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This series explores myths, facts, and fun facts, about the histories of the Jewish groups in the world.  So far we've covered the "Ashkenazim" of Central and Eastern Europe, the "Sephardim" who dispersed from Spain and Portugal, the Sub-Saharans whose origins are intriguing mysteries, and the Babylonians and friends.

We will now round out the old world by looking at the Jewish communities of India and China, some of the most ancient and most puzzling in origin.

India

In many ways the Indian sub-continent is kind of like a whole continent.  One of those ways is that it has several different groups of Jewish people, each with a different history.  These are 1) the Bene Israel of Maharashtra, 2) the Cochinites of the south, and 3) the Baghdadi Jews of the big cities.

Bene Israel

The largest Indian Jewish group are the Bene Israel, originating from the Maharashtra area, the region that includes Mumbai.  Currently numbering some 60,000, mostly in Israel, their ultimate origin remains a mystery, and they spent many years in isolation and obscurity.  

Their own legend is that they are the descendants of a Jewish shipwreck from the 2nd century AD.  The Bene Israel then existed in isolation from other Jewish communities for almost 2000 years.  

In many ways, in isolation, their cultural continuity lapsed, but they did keep some traditions such as having Saturday the Sabbath, which is how they were 'discovered' - being identified as Jews by Baghdadi visitors (see below) in the 1700s.  Their vernacular language is Judeo-Marathi, which is essentially identical to the standard Marathi language.

Much like the Beta Israel of Ethiopia that we've seen previously, the Bene Israel of India existed in rural, uneducated obscurity for most of their history.  However, their lifestyle changed dramatically with the British Raj, where they were favored by the British and given access to education and civil service jobs.  In just a few generations they were able to rise to being prominent citizens in India, and settled in Mumbai and other major cities.  Almost the entire community has resettled in Israel.

What can genetics tell us about the Bene Israel's history?  Surprisingly, they appear to share the same Israelite-derived Y-chromosome set that most of the other groups we've looked at have.  This means that there must have been an actual settlement of Jewish people from elsewhere.  On the other hand, Mitochondrial DNA reveals that 40% of Bene Israel are descended matrilineally from one woman (D. Behar et al., PLoS, 2008).  

The later result is intriguing in light of the ship wrek myth.  Perhaps a small number of people had indeed sailed from Babylonia, or the Mediterranean, and established the community.  Given their local vernacular language, it seems likely that the Bene Israel have been in the same area for their entire history, and mixed to a large extent with the greater population.

Cochinites

While the Bene Israel can be regarded as Northern India's indigenous Jewish community, the Cochin community is the same for the South.

By tradition the community is 2000 years old, and was founded by seabourne Jewish merchants.  It is very possible that, as with the Beta Israel of Ethiopia, the presence of Jewish people in Southern India smoothed the way for the adoption of Christianity by a large part of the population.  However, there is no proof of how the community ultimately originated.  

The historical record picks up in the eigth century when a Jewish traveller from Yemen, Yosef Rabban, was made a ruler of the community by the local Hindu powers.  Astonishingly, the Cochinites were sufficiently connected to the Mediterranean Jewish world to have sent representatives to Maimonedes to obtain his religious writings.  Maimonedes wrote

Only lately some well-to-do men came forward and purchased three copies of my code [the Mishneh Torah] which they distributed through messengers...Thus the horizon of these Jews was widened and the religious life in all communities as far as India revived.

The community spoke a vernacular language called Judeo-Malayalam, which was a dialect of the local language with Hebrew loan words.  The numbers were greatly augmented after 1500 AD by far-flung refugees from the Sephardi diaspora.  In fact, they developed a caste system where the "white" Jews of Cochin (aka the Sephardi descendants) did not intermarry with the "black" Jews (the original community).

So, what can genetics say about the history of the Cochin Jews.  Surprisingly, the most information has come from Mitochondrial DNA, where a recent study (D. Behar et al., PLoS, 2008) shows that about 40% of the community is descended from only two female ancestors.  This may again indicate that it was indeed a small party that established the community, perhaps only a few arriving men who took a few local brides.  However, the Y-chromosome evidence is sketchy, and as of yet does not follow the usual pattern we have seen in other groups.  It is therefore possible that the Cochin community was established by a small number of local converts who were influenced by a traveller who then left.

The Baghdadis

The final Indian Jewish community we will examine presents no such mysteries.  The so-called Baghdadis, as their name indicates, arrived in the past few centuries from Iraq.  As we saw in the last installment, the Iraqi community - themselves migrants to Iraq after 1500 - grew wealthy and prominent through trade.  Many settled in India under British rule and became some of the country's leading industrialists.

Other Indian claimants

There was historically a small Jewish presence in Peshwar and Karachi, both in Pakistan, but as we saw last time, these were offshoots of the Bukharan community.

The Bene Menashe are an Asiatic, and Pentacostal Christian, tribal group from the extreme northeast of India, who claim to be descendants of a lost tribe of Israel.  Pretty much nothing can rule out an actual Jewish lineage more than claiming to be a "lost tribe", and indeed genetic evidence has thus far failed to establish a connection between this tribe and anything Jewish.  Still, many members have adopted the Jewish religion.

The Bene Ephraim are a similar.  A small group in the south of India, they claim an ancient Jewish link and are were historically Christians converted by missionaries.  No historical or genetic connection has been established.

China

In most of the previous Jewish groups we've looked at, we have had a definite present population, and a pretty murky history.  Now we come to a group with a murky history, but also a murky present.

Jews are well documented in Chinese history.  The historically attested community was located in Kaifeng, which was the capital of China (and largest city in the world) from 960 to 1120 AD, during the Northern Song dynasty.  Three carved stelae, written in Chinese and dating from as early as 1489, tell of the construction of a Synagogue in Kaifeng in 1163.  The stelae claim that the Jews entered China from India in the first century AD.  It also states that they are loyal to the country, and had served in the military.  

At some point in the Ming dynasty, an emperor gave the Jews seven surnames, Ai, Shi, Gao, Jin, Li, Zhang, and Zhao, supposedly the closest Chinese names to the Jewish names Ezra, Shimon, Cohen, Gilbert, Levy, Joshua, and Jonathan.  That would indicate that Hebrew names were still in use by the 1500s.

According to European visitors in the 1600s, the Kaifeng synagogue kept holy books written in an archaic form of Hebrew.  The number of Jews in Kaifeng at that point was small, only a dozen or so families.  There were also suggestions at the time that much of the community had relocated to Huangzhou, a different city.

In the chaos and cultural revolutions of the recent centuries in China, the community dwindled, voluntarily and involuntarily.  It is unclear whether it totally disappeared or not.  Some 400 people from Kaifeng have claimed to be descendants of the community, but it is impossible to verify the claims.  Some claimants have converted to orthodox Judaism and immigrated to Israel.

With no contemporary people to go by, it is that much more difficult to trace the origin of the Chinese Jews.  Given the archaic form of Hebrew they used, they were clearly out of contact with the rest of world Jewry for centuries.  

What of the claim that they came to China from India?  The seemingly most natural way for the Chinese Jews to have originated would be from Silk Road  traders from the Persian or Bukharan communities arriving when Kaifeng was the capital and at its peak.  It would make sense for traders to have concentrated in the most important Chinese city of the time, and the timing of the supposed Synagogue construction would make sense in light of that.  

It is also possible that the founders of the Chinese community arrived earlier, perhaps not long after the Bukharan community was founded in the first centuries AD, and the community later relocated to Kaifeng when that city rose in prominence.  It is difficult to construct a historically plausible way in which the community could have come to China from India as claimed in the stelae.  In any case, there was clearly much mixing with the local population - in the few surviving photographs from the 19th century supposedly showing the Kaifeng Jews, they are Chinese in appearance.

Krymchaks

Who?  This tiny Jewish group, which you have probably never heard of, doesn't have anything to do with India or China (!), but they didn't fit in anywhere else and we're at the end of the series, so I'll cover them here.  

The Krymchaks were the historical Jews of the Crimean peninsula.  Their vernacular language was Krymchak, which was the local Turkish Crimean Tatar language augmented with many Hebrew loan words, written in the Hebrew alphabet.  They are the only Jewish group whose historical vernacular language is Turkic.

Given that the Crimea is on the Black Sea which was always part of the Greco-Roman sphere, it is possible that Jews could have arrived there as early as the beginning of the diaspora.  For those looking for a Khazar connection in any modern Jews, these are probably your best bet!  

Always in poverty and obscurity, and with tiny numbers, the Krymchaks had only 6000 people at the beginning of the 20th century.  The Russian Revolutions, famines, deportations, and the Holocaust reduced their numbers to half of that.  Today around 2500 still live in the Crimea.

Conclusion

The two historical Jewish groups of India, the Bene Israel and Cochinites, are opposites in many ways.  While the Bene Israel appear to have been founded nearly 2000 years ago by a small number of Jews who settled from elsewhere, they then existed in complete isolation from world Jewry - even from the Cochinites only several hundred miles to the south - until 200 years ago, and subsisted throughout their isolation in a rural lifestyle.  

On the other hand, the Cochinites, who may have originated completely or mostly from converts 2000 years ago, were able to maintain contact with the outside Jewish world throughout their history, and were relatively urban in the context of their surroundings.  Both the Bene Israel and Cochinites are obviously heavily mixed, genetically and culturally, with their surrounding populations.

The ultimate origin of the historically attested Jews of China is a mystery.  The claims of medieval Chinese - that they arrived from India - disagrees with the most obvious path - that they arrived as, or were converted by, Silk Road traders from the Persian and Bukharan communities.    

This series:

  1. Jewish history: fact and myth I - The Jews of the Shtetls, Khazar or not Khazar
  1. Jewish history: fact and myth II - The far flung Iberians
  1. Jewish origins 3: Africa - Back in Black
  1. Jewish Origins 4: Babel on - Iraq, Persia, The Caucasus, and Central Asia
  1. Jewish origins: Vol. 5 - India and China
  1. Jewish origins: Vol 6: Continuity, and what is a Jew?

Originally posted to the wonderful world of reality on Fri Mar 05, 2010 at 09:35 AM PST.

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