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The Jews too came to the Tamils for the Curry

The spices of the Tamils and King Solomon were mentioned in the Bible. In some ancient Tamil works of literature, the word Curry is also referring to Spices.

Queen of Sheba, according to Jewish and Islamic traditions, ruler of the kingdom of Sabaʾ (or Sheba) in southwestern Arabia. (Ethiopia).

In the biblical account of the reign of King Solomon, she visited his court at the head of a camel caravan bearing gold, jewels, and spices. The story provides evidence for the existence of important commercial relations between ancient Israel and southern Arabia.

The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon

According to the Bible, the purpose of her visit was to test Solomon’s wisdom by asking him to solve a number of riddles.

The Ethiopian Queen has created an interest of the King in the spices she brought. Obviously, the spices were sourced from the Tamils who were on the other side of the Arabian sea. Instead of buying from Ethiopian traders, the King sent his traders to the source of spices, the Tamils.

Map

Jewish and Tamils trade relations are at least 2000 years old. 

The Malabar component of the Cochin Jews, according to Shalva Weil, claim to have arrived in Malabar coast (South West coast of the Indian subcontinent) together with the Hebrew King Solomon’s merchants. The Cochin Jews settled in Kerala as traders. Kerala or Malabar (coast along the hillsides) was the Tamil area of the Chera dynasty (Chola and Pandiya were the other two).

The oldest of the Indian Jewish communities was in the erstwhile Cochin Kingdom within Kerala, the land of Chera dynasty of the Tamils.

The traditional account is that traders of Judea arrived at Cranganore, an ancient port near Cochin in 562 BC, and that more Jews came as exiles from Israel in the year 70 AD, after the destruction of the Second Temple.

The arrival of the Jewish pilgrims at Cochin, A.D. 68

Many of these Jews’ ancestors passed on the account that they settled in the Indian sub-continent when the Hebrew King Solomon was in power. This was a time when teak wood, ivory, spices, monkeys, and peacocks were popular in trade in Cochin. 

Many Jewish were skillful crafters too and they were crafting jewelry and ornaments to the womenfolk in the palaces and the riches of the ‘spice’ rich kingdoms of the Tamils.

Following expulsion from Iberia in 1492 by the Alhambra Decree, many jews arrived in Tamil areas including Chennai (Madras).

Rabbi Salomon Halevi and his wife Rebecca in Madras, capital of the state of Tamil Nadu during British Time

The Arab Jews from Syrian and Musta’arabi arrived at Nagercoil and Kanyakumari District (today’s Tamil Nadu state of India) in 52 AD along with the arrival of St. Thomas. Most of them were merchants and had also settled around the town of Thiruvithamcode.

Mr.Cohen and his family in Madras

In their early days, they maintained trade connections to Europe through the nearby ports of Colachal and Thengaipattinam, and their language skills were useful to the Travancore Kings to communicate with other European traders and merchants.

There were other Jewish settlements in Goa (Portuguease colony) and Mumbai (Bombay which was given as dowry with Portuguese Princes to the Marriage with King Charles II of England).

“Malabarese Jews”, as depicted by the Portuguese in the 16th century

Central to the history of the Cochin Jews is their close relationship with Tamil rulers, and this was eventually codified on a set of copper plates (known in Tamil as “Sasanam”) granting the community special privileges. 

Bhaskara Ravi Varma, the fourth ruler of Maliban granted the copper plates to the Jews. The plates were inscribed with a message stating that the village of Anjuvannam belonged to the Jews and that they were the rightful lords of Anjuvannam and it should remain theirs and be passed on to their Jewish descendants “so long as the world and moon exist”.

The Jews lived peacefully for over a thousand years in Anjuvannam. After the reign of the Rabban’s, the Jewish people no longer had the protection of the copper plates. 

Neighboring princes of Anjuvannam intervened and revoked all privileges that the Jewish people were given. 

Portuguese Arrival

Vasco da Gama memorial stone

It is important to note that the Arabs were having exclusive trading rights for black pepper in Europe during the medieval time when the Mediterranian sea was blocked to the Europeans by the ottoman empire. The Europeans were desperately bartering black pepper for gold and some kingdoms were accepting black pepper for tax due and so the term ‘pepper tax’ came about.

This forced the Spanish King to sent out Columbus and then Vasco da Gama by the Portuguese King in search of a new route to the spice land of the Tamils. The rest was history.

So when the Portuguese arrived on the same Malabar coast in 1498, they were opposed by the Muslim traders who thought of them as a great threat to their business and trading activities with Europe. The Portuguese were chased out and there were few deaths too.

Vasco da Gama before the King Samorian of Calicut, the meeting didn’t go well.

Following the visit of the Portuguese, the Jews were attacked by the Arab Muslim traders on an unfounded suspicion that they were tampering with the black pepper trade by helping the Portuguese to come there all the way from Europe, and the homes and synagogues belonging to them were destroyed. 

The damage was so extensive that when the Portuguese returned a few months later with more firepower and established themselves in the Cochin area of Kerala, only a small number of impoverished Jews remained. 

In Mala, Thrissur District, the Malabar Jews have a Synagogue and a cemetery, as well as in Chennamangalam, Parur and Ernakulam.

There are at least seven existing synagogues in Kerala, although not serving their original purpose anymore. Only a handful remains and many have moved to Israel after 1948.

On 3 July 2017, the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was on a state visit to Israel and he delivered a speech there, in which he stated: 2000 years ago, Jewish traders came to India to buy spices and our relationship was long.

Instead of India, which never existed 2000 years ago, the PM should have said Indian sub-continent or to the Tamils as the country, India was established by the British at least 1800 – 1900 years later.

In neighbouring Sri Lanka, just after the independence from UK in 1948, a Chief Justice of the country was a Jewish origin.

Many of these Jews from India and Sri Lanka, moved to the West and to Australia.

In conclusion, the relationship between the Tamils and Jews were very long and cordial.