, Jewish, Portuguese, and British. [22] The distinct Jewish community was called Anjuvannam. The still-functioning synagogue in Mattancherry belongs to the Paradesi Jews, the descendants of Sephardim that were expelled from Spain in 1492, [21] although the Jewish community in Mattancherry adjacent to Fort Cochin had only six remaining members as of 2015. [23]

Judea The mountainous southern part of the region of Palestine

Judea or Judæa is the ancient Hebrew and Israelite biblical, the exonymic Roman/English, and the modern-day name of the mountainous southern part of the region of Palestine. The name originates from the Hebrew name Yehudah, a son of the Jewish patriarch Jacob/Israel, and Yehudah's progeny forming the biblical Israelite tribe of Judah (Yehudah) and later the associated Kingdom of Judah, which the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia dates from 934 until 586 BCE. The name of the region continued to be incorporated through the Babylonian conquest, Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman periods as Yehud, Yehud Medinata, Hasmonean Judea, and consequently Herodian Judea and Roman Judea, respectively.

Second Temple Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem between 516 BC and 70 AD

The Second Temple was the Jewish holy temple which stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period, between 516 BCE and 70 CE. It replaced Solomon's Temple, which was destroyed by the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE, when Jerusalem was conquered and part of the population of the Kingdom of Judah was taken into exile to Babylon.


Anjuvannam typically refers to a medieval merchant guild, consisting of non-Indian traders, primarily active in south India. Along with Manigiramam/Manigramam and "Ainurruvar", the Anjuvannam merchant guild played a major role in the commercial activities of the region. Unlike Manigiramam, which was also operating in Indian hinterland, the presence of Anjuvannam is found only in coastal towns.

Central to the history of the Cochin Jews is their close relationship with Indian rulers, and this was eventually codified on a set of copper plates granting the community special privileges. The date of these plates, known as "Sâsanam", [24] is contentious. The plates themselves provide a date of 379 CE, but in 1925, tradition was setting it as 1069 CE, [25] Joseph Rabban by Bhaskara Ravi Varma, the fourth ruler of Maliban granted the copper plates to the Jews. The plates were inscribed with a message stating that the village of Anjuvannam belonged to the Jews and that they were the rightful lords of Anjuvannam and it should remain theirs and be passed on to their Jewish descendants "so long as the world and moon exist". This is the earliest document that shows that the Jews were living in India permanently. It is stored in Cochins main synagogue. [26] The Jews settled in Kodungallur (Cranganore) on the Malabar Coast, where they traded peacefully, until 1524. The Jewish leader Rabban was granted the rank of prince over the Jews of Cochin, given the rulership and tax revenue of a pocket principality in Anjuvannam, near Cranganore, and rights to seventy-two "free houses". [27] The Hindu king gave permission in perpetuity (or, in the more poetic expression of those days, "as long as the world and moon exist") for Jews to live freely, build synagogues, and own property "without conditions attached". [28] [29] A link back to Rabban, "the king of Shingly" (another name for Cranganore), was a sign of both purity and prestige. Rabban's descendants maintained this distinct community until a chieftainship dispute broke out between two brothers, one of them named Joseph Azar, in the 16th century. The Jews lived peacefully for over a thousand years in Anjuvannam. After the reign of the Rabban's, the Jewish people no longer had the protection of the copper plates. Neighboring princes of Anjuvannam intervened and revoked all privileges that the Jewish people were given. In 1524, the Jews were attacked by the Moors brothers (Muslim Community) on a suspicion that they were messing with the pepper trade and the homes and synagogues belonging to them were destroyed. The damage was so extensive that when the Portuguese arrived a few years later, only a small amount of impoverished Jews remained. They remained there for 40 more years only to return to their land of Cochin. [26]

Joseph Rabban Yemeni merchant (0701-0800)

Joseph Rabban was a prominent Jewish merchant-cum-aristocrat in the entrepôt of Kodungallur (Muyirikkode) on the Malabar Coast, India in early 11th century CE.

Kodungallur Municipal town in Kerala, India

Kodungallur, is a municipality on the estuary of river Periyar on the Malabar Coast in Thrissur district of Kerala, India. It is situated 29 kilometres (18 mi) north of Kochi (Cochin) by National Highway 66. Kodungallur, being a port city at the northern end of the Kerala lagoons, was a strategic entry point for the naval fleets to the extensive Kerala backwaters.

Malabar Coast coastline on the southwestern shore line of the mainland Indian subcontinent

The Malabar Coast is a coastline on the southwestern shore line of the mainland Indian subcontinent. Geographically, it comprises the wettest regions of southern India, as the Western Ghats intercept the moisture-laden monsoon rains, especially on their westward-facing mountain slopes. The term "Malabar Coast" is sometimes used to refer to the entire Indian coast from the western coast of Konkan to the tip of the subcontinent at Kanyakumari.

In Mala, Thrissur District, the Malabar Jews have a Synagogue and a cemetery, as well as in Chennamangalam, Parur and Ernakulam. [30] There are at least seven existing synagogues in Kerala, although not serving their original purpose anymore.

Madras Jews

Plan of Fort St George and the city of Madras in 1726,Shows the "Jews Burying Place" (marked as "b."), the "Jewish Cemetery Chennai", Four Brothers Garden and Bartolomeo Rodrigues Tomb Plan of Fort St George and the City of Madras 1726.jpg
Plan of Fort St George and the city of Madras in 1726,Shows the "Jews Burying Place" (marked as "b."), the "Jewish Cemetery Chennai", Four Brothers Garden and Bartolomeo Rodrigues Tomb
Rabbi Salomon Halevi (last Rabbi of Madras Synagogue) and his wife Rebecca Cohen, Paradesi Jews of Madras Rabbi Salomon Halevi and Rebecca Cohen, Paradesi Jews of Madras.jpg
Rabbi Salomon Halevi (last Rabbi of Madras Synagogue) and his wife Rebecca Cohen, Paradesi Jews of Madras

Jews also settled in Madras (now Chennai) soon after its founding in 1640. [31] Most of them were coral merchants from Leghorn, the Caribbean, London, and Amsterdam who were of Portuguese origin and belonged to the Henriques De Castro, Franco, Paiva or Porto families. [31]

Chennai Megacity in Tamil Nadu, India

Chennai is the capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Located on the Coromandel Coast off the Bay of Bengal, it is the biggest cultural, economic and educational centre of south India. According to the 2011 Indian census, it is the sixth-most populous city and fourth-most populous urban agglomeration in India. The city together with the adjoining regions constitute the Chennai Metropolitan Area, which is the 36th-largest urban area by population in the world. Chennai is among the most-visited Indian cities by foreign tourists. It was ranked the 43rd-most visited city in the world for the year 2015. The Quality of Living Survey rated Chennai as the safest city in India. Chennai attracts 45 percent of health tourists visiting India, and 30 to 40 percent of domestic health tourists. As such, it is termed "India's health capital". As a growing metropolitan city in a developing country, Chennai confronts substantial pollution and other logistical and socio-economic problems.

Jacques (Jaime) de Paiva (Pavia), originally from Amsterdam, was an early Jewish arrival and a leader of the community. He established good relations with those in power and bought several mines. Through his efforts, Jews were permitted to live within Fort St. George. [32]

De Paiva died in 1687 after a visit to his mines and was buried in the Jewish cemetery he had established in Peddanaickenpet, which later became the north Mint Street. [32] [lower-alpha 1] In 1670, the Portuguese population in Madras numbered around 3000. [34] Before his death he established "The Colony of Jewish Traders of Madraspatam" with Antonio do Porto, Pedro Pereira and Fernando Mendes Henriques. [32] This enabled more Portuguese Jews, from Leghorn, the Caribbean, London and Amsterdam, to settle in Madras.[ citation needed ] Coral Merchant Street was named after the Jews' business. [35]

Three Portuguese Jews were nominated to be aldermen of Madras Corporation. [36] Three - Bartolomeo Rodrigues, Domingo do Porto and Alvaro da Fonseca - also founded the largest trading house in Madras. The large tomb of Rodrigues, who died in Madras in 1692, became a landmark in Peddanaickenpet, but was later destroyed. [37]

Samuel de Castro came to Madras from Curaçao and Salomon Franco came from Leghorn. [32] [38]

In 1688, there were three Jewish representatives in the Madras Corporation. [31] Most Jewish settlers resided in the Coral Merchants Street in Muthialpet. [31] They also had a cemetery, called Jewish Cemetery Chennai in the neighbouring Peddanaickenpet. [31]

Bene Israel

A photo of Marathi Bene Israel family in Alibag, Bombay Presidency. Beni-israel-india-2.jpg
A photo of Marathi Bene Israel family in Alibag, Bombay Presidency.

Foreign notices of the Bene Israel go back at least to 1768, when Yechezkel Rahabi wrote to a Dutch trading partner that they were widespread in Maharatta Province, and observed two Jewish observances, recital of the Shema and observation of Shabbat rest. [39] They claim that they descend from 14 Jewish men and women, equally divided by gender, who survived the shipwreck of refugees from persecution or political turmoil, and came ashore at Navagaon near Alibag, 20 miles south of Mumbai, some 17 to 19 centuries ago. [39] They were instructed in the rudiments of normative Judaism by Cochin Jews. [39] Their Jewishness is controversial, and initially was not accepted by the Rabbinate in Israel. [39] Since 1964 however they intermarried throughout Israel and are now considered Israeli and Jewish in all respects. [40]

They are divided into sub-castes which do not intermarry: the dark-skinned "Kara" and fair-skinned "Gora." The latter are believed to be lineal descendants of the shipwreck survivors, while the former are considered to descend from concubinage of a male with local women. [39] They were nicknamed the shanivār telī ("Saturday oil-pressers") by the local population as they abstained from work on Saturdays. Bene Israel communities and synagogues are situated in Pen, Mumbai, Alibag, Pune and Ahmedabad with smaller communities scattered around India. The largest synagogue in Asia outside Israel is in Pune (Ohel David Synagogue).

Mumbai had a thriving Bene Israel community until the 1950s to 1960s when many families from the community emigrated to the fledgling state of Israel, where they are known as Hodi'im (Indians). [39] The Bene Israel community has risen to many positions of prominence in Israel. [41] In India itself the Bene Israel community has shrunk considerably with many of the old Synagogues falling into disuse.

Unlike many parts of the world, Jews have historically lived in India without any instances of anti-Semitism from the local majority populace, the Hindus. [42] However, Jews were persecuted by the Portuguese during their control of Goa. [43] [ verification needed ]


South Asian Jews & Baghdadi Jews

Knesset Eliyahoo, a 150-year-old Jewish Synagogue in Fort, Mumbai, India Keneseth Eliyahu Synagogue of Bombay.jpg
Knesset Eliyahoo, a 150-year-old Jewish Synagogue in Fort, Mumbai, India

The first known Baghdadi Jewish immigrant to India, Joseph Semah, arrived in the port city of Surat in 1730. He and other early immigrants established a synagogue and cemetery in Surat, though most of the city's Jewish community eventually moved to Bombay (Mumbai), where they established a new synagogue and cemetery. They were traders and quickly became one of the most prosperous communities in the city. As philanthropists, some donated their wealth for public building projects. The Sassoon Docks and David Sassoon Library are some of the famous landmarks still standing today.

The Magen David Synagogue of Kolkata was built in 1884 Interiors in wider view of Magen David Synagogue, Kolkata.jpg
The Magen David Synagogue of Kolkata was built in 1884

The synagogue in Surat was eventually razed; the cemetery, though in poor condition, can still be seen on the Katargam-Amroli road. One of the graves within is that of Moseh Tobi, buried in 1769, who was described as 'ha-Nasi ha-Zaken' (The Elder Prince) by David Solomon Sassoon in his book A History of the Jews in Baghdad (Simon Wallenburg Press, 2006, ISBN   184356002X).

Baghdadi Jewish populations spread beyond Bombay to other parts of India, with an important community forming in Calcutta (Kolkata). Scions of this community did well in trade (particularly jute and tea), and in later years contributed officers to the army. One, Lt-Gen J. F. R. Jacob PVSM, became state governor of Goa (1998–1999), then Punjab, and later served as administrator of Chandigarh. Pramila (Esther Victoria Abraham) became the first ever Miss India, in 1947.

Bnei Menashe

Flag of Bnei Menashe Flag of Bnei Menashe.svg
Flag of Bnei Menashe

The Bnei Menashe are a group of more than 9,000 people from the northeastern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur [19] who practice a form of biblical Judaism and claim descent from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. [44] They were originally headhunters and animists, and converted to Christianity at the beginning of the 20th century, but began converting to Judaism in the 1970s. [45]

Bene Ephraim

The Bene Ephraim are a small group of Telugu-speaking Jews in eastern Andhra Pradesh whose recorded observance of Judaism, like that of the Bnei Menashe, is quite recent, dating only to 1991. [46]

There are a few families in Andhra Pradesh who follow Judaism. Many among them follow the customs of Orthodox Jews, like wearing long beards by men and using head coverings (men) and hair coverings (women) all the time. [47]

Delhi Jewry

Ohel David Synagogue of Pune is the largest active synagogue in India Ohel David Synagogue.jpg
Ohel David Synagogue of Pune is the largest active synagogue in India

Judaism in Delhi is primarily focused on the expatriate community who work in Delhi, as well as Israeli diplomats and a small local community. In Paharganj, Chabad has set up a synagogue and religious center in a backpacker area regularly visited by Israeli tourists.


The majority of Indian Jews have "made Aliyah" (migrated) to Israel since the creation of the modern state in 1948. Over 70,000 Indian Jews now live in Israel (over 1% of Israel's total population).[ citation needed ] Of the remaining 5,000, the largest community is concentrated in Mumbai, where 3,500 have stayed over from the over 30,000 Jews registered there in the 1940s, divided into Bene Israel and Baghdadi Jews, [48] though the Baghdadi Jews refused to recognize the B'nei Israel as Jews, and withheld dispensing charity to them for that reason. [39] There are reminders of Jewish localities in Kerala still left such as Synagogues. The majority of Jews from the old British-Indian capital of Calcutta (Kolkata) have also migrated to Israel over the last six decades.

Notable Jews of Indian descent

Anish Kapoor, sculptor Anish Kapoor 2017.jpg
Anish Kapoor, sculptor
Sulochana, actress Sulochana publicity still from Prem-Ki-Jyot (1939).jpg
Sulochana, actress


  1. A synagogue once also existed at Mint Street. [33]

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Shalva Weil is a Senior Researcher at The Research Institute for Innovation and Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Research Fellow in the Department of Biblical and Ancient Studies at UNISA. In 2017, she was GIAN Distinguished Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, in New Delhi. She has researched Indian Jews, Ethiopian Jews, and the Ten Lost Tribes and specializes in femicide, qualitative methods, violence, ethnicity, education, religion, and migration.

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Further reading