There has been a lot of dispute about the date of arrival and settlement of the Cochin Jews in the ancient Kerala port of Cranganore, as renamed by the British (Kodungaloor to the Malayalis or Shingly to the Jews). There has been a history of trade between the Malabar (North Kerala – Cochin was then a part of Malabar) Coast and Israel, long before the establishment of the Cochin Jewish community. S.S.Koder in a paper presented in 1965 to the Kerala History Association traces the history of Jews in Kerala and states that “ from the 5th to the 15th century CE the Jews of Cranganore have had virtually an independent principality ruled over by a Prince of their own race and choice.”
There have been many theories regarding the Cochin Jews. One of them being - the first Jews to arrive in Kerala were said to be part of King Solomon’s fleet, resulting in the exodus from Persia in the 5th century BCE. Another theory is that the Kerala Jews were descendants of the Jews taken to Babylon by the Persian emperor Nebuchadnazar. However, it is widely believed that the first Jews came to Kerala as traders, after the destruction of the Second Temple of Palestine in the first Century BCE.
Another disputed theory amongscholarsisregarding the date of the copper plates handed by the 4th Century Kerala Ruler, Cheraman Perumal (Sri Parkaran Iravi Varman) to the Jewish chieftain, Joseph Rabban, granting him revenue and land. Joseph Rabban was thus made the prince of Anjuvannam and a Jewish principality was established in Cranganore in 379 CE. This date is disputed by various scholars and ranges from 379 to 750 CE. The copper plates are inscribed in Vattezhuthu, originally in Tamil script then prevalent in Thanjavur (Tamil Nadu), South Malabar and Travancore (Kerala). The relationship between Cheraman Perumal and JosephRabban is illustrative of the cordial relationships between the Hindus and Jews, which is still maintained in Kerala.
The Jews initially settled in Shingly (Cranganore), which was later abandoned for Cochin, as a result of the onslaught of the Moors in 1524 and the Portuguese invasion in 1550. The Cochin community was established under the patronage of the Maharaja of Cochin, Bhaskara Ravi Varma (of Perumpadappu Swarupam, one of the ruling royal families of Kerala), who donated land and property next to his Dutch Palace in Mattancheri, adjacent to the temple of his family deity, Pazhayannur Devi Temple . This theme of welcome, royal patronage and hospitality is a guiding metaphor for Hindu-Jewish symbiosis in Kerala. Even in recent times, the Department of Education in Kerala, consults the community on dates of Jewish festivals. Although holidays are not declared, examinations are not conducted in Keraladuring these auspicious datesof the Jewish calendar.
At present there are only 13 Jews in Mattancheri and about 50 in neighbouring Ernakulam. Most members of the Cochin community are over 60 years of age, with the youngest member being 30. During my interviews with the Cochin Jews, I found that the “promised land” of Israel, practice of endogamy and adherence to the Judaic religion were other reasons for emigration. When I asked Yosef Hellegua whether the Jewish enterprise would not have contributed towards the current economic growth of India, I was caught unawares. Yosef retaliated with the question of why I emigrated to the West and whether I would come back. While I have no answer to his question, I reiterate my own.
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