Sephardic Jews in India

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Sephardic Jews and anusim in India'
Total population
Regions with significant populations


Related ethnic groups
Malabar Jews

Sephardic Jews and anusim in India are European Jews who settled in southwest India, in Goa, Madras (now Chennai), and, primarily and for the longest period, on the Malabar coast, after having left the Iberian peninsula at the end of the 15th century and throughout the 16th century, in search of religious freedom due to the Spanish Inquisition in both Spain and Portugal. In Iberia, they spoke the vernacular language of their kingdom (basically Castillian i.e. Spanish-Portuguese or Catalan) and some of them also Arabic. After several generations out of Spain, especially in the Ottoman Empire, their Spanish became a distinctive dialect that combined arcaism and loan words from Turkish, Greek and Slavic languages, besides some Italian and French.

Some of the newer immigrants were crypto-Jews, having been forcibly converted to Catholicism but continuing to practice Judaism in secrecy. Traveling through Asia Minor, the Indian Sephardic Jews went down the west coast of India, settling in the Konkan and Malabar Coast of South western coastal India, joining the more ancient settlements formed by the Malabar Jews and forming settlements nearby. In Kerala, they learned Judeo-Malayalam, the dialect developed by the Malabar Jews, descendants of immigrants who had been there for more than 1,000 years from Israel and Yemen. The combined groups in Kerala became known as the Cochin Jews. The European Jews were also referred to as the Paradesi Jews (associated with foreigners) or White Jews, given their European ethnicity. The Malabar Jews, having intermarried in south India, had darker skin.

A notable Jewish population once existed in Goa. They had their own synagogues and enjoyed freedom. They had been settled in Goa before the Portuguese arrived. Many of them integrated with the local Goan culture and spoke the Konkani language, whereas some of them were immigrants from Iberia who spoke Spanish. The strong presence of Sephardic Jews from Iberia and local Indian Jews in this region was the primary justification for the Portuguese to institute the Goan Inquisition in 1560 - 24 years after the Portuguese Inquisition was instituted in Portugal. The famed Sephardic physician Garcia de Orta belonged to this community.[1]

In addition, some settled in Madras, now known as Chennai, developed by the English East India Company from Fort St. George. Sephardic Jewish traders from Portugal, London and the Netherlands settled there and became highly successful and influential for a time. By the late 18th century, they had mostly shifted their trading companies to London, and the Jewish community in Madras declined.[2]

There were plans to extend the Portuguese Inquisition to their Indian possessions since 1560 and the first trials and burnings at the stake started in 1560. Altogether, around 200 people were sentenced to death and executed by the Portuguese Inquisition in Goa and their other Indian strongholds in 200 years, an average of one person per year. The target of the Inquisition were not Jews as such but Crypto-Jews, who had embraced Christianity under duress without ever relinquishing their family faith. Many Jews from Portuguese Goa fled to Portuguese Cochin in Kerala and joined the Malabar Yehudan.[3] In Kerala the Malabar Jews and the Malabar Nasranis of Judeo-Christian heritage were also persecuted by the Portuguese as part of the Goa Inquisition. The coming of the Dutch rule beginning in 1663 eased the pressure on the community in India, whereas the same Dutch rule in Manhattant under Pieter Stuyvesant denied religious freedom to the very same Sephardic Jews.[4][5][6][7]

As a result of the inquisition large numbers of Malabar Jews assimilated into the Malabar Nasrani community (thus becoming a community of anusim and Judeo-Christians forced to comply with the wishes of the Roman Catholic Church). Additionally, some of the later Baghdadi Jewish families that arrived in India, such as the Sassoons, were of Sephardic origin.


  1. ^ Donald F. Lach, Edwin J. Van Kley (1993). Asia in the Making of Europe, Volume III: A Century of Advance. Book 2, South Asia, Volume 3. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 568 pages(See page:847). ISBN 978-0-226-46754-2. 
  2. ^ Mordecai Arbell, "The Portuguese Jewish Community of Madras, India, in the Seventeenth Century", Los Muestros, No. 41, December 2000, accessed 12 May 2013
  3. ^ T.V, Parasuram (1982). India's Jewish heritage. the University of Michigan: Sagar Publications. pp. 136(see page:67). 
  4. ^ Claudius Buchanan (1811). Christian Researches in Asia: With Notices of the Translation of the Scriptures into the Oriental Languages. 2nd ed. Boston: Armstron, Cornhill
  5. ^ Menachery G (1973) The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopedia of India, Ed. George Menachery, B.N.K. Press, vol. 2, ISBN 81-87132-06-X, Lib. Cong. Cat. Card. No. 73-905568; B.N.K. Press
  6. ^ Menachery G (ed) (1982) The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopedia of India, B.N.K. Press, vol. 1;
  7. ^ Menachery G (ed); (1998) "The Indian Church History Classics", Vol. I, The Nazranies, Ollur, 1998. [ISBN 81-87133-05-8].