Column | What the 1911 census revealed about Jews, Animists & Parsis of Cochin

Old Kochi
The micro-minorities were listed as Jews, Animists and Others. Photo: Manorama

In 1911, the Princely State of Cochin conducted a census at the same time that the British Raj did in the rest of India. The exercise in Cochin followed the same procedures and guidelines as elsewhere and the final report, compiled by C Achyuta Menon (not to be confused with the man who became Kerala’s chief minister in 1969), provided some interesting information about the diversity of the state.

Just 0.6 per cent of the 9,18,110-strong population of the state belonged to a religious community other than Hindus, Muslims or Christians. These micro-minorities were listed as Jews, Animists and Others.

Referring to the Kadayans and Malayans as Animists, the report said the “essentials of their creed” were not “easy to define.” Describing Animism, the authorities said, “It is a combination of spiritism and fetichism, and may roughly be described as the belief in the existence of souls or spirits which have acquired the rank of divine beings and become objects of worship. These spirits are conceived as freely moving through earth and air, and, either of their own accord or conjured by some spell, appear to be men (spiritism).” The report added that some spirits were believed to exist in inanimate objects.

While some communities with Animistic beliefs were accepted as Hindus, others were shunned, although there were similarities with beliefs in spirits. The report stressed on the fact that the spirits of Animists did not get recognition from the Hindus. “Though none of these spirits have the attributes, names or local habitations of the Hindu Gods and though high class Hindus will not admit them to be fit subjects for reverence, the dividing line between Hinduism and Animism is very uncertain.” The census listed 4,177 Animists in the state.

Jewish life

The census showed the population of Jews in Cochin was just 1,175 in 1911, up from 1,137 in 1901. The report observed, “The Jews of Cochin generally marry later than the followers of other religions, no Jew male under fifteen and only thirty-one females between ten and fifteen in a thousand of each sex in that age period are married.”

There were racial divisions within the small Jewish community in the state, and the census took note of them. “There are two classes of Jews in the state, the White and the Black,” the report said. “The former have preserved their racial purity and light complexion to a remarkable extent, while the latter is hardly distinguishable from the native Muhammadans.”

Eighty-three per cent of the community were so-called Black Jews, who claimed to be the first Jewish settlers in Kerala. The so-called White Jews claimed at that time that their Black brethren were descendants of Malayali converts to the faith.

Cochin had a Hebrew school at that time, with 37 students. Although most of the Jews of the state listed Malayalam as the language they spoke at home, 27 people claimed to be native speakers of Hebrew.

Interestingly enough, the census revealed that Cochin had 2,522 Europeans and Anglo-Indians, but only 679 of them listed a European language as their native tongue. The state still had 237 Portuguese native speakers at that time. The most commonly spoken Indian language after Malayalam and Tamil was Konkani, with the state having 21,153 people who claimed to be native speakers of the language.

The Cochin state allowed widow re-marriage for most people, but the proportion of widowers to widows (422 to 100) was much higher in the state than in European countries. In England and Wales, the number at that time was 231 widowers for every 100 widows. The Jews of Cochin had a proportion of 261 widowers for every 100 widows, the lowest in the state.

Most of the Cochin Jews lived in Mattancherry and Ernakulam, but 110 Jews lived in Mukundapuram, while two members of the community actually called Thrissur home.

Parsis in Thrissur

While Calicut was the preferred destination of Parsis in what comprises Kerala now, a few members of the community lived in Cochin state, where they were the smallest of minorities.

Five Parsis lived in Thrissur in 1911. According to the census data, there were three men and two women, all over the age of 20. Each of these Parsis could read and write Malayalam and with the exception of one woman, all of them were literate in English. The only other thing that the data reveals about this tiny community was that an odd man out was single, while there were two married couples.

The story of the Parsis and Jews of Thrissur in 1911 would certainly make for fascinating reading.

Diversity is a great strength and it would work to Kerala’s advantage in the future if more people from different parts of India and the world came and lived in the state. At the same time, the onus is on Malayali society to celebrate the unique heritage of the marginalised communities of Kerala and make it mainstream.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)

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