As Air India One with prime minister Narendra Modi on board takes off from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport for the G-20 summit in Germany this evening (July 6), one wonders if there’s anything more to be said beyond the wall-to- wall coverage of the PM’s “historic”, “path-breaking”, “consequential” and “memorable” trip to Israel.
There is one more nugget. Prime Minister Modi gifted Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu replicas of two sets of copper plates, said to have been inscribed in the 9-10th century, which demonstrate the history of Cochin Jews in India. The first set of copper plates is a charter describing the grant of hereditary royal privileges and prerogatives by the Hindu King Cheraman Perumal (sometimes identified as Bhaskara Ravi Varma) to the Jewish leader Joseph Rabban.
Traditional Jewish accounts say that Rabban was later crowned as the Prince of Shingli, a place the British later called Cranganore and known in Malayalam as Kondungallur. The refuge given to the Jews by the Hindu king led to Shingli/Kodungallur being known as the “Second Jerusalem.” A handful of earth in a coffin from here often accompanied Jews to the afterlife. It all sounds fascinating – except that an exact replica of the Cochin relics, which are now stored in the Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry, Kochi, were gifted by former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2003 to Ariel Sharon, the first Israeli prime minister to visit India.
So this is the second time that the exact same gift is being given to an Israeli leader. The second set of copper plate replicas document the history of Jewish trade with India. “They describe the grant of land and tax privileges by the local Hindu ruler – Cheraman Perumal – to a church and oversight of trade in Kollam to West Asian and Indian trading associations,” says the narendramodi.in website.
It seems the Mar Thoma Syrian Christian church in Thiruvalla, Kerala, helped make a copy of the relics so that the PM could gift them to Netanyahu.
The prime minister also gifted Netanyahu a handwritten Torah scroll, more than a hundred years old, dedicated to the aforementioned Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi, that was built in 1568 (at the time of the great emperor Akbar, who sat on the throne only 12 years before, in 1556.)
“The Torah is enclosed on wooden staves in a wooden case adorned with silver sheets and a metal crown covered in gold sheets in floral ornament style bearing motifs of lamps and decorations typical of South India,” adds narendramodi.in. Certainly, Mr Modi wanted to make a splash with his gift.
And a metal crown covered in gold sheets in floral ornament style, bearing motifs typical of lamps and decorations of south India. (2/2) pic.twitter.com/KWNXltBYBY
— PMO India (@PMOIndia) July 4, 2017
According to the Antiquities & Art Treasures Act, 1972, an antiquity is anything which is more than a hundred years old – like the Torah scroll — and only the central government or authorized agency is allowed to export these pieces. That’s how the Torah scroll escapes a violation. So here’s another question. When the prime minister visited the Jewish Museum in Jerusalem, in the company of the Israeli PM and saw an exhibition on India’s Jewish heritage, did it cross his mind that India should protect its own precious things, like the Torah scroll?
Imagine if that beautiful piece of art were to be placed in a Jewish Indian museum in Kochi, alongside other objets d’art, demonstrating India’s proud history of welcoming foreigners and absorbing them into our own culture. What, indeed, went through the PM’s head when he saw the passion with which this tiny country, only 69 years old, protects its own civilizational mementoes?