The comparatively small Jewish population of India – after the census of 1921 there were hardly 20,000 out of a general population of 352 million – fell into four groups: the Cochin Jews of the Malabar Coast, the Bene Israel, the fore-Asian Jews, mostly of Sephardic ancestry, and immigrants from various regions of Europe.
Concerning the ancestry of the older groups of Jews of India, the Bene Israel and the Cochin Jews, and concerning the time of their settlement, there are differing opinions. We may say that the settlements of these respective Jews belong to the time preceding Jesus.
It is generally accepted that ancient India was a destination for Jewish merchants, which from the earliest of times consisted of a lively commercial traffic from south Arabia out of Aden, through Iraq and Persia via harbors on the Persian Gulf, on to the harbors of the west coast of fore-India, Calicut, Cochin, and Crangamore. Some of the merchants and sailors remained in the land.
The oldest settlements arose in Malabar on the southwest coast. There was a bronze tablet on which were written certain rights for one Joseph Rabban, which was dated from sometime between 750-1021. Rabban was the founder of one of the first independent Jewish feudal states.
Marco Polo found 1,272 Jews in Malabar. At the beginning of the 16th century the independence of this Jewish feudal state came to an end.
Muslims oppressed the Jews, who moved to Cochin, where their descendants live there to this day. The Indian caste system also ruled the Jews of Cochin. There were clans of nobility and a lower class. These originated from slaves who converted to Judaism and were set free by their Jewish owners. In 1929 there were four synagogues in Cochin, three in Ernakolam, two in Mala, and one in Paroor.
Under Dutch rule from 1663 to 1763, the prayers and customs of the Jews in Cochin were of the Sephardic variety, as they were also in Holland. A liturgy for the Cochin Jews was published in 1685 in Amsterdam. From the 16th century migrating Jews from Spain, Morocco, Palestine, Persia, Syria and Germany began appearing among the established population.
The Bene Israel belong to two old-established classes of the Jews of India. Their origin too is obscure. Some regard them as descendants of the Samaritan Revolt, whom the Byzantine emperor Justinian I sold into slavery. The Bene Israel are usually artisans, especially oil pressers. In Bombay they are the best carpenters. In the time of the East India Company many were mercenary soldiers.
The Hebrew language hardly exists anymore among then. The Bene Israel are estimated to be between 8,000-10,000; of these about 5,000 live in Bombay. Their spoken and written language is an Indian idiom called Mahratti. The translation of the Bible into Mahratti by the English missionary Dr. Wilson was widely distributed. Later the Bene Israel withdrew their children from the mission and founded their own school, which has 600 students at this time, from grades 1-11.
In Bombay there was a monthly periodical called Israelite as well as The Bene Israel Review in English and Mahratti. Further outward are Bene Israel scattered throughout 120 cities and towns. In Bombay they have four synagogues, the oldest of which dates from 1796.
From the end of the 17th century a migration to India from Iraq and Persia occurred, mainly to Surat, Calcutta, and Poona, and in the 19th century also to Bombay. Of particular note were the families Sassoon, Ezra, Ezechiel, and David, who established the foundation of the community that went from Baghdad to India.
More recent are Jewish settlements in Madras and Rangoon, at the southern tip of Unterburms. In Rangoon, the majority originated in Baghdad. The synagogue there was built in 1880.
The Ashkenazi Jews, who in recent times immigrated from various countries, live scattered throughout the major cities. They have not as yet established their own community organization. In 1933 mainly doctors migrated from Germany.
From 1921-1926 the English-Jewish statesman Lord Reading was the viceroy. The state secretary for India was Edwin Montagu, who took upon himself the initiative to build a constitutional structure for the Indian bureaucracy. Sir Philipp Hartog functioned as the vice-chancellor at the University of Dacca. Bacteriologist Waldemar M. Haffkine migrated from Odessa and for years led the sanitation department of the English regime in its war against cholera and the plague in India.