Stamp # 8: Why Kanakadasa Matters

About three years ago, I did a class on medieval Indian history (Grade 7 NCERT) at the school where I teach part time. Up until that time, my elective had an average of 12 participants (it’s a small little school). But this subject had just four sign ups. By the end of the semester, the four told me it had been their favourite so far because as a group, we were able to understand the connection between the past and present, a connection that seemed to elude us when we just looked at the textbook.

That semester we compared the height of the Thanjavur gopuram to a modern urban building, contemplated the impact of political instability and violence that comes about when a kingdom is constantly being raided by a neighboring king or a bunch of raiders from Central Asia, and compared it to stories of children living through political instability in Kashmir or parts of the Northeast or Sri Lanka. We also read the poetry of Bhakti saints who questioned superstition, social inequity and caste with sharp clarity. By the end of the term, we realized that regardless of time period, the human experience has remained constant. From the surface, we may look different, but on examination we are no different from our ancestors who lived during those times.

Take our modern vocabulary. It makes you think we are living in a new unprecedented era of human evolution. Like, influencers – do you think influencers are a new concept linked to social media? Well, then meet Kanakadasa, and others like him (Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Kabir, Eknath, Jnanadev, Purandaradasa, etc) who were the viral influencers of their time.

We can read that dry chapter about the Bhakti movement and wonder why it matters, especially if one has no particular interest in god or religion. But here is why I think Kanakadasa and other Bhakti saints are still is relevant, even if you don’t listen to classical music or are religious:

Kanakadasa stamp issued in 1990 by India Post

Be0fore we begin, 2 quick facts to remind you who are talking about:

  1. Kanakadasa is one of the pillars of Carnatic music – credited with 240 odd musical compositions that are now canon.
  2. He got a Krishna idol to literally turn away from the entrance, towards a little window in the back of the Udupi temple sanctum sanctorum when Kanakadasa was not allowed to enter the temple on account of his low caste. By turning towards the window, Kanakadasa was able to have the Lord’s Darshan through a crack in the wall.

And now here are 3 things that makes you forget that Kanakadasa was belonged to the 16th century (during the time of Hampi’s Vijayanagara Empire):

  1. Swag

    Kanakadasa was born a minor chieftain under the Vijayanagar empire. While he belonged to the shepherd caste, he was not some poor unknown. He was a well respected and successful member of society. Yet, when his guru, the famous Brahmin saint Vyasatirtha accepted Kanakadasa as his disciple purely on the merits of his devotion and talent, the guru’s other followers (all Brahmins) sneered at him for his lack of qualifications (birth being the only qualification that mattered at that time).

    Kanakasa’s response? Like a modern song writer, his music was influenced by his experience. He wrote some of the classiest revenge songs ever. One of his longer pieces called Ramadhanya Charita is a biting criticism of caste through witty metaphor. The story isn’t about the glorious life of Rama. Instead, grains of rice and ragi play the main roles.

    In the story, Rama and Sita, on their way back to Ayodhya, stop for a meal at sage Muchikunda’s ashram. Here, the sage offered a vast spread of food and Rama asks Hanuman what the best dish is. Hanuman, ever the over-achiever, asked for all the raw ingredients that went into making the dishes to be brought out. Once on the table the various grains assembled begin to argue that they are the grain of real essence. Finally, Rama asks that all grains be stored for six months. Six months later, Rama asks to check on all the grains. Rice, the most refined of grains, was stalest while ragi, of humble origins, was still fresh. Thus, humble ragi won the title of Ramadhanya – the grain of Rama. Rice was a metaphor for the refined upper castes while ragi represented the humble lower castes who worked sincerely without fanfare. This poetic work assured the common man that Rama was aware of their true worth.

    In another song titled Teerthavanu Pididavarella (Are All Those Who Hold Teertha Hallowed?) Kanakadasa says:

    Are all those, who holding their nose and take a dip
    Into water who reading holy scriptures
    Hoping to enjoy other’s wives secretly
    Swerving from the code of ethics, Brahmins, gody?

    Are those bot-bellied persons Vaishnavas of true essence
    Who earn their lievelihood with shouts of vehemence,
    Simply painting their foreheads and keeping their vessels
    Without knowing the art of penance and its skills?



    Imagine being one of those snooty fellow disciples listening as Kanakadasa sings the keerthana before his guru, or worse, listening to people in your community humming it as they watch you walk past them, demanding undeserved respect.
  2. Represent!

    Recently, I was listening to a wonderful podcast on The Daily about Serena Williams legacy to the sport. She is a great example of the importance of representation and just how powerful that is. How do you quantify the impact of seeing someone who looks like you succeed in a world that is not welcoming to you. Serena Williams looked nothing like the delicate gazelles we expect to win Women’s Wimbledon. She was muscular and powerful and was a woman of colour. She didn’t hide who she was. She was loud and proud. But we think of representation as being something modern.

    Yet, back in the 16th century, Kanakadasa was representing an entire group of people who were consciously disempowered. He was writing songs in local dialect for the common man in which he was explaining complex Hindu philosophy in simple language – philosophy that the Brahmins felt was exclusively their domain.
    While Kanakadasa was an outsider to the orthodoxy, to the common man, he was a lower caste man who was accepted and even praised by the great Brahmin guru Vyasatirtha, advisor and guru of the king of the entire Vijayanagar Empire. His life was his message And what was that message? He was saying that everyone is deserving of divine grace and acceptance. He was saying that these Brahmins who demanded respect and servility weren’t necessarily deserving of it.

    Instead of sitting in one place, expecting disciples to come to him, Kanakadasa was going village to village spreading the word. So, you could meet him, talk to him, listen to him, sing with him and clap to the beat. There is power in that.
  3. Democratization of Education

    In modern times literature, social science, science and technology are important elements of that education. Why? Because education’s main goal is to improve quality of life. A good education gives us perspective; it makes us less gullible to superstition or herd mentality; it prepares us to be good citizens; and it prepares us with the skills and knowledge we might need to earn a living. Today, with technology and e-learning – high quality education is available to more and more people. It used to be the domain of the rich, but now it is something accessible to anyone with a smart phone.

    In the medieval times, you learnt how to make a living by helping your parents or people of your caste. But that wasn’t an education. An education that explained the world to you or that transformed your way of viewing the world was an education exclusively for the Brahmin or the Kshatriya. Anyone not of those castes were excluded in two ways – first, they did not have access to a Brahmin guru who passed such important knowledge orally to his disciples. Second, they could not learn on their own because all scriptures were in Sanskrit. But Kanakadasa brought learning to everyone. Instead of sitting in one place, expecting disciples to come to him, Kanakadasa came to your doorstep. So, a potter or a weaver, an open minded Brahmin or Kshatriya, all had access to him.

    And when he came to your village, he wasn’t just talking about social justice or deep Vedantic truths, but he was also encouraging rationalism – telling people that they needed to think logically and not fall prey to superstition. In a sense, his music was the medium of education in that time, much like video is today.

As I read and listened to his music, Kanakadasa upturned several false narratives that I had collected in my head. Prime among them was this peculiar belief I once indulged that Indians began to think rationally once we were exposed to rational Western thinkers of the18th and 19th century. Yet, 200 years before that, Kanakadasa was already questioning the orthodox Hindu’s belief that he needed a son to be able to attain the Divine. His argument was based in logic and rational thinking. Think for yourself, he was constantly exhorting. It is the same as Kabir and other poets of this period. Yet, somehow I read Indian history and unconsciously came to believe, rather preposterously, that before Western philosophy all Indians were running wily-nily through life without any sense of reason.

The other false narrative I had built up was the power of an individual against ingrained social norms. I had a Hollywood influenced dramatic belief that all it takes is one persuasive individual to transform society. However, Kanakadasa was fighting the same prejudice that, 400 years later, Ambedkar and other Dalit leaders were fighting against – an inflexible and cruel caste system. This leads me to conclude that social change cannot come from one individual’s extraordinary effort. It can only work when we all unite and push against it, like that moment at the end of Finding Nemo, when Nemo advises all the fish to swim down to overwhelm the fishing net. It is an apt visual metaphor for what is needed to make fundamental changes in society.

Just Keep Swimming

In the end, personalities have always come who have tried to play the role that Nemo’s dad plays here which is to encourage us all to swim down, but the swimming is up to us, and while all of us cannot be Kanakadasa or Ambedkar or other voices of a united conscience, we can all swim. Social change is always a product of united effort.

Resources:

You can buy this book here

a. Select Songs of Kanakadasa by Shashidhar G. Vaidya

b. Wikipedia for more information on Haridasa and Vyasatirtha

c. Rajkumar’s 1960 film Bhakta Kanakadasa. (great piece of Indian film history and great music too)

Stamp # 6 and 7: Tagore and Malaviya’s Educational Legacies

Around five years ago, when I dove more deeply into the education space in India, I found myself uncomfortable with just how much we were borrowing ideas from the west and how we were trying to force-fit them in an Indian context. It was a habit that we had fallen into for generations, like as if we had lost the confidence in our own ways of thinking about learning and education. But the more I looked into it, I realized most people weren’t even aware of Indian thinkers on education or they felt that Indian education thinkers were frequently mixing religion with education. So in this piece, I want to look at two men who tried to make a difference in the field of higher education. They recognized that creating an education system created for an Indian context is important to create Indian thinkers and Indian problem solvers, but their approaches to education was very different. But before we begin, let us look at the educational environment the two men were responding to.

An Oversimplified Story of Indian Schools till the Early 20th Century

Gurukul System. Source: Gurukul Blog

ANCIENT HISTORY: The story of the history of education in India complicated. This is true because the history of India is extremely long. But the prevalent image of ancient Indian schooling at the Gurukuls. People used to deposit their children at the homes of a guru at around the age of 7 or 8. For the next 10 to 15 years, the children were part of the Guru’s household, where they helped in household chores and served their Guru and also learned the scriptures. Over this period, the child learnt self discipline, life lessons as well as academics (in the form of the scriptures). Access to this form of intense education was not universal. It was only available to a small group of boys who were born to a certain caste. The vast majority of the population was excluded from the Gurukuls. Other boys were taught the trade they were born into by their fathers, uncles or any old surviving male relative (because in those days, remember, people died young so the joint family raised its young children together).

MEDIEVAL HISTORY: In the medieval times, gurukuls, madrasas and informal education through apprenticeships continued. There might have been village pathashalas in villages where they had someone who could teach reading and writing, and children would attend during the seasons when they were not required to help in the farms. These schools taught in the vernacular medium, but it always helped to learn the official language of the emperor who ruled over your area if you wanted to rise above your station.

THOMAS MACAULAY’S LEGACY OF BRITISH EDUCATION: The East India Trading Company came quietly in the late 17th century and were settled cozily in India by the mid 19th century. But the British were finding the vast cultural gap tiresome when it came to doing business. They were either going to have to learn the local ways (which many of the early British settlers had done) or get the locals to learn their language and “elevate” the native a little.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, First Baron of Macaulay (April 1856) Source: Wikimedia Commons

The school textbooks today credit Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay with the modern Indian education system. During his recommendations to the Committee of Public Instruction he pointed out that English should be the medium of instruction instead of Arabic or Sanskrit. If the British were going to be spending money on education, they should be looking for some gains or returns. This was 1835 and the British were in India to make a profit, after all. Macaulay summarized the goal of education in India as follows: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern- a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.  To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”

I think, the education system laid out by the British were actually successful in accomplishing that goal. It did create a class of Indians who were English in opinions, morals and intellect. And many of them did enrich the vernacular dialects with terms of science borrowed from the West, however, many also used the “English opinions, morals and intellects” to examine the English themselves. These English minded thinkers led our freedom struggle and brought extraordinary good to our country.

Unfortunately, what Macaulay’s education also did was make it seem like Indian culture – its music, dance, food, poetry, literature, religion and philosophy and aesthetic were somehow inferior. We see elements of this even today when you look at the CBSE English curriculum for the 10th grade – where they are still reading Robert Frost rhyming about the way a crow shook a dust of snow upon him. Indians know crows but most of us haven’t seen snow or how it dusts on things. Indians have long adopted English as our own and used it to create masterful works of fiction and poetry. Yet it hasn’t seeped into our textbooks so very well.

Macaulay’s education and a subsequent American culture wave has taken a strong hold on our imagination even. In every creative writing session I have ever had, most of kids have written about Bobs, Jacks, Marias and Lucys doing fun or awful things.

The goal of Macaulay’s education policy was to create a class of Indians servile to the West and who were raised to believe in the superiority of Western culture. In the late 19th and early 20th century many people like Rabindranath Tagore and Malaviya felt it was time to provide an education that met the needs of a new Indian nation state. Education was now needed to create a unified national consciousness and create a class of citizens who understood the nation that they were now masters of.

Madan Mohan Malaviya and Rabindranath Tagore

Name: Madan Mohan Malaviya (1861-1946)
Date of Issue: 1961
Issued by: India Post
Name: Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)
Date of Issue: 1952
Issued by: India Post

Both Malaviya and Tagore were born in 1861 and both were founders of two of most India’s well-reputed universities (Benaras Hindu University and Vishwa-Bharati), yet the two men were very different from each other. Just look at them – Malaviya in his turban, neatly trimmed moustache, round tilak and simple tidy appearance versus Tagore’s flowing mane and beard, in his loose robe.

Malaviya, also known as Mahamanas for his wide and generous interests, lived simply. Here is a picture of him in his room, from the archives of BHU. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Madan Mohan Malaviya was a Kayastha Brahmin from an area near Allahabad, UP. His father and grandfather, well known and respected for their mastery of Sanskrit scriptures, were invited to various places to recite the Srimad Bhagavatham. Malaviya attended a local village school and went to college to get a degree in English. Later, he studied law. Over his lifetime, Malaviya donned many hats – he was President of the Indian National Congress, he revived The Hindustan Times in 1924, got 156 of the 177 Chauri-chaura rioters acquitted in his capacity as their lawyer, got British-Indian courts to use the Devanagri script for their record keeping, established the Hindu Samaj as well as a Boy Scouts organisation in India, and of course set up Benaras Hindu University.

Tagore’s accomplishments are more well known. Like Malaviya, Tagore was also Brahmin. His father, Debendranath Tagore, had founded the Brahmo Samaj and was a deeply spiritual man. Tagore grew up in a joint family where music, dance, art, drama, spirituality, poetry, and everything beautiful was within easy reach. He had hated classroom learning and his ideas of education and how it should be delivered came from his inherent discomfort with classroom education.

What I find interesting about Malaviya and Tagore is that they had much in common and yet both have such different vibes. Both men’s vision of education was born from their own personal but very different exposure to Indian religious and artistic culture in their childhood. Their pedagogical approaches reflected these two very different approaches to religion and culture.

Today, Benaras Hindu University is considered one of the top universities in the country – in the same league as IISc , IIT Delhi, Kharagpur and Mumbai. Vishwa-Bharathi University might have stumbled in rankings in recent years, but it has survived in modern India. I do not know how close they are to the vision of their founders, but my interest is in the initial days of these places and the approach each founder applied.

I feel like each university was created in the image of its founder.

Benaras Hindu University (please check out this article to see pictures of it in its early years), like its founder, appeared to be planned in a neat, constrained, orderly fashion. Colleges to teach the Vedas and Vedanta, Ayurveda and medicine, Gandhari Vedas or Fine and Performing Arts were formed. There was also a College of Artha Shastra teaching subjects we would call Economics, Physics, Chemistry, etc. There were buildings and residential quarters funded by various princely states. Initially, Malaviya had intended for all teaching to happen in Sanskrit or the vernacular but then realised that there were no textbooks in those languages.

Shantiniketan and Vishwabharati was founded with a different perspective. Shantiniketan was all about allowing students to commune with nature and learn in an organic fashion. Classrooms were under trees. Religion was to be taught by a mindful observation of nature and the self, rather than through instruction. Culture was again to be experienced through participation in music, art, dance and theatre. Like its founder, Vishwabharati was untamed in form. When someone told Tagore that there were no textbooks for subjects in the vernacular, Tagore simply pointed out that once there is demand for it, supply would follow, and so classes in Shantiniketan were taught in Bengali.

The Place of Religious Education in Secular India

As I was writing this story out, I was half listening to my son reading a news article about communal violence in the background. Communalism and secularism are hot topics in India today where our opinions of the government’s relationship with religion is causing friction. I was torn about what one would make of Malaviya’s vision of Hindu education in these times. Tagore’s interpretation of religion is more palatable in this modern time because it is non-denominational in its expression. In contrast, Malaviya never shied away from scripture. Despite his conservative religiosity, in history, Malaviya was not a dividing force. He was a practicing Brahmin and yet was making peace with Ambedkar during the signing of the Poona Pact in 1932. From all I could find, he was a consistent voice in favour of communal harmony.

Yet, is Malaviya’s brand of religious education good for peace and harmony in secular India? I looked into Malaviya’s own writing for the answers. Believe it or not, he seemed to familiar with my worry. You will find the direct quote below, but here is the summary. He felt that

  1. The absence of compulsory religious education had not prevented the growth of sectarianism, but perhaps a truly religious education might liberate the mind and create a spirit of brotherly feeling between men.
  2. He believed that “instruction in the truths of religion whether imparted” at “Benaras Hindu University or Aligarh Moslem University” will produce men who are true to their religion,… God,… and country. In other words he appeared to believe in the universal message of love, harmony and brotherhood at the core of all religions.
  3. And therefore, he felt that a true religious education is a more likely to lead to peace and harmony than not.

Here is his complete quote, that I summarised above:

“It  will  not  promote  narrow  sectarianism  but  a  broad liberation  of  mind  and  a  religious  spirit  which  will  promote brotherly  feeling  between  man  and  man.  Unfortunately  we are  all  aware  that  the  absence  of  sectarian  religious  Universities, the  absence  of  any  compulsory  religious  education  in our  State  Universities,  has  not  prevented  the  growth  of  sectarian feeling  in  the  country.  I  believe,  my  Lord,  instruction in  the  truths  of  religion,  whether  it  be  Hindus  or Mussalmans,  whether  it  be  imparted  to  the  students  of  the Benares  Hindu  University  or  of  the  Aligarh  Moslem  University, will  tend  to  produce  men  who,  if  they  are  true  to  their religion,  will  be  true  to  their  God,  their  King  and  their  country. And  I  look  forward  to  the  time  when  the  students  who will  pass  out  of  such  Universities,  will  meet  each  other  in  a closer  embrace  as  sons  of  the  same  Motherland  than  they  do at  present.” (page 29, Speeches and Writings of Madan Mohan Malaviya)

Like Malaviya and Tagore, many others including Gandhi tried to provide an alternative to the British system. Today, I see several schools around India that make a real effort to take the homegrown Indian route and I deeply appreciate the effort. It is challenging when the entire structure is borrowed but it is nice to see that we are making efforts to fix that every now and then even at government levels like with the NEP. But what I understand from Malaviya and Tagore isn’t a surface level exposure to Indian culture through cursory chanting of prayers or grandiose celebration of festivals but through a deeper examination of the self and the world we inhabit through the lens provided by Indian philosophy, as well as an exposure to the contribution of various philosophers, writers and poets in more modern times as well.

“How did he find the time?” I asked my husband, ruefully. “He didn’t have Netflix or Insta-reels” he said jokingly. And I wonder if that might be true. I wonder at all the lost potential.

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

New Project: Indian History Through Stamps

Recently, while on holiday, we saw a small little post office operating out of a garage in a village near B.R. Hills. My son wanted to see if they sold post cards, like they used to during my childhood but the postal worker was amused. No one came by asking for postcards any more. He pulled out an envelope from his drawer and laid out strips of colourful stamps. You can choose a stamp, he said. No one I know uses the postal system to communicate personal messages anymore. Most of these stamps that the postman in B.R. Hills showed us will probably go unused. It is a real pity.

Lal Pratap Singh was a leader in the Indian
Rebellion in 1857.He is forgotten by most
people, but not by the Indian Postal Service.
P.C – India Post

Independent India’s postal service began issuing stamps from 1947. Since then, India has produced stamps covering a marvellous range of themes. We have stamps celebrating institutions, art, architecture and music, flora and fauna as well as accomplished individuals throughout our country’s history. This year, I would like to go through the catalogue of stamps and write stories inspired by these stamps.

I will write stories inspired by stamps released every year by the India Post, starting from 1947. But since I cannot cover every single stamp released, I will focus on the ones that catch my eye or that have a story that I hadn’t known earlier. I am excited to see where it will lead us.

The first set of pieces will be on the very first stamp released by Independent India – The National Flag.