It has been noted that the Jewish and Muslim communities in India have had the closest ties anywhere in the world. Both use the same nomenclature for many religious terms – namaz for prayers, roza for fasts, masjid/mashid for place of worship and kabristan for cemetery. They even share burial grounds in some places.

While Tipu Sultan, the Muslim ruler of Mysore, commuted the death sentence of a Jewish soldier and pardoned a few other Jews taken captive by his army during one of the Anglo-Mysore Wars, a Jew from India served as the prime minister of the Muslim state of Janjira. Both these may be treated as good examples in the present strife-torn world.

The Janjira fort lies off the coast of Maharashtra.
The Janjira fort lies off the coast of Maharashtra.

From 1891 to 1896, Shalom Bapuji Israel Wargharkar, a Jew, served as as karbhari or prime minister of the tiny Sidi state of Janjira off the Konkan coast of Maharashtra. The ruler of Janjira was Nawab Sidi Ahmed Khan, of Abyssinian origin. Records reveal that the state saw a renaissance during Israel’s karbhariship. He was long remembered and revered after he returned to British service upon completion of his tenure. This equation of a Jew and a Muslim sharing power attests to the high level of integration that Jews achieved in India.

The second example of the good relationship Muslims and Jews shared in India was the case of Samuel Divekar, an employee of the British East India Company, who was captured during the Anglo-Mysore War of 1792-’99. Divekar was due to be executed on Tipu Sultan’s orders. However, according to legend, upon learning that Divekar was a member of the Bene Israel community – referred to in the Quran as the chosen people, and not easily found in India – the king’s mother intervened and had the death sentence revoked. As thanksgiving for his narrow escape, Divekar built the Gate of Mercy synagogue near Masjid Bunder in Mumbai, which lies on a street named after him.

Trade brought Muslims to the Konkan coast long before Mahmud of Ghazni invaded the north in 1000 AD. In his book, History of the Bene Israel of India (1937), HS Kehimkar suggested that the first Jews came to India around 175 BCE when, he assumed, they fled Galilee to escape the oppression of the Greek overlord Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

A more contemporary historian, Benjamin J Israel, believes that they came to India in the fifth or sixth century AD from either South Arabia or Persia.

It is believed that the ship on which they were travelling was blown off course and was wrecked at Navgaon, about 20 miles south of Mumbai. Despite centuries of isolation, the community followed basic Jewish practices like the strict observance of the Sabbath, circumcision of the male child on the eighth day, and Jewish dietary laws. This continued till David Rahabi, a Cochin Jew, discovered them. He was instrumental in reviving Judaism among the Bene Israel, leading to a religious renaissance among the community.

A controversial study in 2002 of the DNA of the Bene Israel – now mainly found in Mumbai, Thane, Pune and Ahmedabad – by genetic anthropologist Tudor Parfitt linked them to the direct descendants of the Cohanim, a small group of hereditary priests of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, whose lineage can be traced to Aaron, the brother of the prophet Moses.

One might assume that this community possessed the knowledge of refining oil used for the eternal flame in the synagogue and possibly drew upon it to make a livelihood in India. Combined with their strict observation of the Sabbath, they began to be identified locally as shanwar telis or Saturday oil pressers.

Bene Israeli women in sarees and Indian ornaments.
Bene Israeli women in sarees and Indian ornaments.

There is no record of the language or dress of the Bene Israel when they arrived in India, but they soon adopted Marathi, the local language, and the local dressing style. They became one of the many castes that abounded in the region. Old photographs, however, reveal that the men displayed side locks, which linked them in later studies to Yemenite Jews. As their population grew, they spread throughout the Konkan coast and adopted the local system of the village name as surname, appending kar at the end of the village name. Thus names like Penkar, Ashtamkar, Dandekar, Rajpurkar are commonly found, drawn from the names of the villages of Pen, Ashtam, Danda and Rajapuri respectively. At one time there were as many as 142 such surnames linking them to villages identified in the erstwhile Kolaba, now Raigad district, on the Konkan coast of Maharashtra. The Jewish areas here contain simple, unadorned synagogues, prayer halls and cemeteries, many of which are now closed following the migration of many local Jews to Israel after 1948.

A mosque lies near a synagogue at Borlai Habshi, Janjira.
A mosque lies near a synagogue at Borlai Habshi, Janjira.

The Muslim Sidis ruled the kingdoms of Janjira and Sachin, near Surat, till they merged with the Indian Union in 1948, as recorded by Fayeeza Jasdanwala in the book African Elites in India: Habshi Amarat. Both these places are the only examples where a small number of Sub-Saharan Africans ruled over a composite non-African population that included Hindus, Muslims and Jews. The Sidi kingdom of Sachin was created when Balu Miyan, a rebel from Janjira, joined hands in 1790 with the Maratha Peshwa against his brother-in-law Sidi Jauhar in a bid for the throne.

The Nawab and the karbhari

Synagogues, prayer halls, and Jewish cemeteries dot the three-and-a-half talukas that comprised the former state of Janjira. The density of Jewish religious structures within the erstwhile state’s boundaries is similar to that of the rest of the Konkan region, strongly suggesting that a sizeable Jewish population lived under the Sidi rulers.

The practice of peasants enlisting in the ruler’s army is typical the world over and the Bene Israel were no exception. They were a part of Shivaji’s army, as well as the navy of the powerful Angrias and the Sidis.

According to the historian Benjamin J Israel, the clan of Wargharkars is very small and all of them traced their roots to a single family from Warghari village in the state of Janjira. This family gave three karbharis to three different states of the Deccan – Janjira, Akalkot, and Aundh.

Shalom Bapuji Israel, a Wargharkar, studied up to class 10 and joined government service as a clerk in 1872 at a salary of Rs 10 per month. He rose rapidly through the revenue and legal departments, and by 1880 became a deputy collector. By 1888, he was bestowed with the honorary title of Khan Saheb. In 1891, he was appointed karbhari of Janjira state with a rather high salary, where he remained for the next six years.

Shalom Bapuji Israel initiated many far-reaching reforms in Janjira, winning the approval of RA Lamb, an officer of the British civil administration in Kolaba. Eager to please the political agent, Nawab Sidi Ahmed Khan implemented most of the proposed reforms and governance in the state improved, as did productivity of crops and collection of revenue. Communal tensions were firmly reined in and all the communities – Hindus, Muslims and Jews – coexisted peacefully. The Nawab of Janjira and Shalom Bapuji Israel enjoyed the most cordial relations.

The other karbharis

Shalom Bapuji Israel’s third and youngest son, Jacob, joined government service as a clerk in the revenue department in Poona district and quickly rose through the ranks. In 1901, he was appointed karbhari of Aundh during a troubled period for the state. Being a confidante of the political agent, Jacob Bapuji Israel served two terms and saw three chiefs in 10 years. This earned him the dubious distinction of being a “king-maker and king-breaker”. In 1910, he was awarded the title of Khan Bahadur. Shalom Bapuji Israel’s son, Hyam Shalom, did his graduation and distinguished himself in government service. He was appointed karbhari of Akalkot state in 1917 during the reign of Raje Saheb FS Bhosle. He was decorated with an Order of the British Empire in 1938.

The simple unadorned synagogues in the Konkan region strongly suggest that they supported the religious needs of a not-so-wealthy community.

Indian Muslims, including the Sidi nawabs, treated the Jews in their kingdom with respect and tolerance despite their small numbers. The example of the friendship and trust between Shalom Bapuji Israel and Nawab Sidi Ahmed Khan is not an exception but merely the highest point of the relationship between Muslims and Jews. Tipu Sultan’s pardon of the captured Bene Israeli soldier is another example of the esteem Muslims had for the Jews in India.

Dr Anuradha Bhattacharjee is an alumna of the London School of Economics (Economic History) and an ICSSR Fellow. This article is an abridged version of her piece Muslim-Jewish Relations in Sidi Janjira, published in African Communities in Asia and the Mediterranean: Identities between Integration and Conflict.

The article was originally published on Cafe Dissensus.