Jewish Presence in Chennai — A Lesson in History
We come across the mention of Madras Patan (city) “Sexta En Madras Patan” in the poem “Ya en seis ciudades anglas se publica” written by Sephardi Jewish poet and playwright Daniel Levi De Barrios, as early as 1688 CE. The poem by Barrios who never set foot in Madras, cites 6 Jewish communities living in the British territories of Niev (Nevis Island), London, Jamaica, two in Barbados- Bridgetown and Speighstown, and the sixth community in Madras Patan. The story of how Jews landed in Madras and made it their home is interesting.
Jews are said to be the descendants of Abraham as per the Hebrew Bible. There are 12 clans of Jews stemming from the 12 children of Jacob. Modern Jews are classified into three broad groups- the Jews who lived in Germany- the Ashkenazi, those who lived in Spain, Portugal and North America- the Sephardi and the non-European Jews who lived in the East- the Mizrahim. Sepharad is the Hebrew word for Spain and the Jews who lived during the 15th Century CE in Spain were the Sephardi Jews. The Spanish Crown believed the Sephardi Jews were converting the Spaniards to Judaism and so announced the Alhambra Decree in 1492, ordering the eviction of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. There was a mass exodus of Jews from Spain. Few of them could find lucky escape to Portugal and from there and through the Spanish fleets, to the eastern shores in Madras.
The Lloyds Road fish market is always vibrant and has a lively buzz. As you look for Kumari Akka, someone points out to the lady busy chatting with another. She holds the key to the Jewish Cemetery I am told and as I request her to open the cemetery gate, she immediately obliges with a wide grin. The huge blue gates open. As you go in, you take in the Star of David sign and the carving “Beit Ha Heim”- The House of Life. The giant neem trees shoot another shower of tiny star shaped flowers as one enters the cemetery. One can find tombstones of the Sephardic Jews dating from the 1700s. About 30 gravestones, all bathed in the tiny white neem flowers. Nature has its peculiar ways of worshipping the dead. Despite being shifted thrice, despite being under the sun and rain for ages, these tombstones stand resilient, talking of their heritage and their connection with this city. The oldest intact tombstone in the cemetery is of Isaac Abendana Sardo, a diamond merchant from Holland, who died on 10 May 1709. Another is that of Salomon Franco whose epitaph, dated 11 May 1763, mentions him being born in Leghorn (modern day Livorne in Western Tuscany, Italy), that of Levi Henriques De Castro who died on 08 February 1978, as Amsterdam, and as France for Salomon Halevi, who died on 05 June, 1968.
The Jewish presence in ancient Tamilakam, that comprises today’s Kerala, is said to go back over millennia. Classical Tamil Sangam texts refer to the ‘yavanas’ who traded with the Tamils at the port of Muziris on the Malabar coast from as early as 1st century CE. ‘Yavanas’ was a term used to refer to Greeks but probably included middle easterners too. Edna Fernandes in her book ‘The Last Jews of Kerala’, Professor P M Jussay in The Jews of Kerala and S S Koder — erstwhile leader of Paradesi community in Kochi in his book History of the Jews of Kerala — explore the ancient presence of Jews on the Malabar coast.
The first time a Jewish name surfaces in Madras is from a look-out notice issued by the East India Company (EIC) on March 16, 1681 (ref. Despatches from England, 1681). The notice mentions that a particular Jewish interloper by name Salvadore Rodrigues has entered Madras without permission and anyone with knowledge of him should bring it to the notice of the EIC. The name Salvadore Rodrigues surfaces again in 1686 when he was planted as a spy in the Golconda court by the William Gyfford, President of EIC, Madras. This detail appears in the Diary and Consultation Book, 1687 and 1688 kept by the Madras Central Record Office. Making use of his Persian language fluency, Rodrigues earned the trust of the Golconda Sultan and passed on valuable information to the English in Madras. To know more I visit the home of Davvid Levi, the grandson of the last Rabbi of Madras Synagogue, Rabbi Salomon Halevi and the scion of the family Henriques De Castro family. His family is probably one the last Jews calling Chennai home.
Any auto driver would refuse to take you through the Coral Merchant street to the, set in the crowded Georgetown area in Chennai. But it is well worth it. A walk through the quaint street takes you to a different era. Old houses with Corinthian pillars or art deco pillars in some, Nagarathar chathrams steeped in heritage. “The Jews had trade links around the world. They knew how to analyse, appraise and grade diamonds, gold and corals. Their unique talent in jewellery appraisal and networking with Jews all over the globe made them the closest trading allies with the British in Madras. The Jews were able to break the monopoly Portuguese tradesmen enjoyed with trading with the British”, says Levi, who is in the merchant navy.
“The Jewish chests ferrying goods across oceans had the six-pointed Star of David called ‘Magen David’ inscribed on them. The Jews and their extended families living in England, Italy and India helped their trade grow manifold”, Levi quips. Citing references from the EIC despatch from England dated July 2, 1684, Levi adds “Even though some of these Jews were permitted by the EIC to live within the precincts of Fort St George, most of them occupied houses in Black Town. The street where the Jewish coral traders lived in abundance came to be known Coral Merchant Street and the name sticks even today.
“The first Jewish Synagogue of Madras and its adjoining cemetery was built in the first half of 16th century by Sephardi Jews of Amsterdam in Coral Merchant Street. Later, the synagogue and the cemetery were shifted to Peddanaikenpet”, says Levi. Of these Jews, the tombstones of Isaac Sardo, Salomon Franco remain in the city, in their memory. The cemetery was moved by the British Government to Central Park area, along with its gates that spelt ‘Beit Ha Haim’ (House of Life). Whatever was left of the synagogue was finally taken down in 1967. “The Cemetery in Central Park was pulled down by the Government on June 5, 1968, to make way for the Government school and the tomb stones were shifted to a new area earmarked for Jewish Cemetery opposite the Christian Cemetery in Kasimedu. The happenings so hurt the last Rabbi of our Jewish Synagogue Salomon Halevi that he died of heart attack. After that, the Synagogue functioned at our house Number 15, Coral Merchant Street till we moved out when I was born, as we lost almost everything in business. All religious rites and meetings were performed at this address by the family. The Jewish Cemetery in Kasimedu was shifted in 1983 to its present location in Lloyds Road. 17 tomb stones went missing then, during the shifting, including that of James Paiva”, laments Levi.
About the Author:
Nivedita Louis is an author, social and feminist historian. She is the author of Muthal Pengal, Adhichanallur Muthal Keezhadi Varai, Vada Chennai, Magizhchiyin Desam, Sindhuveli Nagarigam Velivandha Kadhai, and Ariyapdatha Christhavam (to be released soon). She was the content curator for Iyal Iasi Museum Exhibition conducted by Government Museum, Chennai, and was the content curator for the Government Museum app. She conducts heritage walks and rides around Madras. She also performs lecdems and gives talks on heritage and history.