Because as much as 80% of the country of India is Hindu, you may be surprised to learn that there is a Jewish community here. The Jewish community of India is the fourth largest Asian Jewish community after Israel, Asian Russia, and Iran. Judaism was one of the very first foreign religions in recorded history to arrive in India. The Cochin Jews are thought to have arrived and settled in Kerala 2,500 years ago.
These first Indian Jews, called the Cochin or Malabar Jews, were the so called “Black Jews”, who are named thusly due to their dark complexion, similar to those of Jews from Yemen or Kurdistan. The Jews of Cochin traditionally say that they came to Cranganore (an ancient port near Cochin in south-west India) after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. The Pardesi Jews of Cochin, also called the “White Jews” settled later, immigrating to India from western European nations such as Holland and Spain. The White Jews spoke the ancient Sephardic language of Ladino. In the 1600s and 1700s, Cochin also experienced an influx of Jewish settlers from the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain.
The Black Jews and White Jews formed two classes within Cochin, both of whom were equally strict in their religious observances. The Blacks Jews constructed their first synagogue in 1625, while the synagogue of the Whites, a gorgeous and ornate building, was erected in 1568. This synagogue was, however, burned by the Portuguese in 1662, rebuilt by Shem-Ṭob Castillia in 1668, then finally completed by Ezekiel Rahabi in 1730. Today, this Pardesi synagogue is still open, and is a protected heritage site.
Today, most of the Jews of Cochin have immigrated to Israel. While they numbered more than 1,000 in the late 1800s, today there are approximately 50 Jews living in Kerala, and practicing in their 3 synagogues. Some people fear that, due to their small numbers, the Cochin Jews will soon fade away.
However, India is not without other Jewish communities. These include the Baghdadi Jews, who are descendents of Iraqi Jewish immigrants, as well as those from Turkey, Syria, Iran and Afghanistan; the Bene Israel Jews, who arrived in India approximately 2,000 years ago after a shipwreck stranded 7 Jewish families from Judea near the city of Mumbai; and the Bene Ephraim Jews, a small group who are sometimes called the Telugu Jews because they speak Telugu.
Today, the largest Jewish community within India is the Bnei Manashe community, which consists of about 9,000 members in the northeast Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram.
In the 19th century the community was converted to Christianity, however in the 1970s they began to return to Judaism. As recently as July 2005, the Bnei Menashe community built their first mikvah. Shortly after, a similar mikvah was built in Manipur. In mid-2005, the Bnei Menashe opened its first community center in Israel.
Today, the overwhelming majority of the Jews are concentrated in Bombay. In addition, there are communities in Calcutta, Delhi, Cochin, Poona and a few villages in Maharashton State. There is absolutely no pressure from within India itself for the exodus of the Jews. However, since 1948, approximately 20,000 Jewish residents have emigrated from India, primarily to Israel.