Fort Kochi was special. It had seen a lot more of colonial rule and misrule.

The Forgotten Jews of Fort Kochi How an enterprising community integrated itself into Kerala
news History Saturday, September 03, 2016 - 11:33

By EP Unny

When the Union Jack was finally lowered at Parade Ground in 1947, Fort Kochi was freer than the rest of India. In one go, 444 years of uninterrupted European dominance ended here (you get this neat figure when you count from 1503 when the first fort was built).  The one-square-mile Euro-zone instantly became part of an Asian wonder, an against-the-odds democracy then. Across the border at Calvetty Bridge, native Kochi didn’t hold back at all. It was the first princely state to join new India, even as its southern neighbour, Travancore, went in kicking and screaming.

Before long the Kochi merchant’s worst fear came true. In his presidential address to the Chamber of Commerce in 1948, J.S. Bruce summed up his post-war worries— rising prices, labour disputes and demand for higher wages, all of which opened up fresh fields for communist activities. He wasn’t wrong.

In 1957, the newly formed province of Kerala, Kochi included, elected a Communist government. The chamber session that preceded Bruce by ten years had recognised trade unions on the express condition that they wouldn’t encourage class war. No street wars were fought here in 1940s and 50s. The Brits didn’t have to hunt around for underground tunnels to flee. Seasoned colonisers, they negotiated a smooth exit. A peaceable Gandhi helped.

This was true of the whole country. Fort Kochi was special. It had seen a lot more of colonial rule and misrule. And when that ended it wasn’t Gandhians who were readying to take over but followers of Karl Marx, no advocate of gentle power shifts.

Kochi’s communists were however busy waging trade union battles. In any case, how could they have mounted a showpiece anti-imperial revolution on a one-square mile municipal town? The town itself had changed hands far too many times to tell tragedy from farce. What stayed through a succession of masters was a flow of commerce that brought in its wake a range of ethnic groups and languages. And a unique culture of co-existence.

If Kochi needed lessons in survival, it didn’t have to look far. More than the revolutionary Jew, it was the local Jew who had a demonstration effect. Even before Marco Polo.

Jews were sighted on the Malabar Coast as early as 1167. Ever since, they had been through occasional glory, some peace and much turmoil. One zone of great Jewish comfort was Dutch Kochi, which vanished all too soon. When the British virtually finished the town, an eyewitness was almost ready to write off even this Judaic phoenix. Thoroughly drained by the succession war between his Dutch friends and the new British power, the Jew had barely found his feet when the deferred disaster struck.

He must have stayed on because he had enough religious conviction to hope. Also because the Jewish settlement had stakes in Kochi. Stakes that far exceeded its numbers— even the most generous estimate of 16000 by Rev. Claudius Buchanan, an avid collector of old Jewish records and manuscripts. The census undertaken by the dewan of Kochi, Venkata Rao, in 1857 however, threw up far less impressive numbers—no more than 1790 Jews in the whole of Kochi state, of which 353 in Ernakulam mainland, 65 in Chennamangalam, 25 miles inland and a mere 419 in Jew Town next to Fort Kochi, their largest settlement. The Black Jews, the ones who intermarried with locals, constituted the rest and they were mostly in Fort Kochi, happy to be away from the White Jews of Jew Town, Mattancherry.

Even within the outwardly cohesive Jewish community there was a black and white divide. Nothing unique to Kochi, they had such subgroups elsewhere on the coast like the historic community of Jews called the Bene Israel (Sons of Israel) in the Konkan region. Kochi’s latter-day Jewish immigrants who considered themselves genetically pure and white refused to bond with the earlier settlers with mixed genes. There is a similar divide in the way the divide itself is seen by the chroniclers of the 19th and the 21st century. The former go into elaborate physiognomic description to underline the fuller Jewish look of the new Jew as against the vanishing Jewishness of the older settler, his shapely roman nose cited as the sole saving grace.

When it comes to women, the gaze turns patently voyeuristic— ‘scanty skirt, of rich cloth, satin, open from the throat, nearly as far down as the waist.’ The chronicler bemoans that once married the Jewess covers her head, no longer cares for her personal appearance, rapidly loses her good looks, and at 30 may be considered quite passé. The contemporary chronicler treads more gingerly and explains the Jewish divide as a cloning of the fractured Malabar society. Like picking up a new language, the Jews apparently mimicked the social milieu they had walked into.

To be functional here the Jews thought it best to be a caste, and to be a caste you had to have sub-castes. A survival formula the Portuguese perfected in the 15th century. In fact, they were the ones who introduced the root word of caste, casta meaning lineage, to describe the many-tiered society they found in Malabar. They created a social ladder that was one up on the local one.

Ladder would be a euphemism; the hierarchy was more like a spiral stairway, much coiled. The pure white born in Portugal, their offspring born here, the ones who intermarried with locals, the natives, the local Christians who lived north of Kochi, those who lived south of Kochi, they took all administrative and commercial decisions keeping in view these myriad categories to often produce bizarre outcomes, as we saw earlier when they inked in a trilateral-trade pact in 1585.

But the Jews weren’t a colonial class that could apportion privileges across such a broad spectrum and at the best of times there weren’t enough of them around. True, but given these limitations, they did quite well. They made a fine cocktail of their own Judaic and the host-Hindu mores to perpetuate a complex and durable hierarchical order. White Jews, Black Jews, Brown Jews, those with certified ancestry (a dual one at that), those without, those who could sing hymns in the Mattancherry Synagogue, those who could only sit in the anteroom and pray silently, women who could wear gold in Jew Town and those who had to hop across to the European Fort Kochi to dress up.

The last Jewish bastion, so to say, in Fort Kochi, was the Koder house, now a hotel. Here a prominent merchant family lived from 1808 till recently in splendid engagement with Kochi’s social and civic life. If Kochi’s citizenry wanted to see the stereotyped Jew, usurious and insular, it would have had to look elsewhere.

Fort Kochi’s old-timers tell me Koders brought them light. The family started the first electricity distribution company here and ran it with a feudal benevolence. When the subscriber was too broke to pay the monthly bill, the payment was kindly deferred. Today the government-run power board will just cut off supply.

After the sale of the Koder house, there is nothing much Jewish left in Fort Kochi. But you only have to step out of the unseen fort to find the Synagogue and the Jew Street—the last vestiges of a community that meant a lot to these parts.

The Jews were as good as their Dutch friends in keeping records which they archived with ritual rigour. No document with the God’s name on it was to be junked and the Jew never wrote one without invoking the Lord. For the new Jews, recorded evidence was absolutely central to their identity.

As recent immigrants, they had trade contacts as well as knowledge of foreign languages including Portuguese— skills that endeared them to the Rajah of Kochi as well as to his Portuguese friends here. The last, ironically, had reasons to thank their anti-Semitic masters back home. Lisbon drives out this resourceful lot which soon surfaces in Malabar to serve its very evictor’s colonial interest!

Destitute, penniless and in the midst of well-entrenched co-religionists, the new contingent had little choice. They strategised right—first aimed for status and waited for money to follow.

Excerpts from Santa & the Scribes by EP Unny, Niyogi Books

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