Joseph Rabban & The history of Malabar Jews

"Landing of the Jews at Shingly (Cranganore in 72 AD)"
Cochin Jews, also called Malabar Jews (Malabar Yehudan) and Juda Mappila, are the oldest group of Jews in India, with roots claimed to date to the time of King Solomon, though historically attested migration dates from the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Historically, they lived in the Kingdom of Cochin in South India,[1] now part of the state of Kerala. Several rounds of immigration of the Jewish diaspora into Kerala led to an ethnic, but not a linguistic, diversity: the community was divided into White Jews and Black Jews, both of which spoke Judeo-Malayalam, a dialect of Malayalam.[2] The vast majority of Cochin Jews immigrated to Israel after its formation, the number remaining in Kerala itself is minuscule, and the community faces extinction there.[3]
Warden of the synagogue and unofficial 'Mudaliyar'
Traders in King Solomon's time carried out regular sea voyages to the South Indian coast, bartering for ivory, apes, and silver, and the first Cochin Jews may have been the children of Israelite sailors and local women.[4] It has been claimed that following the destruction of the First Temple in the Siege of Jerusalem (587 BC), some Jewish exiles came to India.[5]But it was after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE that the first wave of large numbers of settlers came to Cranganore,an ancient port near Cochin.[6] Cranganore, now transliterated as Kodungallur, but also known under other names, is a city of legendary importance to this community. Fernandes goes so far as to call it "a substitute Jerusalem in India"[7] and Katz and Goldberg note the "symbolic intertwining" of the two cities.[8]
St. Thomas, one of the disciples of Jesus, is supposed to have visited India, and many of the Jews who converted to Christianity at that time were absorbed by Nasrani or Saint Thomas Christians.[9]
"The Rajah of Cranganore receives the Jews"

Central to the history of the Cochin Jews is their close relationship with Indian rulers, and this was eventually codified on a set of copper plates granting the community special privileges. The date of these plates, known as "Sâsanam",[10] is contentious, with local tradition setting it as long ago as 379 CE, although paleographic evidence suggests the mid-eighth century. Whatever the date, the Jewish leader Joseph Rabban was granted the rank of prince over the Jews of Cochin, given the ruler ship and tax revenue of a pocket principality in Anjuvannam, near Cranganore, and rights to seventy-two "free houses".[11] The Hindu king gave permission in perpetuity (or, in the more poetic expression of those days, "as long as the world and moon exist") for Jews to live freely, build synagogues, and own property "without conditions attached".[12][13]

Historians have now concluded that Joseph Rabban got his plates in 1000 AD, during the reign of Kulashekhara Perumal and that Anjuvannam was most likely a trade guild. Kulasekhara or Later Chera dynasty was a classical Hindu dynasty founded by the saint King Kulashekhara Varman. Kulasekharas were intermittently subject to various South Indian powers such as Rashtrakutas and Later Cholas in their 300 year rule. The dynasty ruled the whole of modern Kerala state (Malabar or Kudamalainadu), Guddalore and some parts of Nilgiri district and Salem - Coimbatore region in southern India between 9th and 12th centuries AD mostly from the outskirts of the sea port Muziris, called Mahodayapuram, on the banks of River Periyar. The Kulasekharas traces their ancestry back to the powerful Chera dynasty of the Tamil Sangam Age. The age of Kulasekharas of Mahodayapuram is known in history as the Golden Age of Kerala.

Rama Varman Kulashekhara (reign 1090- 1102 AD) was the last King of the Later Chera Dynasty and the first ruler of the independent Venad state from 1102 A.D to 1122 A.D, according to the Rameswarathukoil Inscription. Kotha Varman Marthandam succeeded him as the ruler of Venad.

Joseph Rabban (Yosef Rabban; Judeo-Malayalam: Isuppu Irabbân)

"Joseph Rabban, leader of the Jews, receiving the copper plates"
Joseph Rabban was a Jewish merchant, possibly from Yemen, who came to the Malabar Coast (in present-day India) in the mid-8th century. According to the traditions of the Cochin Jews, Joseph was granted the rank of prince over the Jews of Cochin by the Chera ruler Bhaskara Ravivarman II.He was granted the rulership of a principality in Anjuvannam, near Cranganore (Anjuvannam or Anjuvannan refers to the community of Cochin Jews.[14]

He was granted the rulership of a pocket principality in Anjuvannam, near , Cranganore, [The name derives from the traditional Hindu system of castes where any person not belonging to one of the four principal castes used to be referred to as an anjuvannan. The word comes from the Malayalam words anju (five) and vannam or varnam (colour, race, or caste)], and rights to seventy-two "free houses". These rights were engraved on a set of bronze tablets known as the "Sâsanam" (Burnell, "Indian Antiquary," iii. 333-334), which are still in the possession of the Jewish community of India. The date of the charter can be fixed at about 750; it can not, for paleographical reasons, have been much earlier than this, nor later than 774, since a grant made to the Malabar christians at that time was copied from it.[14]

Quarrel between Levites and the laity (non-Levites)
A link back to Rabban, "the king of Shingly" (another name for Cranganore), was a sign of both purity and prestige. Rabban's descendants maintained this distinct community until a chieftainship dispute broke out between two brothers, one of them named Joseph Azar, in the sixteenth century.Joseph Azar was a Jewish prince of the Anjuvannam in Cochin, South India. He was a descendent of Joseph Rabban. Azar lived in the 14th century CE. In 1340 Joseph Azar became embroiled in a conflict over succession with his brother. The ensuing strife led to intervention by neighboring potentates and the eradication of Jewish autonomy in South India.[14]

In 1341 a disastrous flood silted up the port of Cranganore, and trade shifted to a smaller port at Cochin (Kochi). Many of the Jews moved quickly, and within four years the first synagogue had been completed.[15] The Portuguese Empire established a trading beachhead in 1500 and until 1663 remained the dominant power. They were not kind to the Jews.

Traditions and the accounts of Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela

Benjamin of Tudela (Kingdom of Navarre), 1130 – 1173) was a medievalJewish traveler who visited Europe, Asia, and Africa in the 12th century. His vivid descriptions of western Asia preceded those of Marco Polo by a hundred years. With his broad education and vast knowledge of languages, Benjamin of Tudela is a major figure in medieval geography and Jewish history.

The Travels of Benjamin is an important work not only as a description of the Jewish communities, but also as a reliable source about the geography and ethnography of the Middle Ages. Some modern historians credit Benjamin with giving accurate descriptions of every-day life in the Middle Ages. Originally written in Hebrew, his itinerary was translated into Latin and later translated into most major European languages. It received much attention from Renaissance scholars in the 16th century.

His journey began in the city of Zaragoza, further down the valley of the Ebro, whence he proceeded north to France, and then set sail from the port of Marseilles. After visiting Genoa, Lucca, Pisa, and Rome in present-day Italy; Greece; and Constantinople, he set off across Asia. He visited Syria, Lebanon, Land of Israel, and northern Mesopotamia (which he called Shinar) before reaching Baghdad. From there he went to Persia, then cut back across the Arabian Peninsula to Egypt and North Africa, returning to the Iberian Peninsula in 1173.[16] His visit to the ruins outside the city of Mosul in Baghdad is one of the earliest accurate descriptions of the site of ancient Nineveh.[17]

"Destruction of Cranganore by the Moors"
The 12th century Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela wrote about the Malabari coast of Kerala: "The inhabitants are all black, and the Jews also. The latter are good and benevolent. They know the law of Moses and the prophets, and to a small extent the Talmud and Halacha."[18]Maimonides (1135–1204), the preeminent Jewish philosopher of his day, 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."[19] (The Baghdadi Jews came to India in the 18th century, and it was only then that the Bene Israel Jews of India were "discovered" and taught mainstream Judaism by the Cochinis and Baghdadis,[20] so Maimonides must be referring to the Cochini Jews.)
Further support for the Mishneh Torah circulating in India comes in the form of a letter sent from Safed, Israel to Italy in 1535. In it David del Rossi claimed that a Jewish merchant from Tripoli had told him the India town of Shingly (Cranganore) had a large Jewish population who dabbled in yearly pepper trade with the Portuguese.[21]

Shingala(പട്ടണം- ചിന്‍ഗള )
I travelled from Spain, I had heard of the city of Shingly
I longed to see an Israel king, Him I saw with my own eyes
I have fulfilled my dream I did see him and talk to him
(Rabi Nissim, 14th Century Hebrew Poet).
Shingy was known to the outside world as Muracipattanam or Pattanam The jews of Kerala whose presence is accepted from the first centuryA.D onwards refer Kodungalloor as Shingli.The word Muyiricode and Shinglyhas a relation. Shingli is a popular musical trend among Jews. It is based onthe sound of Peacock. Shingli prayers and songs are still popular among Jews. Shingly was the gate of pepper country Male(Malabar). Jewish travellers or refugees would therefore turn towards this port as a business centre or haven. A hill called Jooda kunnu and a tank called Jooda kulam remind us of Jewish presence. The Jewish copper plates in vattezhuthu characters of Southern India – a grant of land from the king Sri Parkaran Iravi Vanmar to Joseph Rabban [The grant was issued in 10 th century. (The name of Muyiricode is attributedas Peacocks were in  abundance in Kodungalloor at that period)– and the Syrian Christian plates with the signatures of four Jewish witnesses bring further evidence. These inscriptions used a language called Judo-persian and they are among the first documents in this tongue ever discovered.

The first Jewish settlements are not known but many legends flourished about them. Some say that the first Jews arrived in Kerala in King Solomon’s merchant fleet whose crews were probably Phoenicians. Other stories suggest that some members of the lost tribes deported by the Assyrians who had stormed Samaria in 721 might have reached India. Few legends invoke the Babylonian exile (587-538BC) as a first step towards India as some Jews might have then discovered the importance of the trading routes between Mesopotamia and India. The Christian legend of St Thomas said that the Apostle travelled with a Jewish merchant called Habban, that he was welcomed in Cranganore (Shingly). India was not unknown to Jewish people. The Hebrew word tuki for peacock used in the Book of Kings and the Chronicles might have come from the old Tamil “takai”. At the end of the first century Shingly became, according to many Cochin Jews, the haven of ten thousand Jews who were wandering after the destruction of the second Temple. It is also argued that Jewish captives of Titus, held in Myorca, arrived in Kerala in 370 AD.

Like the Christians in India, most Indian Jews might actually have come from Persia in the 5th century as we know that king Kobad, trying to reassess the religious roots of his kingdom, persecuted them in Iran. The Babylonian Talmud, compiled between the 3rd and the 6th century refer to a Rabi Judah who was a Hindu convert. The Jewish copper plates are dated from 379 AD by the Cochin Jews but there is no scientific agreement on this date and the historians can only propose a bracket between 379 AD and the 10th century.With the Arab travellers and geographers the Jewish presence left the realm of legends to be seriously asserted by Abbu’l Kassim Ubaidullah Abdullah Ben Khurdadaba in the 9th century and the geographer Abdulfedas. We know also from Jewish sources that Hachamim arrived in Shingly, including Judah Halevi, in 1141. Then the Indian Ocean was the heart of the first globalization which was due to Chinese economy, the most advanced in the world, and Arabian and Islamic merchants. In his novel, In an Ancient Land, Amitav Ghosh studied the MS.H6 document, collected from a Synagogue in Cairo, dated 1148, which refers to the business association between an Arab, a Jew and an Indian. Jewish merchants were engaged in import or export of pepper, timber, amber, coral, rice, cotton and textile products. Arabic was then a universal lingua franca. 

Syrian Christian plates with the signatures of four Jewish witnesses. These 
inscriptions used a language called Judo-persian and they are among the 
first documents in this  tongue ever discovered.[825-875AD]
The year 1345 saw the arrival of Joseph Azaar in Cochin. Ibn Batuta, in the 15th century, refered to Kanjarakara as a Jewish town under a Jewish governor. He described Shingly as a prosperous vassal of the king of Malabar. Friar Odoric made Cingilin (Shingly ?) the heart of Hebrew settlements of this coast and also refered to Flandarina (Pandarini ?). Marco Polo mentioned a Jewish community in Quilon. The Venetian merchant Nicolo Conti described many Jewish settlements.By then the extinction of the dominant Joseph Rabban line in Shingly left the community divided and from 1471 onwards the victims of these dissensions gathered in Cochin. In 1524 a struggle between Moors and Jews for the pepper trade brought the destruction of the Eastern Jerusalem (Shingly). Most Jews flew to Cochin and placed themselves under the protection of the Hindu Raja of this city. In 1567 Jew Town was built and in 1568 the White Jews’ Synagogue (influenced by Hindu casts, the Jews had split between White and Black Jews). In the 16th century the community welcomed many Spanish or Portuguese Jews. Lisbon had started dominating the Western coast of India. In the 17th century the Dutch replaced the Portuguese. When, in 1766, Hyder Ali, the new ruler of Mysore and the most radical opponent to the British attacked Kerala, the ruler of Cochin chose Ezekiel Rahabi as an ambassador entrusted with two hundred thousand rupees and eight elephants. Ezekiel sent his three sons to Hyder and placed in their hands diamonds and saltpetre (white sugar), a very rare commodity then. In 1795, in spite of Hyder’s son, Tippu Sultan, the country passed into the hands of the British.


[1] Katz 2000; Koder 1973; Menachery 1998; Thomas Puthiakunnel 1973; Weil 1982; Menachery 1998.

[2] Katz 2000; Koder 1973; Thomas Puthiakunnel 1973.

[3] The Last Jews of Kerala, Edna Fernandes, Portobello Books 2008

[4] (1 Kings 10:22), The Jews of Kerala, P. M. Jussay, cited in The Last Jews of Kerala, p. 98

[5] The Last Jews of Kerala, p. 98

[6] Katz 2000; Koder 1973; Thomas Puthiakunnel 1973; David de Beth Hillel, 1832; Lord, James Henry 1977.

[7] The Last Jews of Kerala, p. 102

[8] Cited in The Last Jews of Kerala, p. 47

[9] Weil S. 1982; Jussay P.M. 1986; Menachery 1973; Menachery 1998.

[10] Burnell, Indian Antiquary, iii. 333–334

[11] Taken from WP article on Rabban, which appears to rely on Ken Blady's book Jewish Communities in Exotic Places. Northvale, N.J.:Jason Aronson Inc., 2000. pp. 115–130.

[12] Three years in America, 1859–1862 (p. 59, p. 60) by Israel Joseph Benjamin

[13] Roots of Dalit history, Christianity, theology, and spirituality (p. 28) by James Massey, I.S.P.C.K.

[14] Blady, Ken. Jewish Communities in Exotic Places. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson Inc., 2000. pp. 115–130.

[15] The Last Jews of Kerala p. 111

[16] Shatzmiller 1998, p. 338.

[17] The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character, by Samuel Noah Kramer, University of Chicago Press, 1963, p. 8

[18] Adler, Marcus Nathan. The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Critical Text, Translation and Commentary. New York: Phillip Feldheim, Inc., 1907.

[19] Twersky, Isadore. A Maimonides Reader. Behrman House. Inc., 1972, pp. 481–482

[20] Herzog, Avigdor, "India", in Encyclopedia Judaica, 2008.

[21] Katz, Nathan and Ellen S. Goldberg. The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India. University of South Carolina Press, p. 40. Also, Katz, Nathan, Who are the Jews of India?, University of California Press, 2000, p. 33.


  1. You might find this site of interest:

    Bala Menon

    There are some attempts without any inscriptional or literary evidences to establish the fact that St. Thomas converted Jews in Kerala. It is claimed without any evidence that there were Jewish settlements in Kerala from the days of King Solomonn It is true that Solomon's ships came to India but it was not for bringing Jews to settle in Kerala but for the purpose of trade. Guided by Phœnician pilots, manned by Phœnician sailors, Phœnicians and Jews sailed forth together on their distant voyages, into the southern seas. They sailed to India, to Arabia and Somaliland, and they returned with their ships laden with gold and silver, with ivory and precious stones, with apes and peacocks. It was a trading mission and Jews were not brought in the ships for staying permanently in India. In those days when the Jews were living in all comfort and luxury in their own country there was ne need for a Diaspora.

    Another claim of St. Thomas Christians without any basis is that they are the descendants of the Jews who came to Kerala during Diaspora. Diaspora, ( Greek: Dispersion) Hebrew Galut (Exile), the dispersion of Jews among the Gentiles after the Babylonian Exile; or the aggregate of Jews or Jewish communities scattered “in exile” outside Palestine or present-day Israel. But some Syrian Christians in their fanatical bid to disown their original caste of their own country and to appropriate for themselves the Jewish link have been propagating the view that they are the progeny of the Jews of Diaspora. But the historical events of the period and the significance of Jewish Diaspora will prove their attempts are nonsensical. The first Diaspora of the Jews in recorded history is the Baylonian exile. The Jewish Diaspora actually began in the year 597 BC with the seige and fall of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Known as the Babylonian Captivity, a significant portion of the population of Judea was deported to Babylonia. A second deportation began in 587 BC when the First Jewish Temple was destroyed. In approximately 582 BC, the Babylonian governor of Judea was assassinated and many Jews fled to Egypt and a third deportation most likely began. Many of those Jews never returned to Israel.The Diaspora continued with the Great Jewish Revolt, otherwise known as the First Jewish-Roman War, which began in the year 66 AD and ended in 70 AD with the destruction of Jerusalem. The Romans began a seige of the city in 68 AD, but they did not begin to breach the walls until 70 AD. There were three walls surrounding the city, and all three were eventually breached. In turn, the Temple was destroyed, some of whose overturned stones can still be seen where they fell in 70 AD. The Romans then ransacked and burned nearly the entire city. Many Jews were killed, taken into slavery, or fled to other countries. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the chief centers of Judaism due to diaspora were, Babylonia, Persia, Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Russia, and the United States. They did not come to India. Fake DNA test is made ignoring thousands of untouchables converted by CMS Missionaries. Their descendants are the major Syrian Christian population today.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.


    The of St. Thomas Christians without any basis is that they are the descendants of the Jews who came to Kerala during Diaspora. In their fanatical bid to disown their original caste of their own country and to appropriate for themselves the Jewish link they have been propagating the view that they are the progeny of the Jews of Diaspora. But the historical events of the period and the significance of Jewish Diaspora will prove their calculated attempts are nonsensical. The first Diaspora of the Jews in recorded history is the Baylonian exile. The Jewish Diaspora actually began in the year 597 BC with the seige and fall of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Known as the Babylonian Captivity, a significant portion of the population of Judea was exiled to Babylonia, not to Kodungalloor in Kerala. This is confirmed in the Bible. The prophet Ezekiel lived in exile in Babylon during the period before and after thr fall of Jreusalem in 586 B.C. Exiled Jews were escorted by soldiers and they could not escape from the crowd to come to Kodungalloor. There were two more diaspora according to scholars, and the Jews during this period went to Egypt, not to India which was a strange and far off country . So it is distortion of history to claim St. Thomas converted the Jews of Babylonian Exile when there were no Jews in Kodungalloor.The Diaspora continued with the Great Jewish Revolt, otherwise known as the First Jewish-Roman War, which began in the year 66 AD and ended in 70 AD with the destruction of Jerusalem. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Jews during this diaspora fled to Babylonia, Persia, Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Russia, and the United States, and not to India. What is more, St. Thomas was not anywhere in Kerala in 70 A.D. The oldest documentary evidence of a Jewish community in Kerala dates from 1000 CE, when a Jewish leader named Joseph Rabban received a set of engraved copper plates from the Hindu ruler of Cranganore. Since Rabban was treated with honor by the Raja, he was not a refugee but a rich merchant. Like the Portuguese, he would have established a factory in Kodungalloor to pursue his trade with the Mddle East. In all probability from that time onwards only Jews would have come to Kerala in different phases through links with Joseph Rabban and his successors.

    Thomas of Cana was not a Jew but an Armenian merchant.After the Poruguese elevated the Christians, it was only in the 18th century, this fictitious figure Thomas of Cana was projected without any proof as a Jew by some Syrian Christians. This campaign to make him a Jew was startrd by writers of private family histories such as Niranam Granthavali. Even Portuguese ships did not bring women in their long voyages. How could Thomas of Cana bring 400 families (including women), bishops and others in shaky, unsteady, unsound, unsafe, and ramshackle ships? Even the plate granted to Thomas of Cana by the Raja was not a fact but Syrian Christians imitated what the Jew Joseph Rabban got from the Raja. This alleged plate could not be traced by Buchanan. The privileges given to Joseph Rabban were plagiarized by Syrian Christian writers in their family histories to claim superior status..