KOCHI (formerly known as Cochin, "the Queen of the Arabian Sea"), port city on the southwest coast of India, famous for its excellent natural harbor. Its population is 1,600,000 (2005) and it is regarded as the commercial and industrial capital of Kerala, one of the most prosperous and literate states in India. The municipality was created in 1967 out of Fort Kochi, Mattanchery, Ernakulam, Willingdon Island, and a number of nearby villages.
Kochi is also the name of the princely state that was absorbed into the Union of India upon independence in 1947. Prior to that time, the State of Cochin was ruled by a rajah and enjoyed at least nominal independence despite domination by Portuguese (1498–1663), Dutch (1663–1795), and British (1797–1947) colonial powers. In 1957, the former princely states of Cochin, Travancore, and Malabar were merged into the State of Kerala.
Kochi attained dominance as southwest India's premier port after a flood silted up the harbor at nearby Kodugallur (known to the British as Cranganore, to the Romans as Muziris, and to the Jews as Shingly) and simultaneously created Kochi's harbor. The local royal family, along with its leading families and institutions, migrated 20 miles (30 km.) south and reestablished themselves at Kochi.
The Origin of Kochi's Jews
Kochi is home to the oldest Jewish community east of Persia. According to local historical traditions, when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 C.E., a number of Jews set sail on recently discovered monsoon shipping lanes. They reached Shingly, which was known to them as the source of spices and other luxury items since the time of King Solomon. They were welcomed by the local king, who gave them land for synagogues and for coconut estates. Another king, called Cheraman Perumal, had two copper plates inscribed with a charter for the community, granting the Jews material rights and the symbolic trappings of royalty, which he presented to the Jewish leader, Joseph Rabban. Thereafter, Cheraman Perumal and Joseph Rabban became archetypes of the cordial lord-vassal relationship between Hindus and Jews in Kochi. The copper plates are stored in the ark of the Cochin Synagogue.
Communal discord foreshadowed the 1341 flood that led to the migration of the Jews from Cranganore to Kochi, where another rajah welcomed them and granted them land immediately adjacent to his palace and personal Hindu temple for their synagogue and their settlement at Mattanchery, which came to be known as Jew Town. In 1568 they built the beautiful Paradesi, or Foreignersí, synagogue, in use to this day.
Shingly and the Early Jewish Settlements
That Shingly and its Jewish prince remain for Kochi Jews the paramount symbols of their pleasant life in India is clear. What is less clear is the history of the settlements, migration patterns, or even reliable accounts of daily life in Shingly. Indigenous historians and medieval travelers report Jewish settlements in the area at Paalur, Mount Deli, Chendamangalam, Parur, Calicut, Cannanore, Quilon, and elsewhere; Shingly does not necessarily seem to be preeminent, even if it was the oldest. Jews came from ancient Israel, Yemen, Persia, the Middle East, and even Europe.
In Shingly, Jews were a substantial minority, a privileged and respected community, close to the king and enjoying religious liberty. They built synagogues and composed liturgical songs in Hebrew and Malayalam, the local language. They evolved a unique minhag that bears evidence of waves of immigration as well as indigenous, Indian influences. Recently discovered documents confirm that many of the traditions of Kochi have their origin in Shingly. It is believed that the great medieval religious figures *Judah Halevi and Abraham *Ibn Ezra, visited Shingly, and some believe that the latter is buried there.
In pluralistic Shingly, Jews were merchants, petty traders, agriculturalists, and soldiers, but they are best known as international spice merchants, especially in the lucrative pepper trade.
Migration to Kochi and the Arrival of the Portuguese
A combination of factors – internal strife, a rivalry with Muslim competitors that was exacerbated by the arrival of the Portuguese, and the 1341 flood – prompted a migration from Shingly to Kochi, where the Jews built their first synagogue in 1344. Satellite communities sprung up in Malah, Cranganore, Parur, Ernakulam, and Chendamangalam.
Whatever battles the Jews may have had with their Muslim, Christian, and even Hindu neighbors, their greatest tormentors were, without doubt, the Portuguese. Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese adventurer and explorer, landed in Kochi in 1498, and in 1503 built the first Catholic church in India and in the same year the first European fortress, located at today's Fort Kochi.
The Portuguese injected themselves into the rivalry between the Muslim Zamorin of Calicut and the Hindu Rajah of Kochi, first taking one side, then the other. Through the
Portuguese, Kochi rose in importance as a seaport and her Jews were placed in direct contact with their co-religionists in Western Europe for the first time. But the Portuguese were as intolerant in India as they had been at home. Not only did they establish an Office of the Inquisition at Goa in 1560, they also burned and sacked Jew Town some years later. The Rajahof Kochi refused demands from the King of Portugal to collaborate in the persecution of his Jewish subjects, an expression of sympathy that earned him the contempt of the Portuguese, who derisively called him the King of the Jews.
The Dutch Era
During Portuguese rule, the Jews suffered many persecutions, but the era had its achievements as well. It was under Portuguese rule that the Jews managed to establish themselves at Kochi, when they built most of their beautiful synagogues, and they began a novel system of self-government known at the mudaliar system.
The leaders of the Jewish community came to be known by the Tamil/ Malayalam term mudaliar, meaning simple "headman." First appointed by the Rajah of Kochi, the mudaliars had the authority to enforce punishments and impose and collect fines and taxes, but deferred to the rajah in capital cases. Not only that, the mudaliars became the rajah's closest and most trusted advisors, and one, Ezekiel *Rahabi, became prime minister to the rajah. The institution lasted until British rule during the 19th century.
The Dutch became involved in Kochi due in part to native dissatisfaction with the Portuguese. An expeditionary force in 1662 was repelled by the Portuguese garrison, who blamed the Jews and carried out ferocious reprisals. They burned the synagogue, including all of the Torah scrolls, holy books, and historical records, and sacked Jew Town. The Jews fled to the hills, where they remained for the better part of a year until the Dutch finally defeated the Portuguese and established their rule in 1663.
Under the tolerant, commercially minded Dutch, the Jews experienced a flowering of commerce and culture to rival the glory days at Shingly. Not only did their economic fortunes rise sharply, but the Kochi Jews were put into contact with Jews from Holland and throughout the Dutch empire, from Indonesia to New York. On November 21, 1686, they received a delegation from Amsterdam led by the Portuguese reconverso Moses Pereyra de Paiva. De Paiva arranged for the Kochi Jews to obtain replacements for their Torah scrolls and holy books, and the Jews arranged to have their own traditions enshrined in maḥzorim (festival prayer books) published by Proops, the well-known Dutch Hebrew press. The Jews also narrated their history to de Paiva, who published their account in Portuguese.
The most famous family of Kochi was the Rahabis. Their fame was due, in part, to their prominence in trade and diplomacy, and also to the many authors and scholars in the family. David Rahabi was the head of the family at the time of de Paiva's visit, and was very influential with the royal family. He was able to smooth over a festering succession dispute, earning the family an even more intimate role in the affairs of state. David's son, Ezekiel, assumed his father's role as "Joods Koopman," or Jewish agent for the Dutch East India Company, and at the same time accepted the role of prime minister to the rajah.
Ezekiel towered over the Malabarí pepper trade. His home became a salon for the high and mighty of Kochi and beyond, and he was considered one of the best-informed people of his day, with a wealth of information about commodity prices, currency fluctuations, troop and naval movements, and the lines of succession in Europe's royal families. He undertook a number of diplomatic missions on behalf of both the rajah and the Dutch, negotiating peace accords among rival states. He was a philanthropist, supporting an impoverished local Christian community, and building a church at Cranganore and a Carmelite center in Travancore. He commanded a fleet of sailing ships that plied the waters from the Red Sea to the South China Sea, mainsails emblazoned with Stars of David. He was also considered a military genius, all the while adhering strictly to Jewish law.
Ezekiel's son, David, also achieved his share of success. He was able to effect the release from Sultan Haidar Ali's prison of Samuel Ezekiel Divekar, a *Bene Israel soldier who later built Mumbai's first synagogue, inspired by the fine edifice in Kochi. David also visited Bene Israel villages in the Konkan, spurring their "first awakening" of Jewish identity. David was also an author of note, best known for his "Letter of 1798" in which he detailed the historical traditions of Kochi's Jews.
The Dutch "second golden age" saw a flourishing of literature and mysticism. It was during this secure and prosperous time that many lovely Hebrew songs and poems were composed in Jew Town by such poets as Eliahu Adeni, the kabbalist Nehemiah Mota, Levi Belilah, Ephraim Saala, Solomon B. Nissim, and Joseph Zakkai. Their songs became part of the unique Cochini minhag and were anthologized in later liturgical books, along with the songs of such Sephardi liturgists as Judah Halevi, Moses ibn Ezra, Solomon ibn Gabirol, and Israel Najara.
The first British ships visited Malabar in 1615, but it was not until 1797 that they replaced the Dutch as overlords of Kochi. Never, however, was Kochi placed directly under the British Crown. The British raj extended to the northern half of Malabar, but Kochi and Travancore remained autonomous "princely states," nominally ruled by the rajah with the guidance of the British resident, or dewan.
The retention of Kochi's autonomy in the face of the economic, military, and political juggernaut that was the British Empire, which had consumed most of India, had positive and negative effects for the Jews. On the positive side, they continued to receive the rajah's protection and privileges, to which they had become accustomed. On the negative side, however, was British neglect of Kochi, leading to the deterioration of its economy. At first they favored Calicut, which was within the boundary of British Malabar, as a trading center, and eventually Mumbai emerged as the supreme west Indian port.
Four 19th century Jewish travelers – Rabbi David DeBeth Hillel during the 1820s, I.J. Benjamin around 1850, Shlomo Reinman during the 1850s, and Jacob Sapir during the 1860s – wrote about their visits to Kochi, from which an accurate and detailed composite portrait of life in Jew Town during the British era may be culled. These visitors recorded many of the unique religious observances of Kochi, and mentioned the very high level of Hebrew and Jewish learning in the community. Their magnificent synagogue, spacious houses, and tasty cuisine, as well as the modesty, hospitality, and erudition of their women, were lavishly praised.
The Kochi Minhag
Drawing as it does from the many cultures from which Jews migrated to Kochi – ancient Israel, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Yemen, Persia, Afghanistan, as well as Italy and Poland – and influenced by local Indian culture, the system of observant Judaism, or minhag, in Kochi is both rich and unique.
In the most general terms, Kochi's Jews were able to adopt certain Indian cultural patterns in their religious life while remaining faithful to normative Judaic observance as codified in halakhah. Living in a culture in which antisemitism was unknown, Kochi's Jews felt no defensiveness about their religious practices. By the norms of Indian society, religiousness per se is valued, so the Jews there were entirely free to celebrate their religion.
Indian culture has two sources of power and prestige: the royal and the priestlyascetic. Jewish observance in Kochi reflected these two poles.
For example, Simḥat Torah is considered Kochi's most distinctive festival. Circumambulations (hakkafot) are added during the afternoon service, accompanied by unique Hebrew songs. Torah scrolls are displayed on a temporary ark especially constructed in front of the aron ka-kodesh, the scrolls are carried out of the synagogue and into the street, and the temporary ark is ritually demolished at the conclusion of the festival. All of these activities are attributable to rites found in nearby Hindu temples. All reflect the symbols of Hindu royalty. But none of these practices is in violation of any halakhic principle. Similarly, Kochi's elaborate wedding rites parallel those of their Hindu neighbors, which also embody the symbols of royalty, but with no compromise of halakhah.
The ascetical tendencies inherent in the Hindu priestly ideal find expression, for example, in the community's fastidious Passover preparations. Avoidance of gentiles mirrors avoidance of low-born Hindus; annual repainting of houses parallels Hindu practice; and activities and jokes pertaining to the festival's stringent dietary concerns resonates well in a culture in which hierarchy is closely connected with diet.
Jews in Kerala occupied a high rung on India's strict hierarchy known as the caste system. Furthermore, Jews divided themselves into subcastes, which is typical of Indian castes, and now that their numbers have been so severely reduced, these subcastes have been amalgamated in group behavior also found among attenuated Hindu groups.
The Kochi Jews evolved a pattern of social organization that reflected Indian values. Some of the Kochi Jews joined a liberal rabbi from South Africa in contemptuously describing this social system as "Jewish Apartheid," after the system of racial oppression in South Africa.
From as early as the beginning of the 16th century and perhaps before then, a rivalry emerged within the Jewish community based on who had attestable Jewish descent (yiḥus, those with yiḥus being known as meyuḥasim) and who did not (the meshuḥrarim, those in possession of a shiḥrur, a bill of manumission from slavery). In other words, one group of Kochi Jews considered themselves to descend from Israel, and they considered their rival group to be descendants of slaves. As early as 1520, Kochi Jews sought rabbinical adjudication of their rivalry and, when the response was not to their liking, ignored it.
The arrival of the Portuguese injected race into the equation, and the newly arrived Sephardi Jews, together with some of the meyuḥasim, were considered "white," while those of longer residence in Malabar were considered "black," and descendents of the white slaves were labeled "brown." To further complicate the picture, among the Malabari Jews, the meshuḥrarim were known by the Malayalam word, "orumakers." Depending on how one counts, the Jews proliferated three or four subcastes, and over time they refused to marry outside their group, would not count one another for the prayer quorum, and would not eat meat slaughtered in the rival community. In all of these features, their behavior reflected Hindu caste behavior. It also contravened halakhah.
Predictably, members of the less-favored group tried to redress their grievances. There was a 19th-century rebellion led by one Avo, who led a breakaway faction in establishing their own prayer hall in Fort Kochi. The rebellion ended unceremoniously in a cholera epidemic.
Avo's grandson, A.B. Salem, the first Kochi Jew to attend law school and a disciple of Mahatma *Gandhi, led his faction in a series of civil disobedience exercises in the synagogue, and lobbied so articulately on their behalf that he eventually prevailed, and religious rights were gradually restored to the meshuḥrarim.
Women's Malayalam Songs
Kochi's Jewish women are strikingly well educated in Hebrew and generally exhibit autonomy and freedom beyond what might be expected in a traditional Jewish community. This cultural theme reflects the values of the local Hindu culture, in which the matrilineal Nayar caste is dominant.
Another avenue for women's participation in religious life is through their Malayalam-language folk songs. These songs, copied into notebooks and passed on from generation to generation, often narrate biblical themes in a richly tropical setting, replete with elephants, parrots, and palanquins. Other songs praise the archetype of Hindu-Jewish amity, Cheraman Perumal and Joseph Rabban. These songs are sung on festivals and at circumcisions, weddings, and other joyous occasions. They have become identity markers for Cochinim resettled in Israel, where groups of women gather monthly to sing and transmit these songs to the next generation.
The 20th Century
The 20th century in Jew Town was marked by four unprecedented events. The first was Indian Independence in 1947, enthusiastically welcomed by the Jews. Second was the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, cause of another joyous celebration in Jew Town. Third was the gala celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Cochin Synagogue, as the Paradesi Synagogue has come to be known. The fourth event was painful: one Sabbath during July 1987, for the first time in its glorious history, there were no formal prayers in the synagogue; the prayer quorum could no longer be mustered, symbolically noting the death of communal life in Kochi.