and why numerous communities made India their home may be a matter of
historical discussion and debate but there is no disputing the fact
that they have made the country richer culturally, socially
communities like the Jews, Chinese and Armenians have settled in
India far away from their origional homes. Some in war and some in
peace. Over the decades, some settled down, some moved on. In the
process roots were struck deep and new strands were assimilated into
the fabric of India making her a rich composite of culture, language
and people. The process is still continuing.
begin with, the Jews it can be said that their history is in a way
the history of making itself. But the history of the Indian Jews is
not that ancient. Only some centuries old. Small communities of Jews
were found settled on the western coast of India since the 10th or
11th century though the first mention of Jews in connection
with India occurs in the Bible itself. But putting aside the
biblical angle the Jews of India can be divided into three distinct
groups the Marathi speaking Bene Israel Jews who settled on
the west coast of India, the Cochin Jews or Cochinis who settled
originally in Cranganore in Malabar and later moved to Cochin and the
Baghdadis or the Jews who came originally from West Asia. While
initially, they flocked to Bombay the centre of the Baghdadis Jews in
India turned out to be Calcutta.
the Bene Israelis or the Cochinis are the older settlers, is a matter
of debate but numerically even today the first far outnumber the
second. The origin of the Bene Israelis, however, still remains mired
in confusion. As per the Bene Israeli tradition, their ancestors came
from somewhere in the north. Seven men and seven women
are said to have survived a shipwreck off Navagaon about 20 miles
south of Bombay Island. Versions however are varied with one saying
that they belong to the Lost Ten Tribes, another that
they were simply locals converted into Judaism by visiting Jewish
merchants and yet another concluding that they had come from Yemen.
be the truth the Bene Israelis were and are the most Indian of all
the Jews with majority being Marathi speaking and with even
Indianised versions of Jewish names like Samaji for Samuel and Hasaji
for Ezekeil. The Cochinis Jews too adopted the local language
Malayali but they never lost their hold on Hebrew. As for the
Baghdadi Jews, who arrived in India after the British rule, it was
natural as outsiders to align themselves more with the British not
only in matters of political allegiance but also with regard to
sharing of business interests and their outlook. Not surprisingly,
they remained the most westernised of all Jews with less
tenuous connection with India and Indians.
one time, the Jewsih population numbered strong. Unfortunately over
the years, it has been decreasing. Presently the entire strength is
put at around 6,500 to 7,000 at best by Mr Ezekeil Issac Malekar,
Secretary of the Delhi Jewish Welfare Associa-tion and Judah Hyam
Synagogue. The most numerous are the Bene Israelis said to be
numbering around 5000. They are basically spread out over Raigad
district of Maharashtra, Pune, Rajkot, Ahmedabad and Bombay. The
Cochinis and Baghdadis unfortunately are dwindling fast.
the number the point underscored every time is that the story
of the Jews of India has on the whole been a happy one. India is
perhaps the only country in the world in which, through long
centuries Jews have dwelt in complete security and have been accorded
an honourable place in the social structure of the land in the
words of the late Begjamin J. Israel, a bureaucrat and scholar.
Unfortunately, the question necessarily arises that if they were so
happy in India why did they leave in such large numbers after 1947?
explanations offered are many. Where the Baghdadis are concerned, it
is said that they were highly westernised, with strong business ties
with Britain and the Far East and were more closely involved in
Political Zionism than the Bene Israelis or Cochinis. So, not only
was the state of Israel an attraction they were also unable to resist
the pull of commonwealth countries. Today their population in
Calcutta mostly is said to be less than a hundred.
is a similar plight as far as the Cochinis are concerned. In fact
only a handful of them are said to be living in India
still, and with most of them being elderly, the fear that soon they
might remain just a `historical memory so long as Jew town in
Cochin retains its name is pertinent. And to think that at one time
they ruled the pepper export trade as also the timber trade breaking
the monopoly of the Arab traders operating on the Malabar Coast
before them and especially flourished during the Dutch predominance
in the south. With the departure of the Dutch, they apparently began
getting more closely allied to the Baghdadis sharing their outlook.
Hence their movement en masse to Israel and later on to other nations
scenario however is not so gloomy where the Bene Israelis are
concerned. They too of course could not resist the Ingathering
of the Exiles after the creation of Israel in 1948 and many of
them moved there as well as to other western countries. But
fortu-nately, it looks as if the wave of emigra-tion has
largely spent its force and the fear that the Indian Jewish
community would soon virtually disap-pear may thankfully, not be
realised. The fear, however, is that the Jews may cease to exist as a
coherent community in India. The wears and tears are visible. Of the
41 listed synagogues in India, less then half are functioning, and
even in them, more than often the Torah cannot be read because the
minimum quorum (of ten adult males) is sadly more than often lacking.
history of the Chinese settlement in India, however, is not as old as
that of the Jews but is equally interesting and noteworthy. The
Chinese migration to India came long after the British. The Chinese
connection, however, goes a long way back when the silk
merchants, the hardy Shantungs from North China who ate
well and worked hard traversed long distances, over difficult
and inhospitable terrain including Tibet to trade with Indians. The
silk route is still romantic history spinning off many a
legend. The Chinese who chose to settle down, however, came much
later generally in the early part of the present century. They are
said to be the boat people, those who came by boat and
steamers from mostly south China to Singapore and moved on to India.
According to C S Hugh, one of the oldest prominent citizens of the
Indian capital, the Chinese who came to India were the Miocene
(Neihsin in Chinese) Chinese better known as Hakas or Hums with some
sprinkling of Shantungs.
attracted them to India, across miles and seas, is open to debate but
once here they took wholeheartedly to the task of settling down and
working hard contributing in no small measure to the betterment of
India. While they did not hesitate to move where opportunities
beckoned, Calcutta was and remains the fulcrum of the Chinese world
in India. And it speaks of the fortitude of the Chinese that Tangra
in Calcutta, said to be nuclei of everything Chinese in India, was
nothing but a dumping ground. As Hugh says, shoe making an
unchallenged speciality of the Chinese, was never their inborn craft
from the beginning. But with the then Hindus staying away from the
unclean business the Chinese saw in it a fertile area and
rightly proved their ability to make a success of anything. Their
women, being equally hardworking, took to buttressing the family
coffers and branched out into hair dressing, restaurants etc.
goes to the credit of the Chinese that they have managed to remain
without any conflicts wholly Indian and Chinese at the same time.
They have kept their language, culture and tradition alive. There is
still a Chinese school in Calcutta. But somehow though the roots were
struck deep, the hold was not strong enough to prevent the loosening
of soil. The Chinese population, that at one time was quite
formidable, has today shrunk down to about 10,000 or so, the majority
still centred in Calcutta. As Hugh says: Equal number have
moved away and the older ones have died.
the passing time do the history of people also pass away? From 10,000
or so Chinese to about 150 or so Armenians is undoubtedly a long
climbdown but that remains the sad history of the Armenians in India
today. Where and when did the Armenians come from in the first place?
For the first, the assumption is that they came overland by way of
Persia, Afghanistan and Tibet as commercial birds of passage before
any other Europeans. As for the when, it is a matter of debate
because a tomb in the Armenian churchyard in Calcutta dates back to
the period much before Job Charnock arrived in Calcutta which would
date their arrival to the period before the Britishers.
the controversy over the authenticity of the date of the
continues, the general historical version is that the Armenians began
arriving in India as merchants in the eleventh century and made their
presence felt in all important trading centres of the subcontinent.
But they began to settle down in India in the sixteenth century at
the invitation of none other than the Mughal Emperor Akbar.
Incidentally Akbar took an Armenian, Mariam Zamani, as one of his
queens and allowed the Armenians to build a church at Agra in 1562.
Till centuries later a watercolour of Akbar and Mariam Zamani,
sporting semi European clothes, hung in the drawing room of the
Armenian hotelier Arratoon Stephens Camac Street residence in
Calcutta. Like the Chinese, who gravitated towards Calcutta the
Armenians too somehow moved on to this eastern capital.
came, they stayed but are no longer staying now. They are migrating
particularly to Canada. And as in the case of the Chinese and the
Jews the Indian independence triggered off the movement. After the
Moghuls, the Armenians had moved on to become favourite subjects of
the British. So much so that a son of a well-known Armenian merchant
Catchick Arrakiel, is said to have raised and kept at his own expense
a company of 100 Armenian volunteers to defend the industry of
Britishers when the regular army was in the Deccan. After the
Britishers departed, the Armenians lost the confidence of joining the
Indian mainstream. A prosperous community with no shortage of money,
migration has never proved a problem for them. They are still
migrating. The apprehension is that very soon they might altogether
remain only chapters in history books.