23 August 2008

India: The Koder family of Cochin

Kochi (formerly Cochin) in southern India's Kerala region has a surprise for tourists, according to this story. Grand mansions built during the colonial period - when Portuguese and Dutch traders ruled Fort Cochin - are being converted ito tourist homes.

The Iraqi Jewish Koder family built Koder House in 1905 [Note: the date is different in some sources], although the family came to India in the early 1800s, during a wave of Baghdadi immigration. Today it is owned by Vicky Raj, who wants locals and the tourists to know about the house's heritage.

The three-story heritage boutique hotel is opposite the beach at Fort Kochi. Until recently, it belonged to the Koders, the most illustrious Cochin Jewish family. Their home had hosted presidents, prime ministers, viceroys, ambassadors and prominent dignitaries, and their Friday night "open house" dinners were legend.

It was built by merchant Samuel Koder, who constructed it across three floors - one for each of his sons. However, business took the sons far away, until only Satu Koder and his wife Gladys remained. Their daughter Queenie still lives in Jews Street and sold the house to the present owners. Her husband, Sammy Hallegua, is the warden of the Jewish Synagogue, as was her father (for 40 years).

According to the story, the Portuguese design home is believed to have been structured and gabled in Europe, then shipped to Cochin. Its windows are said to be made of Belgian-imported glass.
The Koders emigrated to Cochin from Iraq a few centuries ago. Samuel Koder ran the Cochin Electric Company which was eventually sold to the government.
Also, the Koders had a huge chain of department stores across Kerala, which too, were sold. The stores stocked everything from molasses to pins and flourished. The Koders could be relied on to stock luxury goods such as alcoholic beverages from the UK, fine clothes, and chandeliers from Europe. The owners, of course were like mini royalty.

As Samuel Koder was the honorary consul to the Netherlands, the Dutch ambassadors visited the house often. He also began the Freemasons’ organization in Cochin.

In its heyday under the Koders, the house was known for its famous Friday Open houses. This was a big event on the Cochin social calendar. Though informal, anticipation of the event would build up in mid-week itself. It became a focal point of the Raj literati, glitterati and any one who wished to meet the Koders or know about Indian Jewish lifestyle. Visitors could be as many as 45, or just a handful - among them ambassadors, celebrities or heads of state! Conversation and food was the order of the day.

The New York Times travel section carried a story on Kerala and mentioned Koder House here.

In fact, most of Fort Cochin's new hotels have stories. The all-suite Koder House on the waterfront, is the former residence of one of the city's most prominent Jewish families. ...

To explore the other historic district, Mattancheri, take a 10-minute autorickshaw to Jew Town. At the synagogue, built in 1568, leave your shoes at the door, not for religious reasons, but to protect the 200-year-old, handpainted Chinese floor tiles. The youngest of the 13-member congregation, a 34-year-old woman, took the 2-rupee admission and answered questions (“No, we don't have a rabbi”).

Read the complete stories at the links above.

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