Legend has it that Jews began arriving and settling in Kochi during the time of King Solomon. Over the next millennium, many settlements of Jews came up across Kerala. As traders, they thrived in the state and flourished in a place that had no kind of historical enmity or rivalry with them. At one time the state even had 18 synagogues. Some of Kerala’s Jews embraced Christianity with the arrival of St Thomas, but most members of the community continued to profess Judaism.
Some trading families grew to such prominence that rulers began to bestow them with privileges. In the early 11th century, Chera King Bhaskara Ravi Varma appointed Jewish merchant Joseph Rabban as a de facto king of Changala Azhi, a riverside settlement near Kodungallur (Muziris, as the Greeks called it). The rulers of southern India at that time were known to gift land and privileges to people they developed a liking for. It is not known whether this merchant was born in Kerala or arrived in the state during one of the waves of migration to the state. It also remains a mystery as to why Rabban in particular was chosen by the Chera ruler for these privileges.
Jewish copper plates of Cochin
Rabban was bestowed the land and privileges by a decree that was recorded on what is called the Jewish copper plates of Cochin. The decree was engraved in the Vattezhuthu segmental writing system in the Malayalam language on two plates. Rabban was given the so-called Ancuvannam merchant guild rights and was exempted from certain payments, while at the same time having all the usual rights given to settlers. These rights and exemptions were to be perpetually passed down to his descendants as well.
The plates state: “We have granted to Issuppu Irappan, the (guild of) Ancuvannam, tolls by the boat and by other vehicles, Ancuvannam dues, the right to employ the day lamp, decorative cloth, palanquin, umbrella, kettle drum, trumpet, gateway, arch, arched roof, weapons and rest of the seventy two privileges. We have remitted customs, dues and weighing fee.”
The copper plates have been well preserved and are in an iron box at the Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry. In fact, replicas of these plates have been gifted to two Israeli prime ministers on their visits to India.
The Changala Azhi settlement was well known in Europe and fascinated many travellers and merchants who had heard of the ‘Jewish king’ in Kerala. According to P M Jussary’s 1996 paper titled A Jewish Settlement in Medieval Kerala, the settlement was known in Europe as “Shingly, Chingilin, Cingalah and Zinglantz.” The paper cites a 14th century poem by Rabbi Nissim of Barcelona describing a descendant of Rabban:
“I travelled from Spain,
I had heard of the city of Shingly;
I longed to see an Israeli King,
Him I saw with my own eyes.”
Rabban’s family continued to enjoy the privileges that were granted by the Chera ruler for centuries. This came to an end in the 1340s when the last known descendant of Joseph Rabban, Joseph Azar had a conflict with his brother.
Some historians believe that 16th century Jewish political activist and mystic David Reubeni was a descendant of Rabban. In his 1996 research paper, Jussay wrote that David was sent by his brother Daniel to the Pope and the King of Portugal to negotiate a Judeo-Christian alliance to take on the Zamorin of Calicut and the Arabs, who were trying to take away the trading rights of the Jews in Kerala.
According to Jussay, the promised help from the Portuguese never arrived and David became disillusioned and went to Rome and became a mystic, trying to convert people to Judaism. He was arrested and imprisoned for life during the Inquisition.
International historians, however, dispute the claim of Reubeni’s Indian origins and are of the belief that he was born in the Arabian Peninsula. They also believe that his calls for a Judeo-Christian alliance had absolutely nothing to do with Kerala.
The undisputed legacy of Joseph Rabban, however, is something that is celebrated by the Jews of Kerala and those who support the further development of the diplomatic relationship between India and Israel.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’ and ‘Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’)