Foreign relations
Why did Modi gift Israel PM Netanyahu these Kerala relics?
Photos courtesy PMO India/Twitter

On Monday, Narendra Modi became the first ever Indian Prime Minister to set foot on Israeli soil. In his historic meeting with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu, Modi said that he was looking to forge a “strong and resilient partnership” with the country.

As a symbol of its strong ties with Israel, Modi also gifted Netanyahu replicas of two sets of relics from Kerala. A set of copper plates with inscriptions and Torah scrolls – both key elements in India’s Jewish history. These relics are renowned and cherished by the of Cochin Jews in Kerala.

According to South Asian Folklore: An Encyclopedia, the Cochin Jews claim to have arrived in India directly from Jerusalem as they fled the first Jewish-Roman war in 70 CE. Other sources say that they arrived as early as the 17th century; there are also indications that they arrived during the Babylonian exile in 597 BC.

In any case, there is enough evidence to suggest that Jews began coming and settling in the Indian coast quite early on. And it was around the 11th century that the engraved copper plates were given by the Hindu king Cheraman Perumal (often identified as Bhaskara Ravi Varma) to Jewish leader Joseph Rabban.

According to Benjamin Jonathan Goldstein’s The Jews of China V. 1: Historical and Comparative Perspectives, the inscription licensed a chartered territory for the Jews in Anjuvannam, a part of Cranganore, often referred to by Jews as Shingli.  This was a sovereign territory, with Rabban being granted the use of aristocratic symbols such as the parasol and elephant, as well as the right to levy taxes and tolls.

Goldstein also writes that while various circumstances forced the Jews to flee Cranganore and settle in Cochin, the maharajas welcomed them with open arms. The maharaja even sanctioned to them a plot of land to build their synagogue and homes. The “patron-advisor relationship” between Hindu maharajas and Jewish leaders remained unchanged till the Princely State of Cochin was subsumed within the independent Republic of India in 1947.

The original plates are now housed in the Cochin Paradesi synagogue, Mattancherry, which is also the oldest active synagogue in Commonwealth. Built in 1568, the synagogue was destroyed in 1662 by the Portuguese and rebuilt by the Dutch two years later.  

Modi also gifted Netanyahu a second set of copper plates, replicas of the earliest documentation of Jewish trade with India. According to PIB, “These plates describe the grant of land and tax privileges by the local Hindu ruler to a church and oversight of trade in Kollam to West Asian and Indian trading associations.” These are housed in the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church in Thiruvalla, Kerala.

The second relic Modi presented to the Israeli PM was not a replica, but a scroll donated by Paradesi Jewish community in Kerala. The Paradesi Jewish community, wrote Sifra Lentin for Firstpost, are the most recent arrivals among the Jewish community in India and settled along the Indian coast in 14th and 15th centuries.

The Torah scroll is a handwritten copy of the Torah, the holiest book of Judaism. The one Modi presented to Netanyahu was handwritten over a hundred years ago. The scroll was enclosed in wooden staves in a case covered with silver sheets.

Modi also presented to Netanyahu a metal crown covered in gold sheets in floral ornament style, bearing motifs typical of lamps and decorations of south India.