RABBAN, JOSEPH, one of the founders of the Jewish community in South India. Joseph Rabban (Issuppu Irappan), also known as Rabbani, is revered by the Jews of Cochin, Kerala, as a prince among the founders of their community in India. He is the recipient of the famous copper plate grant from the region's ruler, Bhaskara Ravi Varma, allotting him and his descendants specific rights and privileges. Very little is known about the identity of this early Jew of South India. Even the approximate date of his arrival is obscure. Estimates of the period of the copper plate grant range from the fourth to the eleventh century a.d. The earliest memory of the Kerala Jews is related to the ancient port of Cranganore (which the document refers to as Muyirikkodu), also known as Shingly, about 20 miles (32 km) north of Cochin. The southern coastal ports of India, along the eastern edge of the Arabian Sea, were often visited in ancient times by traders seeking spices, particularly pepper, so it is possible that Jewish merchants were aboard the ships that docked along the Malabar Coast. These Jews might have been the founders of the Kerala communities. The exact reference of the term "Anjuvannam" from the grant is in dispute; although it has been understood as meaning Cranganore, more recent scholarship translates it as a town guild or corporation.
In the fourteenth century the port of Cranganore silted up, forcing the Jewish community to move to other towns, among them Cochin. According to oral tradition, the king of Cochin welcomed the refugees, granting them an area in which to settle. Perhaps as a result of the move, the Jewish community became divided into distinct groups: indigenous and "foreign" (paradesi), the latter group consisting of newcomers from Spain and Arab lands. Nonetheless, Joseph Rabban plays a very prominent role in the folklore of the Cochin Jewish community. He was the first in a line of Jewish "kings," men of power and privilege who were recognized as such by the surrounding population. A Jewish visitor from Spain in the fourteenth century wrote a poem, preserved in a Cochin song book, that is sung in the synagogue: "I had heard of the city of Shingly,/I longed to see an Israeli king/Him, I saw with my own eyes" (Katz and Goldberg, p. 40). A Cochin Jewish wedding song in Malayalam, referring to the groom, contains the following verse: "Conches and drums are beautifully echoing in the palace./When he comes in such splendor/Let us sing of Joseph Rabban" ( Johnson, p. 165).
Johnson, Barbara Cottle. "The Emperor's Welcome: Reconsideration of an Origin Theme in Cochin Jewish Folklore." In Jews in India, edited by Thomas A. Timberg. New Delhi: Vikas, 1986.
Katz, Nathan, and Ellen S. Goldberg. The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.
Segal, J. B. The History of the Jews of Cochin. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1993.