History of the Jews in India

overview of the historical presence and impact of the Jewish people in India

The history of the Jews in India reaches back to ancient history. Judaism was one of the first foreign religions to arrive in India in recorded history. Indian Jews are a religious minority in India who have historically lived there without any instances of anti-Semitism from the local non-jewish majority.

Arrival of the Jewish pilgrims at Cochin, A.D. 68

Quotes Edit

  • Who is not curious as to how the Jews of India survived for so long in an atmosphere of tolerance when other Jewish communities such as that in China, benefiting from similar toleration, assimilated so thoroughly. Their argument is that India as a host society combined tolerance with culturally enforced diversity which made the difference. Indian society, with its several major religions and further division within Hinduism into four major castes, a fifth of outcasts, and over 3,000 subcastes, tolerates wide diversity but does not permit people born into one group to cross over into another or even to associate with the others beyond the public square, since the food taboos of every religious community, caste and subcaste mean that they cannot eat with one another. Nothing separates more than that. The Jewish community could fit into India as another caste and even developed its own subcastes, as the authors explain, properly denoting this as the Cochin Jews' one great (and sad) departure from halakhic Judaism.
  • Hail Prosperity! This is the gift that His majesty, King of Kings, Sri Bhaskara Ravi Varman, who is to wield sceptre for several thousand years, was pleased to make during the thirty sixth year opposite to the second year of his reign [according to Narayanan, 1000 C.E.], on the day when he was pleased to reside at Muyirkkode. We have granted to Joseph Rabban, Ancuvannam, tolls by the boat and by carts, Ancuvannam dues, the right to employ day lamp, decorative cloth, palanquin, umbrella, kettledrum, trumpet, arch, arched roof, weapon and the rest of the seventy-two privileges. We have remitted duty and weighing fee. Moreover, according to this copper-plate grant given to him, he shall be exempted from payments made by other settlers in the town to the king, but he shall enjoy what they enjoy. To Joseph Rabban, proprietor of Ancuvannam, his male and female issues, nephews and sons-in-law, Ancuvannam shall belong by hereditary succession. Ancuvannam shall belong to them by hereditary succession as long as the world, sun and moon endure. Prosperity!
  • The question is all the more poignant when we consider that the idea of a Jewish-Brahmin connection was already quite ancient. In his plea Contra Apionem (1.179) the Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus quotes Aristotle’s pupil Clearchos of Soli as having claimed that Aristotle had been very impressed once with the discourses of a Jewish visitor, and more so with the steadfastness of his dietary discipline, and had concluded that in origin the Jews had been Indian philosophers. A similar claim is found in the Hellenistic-Jewish philosopher Aristoboulos. So, two millennia before Nietzsche, an Indian origin was already ascribed to the Jews.
    • Elst, Koenraad. Manu as a weapon against egalitarianism: Nietzsche and Hindu political philosophy in : Siemens & Vasti Roodt, eds.: Nietzsche, Power and Politics (Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 2008).
  • But only in the early Islamic caliphate the Jews began to develop an important ‘trade diaspora’, and it was only then that the an­cient Jewish communities in India succeeded in re-establishing links with the Middle East and emerged from obscurity. We will also see that the fate of most Jewish communities in India remained intimately linked to that of the Middle-Eastern Jews and that their fortune followed the political vicissitudes of Islam. The eighth to twelfth centuries, in sum­mary, were the palmy age of the Jews in India, but Jewish success in India was dependent on the presence of Jews in the Islamic Middle East and Egypt and hence did not survive the latter’s migration to Europe.
    • Wink A Al-Hind, The Making of the Indo-Islamic World. Volume 1 p 86ff
  • Other historical factors which affected the position of the Jews in Islam were the revival of Greek learning and especially the development of the India trade. The new Jewish prominence in medicine and phar­macy was probably due to their deep involvement in both the transmis­sion of Greek science and the trade with India and the Far East simulta­neously.77 In the ninth-century Abbasid caliphate, as we have seen, the India trade became the foundation of the international economy, con­tributing also to a tremendous upsurge of internal commerce and, sub­sequently, the shift towards a unified bi-metallic currency system which encompassed the eastern and western caliphates. At this point, the cen­tral and hegemonic position of the Babylonian Jewry gave them a head­ start not only in the long-distace trade with India but in the organization of finance and also state finance generally.... The great Jewish banking houses of Baghdad also financed the Jewish radhanlya trade which extended - both overland and by sea - from Western Europe to the Middle East and to Sind and Hind and China.
    • Wink A Al-Hind, The Making of the Indo-Islamic World. Volume 1 p 86ff
  • Fatimid Egypt (with North Africa) by the tenth century took over an important part of the India trade from their rivals in Iraq. The result was a vast migration of Jews to Cairo. When Baghdad declined and the Abbasids began to lose more and more power in the east and in the west, from the late tenth century and especially after the Seljuq invasion and the beginning of the Cru­sades (1096), an even larger portion of the India trade was redirected to Egypt. In Egypt the Jews again obtained a disproportionate share in this trade in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when it became one of their main pursuits. Jewish trading stations, linked to Egypt and the Red Sea termini, can be located in over twenty different places on the westcoast of India, to the south of Broach, and further in Indonesia. And in Egypt too the Jews sometimes attained high positions at court. But they were no longer as dominant as they had been in Baghdad, and the India trade of the tenth to twelfth centuries which is described in the Cairo Geniza documents was carried out and financed to a far greater degree by Mus­lims based in the Mediterranean area.83 Still, Cairo became an increas­ingly important centre of Jewish mercantile and financial activity. Egypt - Egyptian Muslims and Egyptian jlw ry - became the new in­termediary between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, with the old Babylonian centre receding to the background.
    • Wink A Al-Hind, The Making of the Indo-Islamic World. Volume 1 p 90ff
  • We have seen now that after the tenth century the most important centres of the Jewish diaspora were no longer in Babylonia or in the Islamic capital of Baghdad (which however remained the seat of the Gaonate and the Exilarch) but shifted westward to Egypt and Spain, and eastward to Khurasan, Central Asia and the frontier of Hind... Egypt, after the fall of Constantinople in 1204, virtually monopolized the Indian transit trade but the Jews were expelled from this trade and an association of Arab traders known as the karimi took over... All along the northern overland routes from India, in Sind and Afghanistan, the Babylonian-Persian Jewry spread and be­ came an important commercial intermediary between the Islamic world on the one hand and India and Central Asia on the other. Jewish settle­ ment in this period rapidly increased here, until in the thirteenth century the Mongols brought Jewish involvement in trade and finance to a low pitch. It is quite clear that the elimination of the Jewish intermediary from the overland India trade virtually coincided in time with the elimi­nation of the Jews from the maritime trade between coastal western In­ dia and Malabar and Egypt. In Malabar, Muslim traders superseded the Jewish and, to a lesser extent, Christian guilds. Jewish involvement in the trade between India and the Islamic lands of the Middle East, then, after reaching a peak in the tenth to eleventh centuries, eclipsed in the twelfth or thirteenth century - at the same time that the Jewish transition to Latin Christianity occurred. The simultaneousness of these developments appears to be no accident.
    • Wink A Al-Hind, The Making of the Indo-Islamic World. Volume 1 p 90-93
  • Two clusters of settlements developed, one in the north, spreading out from Khurasan, and one on the westcoast, mainly Malabar, which was important in the maritime network. It seems certain that in both areas the Jews were relatively thin on the ground before the rise of Islam, although in Malabar a considerable community did exist. The earliest and most significant settlement of Jews in India was the one on the Malabar coast and these Jews had probably come by sea after the destruction of the second temple. According to legend the presence of Jews in Khurasan and on the north-western frontier of India also dates from pre-Islamic times.
    • Wink A Al-Hind, The Making of the Indo-Islamic World. Volume 1 p 94ff
  • The first definite proof of the existence of a Jewish colony near Cranganore is, in the meantime, the Tamil charter of Bhaskara Ravivarman (978-1036 A.D.), a grant of lands and privi­leges, written in the obsolete Vatteluttu script of ancient Tamil. Jewish, Muslim and Christian travel accounts of the twelfth and thir­teenth centuries mention small Jewish settlements all along the Malabar coast, in towns such as Calicut, Quilon and Cranganore (Shingali), and at various places further north... The Jews of Malabar came to be divided in ‘White’ and ‘Black’ Jews and the latter were either the offspring of mixed marriages between Jews and Hindus or descendants of Hindus who had converted to Juda­ism.125 White Jews say that the Black Jews are descendants of the nu­merous slaves who were purchased and who converted to Judaism to be manumitted. The Black Jews themselves claim to be the descendants of the Israelites of the first captivity.126 However that may be, the main source of replenishment of the Malabar Jews still remained the Islamic Middle East.
    • Wink A Al-Hind, The Making of the Indo-Islamic World. Volume 1 p 99-100ff
  • In India the history of Jewish migration and settlement and of the development of Judaism after the twelfth century was less chequered than in Europe, but also less fruitful. Persecutions on a systematic scale are not in evidence at any time. Yet the career of the Jews in India was abortive. A recent collection of essays on Indian Jews has once again revealed ‘that there is remarkably little interaction with the Hindu religious tradition, classical and popular’. ... Ultimately the success of Jewish trade and the prosperity of the Jewish communities in India derived from the promi­nent position which the Jews occupied in Baghdad, Cairo and elsewhere in the Islamic Middle East in the period before they were absorbed by Europe.
    • Wink A Al-Hind, The Making of the Indo-Islamic World. Volume 1 p 103ff

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