When you think about your Jewish heritage, there’s a good chance that your mind fills with images of Israel and our ancient homelands in the region. That’s not the only place with a rich Jewish heritage, however. Enclaves of Jewish culture can be found in some surprising places, some of which are so remote that they seem to defy explanation. Many of these places may be found within India.
It may come as somewhat of a shock, but India has had Jewish populations dating back at least 2000 years. In addition, it’s one of the few places that accepted Jewish immigrants and has no history of anti-Semitism. As a result, there is plenty of Jewish history to explore throughout the country. This is also one of the reasons that Israeli soldiers commonly travel to India for a break when finishing their mandatory tours of duty.
If you’re looking to explore a culturally rich region that’s brimming with Jewish history, here are the stops you’ll want to make while in India:
Located in the south, the Indian state of Kerala is home to the oldest known Jewish population in the whole country. The original Jewish inhabitants of the region are known as Cochin Jews (or Malabar Jews) and trace their origins back to the time of King Solomon. Originally numbering in the thousands, immigration back to Israel has reduced the current Jewish population to less than one hundred today, but they’ve left behind years of history to absorb. Visitors can see Synagogues that date back hundreds of years, including the recently restored Paravur Synagogue, which was built in 1615, and the Paradesi Synagogue, built in 1568. There are several organized tours that cater specifically to Jewish groups and historians.
Ladakh, situated in the state of Jammu in northern India is another great stop on an Indian Jewish heritage tour. Visitors can begin at the Habayit Hayehudi in Leh, the regional capital. There are wonderful Leh Ladakh tour packages that will help travelers to begin their journey in the area. Of particular interest in the area is the nearby village of Goshon. Here you will find small populations that are the descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel. To this day, they share many of the same cultural traditions as modern Jewish populations, despite living in a remote region will little to no contact with the outside world. The town offers a rare glimpse of how ancient Israelites may have evolved had they not been scattered from their homeland.
Last but not least, a stop in Kasol, located in Himachal Pradesh, is a must for the Jewish tourist in India. It’s a region that is so popular with Israelis that over two-thirds of the annual visitors to the region hail from there. For that reason, the area is known as the Mini Israel of India. It’s a great place to go backpacking and explore the mountains, all while surrounded by a friendly and welcoming population. Much of the local signage appears in Hebrew and Israeli restaurants are very easy to find. The town is a complete Jewish enclave that offers a historical counterpoint to the earlier stops, showcasing the cultural growth of the Jewish population in India over centuries.
Embrace Your Heritage
There aren’t very many places that one can go to see a full historical longview of the Jewish experience over such a long span of time. That’s what makes a visit to India such a worthwhile and interesting experience for the Jewish traveler. It’s a rare opportunity to embrace centuries of heritage all in one trip. Outside of Israel itself, it’s a destination that should be on every Jewish bucket list.