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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Jews of Cochin

During the second half of September, two years ago, I happened to be at Kochi (Cochin). My younger brother drove me and my family around the city and finally we were at the mouth of a narrow lane known as Jews Street in Mattanchery. We parked the car at some distance and made our way through the lane. Months before my coming here, I had seen a malayalam movie "Gramaphone" and some of its settings seemed to come alive. Most of the shops along the road were selling antiques and souvenirs. I was fascinated to see some beautiful ceramic knobs used for drawers/cupboards etc. I bought couple of them. Some of the shops had large warehouses on the back side filled with antiquities. Old pillars, door jambs, large vessels and many such things. Once upon a time it was the main trading centre of the Jews, one of the most respected and tolerated communities, whose number has drastically dwindled to a dozen.

At the far end, the old Paradesi Synagogue (1568) with its age old clock tower (1760), still stands as a meek witness of the prosperity, the street once boasted. When we were at half a distance, many people were seen assembled in front of a particular house at the right of the road. They were all gossiping. We peeped inside the house through an open window. There was a large hall and a corpse lied there on a couch, with oil lamps lit. My heart was filled with remorse to learn that the 13th Jew has departed (12 more remain). Also that the cremation had been kept in abeyance due to lack of quorum. Jews need at least 10 persons of their community to witness any religious function. They were supposed to be hunting nearby places in search of people from their community, living in Ernakulam, Mala, Chennamangalam etc. I went inside the house, went near the dead body and paid my homage's. It seems, I stood there for quite some time and moved out only after a prompt from my brother.

Kerala coast is famous for its spices from times immemorial and there was an active trade with several other countries through the main port of Muzris (Kodungallur, Cranganore). Jews are supposed to be visiting Kerala coast from the times of King Solomon of Israel (967 BCE). Settlement of Jews in Kodungallur, according to their own legends, started after the destruction of the second temple at Jerusalem, during the beginning of the Christian era. According to their own account, they came here in several batches over a period of time. They had a head man of their tribe known as Suranum Moplah and some 1000 families arrived in the first batch in 68 AD. 3/4th of them settled in Kodungallur and rest of them moved to nearby places like Chennamangalam, Mala etc. They claim to have received a copper plate from the local ruler, Cheraman Perumal, conferring on the community special privileges as also the land referred to as Anjuvanam. This copper plate is said to have been issued in 378 AD on the 36th year of the rule of the Perumal. As we would see, this claim is totally unfounded. There are no other archaeological evidences to establish their claims. However, at Chennamangalam, there is a very old tomb stone, inscribed in Hebrew "Sara the daughter of Israel 1269".

There seems to have been attempts to distort the historical facts, either by destroying or fabricating evidences by various interested groups. Incidentally, the above referred copper plates are not the originals. The original plate was said to be made of brass and was engraved on both sides. One Rev. C. Buchanan, made out facsimiles on two copper plates which is presently available. He is stated to have deposited the original with the University of Cambridge leaving the duplicates with the Jewish community. As per the translation provided, the grant was made to Joseph Rabban (Isuppu Irabban) and 72 families. A grant made to the Christian community at that time, is said to have been copied from the plates referred above. Looking at the script of the inscription, palaeographically, it is barely datable to 10th Century AD. As is assumed, the grant was made by a ruler named Bhaskara Ravi Varman  (962-1020 AD).

During 1341, due to geological disturbances, including floods, the coast line got altered. the flourishng port of Cranganore (Kodungallur) became unserviceable due to heavy siltation and Cochin became the main centre of commercial activity. In order not to harm their livelihood, the Jews were given land for building homes and for agriculture outside Cranganore to the east of Cochin in a place known as Kachangadi. A synagogue was built there in 1344. A sign placed there during that time is now at the Paradesi Synagogue.

In 1524 the Portuguese conquered Cranganore. They brought about the destruction of the community through forced conversions and burnt the existing Synagogue along with the manuscripts, preserved by the Jews since their arrival in the area. Even the Jewish cemeteries were destroyed. During the same period Muslims also attacked the community backed by the rulers of Calicut due to business rivalry in the Pepper trade. Thus all the Jews fled to Cochin, Chennamangalam, Palayur, Pullut, Quilon, Chowghat etc. Cranganore, now became devoid of any traces of Jewish habitation which once flourished there.

In 1663, the Dutch East India Company, after a battle with the Portuguese, gained control over the area. The Jews gave full support to the local Raja and the Dutch to get rid of the Portuguese. Once again the stars were in their favour. The Jews started flourishing. The Dutch were Protestants and unlike Portuguese, were tolerant towards other faiths. They even brought printed Torah (the Bible of the Jews) scrolls and prayer books for the Cochin Jews from Holland. In 1686 there were 10 synagogues and nearly 500 Jewish families in Cochin.

The Cochin Jews were divided into three major categories, the biggest group known as Meyuhassim (priviled) were the natives (early settlers) speaking the local dialect. They were also referred to as Black Jews although they were not really blacks. The second group was the Pardesi Jews or the White Jews who were foreigners from Spain, Holland, Poland, Ezypt etc . settled there. The third category Meshuhararim consisted of erstwhile slaves converted to Judaism on emancipation. They had separate synagogues, Theckoombagam, Paradesi and Kadavumbagam respectively.

The major cause for reduction in the population of the Jewish community in Cochin is attributable to the creation of a separate Jewish Nation known as Israel. There had been large scale migration to that promised land from across the globe, Cochin not being an exception. Only the old and infirm were left behind. Time is not far away when we shall not see a single specie from that tribe. However, the Synagogue, a protected monument, with its beautiful interiors, decorated with Belgian cut glass chandeliers, laid with hand painted blue ceramic tiles brought from China in 1762 will continue to remind us of the Jewish connection.