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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Jewish community in India

The Jewish community in India is one among a large number of groups who had come from outside the country’s modern territorial borders and made India their home.

 However, what marks the Jews out is their ability to blend into the local culture of the region, through continuous contact with the natives and then the later foreign visitors.

 At present, numbering some six thousand all across India, the Jewish Indian identity developed over time. 

While today this small, tightly integrated group is busy protecting the last remnants of Jewish heritage in the country like the 30-35 synagogues spread across India, few cemeteries and schools, they are also known to have made significant entrepreneurial and cultural contributions to India’s rich history.

The 3 branches of Jewish identity in India

Jews in India, unlike those across the globe, are divided into three distinct groups as per their geographical location and origin myths in the country- the Cochin Jews, the Bene Israeli and the Baghdadi Jews. Each of these three categories arrived at different points in time and formed their Jewish identity as per the historical forces operant in India at that time.

The Cochin Jews who first arrived in the contemporary state of Kerala are dated to about 50 CE. The local legend states that they moved to the country after the first temple was destroyed during the siege of Jerusalem and were warmly received by Cheraman Perumal, the ruler of the Chera dynasty.
The Bene Israeli, that numerically form the largest Jewish group in India, belong to the region in and around Maharashtra and Konkan. The date of their arrival is yet to be ascertained, but a local legend suggests that the Bene Israeli arrived some sixteen or eighteen hundred years back when they were shipwrecked on the Konkan coast. As per the legend, only 14 of them survived and they took refuge in a village called Nawgaon, close to Bombay, now Mumbai. Over the years, this myth of origin has been grafted into the legend of the ten lost tribes of Israel, and the Bene Israeli are known to have originated from the northern part of Israel.
Like the Cochin Jews, the Bene Israeli also expanded the local origin legend to accommodate the folklore associated with the natives. Over time, most Bene Israeli historians pointed to the similarity between their origins in India and that of the Chitpavin Brahmins who also claimed to have arrived from outside after a shipwreck.
The Baghdadi Jews are said to be part of the most recent wave of Jewish entry into India. By the mid 18th and 19th century, the Baghdadi Jews are said to have moved in to create a strong entrepreneurial class in the British port cities of India like Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bombay (Mumbai) and Rangoon (Yangon). By the mid 19th century, the Baghdadi Jews had risen in wealth and status and established Jewish schools, kosher markets and ritual baths.

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