Synagogues of India (Calcutta/Kolkata, Mumbai, and Cochin). Photographs by Jono David.
Jews were once a prominent component of India’s population. The three main branches of Indian Jewry are the Maharashtrian (Bene Israel) Jews, Cochin Jews, and Baghdadi Jews. Bene Israel, who constitute the majority of Indian Jews, claim to be descendants of seven Jewish families from Judea who were shipwrecked near the village of Navgaon in western India around 175 B.C. They settled primarily in Mumbai, Calcutta, Old Delhi, and Ahmedabad.
Cochin Jews, according to local tradition, are descendants of Jewish merchants who arrived on the Malabar coast of India with the ships of King Solomon’s fleet. After the Spanish Edict of Expulsion, Jewish refugees migrated to Cochin from Aleppo, Constantinople, and Palestine. Within the same timeframe, Jews escaping forced conversions in Persia and persecution in Baghdad also fled to Cochin.
The waves of Jewish emigration from Baghdad started gaining momentum in the 19th century. Via intricate mercantile routes, communities of Baghdadi Jewish traders reached Calcutta, a port city in eastern India and the former nerve center of the British Empire. Although there was no shortage of rifts and conflicts between Baghdadi Jews and the local Bene Israel of Calcutta, the two groups merged their cultures together and gave rise to new sociocultural forms.
India gained its independence of Britain in 1947, and nationalism and emphasis on the Partition of Hindu and Muslim identities intensified. The following year, the state of Israel was established, and Indian Jews relocated to Katamon in Jerusalem, Beersheba, Ramla, Dimona, and Yeruham in dramatic numbers. In the 1940s, over 30,000 Jews were registered in India; in 1971, there were roughtly 5,825. 70,000 Indian Jews live in Israel today (the great majority of them Bene Israel).