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Kerala, South India and the Indian Ocean

Responsible Team-Members: István Perczel, Ophira Gamliel, Radu Mustaţă

State of the Field

Indian Ocean Trade Networks

At the outset, Jewish and Christian communities along the West Coast of South India evolved out of the elaborate trade networks involved in maritime trade in the Indian Ocean since the ninth century.  Networks of Jewish traders, the “Rādhanites” were already noted as being heavily engaged both in land and sea trade between the Mediterranean and South and Southeast Asia. Jews, Christians and Muslims thus constituted religious minorities under the patronage of Hindu kings and chieftains in the Malayalam-speaking region. Our current understanding of the relations between Jews and Christians in the region as an outcome of their involvement in the medieval trade routes is a matter of circumstantial evidence; we know that Jews and Christians collaborated with Muslims in business entrepreneurship across the Indian Ocean, receiving land and serfs in South India since the 9th century.

Casual Interactions 

From the sources hitherto discovered and explored an almost complete absence of religious polemics between Jews and Christians stands out in striking contrast with the sources from the other regions under investigation. Several sources provide circumstantial evidence for Christian-Jewish interactions in the region since the ninth century, and all point at the entangled nature of Jewish-Christian-Muslim presence in South India and a shared socio-economic status. Among these sources, the Cairo Geniza letters of Jewish traders in Judeo-Arabic and travelogues in Hebrew, Arabic and other foreign languages, contain casual references to Jews and Christians settled together in the region. The most significant evidence for Christian-Jewish relations as shaped by the Indian Ocean trade networks is the Kollam Copper Plates (849 CE), depicting equal socio-economic status for Jews, Christians and Muslims as determined by the Hindu rulers of the land (here).

Early Modern Christian Sources

While Jewish sources remain silent about Christians, the arrival of the Portuguese to the region changes the attitude of Christian sources towards Jews. The earliest known text to refer to Jews is the Synod of Diamper (1599), where Syrian Christians are scolded for deviating from the Catholic norms in adapting Jewish practices like observing Saturday, circumcision and refraining from eating pork. A substantial body of Garshuni-Malayalam and Christian Malayalam manuscripts from the 17th century onwards is currently available for research thanks to the work by István Perczel since 2005 (here).

Ongoing and Planned Research


Garshuni-Malayalam and Christian Malayalam Manuscripts

The work of István Perczel on recently digitized manuscripts of South Indian Christian communities reveals more textual witnesses to Jewish-Christian inter-minority exchanges, such as a polemical dialogue between a Jewish Rabbi, a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim and a Hindu from the early 18th century; a Syriac poem about the merits of sacred languages, including Hebrew and Aramaic, from the early 17th, and Malayalam accounts of a late 18th century mission to Mesopotamia by the South Indian Catholic community revolting against the Latin hierarchy, financed by a rich Christian businessman who relied on his trading network including Muslim and Jewish business partners. Many more sources like travelogues and navigation manuals in Arabic refer in passing to Jews and Christians revealing valuable albeit scarce information of ‘real life’ interactions between the two communities.

Integrating Diverse Sources 

The publication of an important portion of the Cairo Geniza documents has substantially added to our understanding of Jewish traders and trading practices along the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. However, direct indications from the letters that have been published or examined so far of collaboration between Jews and Christians are quite rare. Nevertheless, textual evidence is scattered between sources in diverse languages: Malayalam inscriptions, Cairo Geniza letters in Judeo-Arabic, Arabic, Hebrew and Latin travelogues, Hebrew Rabbinic literature, indigenous Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic compositions and documents by outsiders in European and Semitic languages. Therefore, our project probes into Jewish-Christian relations in medieval Southwest India by integrating scattered evidence, conflating Indian sources with West Asian sources and resorting to unconventional historical methods like historical linguistics, comparative ethnography and sociocultural history.

Comparative Ethnography

Moreover, like in the case of the Middle East, research on monotheistic communities in Southeast Asia has focused on each of them separately, rarely looking at the internal diversity within each community, not to mention inter-communal relations. The communities of Jews and Christians that originated in the medieval trade networks share customs, legends, ritual patterns, images and literary cultures that reveal inter-religious relations vis-à-vis the Hindu sociocultural history and alongside the other monotheist minority of Muslims in the region. The shared pool of social and religious images and practices depicts relations based on integration and collaboration during the premodern period. Ophira Gamliel is working on juxtaposing ethnographic and ahistorical material with the historical evidence for clarifying the nature of South Indian Jewish-Christian relations.

Further Readings


  • Alam M. and S. Subrahmanyam, Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries, 1400-1800 (Cambridge, 2007)

  • Barbosa, D.  An Account of the Countries Bordering on the Indian Ocean and their Inhabitants, transl. M.L. Dames (London, 1918)

  • Bar-Ilan, M. ”Books from Cochin”, Pe’amim 52 (1992), 74-100 [in Hebrew]

  • Champakalakshmi, R.  “The Medieval South Indian Guilds: Their Role in Trade and Urbanization” in Trade in Early India, ed. R. Chakravarti (New Delhi, 2001) 326-43

  • Chaudhuri, K. N.  Trade and Civilization in the Indian Ocean: an Economic History from the Rise of Islam to 1750 (Cambridge, 1985)

  • Friedmann, Y.  “Qiṣṣat Shakarwatī Farmāḍ: A Tradition Concerning the Introduction of Islām to Malabar”, Israel Oriental Studies 5 (1975) 233-45

  • Gamliel, O. “The Neglected History of Kerala Jews”, Zmanim 122 (2013): 16-27. [in Hebrew]

  • Gil, M. “The Radhanite Merchants and the Land of Radhan,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 17:3 (1976) 299-328

  • Goitein, S. D.  “From Aden to India: Specimens of the Correspondence of India Traders of the Twelfth Century,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 23:I2, 1980: 43–66.

  • Goitein, S. D. and M. Friedman, India Traders of the Middle Ages: Documents from the Cairo Geniza: India Book, 2 vols. (Leiden, 2008) 

  • Ibn Baṭūṭah, Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad, Riḥla. Arabic edition and French translation by Defrémery, C.; Sanguinetti, B.R. as Voyages d'Ibn Batûta, 4 vols., (Paris, 1962)

  • Jacob ben Abraham Castro, Sefer Ohale Ya’akov: sho’el u-meshiv… (Livorno, 1782), responsum 99.

  • Juifs et chrétiens en Arabie aux Ve et Vie siècles: regardes sur les sources,  ed.  Joelle Beaucamp, Françoise Briquel-Chatonnet, and Christian Julien Robin (Paris: Association des amis  du Centre de l’histoire de Byzance, 2010)

  • Lambourn, E. “Borrowed Words in an Ocean of Objects: Geniza Sources and New Cultural Histories of the Indian Ocean”, in K. Veluthat and D. R. Davis (eds), Irreverent Histories: Essays for M.G.S. Nrayanan (New Delhi, 2014), 215-242

  • Maimonides, Moses. Qovets teshuvot ha-Rambam ve-igrotav, ed. A. Lichtenberg (Leipzig, 1859), III, p. 44

  • Margariti, R.  Aden and the Indian Ocean trade (Chapel Hill, 2007) 

  • Melamed, A. “The Image of India in Medieval Jewish Culture: Between Adoration and Rejection”, Jewish History 20 (2006) 299-314

  • Pereyra De Paiva, M. Notisias dos judeos de Cochim (Amsterdam, 1687; reprinted Lisbon, 1923)

  • Nainar, S. M. H. Arab Geographers' Knowledge of Southern India (Madras, 1942)

  • Nainar, S.M.H.  Shaykh Zainuddin Makhdum's Tuhfat al-Mujahidin: A Historical Epic of the Sixteenth Century (Calicut, 2006)

  • Narayanan, M.G.S.  Cultural Symbiosis in Kerala (Trivandrum 1972)

  • Perczel, I. “Classical Syriac as a modern lingua franca in South India between 1600 and 2006”, ARAM Periodical 21 (2009), 289-321

  • Perczel, I. “Malayalam Garshuni: A Witness to an Early Stage of Indian Christian Literature” (unpublished paper, Hugoye Conference II, New Brunswick, NJ, 22 June 2013).

  • Power, T. The Red Sea from Byzantium to the Caliphate: AD 500-1000 (Cairo, 2012).

  • Subbarayalu, Y.  “Anjuvannam: A Maritime Trade Guild of Medieval Times”, in Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa: Reflections on the Chola Naval Expeditions to Southeast Asia, eds. H. Kulke et al. (Singapore, 2009) 158-67

  • Wink,n A.  Al-Hind, 3 vols. (Leiden, 1990-2004)

  • Zacharia, S. The Synod of Diamper. (Kottayam, 1992)

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