Cyrus the Great, King of Persia and a Zoroastrian, ended the Jews’ long captivity in Babylon, and commanded them to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem
The places of worship of two of India’s minority religions face each other at one end of a small street in central Ahmedabad, not far from the busy market-place by the Bhadra Fortress. One building is the Magen Abraham Synagogue. Opposite, is a Parsi Fire Temple (‘agiari’). Both the Parsis and the Jewish people settled in India long ago and have lived there peacefully ever since. In proportion to their small numbers compared with the rest of India’s huge population, both communities, especially the Parsis, have made a disproportionately large positive contribution to the success of the country. In view of the great benefits they have provided to the country, some say that the Parsis are the ‘Jews of India’. Is this a fair description?
The Portuguese Jesuit priest Father Anthony Monserrate visited India in the early 1580s. After meeting Parsis in Navsari, he commented that they were: “…in colour they are white but are extremely similar to the Jews in the rest of their physical and mental characteristics, in their dress and in their religion.” This illustrates the priest’s poor understanding of the Parsis’ religion but does hint at his feeling that they had some similarities to Jewish people. Other travellers since the 16th century have remarked on similarities in the ways of life and public spiritedness of Jews and Parsis.
The Parsis, followers of the Zoroastrian religion, fled to India from Persia during the 7th century AD to escape the Arab invaders, who wished to impose Islam on their home land. They began settling in Gujarat, where they have thrived for many years without suffering any more oppression than their Hindu neighbours. During various episodes of Islamic rule in India, both the Parsis and the Hindus suffered at the hands of their rulers.
Nobody is sure when Jewish people first settled in India. Likewise, no one is certain why they did. It might have been, like the Parsis, to escape oppression or, maybe, for commercial reasons. There were Jewish people in Kerala when St Thomas first landed there soon after the death of Jesus Christ. Other Jews arrived on the Malabar and Coromandel coasts later. They were refugees from the persecution of Jews on the Iberian Peninsula following the expulsion of the Moors. Later, others arrived from Iraq. The Jews of Kerala, who have had a largely successful history, and have now mostly emigrated, are different from the Jews, the more indigenous Bene Israel, who settled the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat.
The small congregation of the Magen Abraham Synagogue in Ahmedabad is Bene Israeli. Their origins are quite unknown. In my new book about Gujarat, I wrote: “Ahmedabad’s small Jewish congregation are Bene Israel Jews, whose origin is totally obscure, but the subject of much speculation. One of these is that the ancestors of Bene Israel Jews were originally sailors in King Solomon’s fleet, who got wrecked at Navgaon near Alibag. However, Benjamin Israel, author of ‘The Bene Israel of India’, wrote that there is no evidence for this. Nor is there any good evidence about when the Bene Israel began living in India.”
The numbers of both Parsis and Jews in India are declining. Like many other Indians with economic and other ambitions, both Parsis and Jews have emigrated to ‘improve’ their lives. Parsi numbers in India and beyond its borders are decreasing because of lowered birth-rate. Sayeed Unisa, RB Bhagat, and TK Roy wrote in their paper “Demographic Predicament of Parsis in India” (see: http://iussp2009.princeton.edu/papers/91429) : “Parsis are a small but prosperous religious community of India, which reached a peak of population of about 114 thousand in 1941. The recent census enumerated Parsi population about 69 thousand in 2001.” They concluded that based on available statistics, the population will continue to decline by between 0.6% and 1% per year.
In contrast, the decline in India’s Jewish population is far less to do with birth rates than with emigration. Jewish people have not left India because of persecution. It is safe to say that Jews in India have never been persecuted by Indians or their Islamic invaders. The Portuguese, who began occupying seaports on the coast of India in the 15th century, were almost the only people to persecute the Jews they encountered. Many of them were victims of the Inquisition in Goa. The main reasons for Jewish migration from India are to do with the establishment of the State of Israel and seeking economic betterment.
Many centuries have passed since both the Parsis and the various Jewish communities first settled in India. None of them have encountered as much persecution as the Parsis in 7th century Persia and the Jews in most of Europe. India provided these minorities with a safe haven. In return, both Jews and Parsis have given much to India.
Is it reasonable to consider the Parsis as the ‘Jews of India’?
In terms of religious beliefs and customs, apart from monotheism, there are many differences. Like many of the Jews, the Parsis arrived in India as refugees, fleeing from persecution. Considered from the vantage point of what they have done for the greater good of India, the charitable Parsi communities have contributed to the well-being of India in a magnitude that is infinitely greater than their tiny population is in comparison with that of the country. In this respect, the Parsis resemble the successful Jewish communities of, say, Germany (formerly!), Great Britain, and the USA.
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Two minority religions in India: the Parsis and the Jews