Cochin Jew - History and Cultural Relations

The settlement of Jews on the Malabar Coast is ancient. One theory holds that the ancestors of today's Cochin Jews arrived in south India among King Solomon's merchants who brought back ivory, monkeys, and parrots for his temple; Sanskrit- and Tamil-derived words appear in 1 Kings. Another theory suggests that Cochin Jews are descendants of captives taken to Assyria in the eighth century B . C . The most popular and likely supposition, however, is that Jews came to south India some time in the first century C.E., after the destruction of Solomon's second temple. This theory is confirmed by local South Indian Christian legends.

Documentary evidence of Jewish settlement on the southern Indian coast can be found in the famous Cochin Jewish copperplates in the ancient Tamil script ( vattezuthu ). These copperplates are the source of numerous arguments, both among scholars as to their date and meaning and among the Cochin Jews themselves as to which particular castelike subgroup of Cochin Jews are their true owners. Until recently, the Jewish copperplates were dated 345 A . D ., but Contemporary scholars agree upon the date 1000 A . D . In that year, during the reign of Bhaskara Ravi Varman (962-1020 C.E.), the Jews were granted seventy-two privileges. Among these were: the right to use a day lamp; the right to use a decorative cloth to walk on; the right to erect a palanquin; the right to blow a trumpet; and the right to be exempt from and to collect particular taxes. The privileges were bestowed upon the Cochin Jewish leader Joseph Rabban, "proprietor of the 'Anjuvannam,' his male and female issues, nephews and sons-in-law."

The meaning of the word "Anjuvannam" is also the subject of controversy. The theory that the word refers to a Kingdom or a place has been superseded by newer theories that it was an artisan class, a trade center, or a specifically Jewish guild.

From the eighteenth century on, emissaries from the Holy Land began to visit their Cochin Jewish brethren. Indirectly, they helped Cochin Jewry to align with world Jewry and finally, as part of the "ingathering of the exiles," to request a return to Zion.

In 1949, the first Cochin Jews—seventeen families in all—sold their property. Urged on by religious fervor and deteriorating economic conditions in postindependence India, community elders wrote to David Ben-Gurion, prime minister of the newly established State of Israel, requesting that the whole community emigrate to Israel. In 1953-1954, 2,400 Cochin Jews, the vast majority of whom were "Black" or Malabar Jews, went to Israel. A small number stayed behind on the Malabar Coast; and today only a handful remain.

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