Stamp Series #3 – Paradesi Synagogue, Kochi

Name: Cochin Synagogue (1568-1968)
Date of Issue: 15 Dec 1968
Denomination: 20 nP
Source: India Postage Stamps

Kochi is one of my favourite cities in India. It is just all kinds of beautiful. My son had wanted a city holiday after several holidays in national forests. He wanted people and traffic and shopping. We wanted greenery and water, history and culture. Kochi delivers on all those.

I was particularly interested in Kochi, because in my classes we had been talking about secularism and as I was reading about the subject for class, I learnt about the diverse religious and ethnic communities that formed along the Konkan and Kerala coastline thanks to trade from ancient times.

When I was in school, I always thought of the Muslims arriving in India on horseback, from Central Asia – raiders who became conquerors and eventually settlers. Similarly, I associated Christianity in India with the missionary zeal of 18th-century colonists. But Muslims, Christians and Jews were in India much before that. They had come on ships from the Middle East as merchants and traders interested in spices like pepper and cardamom and luxury goods like ivory, peacocks and teak. Then they stayed on, retaining their individual religious identities for centuries before the invading Central Asians and Europeans. While they were here, they adopted the local language, adopted elements of local cuisine and clothing and surprisingly, elements of social customs like casteism. But more on that later.

On this visit to Kochi, I was keen on visiting at least one of the several synagogues in the area. The Paradesi/Cochin Synagogue was closest to us and so that is where we went.

At the entrance of the synagogue was a little room with paintings that showed the history of the Cochin Jews. I thought the Jews arrived in India with the Europeans but I did a double take on the very first painting. According to the caption, the Jews first arrived in Kochi in 72 AD. 72 AD! (You can see the paintings here). That’s just 72 years after Christ! That is over 100 years before the great Guptas in Pataliputra! The Jews had arrived on trading ships after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Palestine. When they left India in the 1950s and 60s, they would have left this sanctuary of nearly 2000 years.

This is the entrance to the Paradesi Synagogue. The clock tower behind us was added to the synagogue in the 18th century.
In this picture, we see these beautiful white and blue hand painted porcelain tiles that were imported from China in the 18th century. The ceiling is crowded with elegant glass chandeliers imported from Belgium in the 19th century. Everything in the Paradesi Synagogue reminds you that this serviced a trader community that was part of a global marketplace. Source: Wikimedia Commons (photography isn’t allowed inside the temple, so we couldn’t take our own).

The 1968 stamp of Cochin Synagogue was issued to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Jewish temple. It had been built by the Jews who had sought a safe haven after escaping persecution during the Spanish Inquisition in Europe. They had come on Portuguese ships who followed Vasco Da Gama’s route to trade with India. The compound of the synagogue shares a wall with the Kochi royal family’s palace temple and a painting in the museum showed the Hindu Cochin king gifting a crown to the elders of the synagogue, indicating a friendly relationship between ruler and the Paradesi Jewish community. Unlike the Western world, in India, Jews – both Malabari and Paradesi Jews – did not suffer any sort of persecution from other religious groups. Yet, with the arrival of the Paradesi Jews came the pernicious practice of caste and the Paradesi synagogue became the centre stage of a struggle for equality within this tiny community.

I have always associated caste with religion – I thought caste was part of Hinduism, and so the resulting caste-ism was a Hindu problem. Perhaps it is. Perhaps Hinduism institutionalised it and the other religious communities in South Asia found it convenient to adopt it into their own cultures. Over time all religions in the subcontinent practiced a form of casteism within their own communities.

Lower caste converts to Islam, Sikhism and Christianity faced discrimination for centuries even though all three religions preach equality, and even though often people converted to these religions to escape caste discrimination in their Hindu society. The Jews have a long history of trying to escape discrimination. In fact that is why they first arrived in India – seeking refuge from discrimination overseas. But, no community seemed safe from caste and the Jews needed their own Jewish Gandhi to fix endemic discrimination in their community.

Abraham Barak Salem
Source: Jews of Malabar

Abraham Barak Salem was actually known as the Jewish Gandhi – that isn’t a name I made up for him. Born in 1882 in Kochi, Salem was the first Jew to be trained as a lawyer. Inspired by Gandhi’s non-violent methods, Salem joined the Indian nationalist movement. But today Salem is most remembered for his non violent efforts to reform the division within the Jewish community.

For centuries the Cochin Jewish community were split into three groups. The brown skinned Malabari Jews (called the Black Jews) who had come in 72 AD and who were no virtually indistinguishable from the local, the Paradesi Jews (White Jews) who were of European descent and who had come in the mid-15th century, and finally the freed slaves of the Paradesi Jews called the meshuchrarim. Meshuchrarim were slaves of mixed racial descent who had supposedly adopted the religion of their masters. While the Malabari and Paradesi Jews each claimed to be more Jewish than the other, both agreed that the meshuchrarim were not Jewish enough.

Each group was endogamous – which means they only married within their own communities. A Malabari Jew could not marry a Paradesi Jew. Worse, a Paradesi Jew could never marry a meshuchrarim Jew. That would be unthinkable.

Black Jewish Family in Kerala, around the early 20th century. Source: Academic
White Jewish Women around the same time period. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was a strict unbending social hierarchy. The Paradesi/Cochin Synagogue was for the White Jews. The Malabari Jews had built other synagogues in other parts around Kochi . At the Paradesi Synagogue, the White Jews had rules that enforced the social hierarchy. Meshuchrarim were not allowed to sit on the chairs. They had to sit on the floor at the back, during prayer, and were not to interact with the White Jews. When they died, at first they were not allowed to be buried in the White Jewish Cemetery, but later they made concessions to allow meshuchrarim to be buried against the walls of the cemetery. Caste is simply a hereditary based social hierarchy. Although they arrived with the Paradesi Jews in the 16th century, the meshuchrarim were forever at the bottom of the social hierarchy because they were descendants of slaves. It was a fate they could not escape no matter how hard they tried.

Abraham Barak Salem objected to the discrimination he and his fellow meshuchrarim faced by protesting non-violently outside the temple much like lower caste Indians were doing all over India during the same time. Eventually, the elders in the Paradesi synagogue agreed to make concessions. Meshuchrarim were allowed into the synagogue and could sit on the chairs. Although they received these privileges, it turned out that they did not have very much time to enjoy it.

In 1933, Salem made a trip to Jerusalem. Here he was impressed with the idea of creating a nation state for the Jews. When Israel was created, they opened their doors to Jews from all parts of the world. Aliyah means immigration to Israel and it was the dream of most displaced Jewish communities. When he came back, Salem actively encouraged the local Jewish community to think of moving to Israel.

After Independence, during Partition driven mass migration of Hindus and Muslims, the Jews from across India were also getting ready to leave India. Salem played a key role in Jewish migration. During this time, the divisions between the Jews of Cochin blurred further because, once outside India, the Jews of Indian origin came together in Israel and live in the same neighbourhoods. Differences that seemed so important in Cochin, dissolved when it came to adapting to a new life. In India however, it seems those who stayed back held onto their age-old prejudices.

The Jewish migration from India was not fraught with violence and tragedy. Jewish communities from the Konkan coast, Kerala, and Bengal were excited to return to the homeland, Israel. But upon arrival, many were faced with racial discrimination. Darker-skinned and so long isolated from other Jewish communities in Europe and the Middle East, they often had to prove their Jewishness. Some communities like the Bene Israelis were even sent back to India because Israel didn’t recognise them as being actual Jews. They were only allowed to stay if they re-converted to Judaism – an offensive suggestion to many who strongly identified as originally Jewish.

Whenever I dig deep into history I am always confronted by examples of one group of humans tries to clamber to the top at the expense of another group. The winning group tries to secure their position by making up reasons to justify their position and it is almost always linked to birth. “I was born better than you”. The observation depresses me.

Recently, in my classroom discussions on the Preamble and equality, we looked at caste and religious discrimination. We looked at news stories of sectarian violence or legal cases where the fundamental right to practice religion freely was challenged. Several 11-year-olds asked questions to understand both sides of the argument and then seemed confused about why this was even an issue. Children are a constant reminder to me that prejudice is learnt and not natural. Their constant bemusement when they hear stories of violence, prejudice, war and loss always fills me with happiness because their confusion tells me that we are fundamentally compassionate beings.

Some people grew up holding tightly onto childlike compassion. People like Salem are not in our textbook but they found other like-minded people to stand with and challenge the status quo. And while the intensity of activism always intimidates me, what would we do without the activist who points at something that is off and makes a big racket about it?

It is impossible to expect a textbook to be filled with stories of men and women like Abraham Barak Salem but it should pay some attention to the story of the Jews in India. It is a story instructive of how Indian society’s diversity was not just a result of invasion, violence and exploitation. People came to India for safety and found it here. They came to make money, not by looting, but by doing business. They have contributed to our culture, architecture, food and music in ways that we cannot keep track of.

Resources:

(I have hyperlinked most of my sources in the blog above. However, below are some links to videos and websites that I didn’t really use in the blog but I found gave me a rounder picture of the community and culture)

  1. Discover the world of Indian Jewish cuisine
  2. The Jews of Malabar blog
  3. On Aliyah and Life in Israel
  4. Museum of the Jewish People
  5. Biography of Abraham Barak Salem

India’s Spy-Explorers

When I think of explorers, I think of tall blonde men in khaki shorts and Shikari Shambu style hats, coming out tents with a notebook and a pair of binoculars around their necks. It turns out that Google also imagined explorers in a similar manner because when I searched for “British explorers in the 19th century” I found this fascinating advertisement for explorer hats for men and women. I suppose, you cannot go out exploring without just the right hat or helmet for the occasion!

Pith helmet style options in the late 19th century/early 20th century. (Source: Pinterest)

Nain Singh Rawat did not fit this rather specific image we all seem to have of explorers. He was a thin brown man, with narrow eyes. During his explorations through the forbidden lands of Tibet, he was dressed as a Buddhist pilgrim. In spite of not being dressed for the part, in 1877, when he was being considered for a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society for his expeditions through Tibet, Col. Henry Yule (a well known Scottish geographer of the time) wrote that Nain Singh Rawat accomplished something that “no European but the first rank of travelers like Livingstone or Grant [could] have done.” Yule was writing to the Society to persuade them that Nain Singh was truly deserving of the medal instead of his British supervisor, Capt. Trotter who had planned the expedition, interpreted the results and published them. Yule argued that Nain Singh’s “great journeys in Tibet would have brought this reward to any European explorer”. In the end, this school teacher from Kumaon Valley in Uttarakhand won the prestigious Gold Medal in 1877 for having “added a larger amount of important knowledge to the map of Asia than those of any other living man.”‘

Nain Singh Rawat, one of the first Indian spies to explore Tibet (Source: Wikipedia)
Source: PBS

Nain Singh was just one of several Indian spies recruited by the British as agents in the Great Game that was being played between the British and Russian Empires. In the second half of the 19th century, the two European empires were eyeing each other’s growing power in Asia with suspicion and some envy. The Russians raced through Central Europe, trying to consolidate their influence in the region, while the British felt particularly protective of their South Asian colonies. When Russia showed interest in Afghanistan, the British got worried. That was far too close for comfort. What if, after Afghanistan, the great Russian bear turned their attention on the precious Indian subcontinent?

So, poor Afghanistan fell victim to its own geography. The British and Russians had diplomatic and actual battles over the country. Afghanistan became the centre of two wars and it is in this time I see the roots of the Afghani resentment of foreign powers in their domestic affairs that drives the Taliban. It is true that for a large part of their modern history, Afghanistan has been manipulated and toyed with by foreign powers for their own selfish reasons. With these same selfish motivations, both also started to wonder about the mysterious state of Tibet. Tibetans had a long standing suspicion of foreigners and unhesitatingly killed any foreigners found within their borders.

The Russian bear and the English lion, each claiming to be friends of the Emir of Afghanistan, also began to be menacing forces in the state. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Worried about an impending Russian invasion, the British wanted to know what exactly lay on the other side of the Himalayas. Could the British Raj be extended to include this land? Was it a natural barrier between India and the Russians in Central Asia?

The British employed a bunch of Indian spies to do this exploring for them. Nain Singh and his cousin, Kishen SIngh are the most famous but there were at least 20 others. They were recruited by British surveyors who then sent them to a type of spy school where they learnt not just how to be surveyors, but also how to measure distance using Buddhist malas (prayer beads) with 100 instead of 108 beads in them. Every 2000 paces was equal to 1 mile. They dropped a bead every 100 paces. Therefore, when they had finished counting 1 full string of beads they had covered half a mile. I would have failed miserably at this mission because I would have constantly lost track of my paces! The Tibetans would have been suspicious of a pilgrim shaking her head and constantly muttering about having to start over.

In their surveyor/spy school Nain Singh and the other pundits (that was the code name given to these Indian explorer-spies), learnt the art of disguise, how to write observations in code and hide them in their prayer wheels instead of buddhist mantras, or make up little poems of their observations that they would recite regularly so that they did not forget what they were noting down. Were these explorer-spies (code named pundits) aware of their role in this game? Did they know why they were disguising themselves as pilgrims and risking their lives to wander the Tibetan plateau taking careful measurements and recording their observations in code?

Some of these explorers were truly committed to their missions. Kinthup, a Lepcha man from Sikkim. He had been hired as an assistant to a Chinese explorer lama. Their mission was to investigate whether the river Tsangpo in Tibet was the same as the river Brahmaputra in India. Kinthup’s mission was to send around 500 specially marked logs down the river Tsangpo. If his British supervisor spotted them floating down the Brahmaputra then they would know that Tsangpo and Brahmaputra were the same.

Unfortunately Kinthup was in for a really rough ride. First, the Chinese lama/spy sold him as a slave to a Tibetan lama who confiscated all his surveyor equipment. After four years as a slave, Kinthup managed to escape. You would think that he would have just turned around and come back to Sikkim, but no. Kinthup found a way to send those logs down the Tsangpo. Of course, by this time his British supervisor had returned to England and there was no one on the Indian end looking out for these logs. Kinthup ended up spending 2 and a half years trekking the length of the Tsangpo, recording his observations while pretending to be a Buddhist pilgrim. Eventually he proved their hypothesis that Tsangpo and Brahmaputra were the same river.

Kinthup, Sarat Chandra Das, Abdul Hamid, Kishen Singh, Nain Singh and the other pundits were as much adventurers as their khaki clad European counterparts. Yet, I imagine them as being different in their attitude. As I browse through images of the explorers of yesteryear, like this one of an European explorer posing with a pygmy couple, I wonder if these pundits would have struck such similar confident, condescending poses on similar explorations. Were they more aware that they were just a small part of a greater and somewhat more sinister game of imperialistic ambitions?

A European Explorer posing with a pygmy couple and their baby circa 1921. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

At any rate, the Indian pundit explorers seem always to escape the notice of the average school child. While they know of Vasco Da Gama, Magellan and Columbus, Nain Singh and his cousins, the brave Kinthup and other pundits remain unknown to the average Indian.

Resources:

Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography by Sanjeev Sanyal
The Great Game and Afghanistan, The Library of Congress website (this is such an excellent resource, so please check it out if you have the time)
Nain Singh’s Last Exploration, PBS Frontline
The Pundits: Spies, Explorers and Scholars during the Great Game by Parag Sayta