Arunansh B Goswami
An Indo-Israel friendship ambassador.

The Jewish Warriors of Maratha Empire

The Coronation Durbar of Maratha monarch Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaja with over 100 characters depicted in attendance painted by M. V. Dhurandhar. Image source: Wikipedia.

The Maccabees and the Marathas

Judas Maccabeus Pursues Timotheus (1 Macc 5:28-44). Image source: Wikipedia.

When people unite under the banner of freedom, their we feeling is the strongest weapon in their arsenal. For several years Jews and Indians were lacking not only in adequate determination but also strategy to overthrow foreign yoke over their respective lands. But with the arrival of Matthathias the Hasmonean in Judaen hills and Chatrapati Shivaji Raje Bhonsle in Sahyadri hills, things changed exponentially in the positive direction, to pave the way for Jewish and Indian self rule. Like Maccabee was a title meaning the “extinguisher” given to son of Matthathias, Judas for his long lasting resistance to Syrian Seleucids similarly Chatrapati was a title that Shivaji took on his proclamation of independence from Mughals and Sultans of Deccan as an independent Indian monarch. 

Judas Maccabeus, defended his country from invasion by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, preventing the imposition of Hellenism upon Judaea, and preserving the Jewish religion similarly Chatrapati Shivaji, defended his country from invasion by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, preventing the imposition of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism and defended the secular cosmopolitan society of his Maratha Swarajya. Like Judas Maccabeus proved to be a military genius, overthrowing four Seleucid armies in quick succession and restoring the Temple of Jerusalem similarly Chatrapati Shivaji proved his military genius by the multiple defeats he imposed on the Mughal armies till then considered humanly invincible. These are the similarities between these two amazing people, but are their intersections where Jews and Marathas fought together for a common goal? Well yes, keep reading to know more.

The Triumph of Judas Maccabeus, a 1630s work by Peter Paul Rubens. Image source: Wikipedia.

Shaniwari Telis, the Bene Israelis in the expansion of the Maratha Empire

Johnson and Henderson – Bene Israel teachers of the Free Church of Scotland’s Mission School and the Jewish English School in Bombay, British India – 1856. Image source: Wikipedia.

Under the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes, several Jews known as “Bene Israeli or sons of Israel” decided to migrate to a safer place, and India was a great choice, this theory  explains the absence of Hanukkah tradition in Bene Israeli practice. The Bene Israeli made Maharashtra, specially coastal Konkan their home, and came to be known as “Shaniwari Telis”, or “oil pressers who take Saturday off”. Hindu oil pressers, in contrast, took Monday off, leading them to be called “Somwari Telis”  or Muslim Oil Pressers who observe Friday as a day of special prayer are called “Shukrawar Telis”. The Hebrew name was conferred to the Bene Israelis on occasion of circumcision; and a local name about a month after birth. Local names like Abaji, Bapuji, Tanaji for men and Sonabai, Ambai, Bainabai for women are fairly common, as are Ezekiel, Binyamin or Samuel and Esther, Sarah or Ruth. A martial people the Bene Israelis have been capable soldiers, Chatrapati Shivaji the liberator of Indian people, realised the martial capabilities of the Bene Israeli and made several of them part of his army that went on to get Marathis their hard won freedom in substantial part of their territory and later this kingdom became the inspiration for modern Indian nationalism that inspired the struggle of Indian people against British.

Diorama showing maratha naval tactics, National Museum, New Delhi. Image source: Wikipedia.

For instance, a certain Aaron Churrikar was appointed Nayek or commander of a fleet of the Maratha navy, early in the seventeenth century. He received a grant of Inam land which was still in possession of his descendants late in the nineteenth century. The position of commander of the fleet was held by this family until about 1793 as per Rev. J. Henry Lord’s book  The Jews in India and the East. A Sanad was granted by Maratha government to a Bene Israel, Elloji Bin Musaji, Israel, Teli, Jhiratkar, during approximately 1831-32.

Another instance of loyalty, dedication and martial excellence of the Bene Israelis can be understood from history of a Bene Israeli that family served the Abyssinian ruler of Janjira. In a battle with Marathas they were captured and on refusing to change allegiance were killed. Maratha commander apparently was so impressed by this evidence of faithfulness that he appointed two other members of the family, Samuel or Samaji and Abraham or Abaji, to command in Maratha navy, It is also thought that ancestors of several Bene Israel families were appointed as commanders of various forts, including Avchitgad fort, Sagadgud fort and others.

Were the Peshwas from Balaji Vishwanath onwards Jewish?

Daniell, Thomas; Sir Charles Warre Malet, Concluding a Treaty in 1790 in Durbar with the Peshwa of the Maratha Empire. Image source: Wikipedia.

According to historian Nissim Moses the author of Bene Israel of India: Heritage and Customs the Chitpavan Brahmins and the Jews came from the same stock of people who were thrown ashore in a shipwreck,  on the coast of Konkan when the Bene Israelis fled to escape the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes. Peshwas from Balaji Vishwanath onwards were all Chitpavan Brahmins and Baji Rao I went on to become the de facto ruler of the Maratha Empire who never lost a single battle in his lifetime and defeated both the Nizam of Hyderabad and Mughals of Delhi. In the 1857 Indian mutiny against the British, Nana Saheb Peshwa a Chitpavan Brahmin and as per Nissim Moses hence Jewish was the leader of Indian freedom fighters in Kanpur.

Parashurama with axe. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Chitpavan Brahmins, believe that they are descendants of people thrown ashore dead on the Konkan coast as the result of a storm. Local inhabitants collected their dead bodies for cremation on a common funeral pyre. Just as the fire was lit, a Hindu sage named Parasurama passed by Parasurama was a Brahmin. He was on a campaign to destroy the Kshatriyas, the warrior caste of the Hindus. Seeing so many “fair-skinned healthy corpses”, as Moses says, the sage had in his sight an opportunity to strengthen the number of Brahmins in the world. He sprinkled some water on the corpses, chanted some mantras and brought them back to life. The people anointed and resurrected by Parasurama called themselves Chitpavan Brahmins. As a community, they consider themselves superior to the other Brahmins. They have lighter skin; and generally do not encourage intermarriage with other castes. Their names are quite similar to Bene Israel names, something that Moses points out in his book. Aptekar is a Bene Israel name; Apte is a Chitpavan Brahmin name.

The Garden of Eli

View from Alibag fort. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Eli is said to be short form for Elisha or Elizah or possibly even Elijah, Eli’s community had lived in the hinterlands of the place that would come to be named after him as Alibaug in Maharashtra India, for several years almost over 250 years already when he rose to prominence as one of the richest men in town thanks to the mango and coconut plantations or orchards or Baughs that he owned that’s why the name Eli’s garden for this area. Alibaug and its surrounding villages are the historic hinterlands of Bene Israeli Jews, for more than 2550 years. There is a synagogue in the “Israel Ali”  area of the town. The locals started to address the area as “Elichi Baugh” in Marathi meaning garden of Eli which, as it always happens with linguistics, colloquially turned into Alibaug.

Magdalena van de Passe – The Prophet Elijah on the rock. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Prophet Elijah’s arrival in India can be seen in his hoof mark incised on a rock near Alibaug, known as Eliyahoo Hanabi cha Tapa in Marathi. Sometimes, I wonder if he resembles Parshuram or Michelangelo’s image of God. While living in India, a land of so many Gods, the Bene Israel elders must have decided to create the cult of Prophet Elijah to keep them together. Like Ganesha, the prophet is invoked by Bene Israel Jews at every auspicious occasion and most synagogues have an  ornate chair especially reserved for the prophet. 

The Bene Israelis

Washington Allston – Elijah in the Desert. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Prophet Elijah is said to have appeared to the Bene Israelis and promised that their descendants would once again settle in Eretz Yisrael, and until then they would be a part of the Indian society, to thank Prophet Elijah and ask for fulfilment of wishes, a Malida is organised. The Malida ceremony of the Bene Israel, also called Eliyahu Hanavi, is a an important ritual in the lives of Bene. There is a resemblance with the Mincha offering from the temple. According to Indian Jewish tradition, Eliyahu ascended in his chariot to heaven from India. Rabbi Daniel said. “Eliyahu is a protector of the individual and the community. He never died; he was just taken away. He is the protector of any happy occasion and guards against the evil eye.”

Inside the Shaare Rason Synagogue, Mumbai. Image source: Wikipedia.

Jewish names precede Marathi surnames, like ‘Bension Solomon Bhoparkar’ or ‘Sassoon M. Khandalkar’ followed by the occupation of the deceased, their various trades or important positions held in the town on the gravestones of Bene Israeli Jews. As per Smita Dalvi in and around Bombay, the architecture of the Bene Israel prayer halls can be categorised as ‘Konkan Town style’ and ‘City Style’. The Shaar Harahamim (Gate of Mercy) in Samuel Street reflects the ‘City Style’ with an urbane styling of pilasters and roof parapet; while the Magen Hassidim at Agripada has Art Deco features typical of Bombay. Both display an urban character in harmony with the neighborhoods that they are located in. Interestingly, the interiors of both ‘City style’ and ‘Konkan Town style’ synagogues are largely self-similar, differing mostly in terms of scale and finishes.

The Malinda ceremony in detail

The entire community is invited to the Malida ceremony. It is said that no other Jewish community in the world follows this tradition, except the Bene Israel Jews of India. A Malida platter is prepared with an offering of dates, bananas, red roses, seasonal fruit and poha or sweetened flaked rice mixed with grated coconut. It is customary NOT to hold the “Malidah Ceremony” on the following days:, Erev Shabbath,   Shabbath,  Erev Rosh Chodesh,  Rosh Chodesh,   Erev Yom Tov,  Yom Tov,  From the 13th of Nissan (two days before Pesah) until Lag BaOmer (18th of Iyar) [ some say until Shavuoth ] ,  From the 17th of Tammuz until Tu-Be Av,  During the Ten Days of Repentance which are the first 10 days of Tishrei i.e. from 1st to 10th of Tishrei, or rather from Rosh Hashanah till end of Yom Kippur,   Isru Hag (the day following Yom Tov),   On the communal fast days. These are the 5 rabbinic fast days, the Prophets designated to observe as national tragedies. They are  The10th of Tevet when the armies of the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem,  17th of Tammuz when Moses destroyed the Golden Calf, and re-ascended Mount Sinai to plead G-d’s forgiveness for the Jewish people,   Tisha B’Av which is the 9th day of Av, which is the day on which the Holy Temples which stood in Jerusalem were destroyed,   The Fast of Gedaliah which is 4th of Tishrei, The Fast of Esther which is the 13th of Adar, Purim (14th of Adar),  Purim Shushan (15th of Adar). 

Valour of the Marathas honoured 

Israel’s Consul General to Midwest India, Mumbai Kobbi Shoshani tweeted his tribute to Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the monarch in whose army Bene Israelis served in huge numbers. Image source: Kobbi Shoshani.

Recently Israel’s Consul General in India’s financial capital Mumbai, Mr Kobbi Shoshani participated as the guest of honour in the Shiv Jayanti Utsav at Shivneri Fort on 21st March 2022. Shri Shivneri Smarak Samiti has been celebrating the birth festival of Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj according to the Hindu lunar calendar i.e. Falgun Vadya Tritiya since 1980.  He said that he has recently started reading about the life of Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and he was fascinated by multiple facets of his life as a benevolent king, a military strategist, an able administrator and a true leader. The forts in Maharashtra have history of valour which remind him the history of Israel. Mr. Shoshani said,” This year, we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of India-Israel relations and I am trying at personal as well as at professional level to name a street in Israel after Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, which will create awareness about his work in Israel.

Bene Israelis in Maratha Light Infantry

The Maratha Light Infantry Marching Contingent passes through the Rajpath, on the occasion of the 69th Republic Day Parade 2018, in New Delhi on January 26, 2018. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Shalom Josef Isaac Samuel Talkar born 1831 and died on 18 Feb 1911 was a havildar in the Maratha Light Infantry. Lt. Ellis Ashton of the 3rd Maratha Light Infantry Regiment became a prominent fighter in the Hagana and given the code-name “Hodi” (meaning Indian in Hebrew). He smuggled in Polish Jewish refugees to Israel through Iraq, issuing them false documents and raiding British arms and weapons depots. He made the “ultimate sacrifice” and was killed in action when he was betrayed by a spy in the Hagana to the British, and was posthumously honoured with a medal for gallantry and service to the State of Israel. Samuel Street in Mumbai ( erstwhile  Bombay ) is a long street that runs parallel to Mohammed Ali Road. The street gets its name from Samuel Divekar who was a Bene Israel Jew and commandant of the 6th Maratha Light Infantry he fought against Tipu Sultan the ruler of Mysore and he was the man who facilitated the making of the Gateway of India, his brother Issaji Divekar was also in Maratha Light Infantry, and has got a road in Mumbai named after him. Bene Israelis have indeed played an important role in the history of Israel and India in general and Maharashtra in particular. 

About the Author
Mr. Arunansh B. Goswami is an advocate, historian and popular author based in India. He studied history at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi, read law at Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi, completed a diploma in International Environmental Law, and later joined the Bar Council of Delhi and Supreme Court Bar Association in India. Mr. Goswami has written around 200 articles for different prestigious publications, newspapers, magazines and journals around the world. He works as a consultant with Union Minister of Steel and Civil Aviation of India, Mr. J. M. Scindia and Mrs. Priyadarshini Raje Scindia titular Queen of the erstwhile princely state of Gwalior. Mr. Goswami has studied Israeli and Jewish History deeply and travelled extensively in Israel, and other parts of the world, to explore and research about sites associated with Jews.
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