City Landmark – The Ashok, Chanakyapuri
The 5-star hotel at 65.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The red sandstone edifice is regal. The sweep of the driveway is as majestic. Just walking on it makes you feel like a head of State on way to meet a fellow head of State. Such is the grandness of this landmark hotel. 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. India’s first state-owned five-star hotel will turn 65 in October. It was built on a rocky hillock in New Delhi’s Chanakyapuri, just in time to accommodate the delegates of the ninth session of Unesco, held in the Capital in 1956.
Here are some of the famous (and infamous) guests who checked into The Ashok over the years.
On his only trip to Delhi, in 1959, legendary rebel Che Guevara was a guest here.
Bombay-based industrialist JRD Tata would stay here, back in the 1950s when the Tatas had no hotel properties of their own in the Capital. He was always given room 442, which would cost ₹250 per day.
In 1968, the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, hosted a reception for a thousand guests here to celebrate her son Rajiv’s wedding with Sonia.
Author VS Naipaul stayed here 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, he described the hotel in his usual disdainful style, 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”.
In the 1970s, a Mumbai-based yarn merchant would make day trips to Delhi to meet ministers and bureaucrats, and would leave his luggage with a friendly clerk at the hotel’s reception. It was only later that Dhirubhai Ambani became sufficiently rich to keep a room reserved for himself at the hotel. He once gifted a bell boy named Dhanush Kodi shares of his company, advising him not to sell them anytime soon.
When Cuban president Fidel Castro stayed here, in 1983, the security had three Castro lookalikes at the hotel to confuse potential assassins.
When Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat came to attend Indira Gandhi’s funeral in 1984, he 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 who later planned Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, stayed in the hotel under the watchful eyes of the government.
The entire team of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi stayed here while shooting the film in Delhi in the 1980s. The film’s lead actor Ben Kingsley would hang out in the pool area to get the right Gandhi tan.
In 1994, Masood Azhar, currently one of India’s most wanted terrorists, flew into Delhi from Dhaka, Bangladesh, and checked into this hotel under a false identity (Portuguese passport!).
This Wednesday, the hotel hosted the Indian medallists of the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics. Avani Lekhara, the first Indian woman to win a gold in Paralympics, was spotted at The Oudh restaurant, graciously letting starstruck fans photograph her while having lunch.