In the Kankurgachi neighborhood of the Indian city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), the Das family worships a large gravestone which sits in the courtyard of their home. In traditional Hindu fashion, they adorn it with marigold flowers and incense sticks. Every Thursday, a special puja worship ritual takes place at the tomb, in which prayers are said and fresh garlands of flower are placed atop it.
But this isn’t a Hindu tomb. It is the last remnant of what was Kolkata’s “Jews Burying Ground No. 59.” The gravestone and an unnoticeable plaque, now obscured by an electric installation box, are solitary witnesses to its real identity and the city’s now-obscured Jewish past.
This tomb is part of a fascinating phenomenon: It is one of three instances of Jewish graves worshipped by non-Jews in India, an intriguing ritual transmutation I came across while working on my dissertation on the Jews of Kolkata.
Mrs. Das, one of the grave’s guardians, proudly declares that the tomb is their “family deity,” who fulfills their wishes and protects them from evil. The Das family believes that the most prominent of the graves belongs to a male, on the basis of a fantastic paranormal experience that Mrs. Das’ mother-in-law had in the 1960s.
According to her account, on a winter’s night, she’d stepped outside and saw an old Jewish priest, dressed in white robes with a long beard and wearing the wooden kharam slippers worn by Hindu ascetics, ascending from the grave. The elderly apparition assured her, “I won’t harm you.”
However, the prominent tomb in the family courtyard actually belongs to a woman called Geula (or Jalla), daughter of Nissim Isaac (Yitzhak) Abraham. She passed away on Monday, 29 Tishri 5631 of the Jewish calendar, corresponding to the Gregorian date of October 24, 1870, and was buried in accordance with Jewish custom the next day.
The Hebrew tombstone uses the word “merahemeth” (the Hebraized form of the Arabic “marhum,” meaning “deceased one,” used by the Baghdadi Jews who made up a significant proportion of Calcutta’s Jewish community) with letters requesting her soul “be bound in the bonds of eternal life.”
Deepanjan Ghosh, a local blogger who writes about various unknown facets of Kolkata and Bengal, states that this tiny private graveyard opened in the 1870s and closed around 20 years later.
The tomb later passed into the hands of one of Geula’s descendants, Gala Gubbay, whose family now live in San Francisco. The Gubbay family might have given the plot to Das family when they left India; after India became independent in 1947 and Israel followed a year later, many Jews from Calcutta emigrated abroad, primarily to English speaking countries and Israel.
Sign for the Jew Cemetery and Jew Town Road in Old Cochin, Kochi, India. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The Das family, the current owners of the plot, sent a symbolic sprinkling of earth from the courtyard for the Gubbays to create a memorial to the family members left behind in Indian soil.
Sujaan Mukherjee, a Ph.D. scholar on history and memory in public spaces in Kolkata at the city’s Jadavpur University, offers an expert explanation for the existence of this cemetery. He writes in his paper, “The Jewish Community of Calcutta: A Note on the Archive” that a Bengali man, probably Hindu, had married a Jewish woman, and when his wife died, the elders of the Jewish community refused to bury her in the established Jewish Narkeldanga Cemetery.
Dalia Ray offers another explanation in her book “The Jewish Heritage of Calcutta”: In her account, Geula was unmarried and living with her “Bengali paramour.” Hence, after her death, she was forbidden to be buried in the official Jewish cemetery. Consequently, the man bought a nearby plot of land and buried his lover there.
Later, a few more burials took place there, totaling seven graves – those of five adults and two children. The curved tops of the tombs indicate their Sephardic origins. This private Jewish cemetery was so understated and literally marginal to the formal Jewish community of Calcutta then and now that even the guards and caretakers of the Narkeldanga cemetery aren’t aware of it, nor are most of the local Jews of Kolkata.
The matriarch of the Das family says that her father-in-law was appointed caretaker of the cemetery in the late 1940s. Her husband cared for the graves after her father-in-law passed away. Currently, her younger son minds the tombs. She recalls that “fair-skinned, English-speaking Jews” used to visit the graveyard during the winter, but for the last ten to twelve years, no Jews have visited the graves.
The tombs are regularly cleaned and repainted. But except for the epitaph on the largest grave, the others are illegible, having been repainted once too often or because they have been hidden by subsequent construction nearby. The neighboring Hindu families, like the Das clan, revere Geula’s tomb. A low wall has been erected around the grave, separating the sacred from the profane, to protect it from inappropriate, mundane “pollution.”
While Hindus worship at Geula’s tomb, Muslims worship at the grave of another Jew who lived and died a few centuries before her. Sarmad Kashani, born to an Armenian Jewish merchant family in 1590, was known for his poetry, eccentric life and syncretic religious beliefs, which led to his execution for heresy.
The Persian-speaking Sarmad arrived in the subcontinent in the early 17th century via the port of Thatta in Gujarat. There, he fell in love with Abhai Chand, a young Hindu boy, who became his companion for the rest of his life. During this time, Sarmad shed all his materialistic inhibitions, and roamed around naked throughout the Deccan Plateau and in Delhi. He dived into Sufi thought, converted to Islam and became a Sufi saint.
In Delhi, he settled at the shrine of the Sufi saint Abul Qasim Harebhare. Sarmad also broke from the rituals and traditions of the region’s religions, and this spiritual inventiveness brought him to a curious Mughal prince, Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Emperor Shah Jahan.
But Shah Jahan was succeeded by his younger and radical son Aurangzeb, who had his father imprisoned and defeated his older brothers in the ensuing war of succession. Aurangzeb was unimpressed by Sarmad’s extreme asceticism, his heterodox lifestyle and his alliance with his adversary, Dara Shikoh – and thus had him beheaded in 1660.
The last straw was, apparently, when Sarmad was asked to recite the kalma, the Muslim declaration of faith (“There is no God but Allah”) but stopped after reciting “There is no God,” and refused to complete the sentence.
According to legend, Sarmad carried his severed head to the footsteps of Delhi’s Jama Masjid (mosque), his lifeless mouth continuing to recite his love poems. His shrine, located near the masjid, is revered mainly by Muslims, who regard him as a “shaheed,” or martyr. Unlike the tombs of other Sufi saints, Sarmad’s tomb is painted bright red, signifying love and sacrifice.
Tomb of the saint Sarmad, near the Jama Masjid, Delhi
سر جدا کرد از تنم شوخی کہ با ما یار بود
قصّہ ی کوتہ گشت کردن دردی سر بسیار بود pic.twitter.com/hHNmHRLOXG
— Amitabh Joshi (@joshiamitabhevo) September 20, 2021
The third Jewish tomb revered in India belongs to another Jewish poet – but of quite different ancestry, reputation and habits.
Nehemiah Ben Abraham Motha (1580-1615) was a Yemenite Jewish Kabbalist, a Hebrew poet and an expert in Jewish mysticism, who moved to Cochin, Kerala towards the end of the 16th century. He married a woman from the local Malabari Jewish community, colloquially known as the “Black” Jews, who claim an ancient lineage on India’s Malabar coast, as opposed to a Paradesi, or “White” Jews who arrived from the 15th century onwards after their expulsion from Spain and Portugal.
His title, “Motha” is derived from the Malayalam “mootha” (elder) or “muttan” (old man, or grandfather). Besides presenting a basic biography of Nehemiah, his epitaph mentions the following titles: “Famous Kabbalist,” “Light of Learning,” “Perfect Sage,” “Hassid,” “God Fearing,” “Dear Rabbi” and “Our Master.”
The Jewish Encyclopedia of 1906 mentioned Nehemiah as the “false messiah” of Cochin Jewry. This was the earliest English reference to the tomb. Hayyim Jacob HaCohen Feinstein’s Mashbit Milhamot (1874) contains the earliest Hebrew reference to the site. South African Chief Rabbi, Louis Rabinowitz who visited the site in 1952, dismissed the claims regarding Nehemiah Motha made by the Jewish Encyclopedia. In his travelogue Far East Mission, Rabinowitz noted “his grave is a Mecca not only for Jews but for Hindus and Christians…”
Nehemiah Motha’s tomb was located at the Malabari Jewish cemetery at Kadavumbhagam, which was left without guardians when the Malabari Jewish community left en masse for Israel in the 1950s. In the wake of land reform legislation, the site was occupied and then demolished in its entirety in 1957 but Nehemiah’s tomb alone was left untouched.
In common with Geula’s tomb, there are supernatural stories surrounding the final resting place of the “Kabbalist of Cochin.” Soon after his death, legends began circulating: That Nehemiah would fly in the air to reach home in time for Sabbath prayers, that praying at his tomb could bring healing of body and soul and the fulfillment of the petitioner’s wishes. Another legend narrates that his tomb remains cold even in the extreme summer temperatures. According to a popular local tale, when locals tried to demolish his tomb, the earth trembled and a fire broke out.
As his miraculous posthumous fame spread, Nehemiah was elevated to the position of a local patron saint amongst Jews, Christians, Hindus and Muslims in Cochin, and his tomb revered likewise to this day as a cultic and pan-denominational meeting point. His death anniversary on the 25th of Kislev according to Jewish calendar is still celebrated by the descendants of Malabari Jews in Israel.
India is a land of immense diversity, and despite their minuscule numbers, Jews have contributed to its culture and nation-building even in ways that the community members themselves could hardly have imagined in their own lifetimes.
These tombs, too, are a part of India’s Jewish heritage, and the reverence in which they held by India’s major religious communities, curious as it may seem to outsiders, is witness to a syncretistic, inclusive and expansive idea of human nature, faith and “Indianness” which should be protected and celebrated.
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