Jewish Traders in the Malabar Coast, India

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Jewish Immigrants arriving in Kerala, India in AD 68 (an Artistic depiction)

The Silk Route comprised of terrestrial routes but it is relatively lesser known that it included maritime routes as well. The sea routes were used between 1st- 6th century AD between Mediterranean Basin and India during Roman Era. The use of the Monsoon winds enabled safer travel and enhanced trade between India and Rome. From the 9th Century, the Arab traders controlled the sea routes and then the Europeans from the 15th Century onwards. As Ships became the preferred mode of travel, the land routes of the Silk Road went into a decline.

While reading the book ‘In an Antique Land’ by Amitav Ghosh, I first stumbled upon the fact that Jews have lived in India since many centuries. I learned this through the story of Abraham bin Yiju (more about him later). Before we specifically talk about Jewish Traders in India, it is important to understand the position of Jewish traders in the World economy historically.

“Wishing to make the village of Speyer into a city, I thought to increase its glory a thousand fold by bringing in the Jews.”            
                                        — Rudiger Huozmann, Prince-Bishop of Speyer, 1084 AD

This quote probably sums up the commercial prowess of the Jews in that era. It is perhaps true that they were a sought after community due to their expertise in trade and advancement in other areas as well.

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Reference: “George Tsiagalakis / CC-BY-SA-4 licence”

The Indian-Roman trade through Southern India started around 1 AD. The port of Muziris (in Kerala) finds mention in several Greek and Roman literature texts. The trade between the two civilisations influenced both the cultures. In the Tamil Sangam literature too, there is mention of the Roman or ‘Yavana’ traders.

During this period, many Jews lived in the Roman empire and thrived economically (The Jewish-Roman Wars that started in 66 AD changed this dynamic of peaceful co-existence eventually). The earliest Jewish traders possibly visited the Indian Coast during this period. Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Jews continued to prosper in trade. One of the main reasons was their far flung networks of family and friends in a geographically distributed Jewish Diaspora.

For many centuries, the Jews were the link between the East and the West. The Arab postmaster in Spain, “Ibn-Kordadbeh, in the Book of Routes (857-874), mentions the Radamite Jews who speak Persian, Roman, Arab, and the Frankish, Spanish and Slav languages. They voyage from the Occident to the Orient, and from the Orient to the Occident, now by land and now by sea. They bring from the Occident eunuchs, women slaves, boys, silk, furs and swords. They embark in the land of the Franks, on the Western sea and sail to Farama (Pelustum) …. They proceed to Sind, India and China. On returning they are laden with musk, aloes, camphor, cinnamon and other products of Eastern lands. Some set sail for Constantinople in order to sell their merchandise there; others repair to the country of the Frank.” 

While there is no historical evidence yet but mentions in ancient texts point to a very early commercial connection between Judea and India’s Malabar coast. In the Book of Kings, it is narrated that the ships of King Solomon transported cargo such as Kofim (apes), tukim (peacocks) and almag (sandalwood) to the temple; these unique words in Hebrew are of South Indian origin. Traveler’s tales in the Talmud mention trade with India (Hoddu) and mention specific Indian commodities such as Ginger and Iron.

We know quite a bit about the community from the documents of the Cairo Geniza. Jews believe that destroying any document that has the word of God in any form is sacrilege. To dispose of such documents a room called Geniza was built, next to the synagogue where one could drop off these documents. These documents were preserved over centuries due to Egypt’s dry climate and were discovered in the late Nineteenth century. The documents describe trade between Arabian speaking Jews and their Hindu partners in spices, pharmaceuticals, spices, metals, gold, silver and silks from 11th to 13th century. The story of Abraham bin Yiju, a wealthy merchant who lived in Mangalore for many years was unearthed through the Geniza letters. He also married an Indian woman named Ashu (there is some reference in the letters which possibly states that she belonged to the Nair community) and had two children with her. There is a chapter dedicated to him in the book ‘When Asia was the World’ by Stewart Gordon. When Marco Polo traveled through India in the year 1293, he recorded a surprising encounter in his diaries about meeting Jews there who had developed a thriving community on India’s South-Western coast.

The Jews enjoyed privileges due to their close relationship with the Indian rulers. After a formal grant from the ruler, the Jews lived in and around Cochin and prospered for 1000 years. Eventually, Jews from Spain, the Netherlands and other European countries settled in Cochin and were known as the White Jews. The local/ Malabari Jews came to be known as Black Jews. However, Inter-marriages between the two communities did not take place.

Jews of India are not a homogenous community, they are divided into sub-communities with each having its own culture and traditions. There are three major groups : Cochin Jews, Bene Israel and Baghdadis who were the last to arrive from Syria and Iraq. There is even a small Jewish community in the North East India state of Manipur called Bene Maneshe. The Bene Israel community of Western India claim to be descended from a group of Jews who were ship wrecked in the area thousands of years ago.  Some believe they are descendants of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel who fled Northern Israel in 721 BC after the Assyrian invasion; others maintain their ancestors fled King Antiochus (the king who oppressed Jews in Israel during the time of the Hanukkah miracle.)

After the establishment of Israel in 1948, many of India’s Jews began to leave for new lives in the Jewish state. From a population of approximately 30,000 Indian Jews in 1948, only about 5,000 Jews remain in India today. Approximately 80,000 Jews of Indian origin keep their unique traditions alive in Israel. The Israeli towns of Dimona and Ashdod have been dubbed “Little India” by some residents and it’s common to hear words in Hindi and the Indian language of Marathi in some homes.

While Judaism was probably the first Monotheistic religion to arrive in India, there are only a few adherents in India today. The study of inter-mingling of communities and cultures often facilitated through trade is a fascinating one.

References:

  1. ‘When Asia was the World’- Stewart Gordon (Da Capo Press)
  2. https://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/en/NewsDetail/index/8/9886/The-Jews-OfIndia
  3. ‘Indian Jews and their heritage’- Sunday, Sept 7, 2003 , The Hindu Literary Review by K. Kunhikrishnan
  4. https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/the-jews-in-the-medieval-period by David Wachtel

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