The last Indian Paradesi Jews of Madras (Chennai)
March 7, 2020
Hello everyone I am Simone and welcome to my channel! Today we are going to talk about an aspect of India that remains still unknown even to a lot of its inhabitants I am talking about the local Indian Judaism In this video, we will analyze a particular variant of it India is known globally as a country that hosts almost all the world religions and for the way in which religiosity is part of people’s daily lives We know that India is the home of Hinduism According to the latest official census which was conducted in 2011 79.8% of Indians are Hindus which means around 966 million people They are immediately followed by the other major religions of the country, that are: Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and many others numerically minor I said earlier though, that India is home to almost all the world religions So, the natural question: are there even Jews in India? I am not talking about the hordes of Israeli tourists that invade the streets and beaches of Goa but about native Jews the answer is YES! and according to the 2011 census their total number is 4650 individuals They belong to very different communities with different origins most of them left India after the independence in 1947 They relocated mainly to Israel and to other English speaking countries Historically, Jewish communities settled along the Western and Southern coasts of the Subcontinent These reasons similar to the ones of the arrival of the first Muslim communities as I have analyzed in a previous video The history of the Jews constitutes an important chapter in the human history They have been pushed since ancient times to seek refuge in the most disparate parts of the world For nearly 2000 years, India has been representing a stable and secure home for them Judaism is said to be one of the first foreign religions to reach India even at the time of the mythical King Solomon In this video I will talk about a particular Jewish community in Southern India the Madras Jews today reduced to one single, last family This is the story of the last foreign
Jewish Paradesi family of Madras The first ancient Jewish communities is Southern India initially settled in the Malabar coast in Kerala and in the Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu they were of Near and Middle Eastern origin during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries new Jewish communities were added to the existing ones the latter, however, came from the Iberian Peninsula They were, in fact, Sephardi Jews the presence of Sephardi Jews in India was the result of a discriminatory religious policy that took place in the Iberian Peninsula during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries specifically,the Catholic kingdoms of Portugal and Spain were actively working in removing the Jewish and Muslim components from their territories through expulsions, forced conversions and executions in that,the institution of the inquisition was instrumental However, if Muslim communities were able to relocate to the Islamic territories of North Africa and the Ottoman Empire the Jewish community did not have a majority Jewish state entity to move to It then dispersed among the religiously more tolerant countries of Northern Europe and in the colonial domains in the New World where the inquisition was not yet present or too rooted around this period, Portugal was in the process of creating its colonial outposts in India Several Jewish individuals relocated there These newly immigrated Sephardi Jews were known as “Paradesi” this word derives from the word of ancient Sanskrit origin “Paradeshin” and it was then adopted by Tamil and Malayalam languages this word is a combination of the words “para” that means “other”, and “deshin”, that means “person who lives in the country” therefore indicating a not native person Although this was an ancient word used in contexts other than Judaic over time it ended up being designated to these recently immigrated Sephardic Jews As said, the first Paradesi Jews came from Portugal and Spain with the progressive disappearance of Portuguese control and the beginning of Dutch and British one Jews from other parts of the world began migrating to India That happened mainly because of two reasons: First, the creation of areas more tolerant in terms of religion Second, because the mission of the British and Dutch authorities in India mainly was economic and commercial in nature aiming at maximizing profits the religious aspect was, till a certain degree completely ignored in British and Dutch domains this was unlike what happened in the Portuguese territories where commercial goals were secondary to religious conversions and cultural assimilation This prompted the Paradesi Jews already present in the Portuguese territories in India to move to Dutch and British possessions they consequently invited some of their coreligionists who initially moved to Northern Europe or in the Caribbean following their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula to reunite with them in India Given its peculiar linguistic and commercial skills this community, despite being numerically small was able to act as a bridge between Europe and the Subcontinent during the colonial era In an attempt of the British authorities to overtake the Portuguese monopoly in trading precious stones, gems and diamons in 1639, the first British outpost in India Fort St. George which later became known as Madras, was founded within a few years, the first Jews began to flow into Madras which became one of the main poles of Indian Judaism as well as one of the most dynamic trade posts of the Subcontinent the fortune of the Jewish community of Madras was due to the trade of corals, diamonds and precious stones from Golconda mines in the present-day Telangana and Andhra Pradesh These were sent abroad to other Jewish counterparts for refinement, cutting and polishing In Madras, the Paradesi Jewish community settled in George Town area around Coral Merchant Street in Muthialpet where the first synagogue of the city was also built Coral Merchant Street took its name from one of the main businesses of the community the trade of corals an interesting fact is that this street still exists with its original name, in modern Chennai In this context, fortune and wealth of the Jewish community of Madras flourished They also had their own association, called “The Colony of Jewish Traders of Madraspatam” that was founded by 1687 to encourage a Jewish migration from abroad The most obvious example of the community importance was that when the municipality of Madras was established in 1688 among its 12 Aldermen five of them were Portuguese, three of which Jews The most prominent families of the community were the ones of De Castro, Franco, Paiva and Porto Within a few years, a second synagogue much larger than the first, and a cemetery were built in the same location where today stands the Central Railway Station on a piece of land given by the British to a Portuguese Paradesi Jew, Jaime De Paiva who was buried here in 1687 However, by the second half of the 18th century the size of the Paradesi Jewish community of Chennai started to diminish Mainly, that was due to the fact that the Golconda mines started to run dry so, the local Jews had to move elsewhere to continue their occupation Although it is recorded that, at its peak several thousands Jews were living in Chennai today,the entire community is reduced to one last family they today strive to maintain their peculiar identity and traditions against the threat of assimilation and disappearance Nowadays, it appears very difficult to track the history of the Jews of Chennai because the records were lost in 1934 when the original Jewish cemetery was first moved in 1968, when the first synagogue was demolished by Tamil Nadu government to build a school and 1983, when the Jewish cemetery got shifted to its current location in Lloyd Road A lot of tombstones of the community’s old residents went missing in the process including the one of Jaime De Paiva The remaining local Jewish civil records from Chennai were lost in the floods of 2015 Today, the last surviving Paradesi family of Chennai is the one of the Levis They have been present there for more than 500 years and they are the descendants of the last Rabbi of Madras synagogue Salomon Halevi, who died in 1968 The head of the family, David Levi Salomon Halevi’s grandson is constantly engaged in preserving and transmitting the memory of the Jewish community of Madras to the next generations, and saving it from the oblivion however, despite David Levi’s efforts the traces of Chennai Jewish past risk to vanish Ok people, it is all for the day We discovered how Madras extended its hospitality to the Jewish community by allowing it to live without discrimination for centuries and how the community, in turn contributed to the greatness and success of this city However, despite all that, they risk to disappear by the next generation because of cultural assimilation and migrations abroad I hope this video made a little contribution to preserving the memory of this important component of Chennai and Indian history If you enjoyed the video do not forget to like, comment and share it!