Hanging on in quiet desperation
The lure of spices provided a heady incentive for travellers and merchants to visit the Malabar coast and because of its rather cosmopolitan lifestyle it seemed an attractive haven for refugees, none more so than for the Jews.
It is claimed that Jews arrived in India following the destruction of the First Temple of Jerusalem in 567BCE but, more likely, the first serious wave of Jewish refugees arrived on the coast around 70CE following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. They landed at the then thriving port of Cranganore (also known as Shingly) and many made it their home. So extensive was the Jewish community that the port became known as the Jerusalem of India.
Unlike in many other territories where the Jews sought refuge and were either tolerated on sufferance or positively discriminated against, the Keralan Jews developed good relationships with the Hindu community, so much so that in around the 11th century CE – the precise dating is somewhat controversial – the Hindu king at the time gave permission in perpetuity for the Jews to live freely, build synagogues and own property without any conditions. These privileges were codified on a set of copper plates known as Sasanam. The actual inscription has a date of 379CE but most experts have concluded that this was fictitious.
A serious flood in 1341 silted up the harbour at Cranganore in 1341 and so the trading community moved down the coast to what is now Kochi. The arrival of the Portuguese brought with it religious persecution and the Jews, along with the local Hindus, suffered terribly at the hands of the first European conquerors. Probably that is why the Jewish community were supportive of the Dutch and assisted them in eventually driving the Iberians further up the coastline to Goa.
The defeat of the Moors in Spain and the religious persecution unleashed under the Inquisition led to a diaspora of Sephardic Jews, some of whom arrived in Kochi during the 16th century. They were known as Paradesi Jews or foreign Jews or, pejoratively, White Jews, to distinguish them from the now indigenous Malabari Jews whose pejorative name was Black Jews. What seems astonishing is that coming from a heritage of discrimination and persecution, the Jewish community, once established in Kochi, practised their own form of apartheid.
Although their beliefs, customs and habits were the same, Paradesi Jews kept themselves away from the Malabari, refusing to mix, worship together or marry. Of course, there being a relatively small Paradesi community and a correspondingly small gene pool, this was a disastrous policy from a genetic perspective and the community over time suffered from the problems surrounding inter-breeding. The establishment of an independent Israel was a god send and many took the opportunity to escape the genetic time-bomb and settled there. Today there are just 7 Paradesi.
This, in itself, causes a problem. In order to have a quorum to hold a religious service there needs to be 10 men present. This requirement has led to a rapprochement between the two communities. It also means that if you are a Jewish male visiting Kochi you are likely to be pounced on!
The Paradesi synagogue, built in 1567 and the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth, has a beautiful marble floor, an impressive chandelier and shares a common wall with the adjacent Mattancherry Palace temple, representing the harmonious relationship between the Jews and the then Hindu rulers. One of the seven surviving Paradesi Jews collects your admission money.