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Will Chennai's Jews be there?

S. Muthiah

The Jewish cemetery, located off Lloyd's Road, is the last memorial to what was once a significant Jewish presence in this city. A Jewish settlement first established itself in Madras to export the diamonds of Golconda to London. They lived in what is still called Coral Merchants' Street in northeast George Town.

SHAKESPEAREAN ACTOR and director Gareth Armstrong, whom the Bard has taken to over 30 countries, will be in Madras on October 4 and 5, courtesy of The British Council, presenting "Shylock", a one-man-play he's been doing for the past five years. In an introduction to his Indian tour, Armstrong writes, ``There is an honourable tradition of tolerance towards Jews in India. Their presence was recorded two thousand years ago and over the centuries they settled in communities from Kashmir to Kochi and especially in the cities of Kolkata and Mumbai... In a new city I like to know if there's synagogue and if it is open for worship. Not that I will be worshipping there. I am not Jewish...(but), a Jewish presence in a city can influence the size and response of my audience.''

Well, Armstrong won't find a synagogue in Madras, but he'll find Jewish cemetery in a corner of the larger cemetery off Lloyd's Road, and he might even be able to get in if he can find the key that's with perhaps the last Jewish family, expats not counted, in Madras. That cemetery is the last memorial to what was once a significant Jewish presence in this city.

A Jewish settlement first established itself in Madras to export the diamonds of Golconda to London and import in exchange from their fellow Jews silver, rough and polished coral and pearls. They lived in what is still called Coral Merchants' Street in northeast George Town. By the late 18th Century, the trade had died out with the Golconda vein spent and the last Jewish merchant to live in the city, Moses de Castro, departing in 1786. In a 19th Century coincidence, another community associated with gems and jewellery moved into the street and to this day, the Nattukottai Chettiars' town choultry is here.

The Jews of Madras had a synagogue and their cemetery next to it near the northern end of Mint Street. When a school was built here in 1983, the tombstones were moved to the `Jewish corner' in the Lloyd's Road cemetery. The tombstone of Jaques (James) de Paiva, the first of the Jewish diamond merchants, was one of the four in the Mint Street cemetery at the time of transfer. It, however, does not seem to have made it to Lloyd's Road. The tombstones that did were of Solomon Franco (1763) and Issac Sard (1709), both diamond merchants. The third survivor was the tombstone of Esther Cohen (1964), perhaps the last burial at the old site. The only burial in the new site has been of Eileen Joshua in 1997.

Judging from their names, those Jewish diamond merchants who lived and traded in Madras were of Spanish and Portuguese origin. They were Sephardic Jews whose forefathers had probably fled to England and Holland during the Inquisition. That was the time the White Jews of Kerala too had first arrived in Cochin. If Armstrong plays in Cochin, he'd find a synagogue but not too many worshippers to attend his performance. In Madras, I hope, he'll get to meet the few Indian Jews who still call it home. He might even get that key from one of them.

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