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In Kochi’s Jew Town, historic heritage homes are restored to welcome guests

The 350-year-old A B Salem House on Jew Street opened its doors to guests in the last week of January, this year. It was home to Abraham Ben Barak (1882-1967) aka A B Salem, a lawyer and activist, who participated in India’s freedom movement and was famously called the Jewish Gandhi. The heritage home now flaunts history along with its redesign.

Two houses down, towards the Paradesi Synagogue, the 17th Century residence of Rabbi Rahabi Ezekiel will open, by the middle of the year, as a boutique hotel called Ezekiel House.  Formerly called Leela Manzil, its most famous occupant, Rabbi Ezekiel was a trader who donated the famous hand-painted Chinese tiles to the Paradesi Synagogue that stands at the end of the street.

Work has been underway, since pre-Covid days, in another Jewish home that once belonged to a popular businessman, the late Elias Koder. It is to open as an eight-room hotel by middle of next year.

The Sephardic Jews (known as Paradesi or foreigner) came to India in the 15 th and 16 th century after they were expelled from Spain. One group moved to Cochin and settled down around their Synagogue. Synagogue Lane in Jew Town became a residential area and a thriving hub until the Jews began to migrate to Israel from 1958.

Change first came to the area with the purchase of the properties by local businessmen in the 90s. By early 2000 almost all the homes, barring a few had changed hands and were in possession of local businessmen. The tourism boom saw most of them rented to Kashmiri traders who converted them into shops retailing handicrafts. Bigger spice warehouses opened up selling antiques sourced from the interiors of Kerala and South India. Jew Town became an antiques and spice market. The iconic Paradesi Synagogue (closed on Saturday) draws a steady crowd of tourists, receiving almost 1,000 footfalls everyday.

Synagogue Lane, Mattancherry

Synagogue Lane, Mattancherry
| Photo Credit:
Thulasi Kakkat

 Civic works

The current phase of big change — opening of boutique hotels — comes on the wings of civic and beautification works done by Cochin Smart Mission Limited (CSML)

“Drains have been redone and the entire lane has been cobbled, giving it a European look. There are 11 antique style lamp posts and seven three-seater cast iron arm chairs on the lane, placed by CSML. In the evenings when the lights come on, you find people sitting on the chairs reflecting quietly. It’s beautiful,” says Junaid Sulaiman who runs Mocha Art Café, opposite the Synagogue. His family, Abdul Karim Mohammed, purchased properties in the area early on.

Junaid who grew up in the area says the property in Jew Town has heritage value, which is why prices here have been rising steadily every year though the streets are narrow and the buildings are old. He gives ball park estimate of ₹50 lakh a cent (436 sq ft). Over the past couple of decades, most front rooms of Jewish homes have turned into handicraft shops doing brisk business with tourists, so rentals have skyrocketed. Typically there is an initial lease price, “a substantial advance and a starting monthly rent of around ₹45,000.”  

A major makeover

Hotelier Jose Dominic bought the AB Salem and Ezekiel House when they came up on sale in 2017 and 2018. He plans to reopen them as small, intimate hotels.

The former MD of CGH Earth hospitality group, Dominic says, “As the Jews departed the lane became home to shops mainly selling handicrafts and antiques to tourists. When they closed, in the evenings, the street becomes a ghost town. To bring back the j oie de vivre, it is being turned into a residential lane again.

Before the boutiques and tourists moved in, this was the centre of a thriving community of Jews — the Koders, Cohens, Salems, Robys, Ashkenazis and the Halleguas, to name a few, who lived here with large families and staff. The lane was the front yard for these homes as parties, weddings, rituals, processions flowed out from the houses on to the street. “Tables laden with food and chairs were brought out in the evenings and the community gathered together,” says Jose adding that Kosher food was locally available, with a “butcher present to cut and certify Kosher meat.”

Riding on the tourism wave, Ginger Hotel opened first in 2018, on the road adjacent to Synagogue Lane. Formerly a ginger warehouse, its eight rooms offer high-end luxury with gold plated wash basins, Moorish tiles, Turkish mirrors and royal Rajasthani artefacts. “The spice trade had begun to wane and there was good potential to do something different,” says Majnu NB, proprietor who pre-empted the trend. He adds that with hotels coming up, “the character of the place remains untouched, only the amenities have improved.” Ginger hotels retails rooms that range from ₹ 12,000 to ₹22,000 and have 70% occupancy, he says.

The newly renovated and furnished AB Salem House in Synagogue Lane, Mattancherry

The newly renovated and furnished AB Salem House in Synagogue Lane, Mattancherry
| Photo Credit:
Mridula

Mandalay Hall, a property very close to the synagogue, was next to follow. The hotel’s five rooms are furnished with a décor rich in contemporary art and refreshingly new architecture. Managed now by The Postcard Hotel, known for intimate luxury settings, it is completely sold out for the season, though each room is priced at a relatively hefty ₹25,000 for a night excluding taxes.

Entrepreneur Edgar Pinto, who owns two popular properties — Kashi Art Cafe and Old Harbour Hotel — in Fort Kochi, bought Hallegua House in 2018, because of his “love for heritage buildings” and because he could “afford” it. Situated at the start of Jew Street, the house was called Krathi Veedu. Used by the community to host the party for Sukkah or Festival of Tabernacles and the Simah Torah or Rejoicing of the Torah (scrolls) it was also the place for the bridegroom to dress for the wedding. It has now opened as Kashi Hallegua House, a museum and art space.

Pinto who restored the property recently, “to full glory,” finds it difficult to estimate the cost of maintaining heritage properties, as “it’s a bottomless pit.” He adds, “The current set of owners of these properties value heritage and restoration. Architecture and history are the narrative of Jew Town and it should be preserved.”

Rules of redesign

Synagogue Lane

Synagogue Lane
| Photo Credit:
Thulasi Kakkat

Mridula Jose, interior architect who worked on restructuring AB Salem and Ezekiel House speaks about the challenges of opening the homes that have changed hands several times and gone through multiple alterations, and additions. “The aim was adaptive reuse of a family home to a tourism project that still retains the character of the old ways of living on Jew Street,” she says, pointing out that period features like the four-part door, ceilings, wooden staircase, in built cupboards and niches in the walls have been retained.

She also retained the mosaic floor, done “sometime in the 50s or 60s” in AB Salem House, as a charming relic. “Original Jewish homes in Mattancherry are adjoining with the front and back entrances opening out to parallel streets. The layout is often narrow with a courtyard in the center. Many of the old houses have been divided in the centre with different owners using each side,” says Mridula adding that while A.B.Salem House remained as a family home through the generations, Ezekiel House changed hands and was owned by a non-Jewish family.

According to her the new owners lived there for sometime and later converted it to a soap making unit with multiple labs, storage facility, a retail outlet and a large godown occupying most of the original courtyard. She is currently working on restructuring the space to house six bedrooms, a cafe and a small courtyard.

Kashi Hallegua Hall

Kashi Hallegua Hall
| Photo Credit:
Thulasi Kakkat

The restructured AB Salem House with its four rooms — each with a distinguishing feature, like a balcony, or facing the courtyard or the street, a kitchenette to prepare continental breakfast, and a caretaker unit, is retailing rooms that range from ₹5,000  to ₹7,000.

Just before COVID 19 lockdown, AB Salem House, hosted Linda Hertzman, granddaughter of AB Salem, and husband Steven Hertzman, who were delighted with the new look. Says Mridula, “She said we had retained the essence of the house and the character of her Jewish home.”

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