India – History and Society – for those who wish to think and learn for themselves
The Jews of Cochin (Kochi) are considered to be the oldest community of Jews in peninsular India.
Jews perhaps first arrived as traders on ships visiting the ports on the West Coast of India, in particular in Malabar (modern northern Kerala). More than fourteen centuries prior to Vasco da Gama’s rediscovery of the sea route to India in 1498, the Romans had established trade routes to Malabar. The trade routes through northern Africa through the Kingdom of Axum (modern day Eritrea and northern Ethiopia) and the Arabian Sea were very lucrative. Spices such as cinnamon, turmeric and cardamom were precious commodities in Europe and the Jews being a business community were obviously amongst the merchants who traded with Indian kingdoms and traders.
The Jews of Cochin believe that the fall of Jerusalem in about 70 CE led to a further flight of Jews to other parts of the world including Kerala.
The narrative suggests that Jews arrived at the village of Cranganore near Cochin and set up a vibrant community. Over the next several centuries, there was further growth of the community, through a combination of peace and stability under the local rulers and more immigration. The Jews were a powerful trading community and they were often provided special privileges by the local chieftains. In 1341, a flood led to the old community moving to a nearby port, Cochin. At this point in time, the community although holding onto Jewish traditions, appeared in many ways to have adopted the local language and customs. Visitors from afar reported them to be “Black” Jews.
The fall of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) in 1453 to the Turks marked the end of the Roam Empire. It also led to the traditional spice route falling into the hands of the Ottomans. The price of pepper shot up tremendously due to a combination of a high demand in Europe and the traditional trade route being blocked. The rulers of western Europe coveted the riches of India. Tales abounded in Europe of the amount of wealth that lay waiting. In particular Spain and Portugal felt they were in a race with each other. Christopher Columbus set off in sail from Spain seeking a passage to India, but found himself in northern America. One of the major challenges sailors faced in their quest for India was their inability to navigate past the Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of Africa. Strong currents in the opposite direction could not be overcome by the ships. Over several decades the European many vessels and sailors in vain. Vasco da Gama discovered the solution. Having sailed southwards along the east coast of Africa, he realised the solution lay in sailing out far east into the southern Atlantic and then following the currents around in a kind of semi-circular manner well clear of land and the cape. Once the Portuguese reached the west coast of Africa, all they had to do was follow the guidance of the Arab sailors who held sway over the Arabian Sea. Once they had found India, the Portuguese and other following powers realised that the Arabs had no firepower to match the sophisticated weapons of Western and Iberian Europe. The rest is history. The Spanish, the French, the Dutch and the British soon followed and they had soon established trading outposts, then colonies and then empires.
Vasco da Gama’s navigation skills and the establishment of sea routes followed a turbulent period in Iberia. The Moors and Jews who had flourished in Iberia building centres of culture such as Cordoba were soon fleeing persecution. Groups of European Jews soon arrived in Cochin. However, the older Black Jews and the newer arrivals remained distinct communities. The newer Jews called the Pardesi (foreigner) or White Jews did not marry the older local Jews and the two groups often viewed each other with suspicion. Even separate synagogues existed. These barriers were obviously not ideal for the health of either section of the Jewish community. Weddings restricted to within each individual community led to a population which steadily shrank. The privileges extended to Jews were also gradually taken away especially by later portuguese rulers. The formation of Israel led to a even greater emigration. Now only a few Jewish families remain in Cochin, still holding on to traditions. The Jewish quarter remains a place of interest as a tourist attraction.
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