Kashmir’s Bani Israel Myth


For decades, Kashmir has been discussing if they are one of the lost Jewish tribes. From language to physical features, cuisine to mental capacities, a lot of academia has explored various ways and means to draw similarities between the two ethnicities located on two sides of the globe. Historian MJ Aslam, however, insists it has been a myth and will remain so

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12 Lost Tribes of Israel, a mosaic

For 2500 years from neo-Assyrians’ time (6th century BCE), the Israelites had no nation-state and the exiled tribes of Israelites were brought back by Cyrus the Great (Persian Zulqarnain Shahanshah) in the sixth century BCE itself only after seventy years of deportation under historical record. Later, the Romans deported some “rebellious” Jews to Rome and beyond, which was followed by the conversion of the Roman kingdom with its subjects by Constantine the Great in 312 CE. Constantine did for Christianity what Ashoka the Great of the Mauryan Empire did for Buddhism in the third century BCE by making Buddhism the first official religion of India in history.

Most of the Jewish diaspora began assimilating and integrating with Roman, Greek and other cultures of Europe, Caucus, Persia and Arabia in subsequent centuries. From earliest times, man has travelled and migrated in search of food and water, and later for better opportunities and trade, in different directions of the globe. Like all ancient and medieval communities, Jews too travelled, settled and integrated with other communities across the world, to become a part of the cultural heritage of mankind.

The Sabbatani Movement

In the ninth century, Elad Bin Mahli, a traveller-Jew, was the first who invented the story of the Lost Ten Tribes. Later, in the seventeenth century CE, the Jews began thinking of a different pattern of working on the myth. “Sabbatani Movement” of Sabbatani Sevi (d 1676) in the Ottoman Empire, Manasseh Ben Israel (d 1657) a Portuguese Rabbi and traveller, Jacob Judah Leon, a Rabbi (d 1675) and Peter Serrarius (d 1669); and Henry Jessey (d 1663); Nathaniel Holmes (d 1678)–Philo-Judaist-Christians–were closely associated to Manasseh Ben Israel and his mission.

With the propagation of Zionism in the late nineteenth century, the debate about the myth of the Lost Ten Tribes gained momentum with emerging new colonial ideas of nationalistic states. Travellers, anthropologists, ethnologists and researchers looked for the traces of the Lost Ten Tribes in Arabia, Africa, India, Afghanistan, Balkan, Caucasus, England, Russia, Europe, America, and many other places. Their accounts published in Europe and America piled up over centuries. The imagined Jews provoked interest and even admiration. This was no small thing.

British historian, traveller broadcaster and specialist in the Middle East, Tudor Parfitt, travelled to all parts of the world to collect the material of myths surrounding the so-called lost tribes of Israel and published it in 2002 in his book The Lost Tribes of Israel: The History of a Myth and highlighted the implications of these invented myths for modern human societies. (Joshua Schwartz).

In 2006, Allana A Cooper of the University of Massachusetts in an acclaimed paper underpinned the grave dangers of the Jewish Diaspora theory with the capital letter D in the word “diaspora” in the dictionary correlated to the Myth of Lost Tribes “as it relates to questions about home, religious authority, and peoplehood”.

The over-emphasis on the myth and reading history backwards gave birth to the “Zionist” State of Israel in the heart of Palestinians from the Balfour Declaration of 1917 followed by Jewish settlements exponentially in occupied Palestinian land, which is going on unabated with US and European military and financial support to “Zionism” amidst genocides and displacement of millions of Palestinians from their homeland.

The Kashmir Connection

“Many groups around the world claim a descent from the ‘lost’ ten northern tribes” of ancient Israelites. (Catherwood). Francois Bernier in 1664-1665 wrote that Jews in ancient times “may have taken up residence in Kashmir”.  This is a surmise.

To note, Solomon (1000 BCE), Hazrat Sulaiman in Islam, is a revered Prophet not only among Jews and Christians but among Muslims also. Younghusband, British Resident, in 1908 wrote that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiyani had claimed that the Lost Ten Tribes of Israelites had descendants in Kashmir.

Post-1947, some Kashmir “writers” associated with the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages or affiliated with the Radio Kashmir Srinagar advanced the myth in Kashmir further through their writings and speeches, taking it down to mythical characters of “Mirjan of Pahalgam” and “tombs of Rozabal”.

This theory was built around a statement of Al-Beruni (d 1048) who in the eleventh century AD wrote that Kashmiris guarded the mountain passes to their country from all sides and hardly allowed any outsider to enter their country. This deprived the country of having intercourse with the outside world. However, “in former times they used to allow one or two foreigners to enter their country, particularly Jews, but at present, they do not allow any Hindu whom they do not know personally to enter, much less other people”.

As Islam had not yet reached Kashmir and intercourse with foreigners was not allowed, it appears that the source of information of Al-Beruni was not his observation but rather what he was told by some inhabitants of the land when he visited it.  From this passing statement, the theory was built that the Lost Ten Tribes of Bani Israel had finally settled in Kashmir after wandering in Asia and snow-clad mountains for forty years.

Megasthenes, the Greek historian and ambassador of the Greek Emperor Seleucus-I towards the end of the third century BCE, who visited the court of Mauryan Emperor, Chandragupta Maurya, nowhere mentions in his book Indika about the presence of any Jews living in India or Kashmir. He simply compares Brahmans of India with Jews of Syria as far as their “nature” of living, a secluded life in jungles was concerned.

Arrian in the second century AD noted that of the seven castes of Indians, “wise-men” (Brahmans) did no physical labour, were given to prophesies and spent “their time naked during winter in the open air and sunshine, but in summer when the sun is strong” they spent their time “in the meadows and the marshlands under great trees” of banyan. Most probably, Al-Beruni was also referring to the secluded life of Kashmiri Brahmans who were part of a heterogeneous mass of society of several castes and subcastes, groups and subgroups of Indo-European Aryan descent and Islam had not reached the valley and its hill countries by the Al-Beruni’s time, to note.

Brahmans seem to have followed the practice of Jews who, according to Gibbon, “shunned, instead of courting the society of strangers”, which prevented them from thinking beyond their fixations. Al-Beruni’s reference that some Jews who were allowed to enter the valley must have been to the Jewish traders who along with merchants of many other cultures and regions had been visiting Kashmir through the old Silk Road, which is evidenced by “Hebrew inscriptions” left behind by them in the Indus Valley, which were discovered by eminent Ethnologist, Archaeologist and Pre-Historian, Karl Jettmar.

It may not be out of place to mention here that Afghans too ‘trace their origin to the Jews’, but their language being purely Aryan is enough, in the absence of any serious argument in favour of their Jewish origin, to render it extremely improbable. Their so-called Jewish type of face is simply the high Aryan type common to the Kashmiris, Badakhshis, Wakhis, Tajiks, and even to some families of Rajputs’. (Daukes)

Kashmir Life (February 2, 2018) published a report of a joint study done by the scientists of the Department of Human Genetics and the Division of Haematology and Hematologic Malignancies, Department of Internal Medicine from the University of Utah School of Medicine, Salt Lake City, Utah USA, and Department of Internal and Pulmonary Medicine, SKIMS, Kashmir which showed that Jewish ancestry of Kashmiris was a ‘myth’.

Kashmir’s First Jew

Long before Indian Communists of the first half of the twentieth century, Russia had sent their envoy to Kashmir but for totally different objectives under different circumstances. He was Mehti Rafailov.

Originally, he was born into a Jewish family in Kabul and was orphaned by the death of both parents when he was a child. Then, he was brought up in a Shia Muslim family. Moorcroft, who met him, mentions him as Agha Mehdi. Later, he converted to Christianity at St Petersberg, which earned him the opportunity to come in contact with magnates of St Petersberg who introduced him to Alexander I, Tsar Sovereign of the time.

Before that, he had started his business as a peddler. Then, as days went by, with sovereign contacts, he was able to establish his business in Russia and Kabul. He was sent with letters by Russian Tsars as envoy to Raja of Ladakh in 1808 and then to Kashmir in 1820-1821 for opening up trade between Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Russian Tsars.

It was Mehti Rafailov who aroused Russian interest in Kashmiri shawls as he introduced the handicraft to Russia. He set up his business in Srinagar. He had learnt the use of dyeing drugs in Russia and came up with dyeing material for Kashmir’s shawl industry. He knew several languages including Kashmiri. Moorcroft informed the British Government about the Russian Mission in Kashmir and Ladakh. He was found dead in 1821 at Karakorum Pass and his death remained a mystery.


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