Hotels in India » Religion-culture in India » The World in India

The World in India

When 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 and otherwise.

Many 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.

To 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.

Whether 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.

Whatever 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.

At 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.

Whatever 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?

The 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.

It 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 as well.

The 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.

The 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.

What 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.

It 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.”

With 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.

While the controversy over the authenticity of the date of the
tomb 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 Stephen’s Camac Street residence in Calcutta. Like the Chinese, who gravitated towards Calcutta the Armenians too somehow moved on to this eastern capital.

They 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.