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History of the Jews in India

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Title: History of the Jews in India  
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History of the Jews in India

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]

Judaism was one of the first foreign religions to arrive in India in recorded history.[4] Indian Jews are a religious minority of India, but unlike many parts of the world, have historically lived in India without any instances of antisemitism from the local majority populace, the Hindus. The better-established ancient communities have assimilated a large number of local traditions through cultural diffusion.[5] The Jewish population in India is hard to estimate since each Jewish community is distinct with different origins; while some allegedly arrived during the time of the Kingdom of Judah, others are seen by some as descendants of Israel's Ten Lost Tribes.[6] In addition to Jewish expatriates[7] and recent immigrants, there are five Jewish groups in India:

  1. The 'black' Malabar component of the Cochin Jews, according to Shalva Weil, might have arrived in India together with Solomon's merchants. The Cochin Jews settled down in Kerala as traders. The 'white' component is of European and other Jewish descent.[8]
  2. The Spanish and Portuguese Jews and British arrived at Madras during the 17th century, mainly as traders and diamond businessmen.[9] They also have a large presence in the former Portuguese colony of Goa, where the Goan Inquisition was initiated in 1560.[10]
  3. The Bene Israel or Bani Israel arrived in the state of Maharashtra 900 years ago.[11]
  4. Another branch of the Bene Israel community, resided in Karachi when until the Partition of India in 1947 when they fled to India (in particular: Mumbai). Many of them also moved to Israel. The Jews from Sindh, Punjab or Pathan area are often called incorrectly identified 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.
  5. The Baghdadi Jews arrived in the city of Surat from Iraq (and other Arab states), Iran, Afghanistan about 250 years ago.[2]
  6. The Bnei Menashe are Mizo and Kuki tribesmen in Manipur and Mizoram who are recent converts to Judaism.[12]
  7. The Bene Ephraim (also called "Telugu Jews") are a small group who speak Telugu; their observance of Judaism dates to 1981.


  • Cochin Jews 1
  • Bene Israel 2
    • Bombay/Mumbai 2.1
  • South Asian Jews & Baghdadi Jews 3
  • Bnei Menashe 4
  • Bene Ephraim 5
  • Delhi Jewry 6
  • Chennai 7
  • Today 8
    • New Communities 8.1
  • Notable Indian Jews 9
  • See also 10
  • References 11
    • Further reading 11.1
  • External links 12

Cochin Jews

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

The oldest of the Indian Jewish communities is in Cochin.[13][14] The traditional account is that traders from Judea arrived in the city of Cochin, Kerala, in 562 BCE, and that more Jews came as exiles from Israel in the year 70 CE. after the destruction of the Second Temple.[15] 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.[15]

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",[16] is contentious. The plates themselves provide a date of 379 CE, but in 1925 tradition was setting it as 1069 CE,[17] The Jews settled in Kodungallur (Cranganore) on the Malabar Coast, where they traded peacefully, until 1524. The Jewish leader Joseph 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".[18] 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".[19][20] 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.

In Mala, Thrissur District, the Malabar Jews have a Synagogue and a cemetery, as well as in Chennamangalam, Parur and Ernakulam.[21]

Bene Israel

Bene Israel women and children inside the Synagogue of Ahmedabad.

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 obvservation of Shabbat rest.[22] The legend of their origins claims that they descend from ancestors, 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.[22] They were instructed in the rudiments of normative Judaism by Cochin Jews.[22] Their Jewishness is controversial, and initially as not accepted by the Rabbinate in Israel.[22] Since 2009 however they intermarry throughout Israel and are considered Israeli and Jewish in all respects.[23]

They are divided into subcastes, which do not intermarry: 'Black' (Kara) and White (Gora), the latter believed to be lineal descendants of the shipwreck survivors, while the former are considered to descend from concubinage of a male with local women.[22] They were nicknamed the shanivār telī ("Saturday oil-pressers") by the local population as they abstained from work on Saturdays, Judaism's 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).[22] The Bene Israel community has risen to many positions of prominence in Israel.[24] 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 antisemitism from the local majority populace, the Hindus. However, Jews were persecuted by the Portuguese during their control of Goa.[25]


South Asian Jews & Baghdadi Jews

Knesset Eliyahoo, a 150-year-old Jewish Synagogue in Fort, Mumbai, India
Jewish children with their teacher in Samarkand. Photograph taken by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky sometime between 1909 and 1915.

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 to public structures. The David Sassoon Docks and Sassoon Library are some of the famous landmarks still standing today.

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’.

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 (1998–99), then Punjab, and later served as administrator of Chandigarh. Pramila (Esther Victoria Abraham) became the first ever Miss India, in 1947.

Bnei Menashe

The Bnei Menashe are a group of more than 9,000 people from the northeastern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur[12] who practice a form of biblical Judaism and claim descent from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Many were converted to Christianity and were originally headhunters and animists at the beginning of the 20th century, but began converting to Judaism in the 1970s.[26]

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 1981.

They were few families in Andhra Pradesh who follow Judaism. Many among them follow the customs those followed by Orthodox Jews like hair customs of having unshaved long side locks, having head covering all the time etc.,

Delhi Jewry

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.


Jews also settled in Madras (now Chennai) soon after its founding in 1640.[27] Most of them were coral merchants from England who were of Portuguese origin and belonged to the Paiva or Porto families.[27] In 1688, there were three Jewish representatives in the Madras Corporation.[27] Most Jewish settlers resided in the Coral Merchants Street in Muthialpet.[27] They also had a cemetery in the neighbouring Peddanaickenpet.[27] The Jewish population in Madras began to dwindle at the turn of the 18th century and it is not known whether there are any Jews still residing in the city. The last of the tombstones in the cemetery date to 1997.[27]


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). 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,[28] though the Baghdadi Jews refused to recognize the B'nei Israel as Jews, and withheld dispensing charity to them for that reason.[22] There are reminders of Jewish localities in Kerala still left such as Synagogues. Majority of Jews from the old British-Indian capital of Calcutta (Kolkata) have also migrated to Israel over the last six decades.

New Communities

In the beginning of the 21st century, new Jewish communities have been established in Mumbai, New Delhi, Bangalore, and other cities in India. The new communities have been established by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement which has sent rabbis to create those communities. The communities serve the religious and social needs of Jewish business people who have immigrated or visiting India, and Jewish backpackers touring India. The largest centre is the Nariman House in Mumbai.

Notable Indian Jews

See also


  1. ^ The Jews of India: A Story of Three Communities by Orpa Slapak. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. 2003. ISBN 965-278-179-7.
  2. ^ a b Weil, Shalva.India's Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life-Cycle. Mumbai: Marg Publications [first published in 2002; 3rd edn.]. 2009.
  3. ^ "Solomon To Cheraman". 
  4. ^ Weil, Shalva. "Indian Judaic Tradition" in Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby (eds) Religions in South Asia, London: Palgrave Publishers, 2006. pp. 169-183.
  5. ^ Weil, Shalva. "Bene Israel Rites and Routines" in Shalva Weil (ed.) India’s Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life-Cycle, Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2009. [first published in 2002; 3Arts, 54(2): 26-37.
  6. ^ Weil, Shalva. (1991) "Beyond the Sambatyon: the Myth of the Ten Lost Tribes." Tel-Aviv: Beth Hatefutsoth, the Nahum Goldman Museum of the Jewish Diaspora.
  7. ^ Weil, Shalva. "From Persecution to Freedom: Central European Jewish Refugees and their Jewish Host Communities in India" in Anil Bhatti and Johannes H. Voigt (eds) Jewish Exile in India 1933-1945, New Delhi: Manohar and Max Mueller Bhavan,1999. pp. 64-84.
  8. ^ Weil, Shalva. "Cochin Jews", in Judith Baskin (ed.) Cambridge Dictionary of Judaism and Jewish Culture, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. pp. 107.
  9. ^ Madras Jews
  10. ^ "A Jewish past annihilated over time". The Times of India. 
  11. ^ Weil, Shalva. "Bene Israel'" in Judith Baskin (ed.) Cambridge Dictionary of Judaism and Jewish Culture, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. pp. 59.
  12. ^ a b Weil, Shalva. "Lost Israelites from North-East India: Re-Traditionalisation and Conversion among the Shinlung from the Indo-Burmese Borderlands." The Anthropologist, 2004. 6(3): 219-233.
  13. ^ The Jews of India: A Story of Three Communities by Orpa Slapak. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. 2003. p. 27. ISBN 965-278-179-7.
  14. ^ Weil, Shalva. "Cochin Jews," in Carol R. Ember, Melvin Ember and Ian Skoggard (eds) Encyclopedia of World Cultures Supplement, New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2002. pp. 78-80.
  15. ^ a b Schreiber, Mordecai (2003). The Shengold Jewish Encyclopedia. Rockville, MD: Schreiber Publishing. p. 125.  
  16. ^ Burnell, Indian Antiquary, iii. 333–334
  17. ^ Katz, Nathan (2000). Who are the Jews of India?. University of California Press. p. 33.  
  18. ^ taken from WP article on Rabban, which appears to rely on Ken Blady's book Jewish Communities in Exotic Places. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson Inc., 2000. pp. 115–130. Weil, Shalva. "Symmetry between Christians and Jews in India: the Cnanite Christians and the Cochin Jews of Kerala." Contributions to Indian Sociology, 1982. 16(2): 175-196.
  19. ^ Three years in America, 1859–1862 (p. 59, p. 60) by Israel Joseph Benjamin
  20. ^ Roots of Dalit history, Christianity, theology, and spirituality (p. 28) by James Massey, I.S.P.C.K.
  21. ^ Weil, Shalva. "Where are Cochin Jews today? The Synagogues of Kerala, India.", Friends of Kerala Synagogues. 2011.
  22. ^ a b c d e f g Nathan Katz, Who Are the Jews of India?, California University Press, 2000 pp.91ff.
  23. ^ Joseph Hodes,From India to Israel: Identity, Immigration, and the Struggle for Religious Equality, McGill-Queen's Press 2014 pp.98ff.108.
  24. ^ Weil, Shalva. "Religious Leadership vs. Secular Authority: the Case of the Bene Israel." Eastern Anthropologist, 1996. 49(3- 4): 301-316.
  25. ^ Who are the Jews of India? - The S. Mark Taper Foundation imprint in Jewish studies. University of California Press. 2000. p. 26.  ; "When the Portuguese arrived in 1498, they brought a spirit of intolerance utterly alien to India. They soon established an Office of Inquisition at Goa, and at their hands Indian Jews experienced the only instance of antisemitism ever to occur in Indian soil."
  26. ^ "More than 7,200 Indian Jews to immigrate to Israel". The Times Of India. September 27, 2011. 
  27. ^ a b c d e f  
  28. ^ Rachel Delia Benaim, 'For India’s Largest Jewish Community, One Muslim Makes All the Tombstones,' Tablet 23 February 2015.
  29. ^
  30. ^ Weil, Shalva. "Esther David: The Bene Israel Novelist who Grew Up with a Tiger" in David Shulman and Shalva Weil (eds) Karmic Passages: Israeli Scholarship on India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008. pp. 232-253.

Further reading

  • India's Bene Israel: A Comprehensive Inquiry and Sourcebook Isenberg, Shirley Berry; Berkeley: Judah L. Magnes Museum, 1988
  • Indian Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life-Cycle Dr. Shalva Weil (ed). Mumbai: Marg Publications, 3rd ed. 2009
  • Indo-Judaic Studies in the Twenty-First Century: A Perspective from the Margin, Katz N., Chakravarti, R., Sinha, B. M. and Weil, S., New York and Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan. 2007
  • Karmic Passages: Israeli Scholarship on India,Shulman, D. and Weil, S. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.2008

External links

  •, Comprehensive Site of Jews in Inda
  •, Bnei Menashe Jews of North East India
  •, Jewish India
  • Indo-Judaic: Philosophy, Research, Studies and Cultural Community
  •, Jews in India
  •, Jews of India, includes a Photo Gallery & a Forum
  •, Kulanu's Indian Jews page
  • Abhishiv Saxena, "The Jews of India", (July 2, 2007)
  •, The Indian synagogues in Israel
  • Indian Jews - Jewish Encyclopedia
  • Bene Israel - Jewish Encyclopedia
  • Cochin Jews - Jewish Encyclopedia
  • Calcutta Jews - Jewish Encyclopedia
  • Indian Jews - Jewish Virtual Library
  • Photos of Synagogues of Calcutta
  • Information on synagogues in Kerala, India
  • Shaar Hashamaim
  • The Satamker family
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