The power and the glory.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
It is exactly what a sprightly 60-year-old should be—a blend of gravitas and energy.
The Ashok hotel in New Delhi’s Chanakyapuri area, which celebrates its 60th anniversary in October 2016, is still the crown jewel of the India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC). That same month, the ITDC will celebrate its golden jubilee.
Talk of disinvestment peppers the conversation around the Ashok in its landmark year. However, it may not be easy to dispose of.
Right now, as we stand there trying to absorb the spirit of India’s first state-owned five-star hotel, the Ashok is unperturbed, its stateliness still recalling the time when prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru rode on horseback around its premises, paying close attention to the smallest details, including the flower beds. That was when the hotel had just been built, on a rocky forest hillock, in the span of a year, just in time to accommodate the delegates of the ninth session of Unesco, held in the Capital in 1956.
Spread over 25 acres, the Ashok is a self-contained ecosystem. It has more than 500 rooms and 200 trees. It takes 1,000 employees and 35 lakh rupees to run the hotel daily. Everyone in Delhi calls it Ashoka, not Ashok, and it’s no fault of theirs, for the hotel was renamed The Ashok only in 2007, to “boost its image in the competitive market”, according to general manager Vijay Dutt.
The hotel’s unshaded driveway makes its way past a sloping garden lined by almost blinding, flaming-red flowers of gulmohar trees. But the foyer is dark and cool. The lobby has massive chandeliers and staircases. Further inside, a corridor runs deep into the heart of this sandstone edifice.
Colossal though it is, The Ashok finds itself in a delicate situation. Early in 2016, Hindustan Times reported that the government was planning to sell ITDC hotels as part of its strategy to get out of the hotel business. The first disinvestment of ITDC hotels took place under the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA government in 2002. A few months ago, in an interview to The Hindu, Arvind Subramanian, chief economic adviser to the Government of India, repeated the wisdom that the government had no business running hotels. He said, “We should disinvest Ashoka Hotel, but how do you value the land there… I think 50 years we will be in litigation to sort that problem.”
When The Ashok was coming up, Delhi had four opulent hotels: Cecil, Swiss, Maidens and The Imperial. The first two no longer exist; Hotel Cecil was replaced by St Xavier’s School in the late 1950s. And Swiss Hotel has made way for the Oberoi Apartments. The remaining two are lost today in the crowd of luxury hotels that have come up in the National Capital Region, but they have rich histories. The Imperial had a permanent suite for the Nehru family. And Edwin Lutyens planned New Delhi while staying as a guest at Maidens Hotel. Some of the hotels that came later have aged enough to become almost as rich in stories as The Ashok.
Take The Oberoi on Dr Zakir Hussain Marg, which shut down last month for a two-year-renovation. It famously hosted The Beatles. It also had a boutique called Psychedelhi, co-run by Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik when he was still a Delhi aesthete. The gigantic Taj Palace had a gym instructor who went on to become an award-winning novelist—Arundhati Roy.
What then makes The Ashok special?
Owing to its privilege in the new republic as the premier government-run hotel, it is the souvenir of an India long gone. Delhi’s socialist-era society used to assemble within its bougainvillea-covered boundary walls. In 1968, the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, hosted a banquet for a thousand guests at The Ashok to celebrate her son Rajiv’s marriage to his Italian fiancée, Sonia. The feast comprised Parsi, Kashmiri and Italian cuisines. On his only trip to Delhi, in 1959, legendary rebel Che Guevara was a guest at The Ashok. When Cuban president Fidel Castro stayed there, in 1983, the security had three Castro lookalikes at the hotel to confuse potential assassins.
On the other hand, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, while in Delhi to attend Indira Gandhi’s funeral, in 1984, was spotted walking down the hotel’s corridors with a pistol at his hip.
In the 1980s, Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, stayed on the fifth floor as a guest of the government, though he was practically under house arrest. The then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was finalizing the details of the peace accord with Sri Lanka. Four years later, Prabhakaran would plan Gandhi’s assassination and become India’s most wanted person. In 1994, Maulana Masood Azhar, currently one of India’s most wanted terrorists, based in Pakistan, flew into Delhi from Dhaka, Bangladesh, and checked into The Ashok under a false identity.
The hotel has also had a role in the making of an Oscar-winning film. The entire team of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi stayed there while shooting the film in Delhi in the 1980s. Poolside chitchat kept the wives of the British crew entertained. Lead actor Ben Kingsley used the pool area to get the right Gandhi tan.
In The Company Of Women, Khushwant Singh’s novel on sex escapades, the protagonist extolled the conveniences of this Delhi landmark, which aided a discreet rendezvous: “The Ashoka had some advantages which other Delhi hotels did not. It was owned by the government and was the largest hotel in the city. Most important of all, it had a third floor with a lift of its own beside the patisserie along the parking lot. Visitors staying on the third floor did not have to go through the large entrance hall with the reception desk, enquiries and cashier’s counters.”
In the 1970s, a Mumbai-based yarn trader would make day trips to Delhi to meet ministers and bureaucrats and would leave his luggage with a friendly clerk at The Ashok’s reception. It was only later that Dhirubhai Ambani became wealthy enough to keep a room reserved for himself at the hotel.
One afternoon, most of the seats at The Ashok’s Tea Lounge are occupied, though there’s no one around the piano. The hotel’s veteran front office manager, Seema Dogra, mentions a guest who got so attached to playing this piano every evening that he extended his stay from a week to a month last year. An elderly couple from south Delhi come here almost daily after sundown and sit quietly in the tea lounge.
A noteworthy fixture is a stone statue of Vishnu, which has been in the lobby from Day 1. It has developed a following among the hotel’s staff and among some guests too.
The spacious coffee shop, The Samavar, is a cross between laid-back elegance and homely comfort, with its cane chairs and large pool-facing windows. The house music consists of instrumental versions of old Hindi film songs (incidentally, part of a romantic song in the superhit film Chandni was shot right here). The TV screens play Hindi news channels on mute. Former Union minister Jairam Ramesh can often be spotted at a corner table. The ambience is much more relaxing than the coffee shops in other hotels; even a first-time visitor to a luxury hotel will feel instantly soothed.
Interestingly, a number of royals played an important role in the making of the state’s five-star hotel—fifteen of the 23 shareholders of The Ashoka Hotels Ltd, the company that was later absorbed into the ITDC, were ruling princes. The maharaja of Nawanagar presided over the new hotel’s foundation ceremony.
Designed by Bombay-based architect E.B. Doctor, the hotel would have looked like a typical Soviet-era creation, like so many government buildings in New Delhi, but for the inclusion of traditional Indian motifs of jharokhas and chhatris. Author V.S. Naipaul, ever hard to please, dismissed these inclusions as reducing the ancient Indian culture to “comic little cupolas”. Mr Naipaul had stayed at the Ashok in the 1960s—a Google search throws up a photograph of him, bare-chested, by the hotel’s poolside. In his book The Writer And The World: Essays, Mr Naipaul fleetingly touched upon the hotel, talking of the “worn carpets”, “the grimy armchairs in the service lounge” and “the long-handled broom abandoned there by the menial in khaki who had been cleaning the ventilation grilles”.
If only Mr Naipual had paid more attention. The Ashok is far from the tired picture he paints; it showed a dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit ahead of its time. The hotel gave the city its first French speciality restaurant (Burgundy), its first Japanese speciality restaurant (Tokyo) and its first Korean speciality restaurant (Kumgang). The Taverna Cyprus used to be the only place in town for Cypriot food, long before Mediterranean fare became the go-to cuisine in the Capital.
As early as 1959, The Ashok introduced buffet lunches (for 26 rupees) in Delhi at its Peacock Room restaurant, which also had a stage for dancers and musicians. The hotel’s Rouge et Noir restaurant was known for the cabaret. And how can one talk of The Ashok without mentioning the Supper Club, one of Delhi’s earliest nightclubs. Some of the performers at the Supper Club went on to become famous singers, such as Usha Uthup, Sharon Prabhakar and Vijay Benedict. The Supper Club was also famous for its haute cuisine. Its French chef, Roger Moncourt, was a legend; he trained Vijay Thukral, the current executive chef of the India International Centre, among others.
These exciting hang-outs are long gone. For more than a decade, the hotel has been leasing out spaces to privately run restaurants. Some of them, such as the Sagar Ratna, are extremely popular. The gym, operated by Amatrra Spa, provides a rarefied space for upper-crust Delhi to sweat it out among their own set. Its members include the cream of Delhi’s political, corporate and diplomatic world. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi comes here daily to pound the treadmill.
Until it closed down in 2012, following the expiry of its lease, the F-bar nightclub at The Ashok was one of the hottest party spots in the Capital. The Capital disco, which stands at the site of a post office (yes, the hotel had its own post office), continues to attract Delhi’s young crowd in its 15th year. This is a miraculous achievement when so many other legendary discos in the city have shut down—remember Ghungroo in Maurya, Number One in Taj Mahal, Djinns in Hyatt and My Kind of Place in Taj Palace?
The safest years for The Ashok and ITDC ended with the economic reforms of the 1990s. Since then, the sword of Damocles has been hanging over it, with questions being asked about just what business the government has running hotels. It took, however, some more years to disinvest some ITDC hotels. Eighteen properties were sold within a year. The Khajuraho Ashok was sold for a mere 2 crore rupees. In Delhi, Kanishka was given away for 96 crore rupees (it is now known as Shangri-La’s-Eros Hotel). Today, Delhi is left with three ITDC hotels, including Janpath and Samrat, which is just behind The Ashok (curiously, The Ashok did not receive a single bid when it was put up twice for long-term lease during the sale of ITDC hotels).
The hotel has expanded beyond its original building. The annexe was built in 1967 and more floors were added in the 1980s. The hotel’s last major renovation, which cost 70 crore rupees, took place in 2010, when it was one of the “family hotels” of the Commonwealth Games.
Though the government seems eager to check out of The Ashok, the hotel continues to benefit from its connections. It earns a major portion of its revenue by hosting government-sponsored delegations and conferences. A special tie-up with state-run Air India keeps 150 rooms booked daily for the flight crew. It’s impossible to linger in the lobby and not see a sari-clad Air India hostess.
According to the front office manager, the hotel’s average occupancy in the lean months of summer hovers around 50%, increasing to 80% in winter. The annual turnover in 2014-15 was 148 crore rupees, an increase of 21 crore rupees from the previous financial year. The ITDC, too, has performed well. Its turnover for the same period was 505 crore rupees. Thsi year, the corporation was awarded the “Fastest Growing Miniratna” title at the 7th Dalal Street Investment Journal’s Best PSU Awards for 2015—the ceremony was held at the Ashok.
One of the most striking views of The Ashok is from the adjacent Nehru Park. All that is visible of the building is a section of the upper floors and their latticed balconies. The monumental building looks fragile, almost like an illusion.
Ashoka the great