Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXIX No. 3, May 16-31, 2019

Lost Landmarks of Chennai

- Sriram V

- Sriram V

Once the Jewish Cemetery on Mint Street.

Once the Jewish Cemetery on Mint Street.

Here rested the Jews

The Armenians had their Church and street, not to forget numerous other monuments, street names and places, big and small, around the city. The Portuguese Christians still have San Thomé to commemorate their presence. The French have one minor marker – a gateway at the Mae de Deus Church (now Dhyana Ashrama) that carries the date 1748. But what of the Jews? They are hardly remembered today.

It is to H.D. Love’s Vestiges of Old Madras that we turn, to get some information about the Jews. The first settlers were of Portuguese origin and attracted to Madras by the prospects of the Golconda diamond trade. In 1683 there is reference to four merchants – Senors Bartholme Rodrigues, Domingo de Porto, Alvaro de Fonseca and James de Paiva. The last named was evidently the leader and he and the other three pleaded for their co-religionists to be allowed to live in Madras. The Company gave permission while at the same time taking suitable precautionary measures to protect its diamond trade. It clearly knew the capability of the Jews.

“We writt you last year to permit the Jews to reside at the ffort…” ran the missive from London. “But nothing of any value shall go consigned by our ships to any of them or any other free merchant, to our Agent or some of our Council, which We hope may prevent their Spoyling our diamond trade; Our resolutions being to continue our endeavours to make your place the mart for that comodity.”

By 1687 there were two more merchants – Isaac do Porto and Francis Marques. That year, they were also given permission to bury their dead, at Peddanaikenpettah, one of the two parts of Black Town. The cemetery was at the south end of Mint Street. The earliest of the burials here was probably that of Jaques de Paiva (was he the same as the James referred to above?), who died on September 17, 1687. His passing was of momentous consequences to Elihu Yale, then Governor of Madras. From his biography by Hiram Bingham it is clear that de Paiva (spelt by Bingham as Paivia right through) was in Madras as early as 1680 and was highly thought of in London. His wife Hieronima “attracted Elihu”. Madame Paiva had a house in Gloucester Street in the Fort and Yale lived in Middle Street, which was the parallel thoroughfare. By 1692, much to the shock of Elihu’s brother Thomas, he was “consorting with the Portuguese Jewess Hieronima de Paivia, who now became his mistress, and in due course bore him a son.”

This closeness would eventually cause Yale trouble though to give him due credit, he did his best to protect British business interests, the blandishments of his mistress notwithstanding. The birth of the child too caused plenty of gossip and comment. Mother and son were placed in a house at St Thomas Mount but when Mrs Yale, probably tiring of his continuing infidelities, departed along with her three daughters forever to England, he had them brought back to the Fort and appointed Mrs de Paiva his housekeeper. It was she who made Yale an expert in precious stones and taught him the secrets of the trade, contributing enormously to his fortune, a part of which would later fund Yale University.

But let us revert to the burial ground where old Jacques lay mouldering for long. Not every Jew was evidently buried here, for Bartholomew Rodrigues, when he died on July 10, 1692, was buried in his garden, which was near Kachaleeswarar Temple and Tucker’s Church. No trace of it remained even in 1913 when Love wrote Vestiges.
The population of the Jews in Madras evidently waxed and waned, though it probably did not exceed double digits even at its height. Thus in 1688, when the Corporation of the city was formed, it was reported that no Jews were available to serve as Alderpersons. This probably refers to the Portuguese Jews. But by the 1700s English Jews were present. In 1725, as per Love, the principal Jewish merchants in the city were Marcus Moses, Abraham Salomons and Aaron Franks – all of them English. Love also gives us great details of the way they conducted their business. Coral as beads or in the rough, and to a lesser extent silver, was exported from England to licensed merchants under the agreement that the sale proceeds were to be invested only in diamonds or “diamond boart” (chips). The principal commodity would lend its name to the thoroughfare where the Jews lived, not far from the burial ground – Coral Merchant Street.

The English Jews appear to have left Madras by the mid 18th century, the Golconda mines having ceased to be productive. Their numbers were never large enough here to merit the building of a synagogue. By 1913, the burial ground in Mint Street too had shrunk in size, having just four tombstones. Rather incredibly, Jacques de Paiva’s survived. In the 20th century, Glynn Barlow, editor of the Madras Times and author of The Story of Madras (1921), visited the place. “The little Jewish cemetery in crowded Mint Street is an interesting spot,” he wrote. “One of the antique tombstones has been caught in the branch of a tree and has been lifted high in the air, and is a quaint sight; and the deserted little Hebrew graveyard itself is symbolic of the dispersion of the ancient people.”
Late in the 20th century, the Jewish Cemetery space was taken over by the Government and made over to a school on Mint Street. The tombstones were however carefully transported to Lloyds Road/Avvai Shanmugam Salai, where they now rest in an enclosure fronted by a locked gate that has a Star of David carved over its arch. De Paiva, (well his tombstone actually), had hopefully made his last journey, three hundred and odd years after his death. The Chinese cemetery lies next to the place. Several hearses available on hire rather appropriately surround the whole area.
The burial spot on Mint Street can still be identified – it has a Government Middle School fronted by a transformer that rather mercifully hides a hideous mural of the kind that only the PWD engineers can design.

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