The 350-year-old AB Salem House on Geo Street opened its doors to visitors in the last week of January this year. It was the home of Ibrahim bin Barak (1882-1967) alias AB Salim, a lawyer and activist, who participated in the Indian independence movement and was known as the Jewish Gandhi. The heritage home now shines with its new design as well as history.
Two houses down, across from the synagogue, Rabbi Ezekiel’s 17th-century residence will open as a boutique hotel called Ezekiel House by mid-year. Formerly called Lila Manzil, its most famous occupant, Rabbi Ezekiel, was a businessman who donated the famous hand-painted Chinese tiles to the foreign synagogue that stands at the end of the street.
Work continues on another Jewish home from the pre-Covid days that once belonged to the late Elias Koder, a well-known businessman. It is due to open as an eight-room hotel by the middle of next year.
Sephardic Jews (known as foreign or foreigners) came to India in 15 Th And 16 Th century after the expulsion from Spain. A group moved to Cochin and settled near their place of worship. Synagogue Lane in Jewish Town became a residential area and a thriving center until Jews began immigrating to Israel in 1958.
The change first came in the 90s with the purchase of properties by local businessmen. By the early 2000s almost all the houses, barring a few, had changed hands and were occupied by local businessmen. The boom in tourism saw most of them rented out to Kashmiri businessmen who converted them into shops selling handicrafts. Large spice warehouses opened to sell antiques sourced from Kerala and the interior of South India. The Jewish town became a market for antiques and spices. The popular foreign shrine (closed on Saturdays) draws a steady stream of tourists, with around 1,000 visitors per day.
Synagogue Lane, Mattancherry | Image credit: Thalasi Kakat
The current phase of major transformation — the launch of boutique hotels — comes on the back of urban and beautification works undertaken by Cochin Smart Mission Limited (CSML).
“The drains have been redone and the entire lane has been cobbled, giving it a European look. The lane has 11 antique-style lamp posts and seven three-seater cast iron armchairs, placed by CSML. In the evening, when the lights are on, you find people sitting on chairs quietly reflecting. It’s beautiful,” says Junaid Sulaiman, who runs the Mocha Art Cafe in front of the synagogue. His family, Abdul Karim Muhammad, initially Buy properties in the area.
Junaid, who grew up in the area, says that Jio Town has a legacy of real estate value, which is why prices here keep rising every year even though the streets are narrow and the buildings are old. He estimates the ballpark at ₹50 lakh a cent (436 sq ft). Over the past two decades, most of the front rooms of Jewish homes have been converted into craft shops doing brisk business with tourists, so rents have skyrocketed. A lease typically has an initial price of, “a substantial advance and an initial monthly rent of around ₹45,000.”
A significant change
When AB Salem and Ezekiel House came up for sale in 2017 and 2018, hotelier Jose Dominick bought it. He plans to reopen them as smaller, intimate hotels.
“As the Jews left, the street became home to shops selling handicrafts and antiques to tourists. When they close, the street is a ghost town in the evening,” says Dominique, former MD of CGH Earth Hospitality Group. Becomes. To bring Jay back Oie de vivreIt is being converted back into a residential lane.
Before the arrival of the boutiques and tourists, it was the center of a thriving community of Jews – Koders, Cohens, Salems, Rubies, Ashkenazis and Haliguas, to name a few – who lived here with large families and staff. . The street was the front yard of these houses because parties, weddings, rituals, processions went from the houses to the street. “Tables laden with food and chairs were brought out in the evening and the community came together,” Jose said, adding that kosher food was available locally, including “a butcher to cut and certify kosher meat. “
Riding the wave of tourism, the Ginger Hotel first opened in 2018 on the street adjacent to Synagogue Lane. Formerly a ginger warehouse, its eight rooms offer the highest level of luxury with gold-plated washbasins, Moorish tiles, Turkish mirrors and royal Rajasthani antiques. “The spice trade had started to decline and there was good potential to do something different,” says Majno NB, the owner who pioneered the trend. With hotels coming in, “the character of the place remains intact, only the amenities have improved,” he added. He says Ginger Hotels retails for rooms between ₹ 12,000 to ₹ 22,000 and has 70% occupancy.
Newly Renovated and Furnished AB Salem House in Synagogue Lane, Mattancherry Photo credit: Maridola
Mandalay Hall, a property very close to the synagogue, was next door. The hotel’s five rooms are decorated with contemporary art and refreshingly new architecture. Now managed by The Postcard Hotel, which is known for its intimate luxury settings, it is completely sold out for the season, although each room costs a relatively hefty ₹25,000 per night excluding taxes. .
Businessman Edgar Pinto, who owns two popular properties in Fort Kochi — Kashi Art Cafe and Old Harbor Hotel — bought Haligua House in 2018, because of his “love for heritage buildings” and because he could “afford” it. could do Located at the beginning of Geo Street, this house was called Karati Vidu. Used by the community to host a party. The coin or the Feast of Tabernacles and the Sumah Torah or Joy of the Torah (Scroll) It was also the place for the bridegroom to dress for the wedding. It has now opened as the Kashi Haligua House, a museum and art space.
Pinto, who recently restored the property “to its full glory,” finds it difficult to estimate the cost of maintaining the heritage property, as “it’s a bottomless pit.” He adds, “The current set of owners of these properties values heritage and restoration. The architecture and history is the narrative of Jewtown and should be preserved.”
Synagogue Lane | Image credit: Thalasi Kakat
Maridola Jose, an interior architect who worked on the reconstruction of AB Salem and Ezekiel House, explains the challenges of opening up houses that have changed hands many times and undergone numerous alterations and additions. “The aim was to repurpose a family home for a tourist project that still retains the character of the old ways of living on Geo Street,” she says, pointing to period properties such as four Sectional doors, ceilings, wooden staircases, built-in wardrobes and niches in the walls have been retained.
He also retained the mosaic floor, which was done in AB Salem House “sometime in the 50s or 60s” as a charming relic. “The original Jewish houses in Mattancherry are flanked by parallel streets with front and rear entrances. The layout is often narrow with a courtyard in the middle. Many older houses have been split down the center and used by different owners on each side. do,” Maridola said, adding that while the ABSalem House remained a family home for generations, the Ezekiel House changed hands and was owned by a non-Jewish family.
Accordingly, the new owners stayed there for some time and later converted it into a soap manufacturing unit with several labs, storage facility, a retail outlet and a large warehouse on most of the original yard. She is currently working on restructuring the space to have six bedrooms, a cafe and a small courtyard.
Kashi Haligwa Hall | Image credit: Thalasi Kakat
The restructured AB Salem House consists of its four rooms – each with a distinctive feature, such as a balcony, or courtyard or street view, a kitchen to prepare a continental breakfast, and a caretaker’s unit, retailing of such rooms. Selling prices ranging from ₹ 5,000 to Rs. 7,000
Just before the COVID 19 lockdown, AB Salem House hosted AB Salem’s granddaughter Linda Hertzman and husband Steven Hertzman, who were delighted with the new look. “He said we’ve kept the essence of the house and the character of his Jewish home,” Mardola says.