There has been uninterrupted presence of Jews in India for over 2,700 years according to tradition, but India’s Jewish community has always remained small. Perhaps it was in the 1950s that the number of the Jews peaked in India, estimated at 35,000. This is certainly minuscule in comparison with India’s population overall. Considering the small number of the Jews who made India their home, the prestige that they have enjoyed, the positions they have held, and their manifold achievements are certainly disproportionate to their numerical strength. The greatest position held was that held by Joseph Rabban, with the powers of a regional king.
It is incredible that a Maha Raja (The King of Kings) entrusts one of his principalities to be ruled by a person of foreign origin, of different religion and alien ethnicity! True to the slogan of Indian tourism, incredible India, this happened at Cranganore (also known as Shingly) now part of the State of Kerala in South India. In the 10th century (the period is disputed), there sat on the Hindu throne, A Jewish King at Shingly. The ruler was Joseph Rabban (also called Issuppu Irappan). His image has penetrated deep into the psyche of the Cochin Jews. He was similar to the image of King David in Judaism, though on a smaller canvas.
A brief synopsis of Joseph Rabban shows that he landed in Kerala’s shores and was welcomed as a favored guest by the Hindu ruler of the place. Little is known about the time of his arrival and the venue where he was accorded a royal welcome. However, the unequivocal of evidence of the benevolence lavished on the alien Jews in God’s own Country are the copper plates engraved with the royal decree. Cochin tradition says that it was given to Joseph Rabban in 379 CE. This is used to show the evidence of Jewish antiquity in South India. There is dispute about the age of the copper plates. Modern scholars date it at 1000 CE. During his visit to India in 2003, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was presented with replicas of the copper plates. Similar replicas were also gifted by Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a state visit to Israel in 2017.
The copper plates contained a decree from the region’s ruler, Bhaskara Ravi Varma, allotting Rabban and his descendants special rights and privileges. The copper plates were engraved in archaic Tamil Language:
Hail! Prosperity! (The following) gift was made by him who had assumed the title “King of Kings,” His Majesty the king, the glorious Bhāskara Ravivarman, in the time during which (he) was wielding the scepter and ruling over many hundred-thousands of places, in the thirty-sixth year after the second year, on the day on which (he) was pleased to stay at Muyirikkôdu:-
We have given to Issuppu Irappân (the village of) An̄juvannam, together with the seventy-two proprietary rights, the tolls on female elephants and (other) riding-animals, the revenue of An̄juvannam, a lamp in day-time, a cloth spread (in front to walk on), a palanquin, a parasol, a Vaduga (i.e., Telugu) drum, a large trumpet, a gateway, an arch, a canopy (in the shape) of an arch, a garland, and so forth.
We have remitted tolls and the tax on balances.
Moreover, we have granted, with (these) copper leaves, that he need not pay (the dues) which the (other) inhabitants of the city pay to the royal palace, and that (he) may enjoy (the benefits) which (they) enjoy. To Issuppu Irappān of An̄juvannam, to the male children and to the female children born of him, to his nephews, and to the sons-in-law who have married (his) daughters, (we have given) An̄juvannam (as) an hereditary estate for as long as the world and the moon shall exist. Hail!
The plates state that the King awarded Anjuvannam with the privileges enjoyed by regional kings. The place name Anjuvannam can refer to the Jewish community/colony (corporation/guild) at Cochin, southern India. It could also stand for a guild of West Asian traders that included Jewish, Syrian Christian, and Muslim traders operating in South India and South-East Asia.
Some scholars see close connection between Jewish society and the caste system prevalent among the Hindus. Indian society has a four hold caste system with definitive roles in society. The society was divided into Brahmin (priestly class), Kshatriya (warrior class), Vaisya (traders) and Shudra (the untouchable menials). There are people who belong to other categories, like foreigners, Christians, Muslims, Jews and so on. Anjuvannam included a fifth division of the society to accommodate the above mentioned categories of non-Hindus. The word Anju in vernacular means five. If this can be accepted Joseph Rabban, was not only the King of the Jews, but that of wider non-Hindu community.
Among the Cochin Jews Joseph Rabban is well-remembered and appears in the ballads of the community. In wedding songs the bridegrooms are likened to the handsome Joseph Rabban: The bridegroom is like Joseph Rabban, he is like a king. Thus he was groom to the bride and king to the people. The presence of a Jewish King on a Hindu throne is attested by foreign Jewish visitors as well. A Jewish visitor from Spain in the fourteenth century composed a poem which is preserved in the song book of the Cochin synagogue:
I had heard of the city of Shingly,
I longed to see an Israeli king
Him, I saw with my own eyes
For a short period in the 16th century the Cochin Jews endured persecution. However, it was not the Indians, but the Portuguese who had brought the abhorrent tradition of Inquisition that marred their uninterrupted peace temporarily by an abominable atrocity. The Portuguese, in a shameful act of vandalism, burned the Cochin synagogue. The bruise of this sacrilege, which wounded the community, was soon healed by a king of Kerala. The Maha Raja of Cochin and the Dutch, built for them a new synagogue.
History tells us that the Jewish splendor was short lived. As Ariel Durant states: A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within. Two factors contributed to the downfall of the Joseph Rabban line of rulers. The bickering between the Paradhesi Jews (White Jews) and the Cochin Jews (the Black Jews) and the rivalry between the progeny of the Joseph Rabban clan.
The Pardheshi Jews, who fled from various destinations where they were treated as dirt, found tranquility far more they experienced in their entire history in the new Indian haven. The salubrious climate added to their happiness. Instead of imbibing the spirit of tolerance of the Hindus who gave them hospitality, they became practitioners of hegemony over the Cochin Jews by ostracizing them as Jews of dubious ancestry. The document for their claim was the pallor of their skin. This put the Black Jews in a sad predicament of their own brethren treating them like a caste below their own. The remnant of this division continued for a long time which weakened both the white as well as black Jews. The result was even evident in the place of worship; all the Paradesi Jews sat inside the synagogue and other were only let to sit in the Azara or The Ante chamber. Abraham Barak Salem (1882-1967), a Cochin Jew fought against this by boycotting the synagogue for a time and utilized satyagraha (a Ghandhian strike) as a means of combating discrimination within the community. This led some people to later refer to him as the Jewish Gandhi.
We do not have any documentary evidence for the line of rulers after Joseph Rabban. However, the last of the line was one Joseph Azar who fled Cranganore. It is believed that his sibling Aaron Azar, with the help of neighboring Hindu, wanted to be the ruler of Anjuvannam. It is believed White Jews were involved who wanted to end the royal status of the Black Jews. Speculation is rife regarding the abrupt end of the Jewish kingship. What is evident is that Joseph Azar fled. It is said that he swam to Cochin with his wife on his back. The Black Jews set up a new synagogue in Cochin and became a new congregation. Thus, the promise of the Bhaskara Ravi Varma, the great Hindu king, so poetically rendered in the edict, as long as the world and the moon shall exist, could not be fulfilled.
Prof. A D Paul writes for various publications. He has written for Jewish Currents. You can see his former articles published here: https://jewishcurrents.org/