The Jewsh Diaspora in Malabar

The other night, I was sitting at Saravana Bhavan on Amsterdam St at the Upper west side of Manhattan NY, where we had just spent a happy week lazing around. The South Indian vegetarian restaurant displayed a Kosher certificate and even proclaimed a candle lighting ceremony that Friday. The hotel was full, and when we got seats after a long wait, I could not but help take stock of the occupants, noting with surprise that a vast majority was Jewish, wearing the mandatory Kippah (black silk or satin skullcap), and happily munching masala dosas , following it up with a plate of sambar rice. I even heard an elderly man who was being hosted by some other Jewish people that it was one of the best meals he ever ate.

Well, I was truly and pleasantly surprised, but could not help wonder how it was nine centuries ago when there were some enterprising Jews living in Malabar. What could they have consumed? We do know that most of them took their religion seriously, so how did they live balancing religion and food in that strange and different land with South Indian Hindu customs, the Arabs (whom they of course knew very well) and other Pardesi trader? Of course there were other foreigners, Moplahs and religions as time went by, and Jewish synagogues and communities grew, but for the pioneers it must surely have been tough.

It is well known that there were a number of Jewish settlers in Cranganore and Cochin and many of the coastal ports and towns in the West coast of India since time immemorial. In fact India is perhaps the only country which gave them abode and never persecuted them, but then as the world went forward, the community moved on as they always had done, to greener shores. Perhaps the culture was never to their deep inner liking, perhaps, their sense of communal fraternity took them to their brethren in Israel, but other than Ruby, the lady from Cochin, few if any looked back. Ruby incidentally wrote a book on her days in Cochin, while spending her senior days in Israel. Even in the very old times, a number of wealthy Jews moved on to brighter locales after the British came and the ports of importance shifted to Bombay and Calcutta. They later got involved in the lucrative opium trade with British China and other business ventures. Malabar and Cochin were thus transient in their minds as working pads to launch their businesses. But then again, during the medieval times, when Calicut was the Dubai for the Arabs (like Dubai is to the Keralite today) they were part of that fabric that was woven by the traders who flocked to buy, distribute and sell the nature’s produce of Malabar, namely spices. There are many books on the Jews of Cochin, some authoritative, some written in a lighter vein, and from them, you can glean a lot about the white and black Jews of Cochin and their intertwined lives, quibbles and towards the 20th century, a lonely existence as their children migrated to the land of their choice.

But none of them really mention anything about the Jewish traders who lived an even lonelier existence in the Northern ports of Malabar. No detailed texts exist detailing their lives, barring the story of Abraham ben Yiju (and a few other traders) which came to light with the discovery of the Genizah fragments and the painstaking research later by Prof Goitein, Prof Mordechai Friedman and a few others. Of course one must also mention the inputs from Amitav Ghosh in meticulously bringing those strands together to form an eminently readable account, thereby marshaling popular attention. So I would concur that an interested reader has to start with the Jewish traders of the 12th century who dotted the port towns of Manjarur (Mangalore), Neeleswaram, Pantalayani, Calicut and Ponnani and the Genizah scrolls. While definitive accounts are not available, one can indeed form a picture of their times and lives, as trade shifted, as small fortunes were made and kings and kingdoms changed with time.

First a quick summary for those in a hurry and I have noticed in all these years of writing and have been warned by many that there are hardly a few who have the patience to read more than a paragraph. But I always write with the hope that there are one or two or perhaps a handful who read most of what I put on paper. Quoting the Jewish Virtual library about the presence of these traders - While the Portuguese historian Correa speaks in 1536 of the great number of Jews in Calicut, the Yemenite traveler Zechariah b. Saadiah (16th century) looked in vain for coreligionists there. Half a century later Pyrard de Laval lists Jews among the various religious groups in Calicut with their own quarter and synagogue. The outstanding Calicut Jew in the 18th century was Isaac Surgun (d. 1792), a wealthy merchant who hailed from Constantinople. We also understand that there were Jews in the armies of the Zamorin as well as the Cochin Raja. And North Malabar was a locale that people looked at, searching for the lost tribes of Israel, due to the writings of Ferissol.

Dr. David G. Mandelbaum, in his article "The Jewish Way of Life in Cochin," records the following tradition current among the Jews of Cochin, India: "While the Jews could scarcely defend themselves against great armies of marauders, it is clear that they were proficient in arms. The two great opponents of the Malabar Coast, the Raja of Cochin and the Zamorin of Calicut, each had a brigade of Jewish soldiers in their forces. In 1550, the allied Portuguese and Cochin armies fought against the Raja of Vatakkenkur. The Portuguese captain planned to attack the enemy on a Saturday, but the Raja of Cochin objected, because on that day the Jews would not fight and they ‘were the best warriors he had raised.'

But as we study the lives of the Jews of Kerala, we find that these extensive studies focus on the larger concentrations in and around Cochin, sometimes straying as far as Trissur, for between these two places there were a few locales where they congregated. Yes, it is true that a number of accounts between the 13th and 18th centuries mention presence of Jews around Calicut, but is sustained with hardly any detail. So why do we not see them really settled and thriving, north of Trissur? Was it because the Jewish trader was happy dealing with the merchants of Venice or Lisbon? Did they drop out of favor from the Arabian traders of the Red Sea trade which they had started in the early 11th century, after the Portuguese came?

Andre Wink provides an answer in his paper on the Jewish diaspora of India - We see that the fate of most Jewish communities in India remained intimately linked to that of the Middle Eastern Jews and that their fortune followed the political vicissitudes of Islam, both reaching a nadir in the thirteenth century. Eighth to thirteenth centuries, in summary, was the palmy age of the Jews in India; but Jewish success in India was dependent on the presence of Jews in the Islamic Middle East and Egypt and hence did not survive the latter’s migration to Europe.

Now let us take a look at the Jewish connection to Indian Ocean trade. I had previously covered the general principles in my article – Hubs of medieval trade linked here

An early mention of the participation of Jews in the India trade is from the Nikanor archives and the Jewish family’s participation in the transport of goods from red sea ports. But this goes way back to the Roman period, 40-44CE. This is well connected with the Berenike and is covered in articles about the Muziris papyrus and the Chariton mime. However the trade tapered off by 3CE as the Roman heydays were over. The Iranian Sasanids came to controlling power in the area and the importance shifted to Persian Gulf ports as the red sea connections declined regarding the trade to India. We note again the presence of a number of Jews in this trade network and it is reasonable to say that the other end of the route also had Jewish representatives to control, monitor and execute the tools of trade, especially payments and consolidation.

Starting with the Abbasid dynasty and the dominant position held by Bagdad in those centuries, the Jews (Rahdaniya traders) excelled in international finance as well as medicine, both gleaned due to the links with India and were part of the trade with Malabar. It was these trade and medical links that established a secure position for the Jews in the otherwise Islamic Caliphate. Al Masudi mentions a number of Baghdadi merchants at Konkan ports, and many of them have to be Jews.

But soon the anti-caliphate Fatimid dynasty got established in Cairo and the Babylonian and Palestinian Jew classification and segregation occurred. During the 10th century a number of them emigrated from Bagdad to the Maghreb area, especially Kairouan in Tunisia. They thus became the magrebi traders involved with the Mediterranean trade. By the 10th century, the Fatmids had taken over the trade with India and a large migration of Jews to Cairo took place, from Bagdad & even Tunisia. The Persian Gulf trade dropped and the red sea trade again picked up. The Abbasids were thus on the decline and Cairo on top as regards the trade with India. Very soon the Jews of Egypt had established trading stations in over twenty locations on the west coast of India, mainly south of Baruch. Simultaneously the overland silk route control left the Abbasid hands and moved to the Persians. Sea trade flourished with these renewed contacts and this period of the 10th to 13th century was thus the zenith for the Jewish traders using Islamic finance, working with the Indian coastal suppliers. But more changes were on the way due to the crusades and the European supremacy. The Jews started their migrations from towards European lands, the Mamuluks of Egypt started discriminating the Jews and soon by the 12th century, the Jews were displaced by the Islamic Karimi merchants who were to later collaborate with the Zamorin in his ascent to power. With the arrival of the Karimi’s started the larger Moplah settlements in Malabar. One other major reason why the Jews dropped out of sea based trading was due to strict implementation of religious requirements.

Thus whatever we see with respect to Jewish connections in North Malabar was between the 10th and 13th centuries. The Jews who remained were of course those in the Cranganore area, and are the much written about Jews of Kerala, but the migrant Jews of trade that we will talk about are the Jews of North Malabar, who had dispersed by the 13th century. Until they left, we saw that they lived and traded at ports spread between Baruch and Calicut. That is the area we will talk about and the period we will concentrate on. Two clusters of Jewish settlements developed, one in the north, spreading out from Khorasan, and one on the west coast of India, mainly Malabar, which was important in the maritime network. As we get into these discussions the reader should also be aware that a medieval port was not like a harbor of these days, but just a nice beach where they could beach the boat or dhow. The crafts were not heavy deep sea crafts floating in a harbor with the anchor down, always, though at times they were propped up near the sand banks we had near Malabar coasts. Such ports were many and selected based upon on various preferences, and we will list and cover them another day. In many a case, a hill nearby served as the watch point as there were no light houses. The Middle Easterners or Pardesis lived near the Bandar and in certain cases, as in Manjarur, the population rose to as high as 4,000. The people of Malabar were not too concerned of the happenings at the Bandar, they went about their daily life and so we have little or for that matter hardly any record of these traders from the Indian viewpoints.

Wink explains the cementing of the link - Due to the growing importance of the India trade the Jewish representative in Aden became quite powerful for some time and ’Aden and India’ came to be regarded by the Jewish authorities as one juridical diocese. The Jewish ’Wakil of the Merchants’ (Hebrew: Peqid ha-Soharim) of Aden and the head (nagid) of the Jewish communities of Yemen became ’the trustee of all lords of the sea and the deserts’, i.e., he concluded agreements in the interest of the Jewish merchants with all rulers and pirates in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.

Wink continues - We also know that, in the twelfth century at least, Jewish courts in Malabar issued their documents in the name of the Exilarch of Baghdad and the Palestinian Gaon. The latter had his seat in Cairo. This is explained by the origin of the Jewish merchant colonies on the Indian coast, which was either in Iraq and Persia or in the Mediterranean basin.

The Northern Malabar settlements that we will cover start with the Konkan ports of Goa, Mangalore, ports near Cannanore and then at Pantalayani and down to Calicut and Ponnani. There have been mentions of these transient settlers in the Geniza letters, by the traders themselves as well as the writings of Jordanus and many other writers, post Portuguese arrival. Let us take a look at some of these and finally get to the Geniza records.

Some of the mentions are just wild suggestions hardly based on any fact and are woven around myths, but it perhaps a good idea to take a brief look. We start by trying to understand the river of Sambation and where it could be, for mentions have been made of settlements of the lost tribes in such locales. According to Rabbinic literature, the Sambation is the river beyond which the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel were exiled by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser V.

Quoting from ‘Where are the ten tribes’ Dr Neubauer Jewish Quarterly review- One account of Jews in Calicut was made by Abraham Ferissol around 1523, "After passing the great gulf towards Ethiopia, one reaches the continent of Mekka, which is near the Indian Sea. In the upper part of this country are great deserts, and settlements of Jews, who are on the river Ganges, which is the Biblical Gozan, as I have already written, and as it is also explained by the Christians. And so it is written in recent books, that, in the regions above the country of Mekka, and also those above the deserts of Calicut, there are to be found numerous Jews and many kingdoms, but they are far one from the other—viz., the Jews above Mekka and those above Calicut; and in the islands of the Indian Ocean their number is endless, and they are everywhere rich in gold and spices. The Ganges (according to Ferussol, the Gozan or the Sambatyon), has its source above Calicut, and divides the Indians from the Jews. About the real existence of the Sambatyon he refers to the Talmud and Josephus, and his controversial book, called "The Shield of Abraham." Moreover, Ferussol says "that the Christian writer mentioned above stated that he found many Jewish merchants at Calicut, descendants of the Tribes settled above Calicut, between the mountains of Gozan and its rivers, and there is the Sambatyon, which separates the Jews from the Indians, whilst on the continent of the country of Mekka lies, on the nearest side to us, the desert of Habor. But between the two families of Jews—viz., those who dwell between the mountains of Gozan and its rivers, and those who are at Habor, beneath Yemen—there dwell Ishmaelite tribes, who harm them, and prevent them from joining together, as I have already said. Therefore it is possible, as I heard at Rome, that the Jew from the Tribes came to Italy from Habor by way of Yemen, which lies above Mekka." At the end of the twenty-eighth chapter, Ferussol says, in the Book on the New World, it is stated that the Prester John is found in the country above Calicut, distant from the sea. Ferussol says, further, that the black priests of the Prester John always say that Jews are numerous in the neighborhood of the country of Prester John. Certainly fanciful and can be discounted, but is generally based on some rumors of Jews living in the South of India.

There is one direct mention firsthand of Jews at Flandarina, by friar Ordoric of Pordenone - a native of Bohemia. Let us look at what he had to say for he mentions wars between the Christians and the Jews with the former getting better of the other. Morover, that it may be manifest how pepper is had, it is to be understood that it groweth in a certain kingdom whereat I myself arrived, being called Minibar, and it is not so plentiful in any other part of the world as it is there. For the wood wherein it grows containeth in circuit eighteen days' journey. And in the said wood or forest there are two cities, one called Flandrina, and the other Cyncilim. In Flandrina both Jews and Christians do inhabit, between whom there is often contention and war: howbeit the Christians overcome the Jews at all times. Al Dimashqui also mentions that this was a Jewish settlement during the early parts 14th century (1320) at Chaliyam and Pantalayani signifying the dispersion during the latter part when the Muslims took over the reins. It is also around the time when the concentration around Cochin started (flood of 1341).

For those who are wondering about Flandarina and Shaliyat, see my articles on Pantalayanai Kollam and Chaliyam – Henry Yule explains - Flandrina, as has been pointed out, is doubtless the Fandaraina of Ibn Batuta, and the Pandarani of the Ramusian geographer. It is found as Fandaraina (also miswritten Kandaraina) in Edrisi, and is probably the Bandinanah (for Bandiranah) of Abdarrazzak. It has vanished from the maps, but stood about twenty miles north of Calicut. Cyngilin is a greater difficulty. It is, however, evidently identical with the Cynkali of Marignolli, with the Singugli of Jordanus (p. 40), which that author mentions as a kingdom between Calicut and Quilon, with Jangli (which I doubt not should be read Chinkali) of Rashiduddin, and perhaps with the Gingala of Benjamin of Tudela. And it is unquestionably the Shinkala or Shinkal of Abulfeda, which he couples with Shaliyat, as two cities of Malabar, one of which was inhabited by Jews, though his informant knew not which. Shaliyat, also mentioned under that name by Ibn Batuta, and called by the European navigators Chalia and Chale, was the port next below Calicut, and the next to that again, of any importance, was Cranganor.

There is also another assumption, alluded to by Leslie that the Kaifeng Jews of China came there with the Calicut trade that China had, predating Zheng He’s visit. According to Chinese historians, the first Calicut residents in China were probably Jews in the 10th Century. Professor Tang Yating states - In the North Song Dynasty (960-1127), a cohesive Jewish group of some 1,000 people settled around the 10th century at the invitation of the Emperor in Kaifeng, then capital of the country (in present Henan Province, central China), an active big commercial town with a million people at the time. According to an immigrant register book, the year for the Jews' arrival was 998. Probably they were experts in the production of cotton fabric including dyeing and pattern printing, which was well developed in India, and China wanted to introduce to meet the acute silk shortage. With their business smoothly progressing, their religious life became normal, and 1163 saw the rise of the first synagogue, around which they lived. Conjecture leads us to believe that they could have moved from Chalyam to China as there existed a number of ties and even embassies from the Vettathunaad kingdom there.

So we conclude that some of the Jewish traders of the Fatimid period remained and flourished in the areas North of Calicut, especially the major ports of Pantalayani and Calicut. As the Zamorin’s power increased a few major traders perhaps migrated from Cranganore to these trading ports and formed communities as evidenced by reports from Odoric and later writers. There are mentions of their own quarters in Calicut, there are mentions of Jewish synagogues in Calicut, during the later heydays, signifying a larger number. We even find mentions in history books of Jews fleeing Europe, bound for Calicut as is the case of a Jewess found in a ship destined for Malabar in 1491, fleeing Spain. We also see the mentions of Shaliyat Jews by Ibn Batuta, Shaliyat being Chalium, South of Calicut.

And we can concur that as Calicut became a hub in that trade network, the Jewish quarters shifted to Calicut. The discussion around this subject, the activities of CHF and Thoufeek as well as the discovery of a Jew street can be found in this link.
Now let us look at the Genizah accounts and what they have to offer.

Jewish traders in Malabar - Cairo Geniza

The main mentions of these North Malabar ports center around the letters related to Abraham Ben Yiju, the Jewish trader who is well chronicled by Amitav Ghosh in his books and of course Prof Goitein and Prof Mordechai. I had briefly covered the story of Yiju some years back and looking at it now, feel it somewhat unsatisfactory in terms of detail, especially after reading into the more detailed studies and conclusions of Dr Goitein. But more of that another day, let us now see what Yiju and the other traders were upto in terms of North Malabar, from their letters. Indian accounts tended to bring all these people into one terms as Yavana or Pardesi or for that matter Mlecha.

Ben Yiju landed in Malabar around 1132 and established a base in Manjarur or the modern port of Mangalore, but while his trade with his counterparts in Aden consisted of Iron, Copper, coir spices and a variety of small goods. He was not a trader of large volumes of expensive goods, but just an active trader of small goods, who made decent profits, lived his life contently in Malabar for a decade (~17 years) or more, until pressing concerns of his daughter’s marriage took him back to Fustat in Cairo. During his sojourn in Malabar, he had a relation with his manumitted slave girl Ashu and fathered three children. Ashu was by inference, apparently a Nair and still connected with her matriarchal family through her brother who was also in the employ of Yiju. So it is safe to assume that she was perhaps excommunicated by the Nair family for some reason or the other and this is the reason why she was available for marriage with a person of another religion and community. But it is important to note that she did not belong to Manjarur and Nairs though sharing a historic similarity and lineage with the Tulu Bunts, lived further south, during that period in time.

In addition to Yiju, we note accounts of traders like Ibn Hassan, Nahray Bn Allan, Indigo traders like Ibn Awkal etc. We should also take note of the Anchuvanam guilds or the Jewish Hamyamana (perhaps one and the same according to Ranabir Chakrvarthi) along the Manigramam coming to prominence with the Rabban plates.

While Yiju was perhaps mostly located in Manjarur (evidenced by Ashu’s manumission document), where he had a factory and where he does confirm he had a number of Jewish artisans from Yemen, his family lived in Jurbatan. So it is not clear if Manjarur was his office which he visited often. He procured and conducted business at Pantalayani in addition to Dahabattan and Faknur. His trade objects were nuts, perfume, copperware, pepper, iron ore, coir, anything else that made sense in the trade arena (passengers, slaves), silk, paper, sugar raisins, cardamom, borax and so on….

To understand these locales, two contemporary geographers can be consulted, namely Dimishqi (1354) and Abul Fida (1273-1331). Ibn Batuta passed by later in 1335 and all of them mentioned Jews at some of these locations. According to Ibn Batuta, Budfattan, Jurfattan and Dahfattan was controlled by Sultan Kuwayl whose grandfather had converted to Islam. He owned many ships plying between these ports, Yemen, Fars and Oman. Perhaps it was the Kolattiri raja.

Fandarayna- Pantalayani - We note that some of Yiju’s business relationships in Pantalayanai related to the vessel of Fatan Swami and the transport of iron ore from Pantalayani to Manjarur. We also note that Ramisht’s ships sailed on the Aden-Fandarayna route, thus signifying that different merchants tied up with different ports or touched various ports. We also note from Goitein’s research that Yiju perhaps lived often at Pantalayani as he is ordered to give a letter to another Nakhuda Bashir who also lived in the same place. According to Dimishqi, only Hindus and Jews lived there and vessels from India and Sind berthed in the port. The Kollam raja of Payyanad made it his capital and the Zamorin conquered it later. One of Malik Dinar’s 9 mosques existed in Kollam. It was also the location of Adams foot print, during his take off to Adam’s peak in Ceylon. By Ibn Batutas time, after the Zamorin took control, 3/4th of the population had become Muslim signifying that the Jews had mostly left.

Baribatan or Dahbattan – Valar Pattanam – Based on letters addressed to Yiju with the address of Dahbattan, we can summarize that he lived there too but this is not too far (15 miles away) from Jurbatan, or the old Surrukunadapuram, nowadays called Sreekandapuram, and had another of Malik Dinar’s 9 mosques. But I am not sure if this is being confused with Budfattan, where the Kolattiri raja lived. Others mention it is Azhikkal or Balipatanam, five miles away from Cannanore.

Jurbatan – Sreekandapuram - This was where his family lived i.e. Ashu and children, as evidenced in the letter from Khalaf b Isaac to Yiju. It was in those days four or five marhalas (1 marhala is a village length or a days journey) from Pantalayani. The 'Jurbatan' of Idirsi (1154 A.D.) and the 'Jurfattan' of Dimishqi (1325 A.D.) may be identified with the Muslim village of Srikantapuram, ten miles east of Taliparamba. Idirsi says, "Jurbatan is a populous town on a small gulf and had another of Malik Dinar’s 9 mosques. We even note that as time went by, the ports of Sinbadur or Chandrapur near Goa becomes prominent and the Jews moved there for the Aden business. Nevertheless, as time went by, the Karimi merchants took an upper hand, the Jews at both ends of the sea trade had moved on and the few who remained found new masters, mainly the Portuguese and Dutch trading offices.

As the Jewish traders eked out their existences in Malabar, they managed with the local customs and food, though we see Yiju ordering some delicacies like clothes, fineries like white sugar and cheese from his counterparts in Aden, for special occasions. Some found local wives like Yiju, but others are seen writing to their wives back home that they were faithful and celibate and one even grumbles that he consumed alcohol when severely depressed. But they all left eventually, and as mentioned earlier, one other reason why the Jews dropped out of active sea based trading was due to strict implementation of religious requirements as detailed by Goitein. Ship owners were held responsible for religious transgressions and non-observance of Sabbath for example.

This is thus an account of what little we know of the Jews who came, stayed, and finally departed from North Malabar, lands that had allowed them to live a relatively free life, trade and make their fortunes with hardly any kind of interference (barring trade rivalry).

The Jewish diaspora in India: eighth to thirteenth centuries –
Andre Wink The Jewish quarterly review,
Volume 1- Israel Abrahams, Claude Goldsmid Montefiore Hubs of medieval trade - and the way thither; edited by Henry Yule Jewish Virtual Library jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0017_0_17386.html
Indo-Judaic Studies in the Twenty-First Century: A View from the Margin - edited by Nathan Katz, Ranabir Chakravarti, Braj M. Sinha, Shalva Weil India Traders of the Middle Ages: By S. D. Goitein, Mordechai Akiva Friedman Professor Tang Yating
Kaifeng Jews -
Introducing the Muziris Papyrus
Chariton Mime -
Sha-mi-ti mystery -
Calico and its origins -

Southern India As Known To Arab Geographers - S.M.H. Nainar Author – Ullattil Manmadhan Oct 2012