Reprinted with permission from The Israel Museum, Jerusalem ©.
It may well be that the Cochin Jews have lived for two millennia on the fertile Malabar Coast of southwest India. This tropical area is now the modern Indian state of Kerala, named for the kera, or coconut palm tree, that is so basic to its landscape and economy. Though tradition has it that there were once many thousands of Jews in Malabar, no more than 2,500 were recorded in recent centuries, and only about 60 remain there today.
Varied traditions about the origin of the Cochin Jews appear in travelers’ accounts and in Hebrew chronicles from Malabar, some written as early as the 17th century. Some records say the first Jews sailed to South India on the ships of King Solomon; others say they came during the Babylonian exile; others that they fled to Malabar after the destruction of the Second Temple; and others refer to a fourth-century migration from Majorca.
Most of these stories revolve around the existence of a Jewish community in the ancient trade center of Cranganore (which the Jews called Shingly), north of Cochin. One chronicle tells how a group of Jews descended from the Assyrian exile made their way to Calicut (further up the coast) by way of Yemen, and a Malayalam Jewish song suggests that the Jews of the ancient town of Palur may have come from Yemen.
The oldest documentary evidence of a Jewish community in Kerala dates from 1000 CE, when a Jewish leader named Joseph Rabban received a set of engraved copper plates from the Hindu ruler of Cranganore. These plates, which are still preserved in the Cochin Paradesi synagogue, list economic and ceremonial privileges including exemption from paying taxes, the right to collect tolls, and the honor of using particular lamps, umbrellas, drums, and trumpets associated with high ritual status. It is clear that by this time the Jews were firmly established in the area.
Jewish merchants known as Radanites began traveling by sea and land between the Mediterranean and China in the ninth century, stopping at ports along the Malabar coast. Commercial documents from the Cairo Genizah give glimpses of Jewish trade with India in the centuries that followed.