Saturday, December 09, 2006

Indian History Trivia (6): India's 1st 5-Star Hotel

Long time since I came back to this series...

One more trivia:

This was back in 1956... India was a young country, and the passion to build India - to bring it to the world forum - was at its peak.

In 1955, in a UNESCO forum in Paris, the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru extended the invitation to hold the summit in India in 1956. The invitation was promptly accepted by the organisers.

But India had neither a hotel of any standard nor a convention centre at that time. When his advisors reminded Nehru about the lack of facilities in New Delhi, he decided to build a hotel and a convention centre.

In a period of 15 months, India built its 1st 5-star hotel. This was a colossal edifice representing the country's post-independence-instilled Revivalist architecture with the rose-pink walls of Kota stone, with Moghul style arches, and the Natraj Suite, the Kashmir Suite, the Rajput Suite and the Presidential Suite, all representing the diversity of the country.

Starting with a 3 story grand building, it grew into a hotel with 550 rooms and 111 suites, spread across 25 acres of land. Nehru used to come and personally supervise the construction.

The cost of such a construction for India was huge at that time - Rs. 3 crores (Rs 30mn). Dr Karan Singh, then the Sadar-i-Riyasat of Kashmir State, and who later became the Minister of Tourism in '60s recalls:

"Panditji said the princes should contribute money to make a good hotel in Delhi. We have nothing to count. He said I will give you land but will you all put in your money? And so we did," (The state of Kashmir along with two more states contributed funds to construct the hotel, but soon the funds shared out for it went dry) "We spent about 10 to 20 lakhs and then ran out of money. We went back to Panditji and the government had to chip in."

And that is how India's first 5-star hotel - Hotel Ashok - came up. And so did Vigyan Bhawan - Asia's First Convention Center!

... Those were the days when govt and business were not inimical (the issue was not about capitalism vs. socialism, as it is now - but about how does one contribute to building a nation). The staff of the Hotel Ashok got trained by the existing Oberoi Maiden staff (just as the initial training of SAIL technical staff happened at TISCO)

In years to come, this place also became the platform for many well-known pubic personalities including Yamini Krishnamurti, Raja Radha Reddy, Hema Malini, Meenakshi Sheshadri and Pt Uday Shankar. It hosted Queen Elizabeth II, Marshall Tito, Margaret Thatcher, Prince Aga Khan, Fidel Castro and innumerable heads of states who came to India (During . Sometime in the late '70s nearly 40 heads of states stayed in the hotel at the same time... And a Saudi Arabian ambassador who stayed in the hotel's presidential suite for three years and held his daughter's marriage reception in the hotel).

Hotel Ashok got a bad reputation when in 1982-83, Zubin Mehta and his team walked out the hotel because of a cockoach!

This year, Hotel Ashok celebated its Golden Jubilee anniversary. According to one obsevation:

"The hotel, at 50 B in New Delhi's Chanakyapuri overlooking the posh Diplomatic Enclave, has plodded through as many as 50 years of life since then, but en route, has not only lost the sparkle of 1956 but also defeated its great history. Sad that no Indian heart today turns fonder at the mention of The Ashok, no heads of state check in there anymore. Like any other state-run establishment, it has long reeled under the weight of demands for free sarkari service from the politicians and their minions, red tape and a fading semblance of maintenance. At least that is the general idea on the street."

A personal note - another trivia - about the "general idea on the street":
I had a chance of attending two conferences - one in Hotel Ashok and the other in another up-market 5-star hotel on Sadar Patel Marg in New Delhi last month. Purely a personal obsevation, but I found that 'Ashok' vs. 'this hotel' was like a comparison between 'class' vs. 'commodity'. Interstingly, the two conferences - one on micro-finance and the other a sort of annual jamboree of functional practitioners of a certain corporate 'discipline' - also reflected this distinction.

Earlier Posts in the Series:
1. The Story of Junagadh
2. The Foundations of "Nehruvian Socialism"
3. A "Nation-in-Making"
4. Legacy of "The Raj"

1st govt-owned 5-star hotel turns 50
In celebration of a legacy


Anonymous said...

Another personal note: This is probably the only five star hotel in which I stayed. Back in 1973, I was coming back to Mumbai from a conference in Tokyo. The plane developed some engine trouble and we were put up in the Hotel Ashok for the night without any luggage. I had to use one of the sheets for a lungi and toothpaste etc were free from the hotel shop. It seemed fairly comfortable then.

Prometheus_Unbound said...


Why don't you put up the "History of Indian Business" course up as a series. I still remember the way you lecture had mesermized us on the afternoon of orientation.

Our seniors had the luck to go through it as a whole course or at worse a half credit course. By our time it had shrunk to an orientation lecture.

It would really be pretty interesting to read about how India developed as an economy.


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