Once home to the Sephardic (foreign) Jews, The Mattancherry Synagogue is now under the spell of passionate interior designers and cafe owners who are keen to bring back the residential character of these Jews heritage homes.
The Mattancherry Synagogue is among the most historically relevant locations in Fort Kochi. The oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth, it was built in 1568. Also known as the Paradesi Synagogue.
The 350-year-old A B Salem House on Jew Street recently opened its doors to guests. The home was inhabited by 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 reflects 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.
After being cast away by Spain in the 15th and 16th, the Sephardic Jews (known as Paradesi or foreigner) settled in India and Israel. Of them one group moved to Cochin and settled down around their Synagogue.The Synagogue Lane in Jew Town became a residential area and a thriving hub until the Jews later emigrated to Israel in 1958.
The iconic Paradesi Synagogue became a centre of attraction for tourists sought after.Their homes are rented to Kashmiri traders who turned them into handicrafts shops selling antiques sourced from the interiors of Kerala and South India. Jew Town became an antiques and spice market.
Now with the trend of boutique hotels and art cafes, the lost glory of traditional homes is being reclaimed. Drains have been rebuilt and the entire lane has been cobbled, giving it a European look.
The lane is all lit up with a tawny glow of antique style lamp posts and are dotted with cast iron arm chairs by CSML. In the evening you will hear the bantering of people sitting on the chairs under the gloaming light,
Mocha Art Café, opposite the Synagogue, which is run by Junaid Sulaiman and his family and they all love it here.
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.
According to 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 close, 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.”
Managed now by The Postcard Hotel, Mandalay Hall is another property in the vicinity of the synagogue having five rooms which are furnished with a décor rich in contemporary art and refreshingly new architecture. Each room is priced at a relatively high price ₹25,000 for a night excluding taxes.
The owner of Kashi Art Cafe and Old Harbour Hotel — in Fort Kochi, Edgar Pinto has also ventured to buy Hallegua heritage House in 2018, because of his “proclivity for heritage buildings. 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.
The current owners of all these properties are mindful of the value of heritage and restoration as they believe that Architecture and history are the narrative of Jew Town and they should be preserved.