For me, it was a significant trip to Cochin, Kerala (nicknamed as “God’s Own Country”; abbreviated as “Godzone”), South India, and the surrounding places, where Jewish and Christian traditions are closely knitted together. It is believed that the Cochin Jews arrived in India 2,500 years ago and settled down in kerala as traders. I was told that while the Jews were having tough times across the globe (including Christian majority worlds in the West and other parts of India), the Jews of Cochin were enjoying their peaceful life under the Maharajahs of Cochin. Some of the following traditional and historical details, i.e., down from the Solomonic Era to the contemporary context, are caricatured by the help of attractive murals on the walls of the Old Synagogue in Cochin. Other descriptions below are from the writings of Benjamin Israel and Koder. They help us to know about the relationship between Kerala and the Jewish Kingdom of the biblical as well as the extra-biblical narratives.
- There was a trade between King Solomon’s Kingdom (992-952 BC) and Malabar Coast. The Biblical name for India was “Odhu”. Teak, ivory, spices, sandalwood and peacocks were exported from India.
- Destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD by the Romans and the consequent dispersal of the Jews to the four corners of the earth from Palestine.
- Landing of the Jews at Shingly (‘Cranganore’ or modern ‘Kodungalloor’) in 72 AD. S. S. Koder (1965: 2) reports that, “A small hill known as ‘Jooda Kunnu’, a tank known as ‘Jooda Kulam’, the Jewish copper plates and the Syrian Christian plates with the signature of four Jewish witnesses in Judeo-Persian, which incidentally is the second oldest inscription in Judeo-Persian in the world, are a few of the ancient relics that can still be seen to remind one of the glorious past of this forgotten outpost of the Jewish world”.
- The Rajah (or King) of Cranganore received the Jews.
- In 379 AD the Jews, under Joseph Rabban the leader of the Jews, established a Jewish kingdom in Anjuvannam (or Cranganore). Joseph Rabban became the prince of the kingdom. One of the rabbis wrote in the fourteenth century as follows: “I have travelled from Spain. I had heard of the city of Shingly (i.e., Cranganore). I had longed to see an Israel King. Him I saw with my own eyes” (cf. Benjamin J. Israel, 1982: 38-39).
- Two of the original silver trumpets used in the Second Temple at Jerusalem, with the ineffable name carved on them were brought to Cranganore and were blown by the Levites on the eve of Sabbath. Once the Levites were late and the laity (non-Levites) usurped their privilege and in the resulting quarrel, the trumpets were unfortunately destroyed.
- Destruction of Cranganore by the Moors and Portuguese in 1524 AD. Joseph Azar, the last Jewish prince, swam to Cochin with his wife on his shoulders. The Jews placed themselves under the protection of the Maharajah of Cochin.
- Construction of the Cochin Synagogue next to the Maharajah’s palace and Temple in 1568 AD.
- Partial destruction of the Cochin Synagogue by the Portuguese in 1662.
- Re-building of the Cochin Synagogue in 1664.Building of the Clock Tower by Ezekiel Rahabi in 1760.
- Tiling of the Synagogue with tiles from Canton by Ezekiel Rahabi in 1762.
- The Maharajah of Travancore presenting a golden crown for the Torah in 1805.
- Celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Synagogue in 1968.
- The last reigning Maharajah of Cochin addressed his Jewish subjects in the Synagogue before relinquishing his throne in 1949.
There is a minority Jewish settlement in Mattancherry (Cochin, Kerala) even today. On Sabbath days, around 50 people gather together for prayer and worship services. Benjamin J. Israel (1982: 38) says, “…there are now only a handful of Jews left in Cochin and, since most of them are elderly, there is a distinct possibility that, within a measurable time, they will remain only a historical memory so long as Jew Town in Cochin retains its name. But an account of the Jews of Cochin cannot be excluded from even a short description of Indian Jewry in view of their stay for over a thousand years in India and the mark they left on the history of Malabar”. It is a minute group in comparison to the Sabbath gatherings in Mumbai, Kolkata, and other parts of the nation. But, the settlement of Cranganore/Cochin is one of the oldest Jewish settlements in the world.
For Further Reference:
Israel, Benjamin J. The Jews of India. New Delhi: Mosaic Books, 1982.
Koder, S. S. Kerala and Her Jews. Cochin: Cochin Synagogue.
Compiled by: Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India