Translated from the Gujarati by Dr.Kanak Ravel
(Translator's note: The original article by Naresh Antani was published in December 2004 issue of Gujarati cultural magazine KUMAR, Ahmedabad, India. As is, it is a short research note of interest to cultural anthropologists. What fascinated me was what a wonderful example it represents of ethnic symbiosis process that the world history has recorded. For centuries, India has been a safe haven for many oppressed people because of geopolitical or natural calamities.
Probably the Jewish tribe of Bene Israel was this first arrival in India some times around 175 BCE. Later on came the Syrian Christians in AD 52. The Zoroastrians (modern day Parsees) arrived in AD 766 persecuted from Persia.
The recent most group in 1971 was of Bangladeshis from what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), who found refuge in India because of political oppression by the West Pakistani dictatorship.
On the part of these newcomers, they all came as aliens, but adopted the languages and culture of their new Indian homeland and became Indians in their life styles. They got absorbed in the Indian society, yet still keeping their core values. Some call this a spirit of Indianization. I personally believe in it, because I have known and befriended Indian Jews, Christians, Parsees and Moslems; although I come from a Hindu family, and have not noticed them to be incompatible with our society. Now on with our story )
The Kachchh region in the state of Gujarat has held a prominent place in the history,archeology and culture of the Indian subcontinent. Since prehistoric times, civilizations have flourished in Kachchh. History of prehistoric to modern times bears witness to this. However, it has been reverse in case of her Jewish residents. Jews arrived in Kachchh from Mumbai (previously Bombay) during the British rule of India.
The stone carvings of Canery Caves near Mumbai provide proof of Jewish arrival in second century. As per these writings, a ship of a group of adventurous seamen from the Red Sea had a shipwreck in a storm near Canery Caves. 14 fortunate people--seven men and seven women--somehow survived and reached the nearby town of Naugaun of Colaba-Raigadh district, now a part of the State of Maharashtra. Also large number of Jewish voyagers perished. Their limited resources compelled them to burry their deceased compatriots in two large pits.
In the beginning of their arrival in Maharashtra, they started working as farm hands. Later they found employment as oil pressers in local ox driven oil mills. Eventually, some of them became the owners of oil mills. As they kept their mill works closed on Saturdays, they came to be called "Shanivar teli" in the local Marathi language, which means Saturday Oil pressers. A number of them got married with the local Konkani women.
Because their Indian wives did not accept Jewish religion, their offsprings became known as 'bene Israel' (sons of Israel). It is also said that for protecting their Jewish traditions from the religious proselytization by Moslems, they declared themselves as bene Israel and settled in Mumbai.
In course of time, these Jews forgot their mother tongue, Hebrew. In 1000 AD, a Jewish scholar traveler David Rahabi arrived in India. He recognized this group of "Shanivar teli" as Jews, by their religious practices. He reminded them of their Hebrew heritage, but by then they were comfortable with the Marathi language, derived from the ancient Sanskrit language. However, they accepted Hebrew for the religious ceremonies. Even today, Marathi is a mother tongue for Mumbai Jews.
Later on, with the advent of the East India Company on the Indian subcontinent, a large number of these bene Israelis got recruited in the Company's regional British army. As a result, they moved to many parts of India. The then princely state of Kachchh of the Great Indian Desert region was one of them, and almost all Jewish families settled there and had their cemetery near the Orient Colony in the capital city Bhuj.
Earlier, 10 to 15 Jewish tombs were visible in that burial ground. It seems that with the passing of time, some local people took away many memorial stones, and used them in the building of huts of the slum area called Indira Nagari.
Out of the surviving tombs, only four memorial stones have been recovered and saved in the Museum of Kachchh. Out of these four, only three are in intact condition. These stones belong to various Jewish officers stationed at Company's local headquarters. These tombs were aligned in east-west direction. According to a Jewish custom, the dead bodies were buried with their legs pointing towards Jerusalem.
The uniqueness of these memorial stones is that even though the Jewish families settled in Kachchh for many years, inscriptions denote the dates according to Hindu Shak Samvat lunar calendar, and the details are in Hebrew, Marathi and English, which were their administrative languages.
One stone is of pure marble, and the other three are of sand stone. The marble stone records two names of individuals at two different dates indicating that they were husband and wife. It belongs to one Suleman Tilkar, who was a head clerk in the Commissioner section of the British Army. He died at a young age of 32 years on Shak Samvat 1756 Fagan (about April-May) Sood 1, Ravivar (Sunday). The same stone records a woman named Sarabai Tilkar at a young age of 17 on 1746 Bhadrapad (about August-September). Both the individuals died at a rather young age. It is likely that some epidemic or an accident were the cause of their deaths, although the stone does not give any details. Next to Sarabai's name "Yaa Chaa Kabilaa" in Marathi meaning (Suleman's family).
Question is that Sarabai died 10 years before Suleman, but the husband's name appears first. Does it mean that the wife's tomb remained without a memorial stone for 10 years? The memorial inscription was written in Mumbai, and the scribe's name Halakadanelji Khandalak appears in Marathi.
The museum's other stone possession records the death of one woman Aababai Nagavakara at the age of 75 years on November 29, 1851. One more stone records the death of 90-year-old man David Jiben Kuragaonkar on January 19, 1868.
*Kachchh Museum, the oldest Museum in Gujarat was established in 1877 at Bhuj the capital city of Kachchh. It is unique in having the largest collection of Kshatrapa inscriptions, for its gold and silver ornaments, textiles, armory, local Jewish history and other exhibits.
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Spirit of India--a footnote by the translator:
While searching for information on internet the following comments showed up supporting the process of Indianiazation. (Source: http://www.the-south-asian.com/March2001/Jews_of_India-Intro.htm)
"Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Indian Jewish experience is the complete absence of discrimination by a host majority. The secret of India's tolerance is the Hindu belief which confers legitimacy on a wide diversity of cultural and religious groups even as it forbids movement from one group to another." Raphael Meyer
India has, historically, been a refuge and sheltered people of all religions, creeds and beliefs. Zoroastrians, Jews, Sufis, and more recently Bahais--all were granted protection and security when they sought it. They were accepted into the fold of the mainstream society, given land and equal opportunity to excel in their profession of choice and remain Indians. Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism are religions of the land, all were born in India. The central Asian invaders brought Islam. The colonial powers brought Christianity. India remained a large-hearted host to all, enriched its cultural heritage and became a truly secular nation. People from all communities rose to become eminent citizens of the land. In the first of our series on 'Spirit of India', we feature the story of the Jewish Community of India."
© PROMETHEUS 99/2005