The Cochin Jews, also known as Malabar Jews, are the oldest group of Jews living in India. The received their name because they live in the city of Cochin (now part of Kerala) in South India. It is thought that these Jews have been living in India since the time of King Solomon. However, some believe that they moved here from Lost Tribes, and others believe that they arrived in India after being exiled from Israel by Nebuchadnezzar. One thing that most agree on, however, is that the Cochin Jews arrived in the area in different waves; there was not one single immigration.
The oldest documented evidence of a Jewish community in southwest India 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 synagogue, list economic and ceremonial privileges of the Jews, 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. Because of these plates, it is clear that by this time the Jews were firmly established in the area.
However, it is unclear as to which group of Cochin Jews were presented with the copper plates. You see, the Cochin Jews are divided into three groups. The biggest group is called Meyuhassim meaning “privileged” in Hebrew. This group’s forefathers are considered to have arrived in India as merchants during the period of King Solomon. The second group is called Pardesi, meaning “foreigner” in some Indian languages. The Pardesi Jews are those who came to Kerala at different periods from different countries, mainly from Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Spain, and Germany. These two groups of people were merchants who had slaves. These slaves were converted to Judaism, then later on released from their status as slaves. They then became known as Meshuhararim, meaning “released” in Hebrew. The Pardesi Jews are sometimes referred to as White Jews, whereas Meyuhassim are sometimes referred to as Black Jews. One may assume that this distinction is based on skin color, although this is another fact that is not necessarily historically clear.
The population of Jews living in Kerala, an area named for the kera, or coconut palm tree that flourishes here, has greatly fluctuated over the last 2 millennia. By the 1700s there were 8 different synagogues in 5 different towns within Kerala. The community was said to be largest in the 1940s, when the population reached about 3,000. After 1948, however, many emigrated, and Cochin aliyah began in the 1950s.
One of the most interesting things about the Cochin Jews is that they have lived in southwest India for so long without experiencing anti-Semitism or threats of persecution from neighbors of India. Today, there are no more than 60-70 Jews living in Kerala. But you can still find evidence of a Jewish community and neighborhood here, along with a synagogue. However, there are as many as 4,000 Cochin Jews living in Israel, where they carry on their proud traditions and heritage as Jews of India.