Judaism in Kerala

Jews in Kerala

The history of the first Jewish diaspora in Kerala or Kerala’s exposure to Judaism or, to put it even more differently, the story of the granting of asylum to the Jews in Kerala is a long and interesting one.  It is not always supported by authentic records and, precisely for that reason, speculations abound about the exact time of the arrival of the Jews on the western shores of the southernmost part of India.  According to some historians, the first Jews to reach Kerala were traders.  They came during the time of King Solomon, that is, more than 2,000 years back.  Apparently, India and Kerala were known in those parts of the world as a region rich in rare spices as well as ivory, as a land of exotic animals like the peacock and the ape.  And there were more treasures to be had – precious and semi-precious stones like beryls, rubies, pearls and diamonds.  This inspired traders to undertake long and arduous voyages through the seas, often braving very rough storms, starvation, sickness and even the threat of death.  But as business was their primary and perhaps sole aim, the first Jews to step on the shores of Kerala did not come with their families.  Nor did they settle down in the land of plenty.  They came, transacted various businesses and left.  

However, there are scholars who believe and claim that the Jews did not come to Kerala until the fall of the First Temple, when King Nebuchadnezzer attacked it in 586 BCE, and took away all the treasures.  With the shrine built by King Solomon at Jerusalem in ruins, they became religious refugees and sought shelter in whichever lands that would accommodate them.  As the community dispersed, some were lucky to reach southern India that was untouched by bigotry or xenophobia. 

According to certain other historians, the first wave of Jews came to Kerala in a bid to escape persecution following the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE.  The place of worship built by King Herod had come under the attack of the Romans.  Such was the scale of destruction that the entire edifice got destroyed leaving only one structure behind – the famous Wailing Wall, that is the holiest of places for the Jews to this day.  This claim puts their arrival in Kerala at a later date.  Understandably then, the Jews came with their families, and their intention was to settle down in a place where they would not face any kind of religious discrimination or harassment.  Yet another theory has it that the first migration took place much later, during the 15th century when following the declaration of the Alhambra Decree, the Jews of Spain, fearing the inhuman torture of the Inquisition, fled to India.

Thus, accounts about both the time of Jewish settlement in Kerala and the ethnic composition of the first diasporic community vary.