In recent years and with growing ties between India and Israel, the ancient Jewish heritage of India has come into focus. India or rather the Indian sub-continent welcomed people of all faiths from around the world.
Among the first settlers of foreign faiths in India were members of Jewish tribes or followers of the Judaic faith.
Jewish Culture in India
Traces of Jewish heritage in India can be found in several states. India’s southern state Kerala has done well by preserving its ancient Jewish heritage. So have Maharashtra and Karnataka, along whose coast and ancient ports, Jewish settlers set their foot on India.
Sadly, Goa, which was once the largest settlement of Jews, has lost its Judaic heritage. The reason: Portuguese colonial rulers of Goa resorted to something called ‘inquisition’. Meaning they were intolerant towards Jews of Goa.
Thousands were burnt alive between the years 1560 to 1820 along with followers of other faiths.
Traces of Judaic Heritage of Goa
I began taking interest in Goa’s Judaic heritage for several reasons.
Books written by prominent historians clearly indicated the presence of large Jewish settlements in a place called Goapakapattna (present day Old Goa). A prominent landmark and popular tourist destination in Old Goa are the ruins of St. Augustine’s Tower.
Generally, visitors to these ruins are greeted with an eerie silence. Occasionally, one may see a snake slither away just inches away from your feet. Ancient artifacts, especially ruins of the structure have been carefully laid out by workers and historians from the Archeological Survey of India.
Indeed, I was lucky to get a coupon for MakeMyTrip that offered discounted travel to Goa. Armed with a cheap air ticket and highly discounted hotel booked, I decided to fly to Goa and see for myself the lost Jewish heritage.
Admittedly, I was a bit skeptical about reports that had begun appearing in newspapers citing researchers that some sites in Goa were indeed of Judaic origin.
The flight from Mumbai to Goa lasted just about an hour. I was fascinated by the landscape of Goa, with its lush green rainforests and mountains as well as Portuguese style mansions that dot the road from Dabolim International Airport to Panjim, the state capital. The trip helped me to explore the Jewish heritage of Goa, something I identify myself with.
What History States
According to ASI, the St. Augustine Tower complex was built by Augustinian Friars from Portugal between 1590 and 1600. At the time, Goapakapattana was a large settlement with a population estimated between 200,000 and 500,000.
Historians claim, the complex was abandoned during the inquisition of Goa by Portuguese rulers.
Another account states, the flourishing port city of Goapakapattana was deserted after a malaria epidemic that claimed thousands of life.
The outbreak was purportedly triggered by mosquitoes that bred in some 600 wells from which residents of this ancient city drew water. Portuguese rulers hence shifted their capital from Goapakapattana to Panjim.
My visit to St. Augustine’s Tower complex and study of Goa’s Jewish history however revealed some startling facts.
In the first place, the complex could never have been built by the Portuguese as claimed. The reasons:
- Stones used in the construction of complex came from as far as Bijapur. Portuguese rulers could never have procured such stones from an enemy kingdom.
- Carvings on some of these stones have nothing to do with Christianity. Some of these carvings are similar to those found at existing Jewish synagogues in Bulgaria.
- Colored paintings on some walls inside the complex clearly indicate they are of Ethiopian Jewish origin. These decorative paintings are used till date in Ethiopia.
- A large stone plaque depicts an eagle. The carving clearly shows the eagle carry a box containing the Torah, the holy text of Judaism, by its right claws.
- A well or pool, similar to those found at Jewish synagogues exists inside the complex. Such wells are used till date in Israel and elsewhere for the traditional Bar Mikvah ceremony during which Jewish teenagers confirm their faith and circumcision.
Historian Jose Nicolau da Fonseca, in his book titled “A historical and archaeological sketch of the city of Goa,” talks about a street named ‘Rua de Judeas’ (Road of the Jews) located near the tower complex.
Goapakapattana was ruled by the Bijapur sultanate by Adel Shah Bahman, a ruler the Iranian Bahman dynasty. Adel Shah reportedly had Ethiopian and other African Jews in his military.
This would perhaps explain why St. Augustine tower housed a synagogue.
Adel Shah Bahman also had a Jewish admiral of Spanish origin, named Gaspar De Gama. Further, a Jewish family called Martins, who were ancient diamond merchants of their time, also lived in Goa.
A history of Goa’s inquisition reveals, the sister of famous Jewish botanist, Garcia de Horta, was burnt alive during the inquisition.
Modern day historians and researchers into Goa’s Jewish heritage claim, several churches purportedly built by the Portuguese were indeed ancient Jewish synagogues.
The issue is however contentious. One such a researcher explained to me that converting a synagogue into a church was rather easy.
The Portuguese had scarce resources and hence, could not have built as many churches as they claimed. Hence, the best way to establish churches was by refurbishing existing synagogues, he explained.
He pointed out that a chapel in Siridao, Goa bears all evidence of being one such a synagogue.
Fate of Goa’s Jews
My talks with modern day researchers into Goa’s Jewish heritage revealed one startling fact. That nobody knows for sure what happened to followers of Judaism who lived there in ancient times. There are several speculations though.
According to one school of thought, most Jewish soldiers and traders of Goapakapattana went to Bijapur along with Sultan Adel Shah Bahman. They settled in parts of Karnataka.
Others could have gone further south, to Kochi and other parts of Kerala, by sea.
Some researchers believe, a few Jews of ancient Goa were forced into embracing Roman Catholicism by Portuguese rulers. Those who did not were burnt alive at stakes.
There are claims that, the large bell that adorns the popular Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church, commonly called Panjim Church, was rung whenever anyone was being burned alive as punishment for spurning conversion.
The bell was earlier housed in the Augustinian ruins Old Goa and later moved to Panjim.
There is ample historic evidence to prove that Jews lived in ancient Goa either as traders, civil servants of the highly secular Sultan Adel Shah Bahman and in his military.
In recent years, historians from Israel and elsewhere are taking increasing interest in tracing the lost Jewish heritage of Goa.
Nowadays, Goa ranks among the topmost destination for vacationers from Israel.
With more archeologists and historians taking interest in the ancient Jewish heritage of Goa, I wish that history of this tiny Indian state will be rewritten.
Author Bio – Win Honawar is a journalist and blogger based in Panjim, Goa. He has extensive experience in writing news, features and blogs and has worked in various countries across the world during his career spanning 28 plus years.