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Similarities between Kerala Jews and Kerala Syrian Christians

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Since ancient times trading communities like Kerala Cochin Jews and Kerala Syrian Christians have made settlements along the South Western coast of Malabar, in Kerala, South India.[1] Numerous scholars have noted several similarities between Kerala Malabar Jews and Kerala Nasrani Syrian Christians in their customs, traditions, naming conventions, music, songs, oral traditions and historical antiquities including copper plate grants and inscriptions.[1] Kerala Jews are also called "Cochin Jews" or "Malabar Jews", while Kerala Syrian Christians are also called "Malabar Nasranis" or "Saint Thomas Christians" or "Kerala Malabar Syrian Christians".[1]

These correlations are especially noted among the endogamous ethnic minority known as the Knanaya or Southist who claim descent from a party of Jewish-Christians who arrived to Kerala in the 4th century under the leadership of the merchant Thomas of Cana. Jewish scholars such as Dr. P.M. Jussay, Dr. Shalva Wiel, and Dr. Ophira Gamliel have all led comparative studies between the Knanaya and Cochin Jews to note that both communities maintain striking similarities, [1][2] suggesting "historic cultural relations between the two communities".[3]

Kerala Syrian Christian copper plates with inscriptions in Old Malayalam, Kufic and Hebrew (849 and c. 883 AD). A replica of these were enshrined in the Israel Museum in 2017[4]

In 2017 the Israeli government enshrined a replica of the Kerala Malabar Nasrani Syrian Christian Copper plates in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel.[4] A plaque was installed citing that the Hebrew inscriptions on the Kollam copper plates from the Mar Thoma Syrian Church, in Thiruvalla, in Kerala is the oldest evidence of the presence of Jewish people in Kerala and India.[4]

Table of similarities[edit]

The following table presents the commonalities and similarities broadly observed by various Anthropologists and Ethnographers between the Kerala Malabar Jews and Kerala Malabar Syrian Christians.

Due to several rounds of immigration, both the larger communities have two main groups. The Kerala Malabar Cochin Jews have two main groups, the first group and the larger group is the 'Black Jews' - these are believed to be the more Ancient early Jewish settlers who made the first Jewish settlements in Kerala during the time of King Solomon (about 950 BCE, over two thousand nine hundred years ago) as spice traders and merchants.[1] This group is also believed to include the later refugees fleeing from Assyrian, Babylonian and Roman persecution ((between 722 BCE and 1st century C.E.) about two thousand years ago). The second group are called 'White Jews' and are said to have come to Kerala to escape the Spanish inquisition (around late 1400s-1500s C.E.).[1]

The Kerala Malabar Syrian Christians also have two main groups. These are the Northists (Malabar Syrian Christians) and The Southists (Knanaya Syrian Christians).[1] The Northist claim descent from the oldest Christian communities in India converted by St. Thomas the Apostle in the 1st century (52 C.E.). The Knanaya claim descent from a party of Jewish-Christian migrants who arrived to Kerala in the 4th century (345 C.E.) under the leadership of the merchant Thomas of Cana. Together they are referred to as 'Mar Thoma Nasranis' or "Kerala Malabar Nasranis" or Syrian Malabar Nasranis. The table below takes each of the two broad communities as a composite along with their sub-groups.


Similarities and commonalities between Kerala Malabar Jews & Kerala Syrian Christians
Aspects Kerala Malabar Jews Kerala Syrian Christians
1) Music Malabar Cochin Jewish congregational music occurs in Organum style of music.[5][6][7] Kerala Syrian Christian music occurs in Organum style.[7] This occurs during the responsorial singing, antiphons, or hymn tunes. Such Organum music is only observed in the music of three diverse and isolated groups: the Yemenite Jews, the Cochin Jews, and the Hebrew Samaritans.[5][6][7]
2) Songs 1) Cochin Jewish song - "Vazhu Pattu" (Song of blessing) opens with the prayer ’Let your life be a blessed one, and may you live for a long time in happiness’.[1][2]
2) The Malabar Cochin Jewish "Song of Evarayi" (Song of the Hebrew leader) opens with ‘Yerushalyinnu vannana’ (’From Jerusalem hailed he’) in which ’the learned Evarayi’ (Learned Hebrew leader) sought ’to see Malanad’ (‘Mala’ meaning ‘mountains’ and ‘Nad’ meaning ‘land’ – Malabar / Kerala [1]3)
3)The Cochin Jews maintain the wedding song Ponnaninjeedum (He Comes in Gold Decorated Palanquin)[2]

The Knanaya maintain a set of folk songs dated to the 17th century.[8] Jewish scholars Dr. P.M. Jussay, Dr. Ophira Gamliel, and Dr. Shalva Weil have noted that the songs of the Cochin Jews and the songs of the Knanaya are strikingly similar in composition, linguistics, and characteristics, some songs even having the exact same lyrics.[2][9] A few examples of this are seen below.
1) The Knanaya song Vazhu Pattu (Song of Blessing) is substantially the same as the Cochin Jewish Vazhu Pattu, sharing nearly same lyrics and composition.[2]
2) Knanaya Song ‘Nalor Oraslem’ (’The splendid Jerusalem’) begins with a depiction of ’the magnificent city of Jerusalem, wherein the Hebrew leader sets sail with his followers from Jerusalem to rule over ‘Malanad’ (‘land of Mountains’ – ‘Mala’ meaning ‘mountains’ and ‘Nad’ meaning ‘land’ – Malabar / Kerala).[1]3)
3) The Knanaya maintain the wedding song Ponnaninjeedum (He Comes in Gold Decorated Palanquin) which shares a few stanzas with the Jewish version[2]

3) Architecture 1) Kerala synagogues have a Bimah.[10] These synagogues have a very decorated “heichal” that is usually made from wood and is typically plated with precious metal like gold or silver. This houses the Torah Scrolls.[11]
2) Adjacent to the Heichal is the Holy of Holies that is separated only by a parokhet, or curtain,[12]
3) The synagogue also has 'ner Tamid' (a lamp from the ceiling at the centre of the sanctuary).[13]
Cochin Jewish Synagogue with the Holy of Holies veiled by a red curtain
1) Kerala Syrian Christian church includes Bima (raised platform) and what is called as 'Hykala'.[14][15]
2) Malabar Syrian Nasrani Christian church includes a Holy of Holies (Madbaha).[14] – The Madbaha is veiled with a red curtain and always faces the east.
3) The centre of the traditional Kerala Syrian Christian church has a lamp hung from the ceiling.[14] The 'Kochoo Palli' or the 'small church' that usually adorns the front of large Syrian churches, aesthetically resembles Kerala Synagogues and has a similar architectural style to kerala synagogues.[16]
A Kerala Nasrani Syrian Christian church with the holy of holies veiled by a red curtain
4) Wedding ceremonies 1) In Cochin Jewish wedding, the bridegroom is carried in a sedan chair by men.[17]
2) In Cochin Jewish wedding, the bride and bridegroom are crowned on the day of wedding.[17]
3) Cochin Jewish wedding includes Chuppah canopy, and mikvah bath.[17]
1) In Knanya wedding, the bridegroom is carried by men on a sedan chair.
2) In Nasrani wedding, both bride and bridegroom are crowned on the day of wedding.[17]
3) The Nasrani marriage ceremony includes bridal canopy and a ceremonial bathing on the eve of the marriage.[17]
5) Traditions 1) Jewish community commemorates passover with traditional passover sedar dinner.[1][18]
2) Like most orthodox Jewish synagogues around the world, Cochin Jewish synagogue has segregated seating for men and women.[19]
1) The Nasranis commemorate Passover with Pesaha Pal and Pesaha Appam.[20]
2) In Malabar Syrian Nasrani Christian church the men sit at the left side of the 'Hykala' facing the 'Madbaha' (Holy of holies), while the women sit at the right side facing the Madbaha.[21]
6) Customs 1) In Cochin Jewish tradition, the burial of the dead is done facing towards east, towards Jerusalem.[22]
2) Jewish tradition involves wearing a Skull cap (Kippa/Yarmulke)),[22]
3) Historically ululatory sounds were uttered at Hebrew Wedding.[22]
1) The burial practice of the Nasrani tradition is to bury the dead facing east towards Jerusalem,[22]
2) The Orthodox priests’ black velvet cap, supposedly like the skull cap of the Jewish tradition.[22]
3) Ululatory sounds are uttered by Cnanite women (Knanaya women) during the betrothal ceremony.[22]
7) Historical Copper Plates 1) The Cochin Jews claim to have received copper plates granting special privileges to Joseph Rabban (their leader or Rabbi) from the King of Kerala Cheraman Perumal.[23]
2) This is said to have taken place in the third century C.E. where in 72 privileges were granted on copper plates.[23]
3) The copper plates were privileges that enabled the formation of a trading guild called "Anjuvannam".[23]
4) The Cochin Jewish copper plates have inscriptions in old Malayalam from the king.[23]

Jewish copper plates (c.1000 CE)
1) According to Cnanite tradition, their leader Thomas of Cana, received grants of special privileges for trade from the Kerala king Cheraman Perumal. This is said to have taken place in the fourth century shortly after his (Thomas Cana's) arrival in Kerala in the year 345 C.E.[23]
2) The larger Kerala Nasrani Syrian Christian community were also given copper plate grants in 849 C.E. and these copper plates still exists.[24][25]
3) According to Malabar Knanaya Christian tradition there were originally 72 immigrant families that arrived to Kerala with Thomas Cana and formed the trading guild called ‘Anjuvannam’. This term also appears in the copper plates with the Cochin Jewish synagogue.[23]
4) Incidentally, the copper plates that belong with the Kerala Nasrani Syrian Christians has the oldest Hebrew inscriptions in Kerala and India.[25] These copper plates have old Malayalam inscriptions and also have signatures in Hebrew, Kufic and Palhavi.[24][25] Hence the Kerala Syrian Christian copper plates are taken as the oldest evidence of the presence of Jews in Kerala and India.[25] In the paper ‘Kerala and Her Jews’, published by Cochin Jewish Synagogue (1984), the Cochin Jewish writers Fiona Hallegua and Shabdai Samuel Koder wrote: "...the Syrian Christian (copper) plates with the signature of four Jewish witnesses in Judeo - Persian, which incidentally is the second oldest inscription in Judeo- Persian in the world, are a few of the ancient relics that can still be seen to remind one of the glorious past of this forgotten outpost of the Jewish world." [26]
Kerala Syrian Christian copper plates with inscriptions in Old Malayalam, Kufic and Hebrew (849 and c. 883 AD) (Inscriptions)
8) Traditional account The Cochin Jewish tradition states that they arrived in Kerala as traders during the time of King Solomon and later got special privileges bestowed by the King of Kerala to their leader Joseph Rabban.[26] The Malabar Nasranis have a traditional song called Ramban song which narrates that St.Thomas the apostle arrived at Cranganore in Kerala between 50 and 55 C.E. (ancient day Muziris and Pattanam) along with Joseph Rabban, and on his arrival he first met a Jewish Flutist girl who understood Hebrew.[26] He then stayed among the Jewish traders who were already settled in the south western coast of Kerala. It is noteworthy that Joseph Rabban (Issupu Irraban) a Yemenite Jewish Trader is revered in both communities cochin Jewish and Knanaya Syrian Christians (Southists).[27] Joseph Rabban is seen as a religious leader by both the Cochin Jews and the Kerala Syrian Christians and is referred to as Mar Joseph by the Knanaya sub-group. Rabban is an honorific title among the Malabar Syrian Nasrani Christians (Northists) as well.[27]
9) Cuisine 1) Traditional Malabar Cochin Jewish cuisine include rice breads like Palappam (similar to Lahoh) for perunnal (High Holy Days),[28] chuttu meen (fried fish), Erachi–molugu curry (Red chilli beef curry) and Chicken.[29][30][31][32][33] There is also Coconut Rice.
2) Delicacies include achappam and kuzhalappam.[29][30][31][32][33]
3) Pesahaappam (Passover unleavened bread) is prepared only for Passover festival.[20]
4) Coconut milk is used in cooking non vegetarian dishes to avoid mixing of dietary food in accordance with Kosher.[29][30][31][32][33]
1) Traditional Malabar Syrian Nasrani Christian cuisine includes rice breads like Palappam that is eaten with beef stew and mutton or lamb. These are similar to Yemenite Jewish Lahoh and Ethiopian Jewish Injera.[28] Popular Kerala Syrian Christian cuisine includes Appam (Rice pancakes).
2) Delicacies include Avalosupodi (Roasted rice with coconut), Achappam (fried rice string hopper) and kuzhalappam [34]
3) Pesaha appam (Passover unleavened bread) is made for passover.[20]
4) Coconut milk is used for cooking meat and fish.[29][30][31][32][33]
10) Costume & Attire The attire of Malabar Cochin Jews especially the more ancient section (Malabar black Jews) included Chatta and Mundu as everyday clothing. Meekamothirum Kunukku (large ear ring), Chatta and Mundu, Kuppayam.[35] Malabar Syrian Nasrani Christians traditionally wear chattu and Mundu, and Kunukku (Large ear ring).[35] They also cover the head during worship.[35]
11) Cantillation 1) Traditional Malabar Jewish congregational biblical reading is done in a form of accentuated recitation called Cantillation.[36]
2) Hebrew Cantillation involves the Palestinian dot system, which was later incorporated into the Tiberian ekphonetic notation.[36]
1) Traditional Malabar Syrian Nasrani Christian congregational biblical reading is done in accentuated recitation called cantillation.[36] Syrian Christian chant is logogenic, where in the metric structure and accentuation of the verse governs the accentuation rhythm. While the solo chant is flowing, free rhythmic, and non-metrical in a 'punctuation style' [37]
2) The Syrian Christian system is a dot notation above, below, or on either side of the words of the text.[36]

Anthropologists and Ethnographers have observed several similarities and commonalities between Kerala Cochin Jews and Kerala Syrian Christians. These are even seen in shared names, naming practices and ritual practices.[1]

See also[edit]

  • Suriyani Malayalam
  • Saint Thomas Christians
  • Cochin Jews
  • Knanaya

Notes[edit]

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 Weil, Shalva (1982) symmetry between christians and jews in India: the cnanite christians and the cochin jews of kerala, Contributions to Indian Sociology 16: pages 175-196, DOI: 10.1177/006996678201600202
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Jussay 2005.
  3. Gamliel 2009, p. 377.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Kerala Jewish and Kerala Syrian Christian Copper plate Replicas in Israel Museum (5th July 2017 - The Hindu) https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/narendra-modi-gifts-two-sets-of-relics-from-kerala-to-netanyahu/article19214296.ece
  5. 5.0 5.1 Spector, Johanna (1970) "Yemen" in Encyclopaedia Judaica, 16:749-759.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Spector, Joanna (1973) "Problems in the Study of Singing Traditions in the Music of the Jews," in Hagut Ivrit Ba'Amerika, Vol. 2.Israel: Brit Ivrit Olamit.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Ross, Israel J. (1979) Ritual and Music in South India: Syrian Christian Liturgical Music in Kerala (pp. 80-98). vol 11, no 1. DOI: 10.2307/833968
  8. Gamliel 2009, p. 390.
  9. Gamliel 2009, p. 377-390.
  10. Waronker, J A. (2010) 'The Synagogues of Kerala, India: Their Architecture, History, Context, and Meaning'. Cornell University. page 35
  11. Waronker, J A. (2010) 'The Synagogues of Kerala, India: Their Architecture, History, Context, and Meaning'. Cornell University. page 23
  12. Waronker, J A. (2010) 'The Synagogues of Kerala, India: Their Architecture, History, Context, and Meaning'. Cornell University. page 28 and page38
  13. Waronker, J A. (2010) 'The Synagogues of Kerala, India: Their Architecture, History, Context, and Meaning'. Cornell University. page 84
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Panjikaran S, & Vedamuthu R (2013) An Evaluation of Spatial Organization of the Church Architecture of Kerala during the Sixteenth to Seventeenth Centuries, J. Inst. Eng. India Ser. A (May–July 2013) 94(2):123–130 doi:10.1007/s40030-013-0040-0
  15. "Cochin Jews and the Seven Synagogues of Kerala: History and Architecture".
  16. Waronker, J A. (2010) 'The Synagogues of Kerala, India: Their Architecture, History, Context, and Meaning'. Cornell University. page 67
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 Jomon K M (2014) T’aks’a d-‘al r’az’a q’adish’a d-zuw’ag’a - A textual and theological analysis of the order of marriage in the East Syriac Tradition page 296, Faculty of Language and Literature (Syriac) Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala
  18. "Turn the Jew episodes of culture in Muziris | Muziris Heritage Conservation Project of Kerala".
  19. Waronker, J A. (2010) 'The Synagogues of Kerala, India: Their Architecture, History, Context, and Meaning'. Cornell University. page 28
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 Weil, Shalva (1982) symmetry between christians and jews in India: the cnanite christians and the cochin jews of kerala, Contributions to Indian Sociology 16: page 184, DOI: 10.1177/006996678201600202
  21. Menachery, George, ed. (1973) The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopedia of India B.N.K. Press, vol. 2, ISBN 81-87132-06-X Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png., Lib. Cong. Cat. Card. No. 73-905568 ; B.N.K. Press
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 22.4 22.5 Weil, Shalva (1982) symmetry between christians and jews in India: the cnanite christians and the cochin jews of kerala, Contributions to Indian Sociology 16: pages 183-184, DOI: 10.1177/006996678201600202
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 23.3 23.4 23.5 Weil, Shalva (1982) symmetry between christians and jews in India: the cnanite christians and the cochin jews of kerala, Contributions to Indian Sociology 16: pages 184-186, DOI: 10.1177/006996678201600202
  24. 24.0 24.1 Weil, Shalva (1982) symmetry between christians and jews in India: the cnanite christians and the cochin jews of kerala, Contributions to Indian Sociology 16: page 187, DOI: 10.1177/006996678201600202
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 Gamliel, O. (2018) Back from Shingly: revisiting the pre-modern history of Jews in Kerala, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 55(1), pp. 53-76
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Hallegua F. & Koder S. (1984) ‘Kerala and Her Jews’, published by Cochin Jewish Synagogue). pages 1-3
  27. 27.0 27.1 Weil, Shalva (1982) symmetry between christians and jews in India: the cnanite christians and the cochin jews of kerala, Contributions to Indian Sociology 16: pages 186-187, DOI: 10.1177/006996678201600202
  28. 28.0 28.1 Marks, G(2010) Encyclopedia of Jewish food', Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition, ISBN 9780470391303 Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 29.3 The Cochini Jewish Cuisine by Café Dissensus (Bala Menon) on December 31, 2014 https://cafedissensus.com/2014/12/31/the-cochini-jewish-cuisine/
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 30.3 Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, Religions of South Asia, Routledge, New York, 2006
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 31.3 Reinman, Shlomo, Masa’oth Shlomo b’Kogin.
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 32.3 Ruby Daniel & Barbara Johnson, Ruby of Cochin: A Jewish Woman Remembers
  33. 33.0 33.1 33.2 33.3 Nathan Katz and Ellen Goldberg, The Last Jews of Cochin: Identity in a Hindu India
  34. Malekandathil, P. (2010). Maritime India: Trade, Religion and Polity in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi: Primus Books.
  35. 35.0 35.1 35.2 Pallan, Mary (2018) Ethnocultural Transformation of Social Identity. Syrian Christians in Kerala. Chapter 4. Grin Verlag.
  36. 36.0 36.1 36.2 36.3 Ross, Israel J. (1979) Ritual and Music in South India: Syrian Christian Liturgical Music in Kerala (pages 83 and 94). vol 11, no 1. DOI: 10.2307/833968
  37. Avenary, H (1963) Studies in the Hebrew, Syrian, and Greek Liturgical Recitative. Israel: Jerusalem Post press.


Further reading[edit]

  • Miller, J. Innes. (1969). The Spice Trade of The Roman Empire: 29 B.C. to A.D. 641. Oxford University Press. Special edition for Sandpiper Books. 1998. ISBN 0-19-814264-1 Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png..
  • Poomangalam C.A (1998) The Antiquities of the Knanaya Syrian Christians; Kottayam, Kerala.
  • Vellian Jacob (2001) Knanite community: History and culture; Syrian church series; vol. XVII; Jyothi Book House, Kottayam
  • Koder, S. "History of the Jews of Kerala", The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia of India, ed. G. Menachery, 1973.
  • Puthiakunnel, Thomas. (1973) "Jewish Colonies of India Paved the Way for St. Thomas", The Saint Thomas Christian Encyclopedia of India, ed. George Menachery, Vol. II., Trichur.
  • Daniel, Ruby & B. Johnson. (1995). Ruby of Cochin: An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers. Philadelphia and Jerusalem: Jewish Publication Society.
  • Jussay, P.M. (1986) "The Wedding Songs of the Cochin Jews and of the Knanite Christians of Kerala: A Study in Comparison". Symposium.
  • Jussay, P. M. (2005). The Jews of Kerala. Calicut: Publication division, University of Calicut. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  • Menachery, George, ed. (1998) The Indian Church History Classics, Vol. I, The Nazranies, Ollur, 1998. ISBN 81-87133-05-8 Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png.
  • Katz, Nathan; & Goldberg, Ellen S; (1993) The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India. Foreword by Daniel J. Elazar, Columbia, SC: Univ. of South Carolina Press. ISBN 0-87249-847-6 Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png.
  • Menachery, George, ed. (1973) The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopedia of India B.N.K. Press, vol. 2, ISBN 81-87132-06-X Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png., Lib. Cong. Cat. Card. No. 73-905568 ; B.N.K. Press
  • Weil, Shalva (1982). "Symmetry between Christians and Jews in India: The Cananite Christians and Cochin Jews in Kerala". Contributions to Indian Sociology. 16 (2): 175–196. doi:10.1177/006996678201600202.
  • Gamliel, Ophira (April 2009). Jewish Malayalam Women's Songs (PDF) (PhD). Hebrew University. Archived from the original (PDF) on 26 March 2017. Retrieved 2 October 2018. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)

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