Inside India #5: The Spice Jews of India

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

Salman Rushdie’s fifth novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh, is set, in part, in the southern Indian coastal city of Cochin. It traces four generations of the Zogoiby family, a dynasty of Cochinese spice merchants and crime lords, of Jewish extraction. The novel was well received, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, and one of the few literary depictions of the Jewish community in India, a community that today stands on the brink of extinction.  

The Jews have a long history on the subcontinent. Arriving from different parts of the world, they settled in various distinct communities, mainly in the south of India . Most prominent among these are the Malabari Jews of Cochin– who claim to have made their way to the subcontinent with traders representing King Solomon – and the Paradesi Jews – who arrived during the 16th century following the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal, fleeing persecution and pogroms in their homelands. 

Attribution: Adam Jones Adam63 CC 3.0

For the Cochin Jews it is a matter of pride that they are the oldest Jewish community in India. The historical narrative maintained by the community’s elders tells a story of traders arriving from Judea at Cranganore, an ancient port near Cochin (modern day Kochi in the south Indian state of Kerala), in 562 BC. Five centuries later, they were followed by exiles from Israel after the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 AD. 

The Cochin Jews quickly established a close relationship with local Indian rulers, convincing them to give their blessing for the newcomers to live as per the tenets of their creed, including the right to build synagogues. Indeed, many Jewish refugees were offered land and materials by local rulers to aid in the construction of these temples.

The Cochin Jews became known for working in the spice and pepper trade. Over time their language and customs evolved to mirror the local environment; they dressed as Indians, ate the local food, and spoke Malayalam. Nevertheless, visitors to the region noted their devotion to their faith and the strict observance of Jewish traditions, including the teaching and passing on of the Hebrew language. 

For centuries, the Jews of Cochin prospered, but in the 1500s they were attacked by Muslims for control of the lucrative pepper trade. Many were driven southwards to seek the protection of the Cochin royal family.

It is estimated that India’s Jewish population peaked at around 20,000 in the mid-1940s, and began to rapidly decline in the 1950s when most of the Indian Jewish population migrated to Israel. Today, a handful of Jewish families remain in Cochin, barely hanging onto their ancient traditions.The main visitors to synagogues are now tourists rather than devout worshippers. 

The legacy the Jews of India leave in their wake is that of a community that managed to successfully weave itself into the fabric of India. There has been very little documented evidence of anti-Semitism on the subcontinent, something that sets this unique band of Jewish settlers apart from their co-religionists elsewhere in the world. 

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

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