The hospitality jewels — each a milestone in Indian luxury — which played a crucial role in the making of the Indian republic. On India’s 72nd Republic Day, rediscover their charm.
As we celebrate India’s Republic Day, it has been 72 years since India proclaimed herself a democratic republic. Seventy-two eventful years that witnessed a tedious but decisive steed of an exhausted but hopeful mass of diversity, uplift, revitalize and re-construct a nation.
While many things have changed over the decades, perhaps the one thing that has remained a constant throughout our collective history and rings true even today is the fact that India is a land of pilgrims — a land of travellers crisscrossing the length and breadth of this sub-continent — exchanging ideas, flavours, customs and memories.
Right from the Bhimbetka caves discovered in central India, which are at least 10,000 years old, to the various viharas, sarais, matts, temple sheds, musafir-khanaas, heaatals, dharamshalas, yatri nivas, beajanshalas, and panth niwas’ dotting every nook and corner of the country, Indians have had an unbroken living tradition of travelling.
Something that came to an abrupt halt last year.
Apart from being the most awaited year in recent memory, 2021 is also the year when many of us plan to re-start travelling. This republic day, perhaps it is apt to revisit some of the iconic monuments of Indian hospitality — the landmarks that not just witnessed the making of the Indian republic but also played a part in it.
The LaLiT Great Eastern Hotel, Kolkata: A jewel from the east
Like all good and sweet things, we’d like to start this journey from West Bengal. The first hotel on our list is also the oldest. Once dubbed as the best hotel east of the Suez and the oldest hotel in Asia, the primary adda of all fortune seekers, soldiers, cricketers, governors, writers and the royals — a host to the likes of Mark Twain, Queen Elizabeth II, Ho Chi Minh and Mahatma Gandhi.
This iconic hotel, which started as a bakery about 181 years ago, is a stately witness to the glory days of the Raj and of a Calcutta which was the capital of India. After being taken over by the Bharat Hotel Group and a seven-years-long meticulous and no-expenses-barred restoration, The Great Eastern, in its modern avatar as The LaLiT Great Eastern Hotel, is a hotel soaked in legacy peppered by all the imaginable trappings of modernity, and perhaps the best location for someone planning to explore the heart of Kolkata. That’s why the Great Eastern in its modern-day avatar is the first choice among modern-day pilgrims, who land in Kolkata from around the world.
The Great Eastern, among other things, reminds one of the memory of Late Lalit Suri, the founder of the Lalit and Bharat Hotel Group. Suri was an automobile engineer, born just a few weeks before the independence of India in the then small town of Rawalpindi.
The city, which is named after the great Rajput father figure, Bappa Rawal, apart from being the most ‘consequential’ city of modern-day Pakistan, was also the hometown to another great hotelier and son of India, one Mr Mohan.
The Oberoi Cecil, Shimla: An icon in the hills
At the tender age of 24, within weeks of his marriage, a young Mohan was forced to leave his hometown due to a surging epidemic of plague in the areas around Rawalpindi. In search of livelihood, he reached the summer capital of India — Shimla, and on failing to secure employment with the government, he decided to take up a small-time job in a big-time hotel.
In little over a decade, this young man rose through the ranks of hotel employees and managed to buy the hotel from its British owners — laying the foundation of one of the greatest chain of Indian hotels. We remember him today as Late Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi of the famous The Oberoi Group of Hotels, and the hotel he first worked in is a luxurious icon of Indian history, perhaps the most coveted address in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Established in 1884, the Cecil, now known as The Oberoi Cecil, played host to a galaxy of who’s who, over the years, which includes the likes of Rudyard Kipling, Jim Corbett and Jawaharlal Nehru. A modern-day hotel is a time machine that transports its patrons to an era long gone, amidst modern amenities, which include an exquisite heated swimming pool, luxuriously aged wooden floors, a modern spa, colonial fireplaces, lip-smacking cuisines to look forward to, and a view of the Himalayas to die for.
The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai: The gateway to Indian luxury
The change of ownership of The Cecil from the British to Indian hands was a rare event of its time. Around those days, most of the well-known hotels in India were owned by the British, French or Swiss Nationals. While Cecil was the crown up in the Himalayas, the most coveted hotel in western India was a 5-storey edifice of opulence and stately grandeur, built in wrought-iron — known among the well-heeled of Bombay (Mumbai now) as the Watson’s Hotel.
While some question the veracity of the story, according to legend, Indian industrialist Jamshetji Tata was once denied entry into the Watson’s hotel for not being a white person.
Enraged by this act of discrimination, the founder of the Tata empire decided to build a hotel much grander, opulent, lavish than the Watson’s, and thus came to life the still dreamy, The Taj Mahal Palace at Apollo Bunder.
If you ever visit the Taj, do take a moment to look up the staircase that leads up to the main lobby of the hotel carefully. On these very steps, Lord Mountbatten announced the official decision to give freedom to India. Here again, the last Governor-General had his last lunch before he bid an official farewell to India.
The Taj opened its doors to the public in 1903, and one of the first stately banquets was hosted by none other than the great Ranji (of the Ranji Trophy fame), in honour of the then Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner, who’d just been inducted into the prestigious Imperial War Cabinet.
Taj Connemara: A lady like no other
Ranji, better known as Jam Sahib or Maharaja Ranjitsinji of Navanagar, not just helped popularise cricket in India but was also one of the first Indians to buy a major property in Great Britain. He acquired the castle of Ballynahinch in the Connemara region of Ireland as his summer retreat, the same Connemara region which gave us the infamous Lord Connemara, one-time governor of the Madras Presidency.
Both the elder brother and father-in-law of Lord Connemara had been the governors-general of India, the highest position of power in the subcontinent, and he, too, was in line to become one, when all his dreams and hopes came crashing down.
According to one version, the ‘honourable’ Lord was caught red-handed, cuddling with one of the maids, in the presumed absence of Lady Connemara, by Lady Connemara herself! Shocked by what she saw, the lady moved out of the governor’s mansion and became the only female guest of a hotel, frequented by British officers and soldiers, for four long months.
The Lady took a rather expensive divorce form the Lord and the hotel she stayed in, adopted her name. It stands today in the heart of the capital of Tamil Nadu as the Taj Connemara, Chennai.
Often rated in history as one the best hotels in the world, The Taj Connemara has the distinction of being the oldest luxury hotel, with the first licensed bar, and the first hotel to get air-conditioning in southern India.
The Connemara of today is a beautiful showcase of the history and culture of southern India, a spectacle of opulence and a relaxed old-world charm — with state of the art amenities and perhaps the best chefs of the region. If you happen to walk through the lobby of this hotel, tread carefully, as amidst the bustle sits a grand piano, which will turn 100 next year.
Bolgatty Palace and Island Resort, Kochi: A Dutch surprise
The story of Lord Connemara’s transgressions in the governor house of Madras became the most talked about the scandal of its time. Before the heat of scrutiny took away his job and prestige, Lord Connemara often shifted his gubernatorial base out of Madras (Chennai today), to one of his favourite destinations, the palace of the British Resident of Cochin, an exclusive British controlled former Dutch palace built on an island, near the northern tip of the scenic Vembanad back-water — Bolgatty Palace and Island Resort, Kochi.
Built in the year 1744, on a dramatic location surrounded by the picturesque backwaters of Kerala, The Bolgatty Palace served as the governor’s mansion for both the Dutch and the British.
Depicted as a villa housing countless villains and would be fathers-in-law in popular Malayalam cinema, The Bolgatty Palace of today is an unforgettable modern landmark, boasting a 9-hole golf course surrounding the property, a swimming pool, an Ayurvedic spa, amazing food and daily live performance of Kathakali.
Not very far from the Ayurveda-shala set up by the famous Shri Panavally Krishnan Vaidyar, which was chosen by Dr B R Ambedkar for treating his son’s ailments, this is the oldest surviving Dutch palace outside Holland and possibly the best heritage hotel in Kerala.
The Ashok, New Delhi: The first 5-star of independent India
The Bolgatty Palace is situated on the northern end of the historic Vembanad backwaters. At the southern tip is Punnamada, the venue of the iconic annual spectacle of Kerala — the Nehru Trophy Boat Race.
The race was inaugurated just a year after the ratification of the Indian constitution by the first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.
Nehru, in those days, was trying to rebuild ‘Brand India’ and wanted the country to host the 9th UNESCO World Conference in New Delhi. There was just a small issue — there weren’t any 5-star hotels in Delhi fit enough to host the international leaders and officials who will travel to India for the conference.
Given the shortage of funds in a newly-minted democracy, Nehru pulled a few personal strings with the royals of that era and convinced the Maharaja of Kashmir, along with a few other royals, to donate resources for the construction of the first government-owned 5-star hotel —The Ashok, New Delhi.
Over the years, The Ashok has played hosts to the likes of Dhirubhai Ambani, Bill Clinton, Richard Attenborough, the Dalai Lama and Che Guevara. The old hands at the hotel even boast of seeing Yasser Arafat walking down the lobby, carrying his pistol, and Sir Ben Kingsley lounging around the pool to get his Oscar-winning ‘Gandhi’ tan.
Built on a rocky forest hillock, the best thing about The Ashok is its location. The second best thing is the food. If you happen to dine at the hotel, don’t forget to ask for a helping of their famous mango pickle — it comes from a tree growing within the hotel premise, planted by Nehru himself.
The LaLiT Grand Palace Hotel, Srinagar: A paradise within paradise
If you thought, the location of The Ashok was a winner, wait till you see the location of the palace of The Ashok’s financier, the erstwhile Maharaja of Kashmir.
Sandwiched between the Zabarwan range, bustling with apple trees as the backdrop, and the ethereal Dal Lake in the front, The Gulab Palace of Srinagar — the official residence of the Maharaja of Kashmir — is one of those rare destinations no camera can ever do true justice to.
This is the stuff dreams are made of — a landscape as perfect as a painting, where every open window of your room doubles as an art panel by an expressionist suffering from a severe case of a vivid imagination. The destination is so beautiful, it makes you realise the true meaning of the word ‘breath-taking’.
Built in 1910, the palace is known today as The LaLiT Grand Palace Hotel, Srinagar.
It would have been a great destination to stay in even if all you could do was pitch a tent. But the architecture, the symmetry, the unbelievably intricate Khatamband ceilings and the art encased within its centurion walls makes this palace a crucial tick-box in your bucket list.
In case you happen to visit, please do take a customary dip in the famous heated swimming pool of the palace — another checkmark of this pilgrimage.
The Imperial, New Delhi: The first witness of the partition
Far off from beautiful Kashmir, but not very far from The Ashok, stands one of the famous four maidens of the East, a souvenir from a past long gone by. The primary witness to the partition of India — The Imperial, New Delhi.
Inaugurated in 1936 (1931, according to some sources), The Imperial was the first luxury hotel in Delhi and remained one of the most coveted addresses in India before independence. It was the hotel of choice for heads of states, politicians, governors and everyone who wanted to look important in Delhi.
History was made here when The Imperial played host to Pandit Nehru, Mahatama Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Lord Mountbatten, as they discussed the modalities of the partition of India.
The Imperial of today is a magnum opus in luxury, hosting perhaps the largest collection of colonial artefacts in the capital, which includes the very chair King George V sat on during his inauguration — making it a museum of a hotel.
If you happen to visit, do check the gallery of paintings and rare photographs documenting an era when New Delhi was just a city of tents and Raisina was just a grazing hill.
Taj Falaknuma Palace: A palace just like the sky
It is said that the Imperial in Delhi, was the last hotel that Dr Rajendra Prasad stayed in, before shifting to a ‘slightly’ larger abode, The Rashtrapati Bhavan, as the first President of the Indian Republic.
It is also said that after becoming the President of India, the first hotel Dr Rajendra Prasad stayed in, was the unforgettable, The Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad.
Located about 2000 feet above the city of Hyderabad, Falaknuma literally means – ‘Like the sky’. Built with a princely home loan of 40 Lakhs underwritten by the then Bank of Bengal, Falaknuma Palace was a passion project of the then Prime Minister of Hyderabad state, Nawab Sir Viqar-ul-Umra.
It was meant to be the private family home of the Prime Minister — but as luck would have it, he once invited his boss, the richest man in the world of his time, the Nizam of Hyderabad, for a short stay at his palace. A ‘short’ stay that got stretched so long that the Prime Minister had to hand over the whole property to the Nizam for a paltry sum and shift out with his family to a more humble abode.
Today, it is managed by IHCL as Taj’s palatial property. If you happen to visit, don’t miss the customary ride of the royal horse carriage around the property. In case you’re interested, the hotel also organises a live rendition of Qawwali in the evening.
Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur: The most romantic hotel in the world
Most of the money spent on the construction of the Falaknuma went into sourcing the marbles from the pahar kuan mines in Makrana — the same source which provided the marbles for the Taj Mahal in Agra.
The Makrana of Rajasthan is named after the Makran coast of Balochistan, which is where the royals of Rajasthan brought the original bunch of stone carving artisans from. They, over generations, have contributed to the building and design of almost every iconic palace, fort and haveli in Rajasthan, Agra, Bundelkhand and Delhi.
One of the first major architectural projects undertaken by these artisans was the Jag Mandir Palace Udaipur. Much before the Taj, the world knew Jag Mandir as the ‘Miracle in Marble’ — a palace built on a small island, surrounded by the scenic Pichola Lake. This exquisite palace once acted as a refuge for the Mughal Prince Khurram — the same Prince who went on to become the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal.
Overlooking the enchanting Jag Mandir, on another island in the same Pichola Lake, stands an even more picturesque – The Taj Lake Palace Hotel, Udaipur.
Playing a central plot in many Indian and American movies, the Lake Palace Hotel is known as the most romantic hotel in the world. The unending list of who’s who this floating paradise has played host to, includes the likes of Shah of Iran, Queen Elizabeth, the Monarch of Nepal and the US first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy.
According to a legend, the king of Udaipur once challenged a famous natini to cross the Pichola Lake, walking on a tight rope. The prize for completing the feat — half the kingdom of Mewar! As per the story, the skilful natini almost made it, when the Maharaja, fearing the outcome, ordered for the rope to be cut, drowning her in the lake. It is said that the dying natini put a curse on the royal family of Udaipur, who, from then on, never had any direct descendants or heirs.
Taj Umaid Bhawan, Jodhpur: Reliving the imperial era
Speaking of curses, it was a curse on the Rathore dynasty, the rulers of Marwar, by a saint, which is said to have resulted in a severe drought and famine in and around modern-day Jodhpur in Rajasthan.
Faced by hardships, the people sought help from their sovereign, Maharaja Umaid Singh, who decided to initiate a unique food for work program — the construction of a massive palace like no other, one of the largest royal residences in the world, the last of the great palaces of India – Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur.
Apart from being one of the most luxurious hotels in the world in the Taj’s bouquet of hotels, the Umaid Bhavan Palace is also a private residence for the royals of Jodhpur and a museum that houses about 15,000 of the most precious memorabilia from an era gone by.
Among the precious items on display are several antique cars, the original swords of the glorious Rathores, the exquisitely carved matchlocks sourced from the finest Portuguese gun-smiths of yore, Jezails from Sindh, with gun-powder flasks made from mother of pearls, and a collection of armaments made in pure gold.
Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace is the pinnacle of Indian hospitality, a lavish hat tip to an era of the excess, a picturesque reminder of a rich heritage and architectural traditions of an India which has moved on. It not just a luxury hotel, but a unique opportunity to experience a king’s life, king’s size, in all its literal senses.
The Elgin Palace, Darjeeling: A king’s palace in the Queen of Hills
At the time of Indian independence, the modern-day state of Rajasthan was loosely recognised as Rajputana, which consisted of 22 small and large princely states such as Kotah, Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaipur.
After the completion of the formalities for the amalgamation of these princely states into the Indian union, led ably by the then Union home minister, Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, Maharaja Sawai Man Singh of Jaipur was made the first Rajyapramukh or head of state for the newly united Rajasthan. This made Maharani Gayatri Devi the first lady of this united province.
The chief consort of the Maharaja of Jaipur, Maharani Gayatri Devi was also the daughter of Maharaja Jitendra Narayan, the king of Cooch Behar.
The Maharaja of Cooch Behar, apart from being a failed cricketer, a successful eradicator of tigers in his area, and a handsome heartthrob of his time, was also a person gifted with a keen eye for luxury and all things good in life. His summer palace, thus, was built in an exclusive location, overlooking the mighty Kanchenjunga, in the lap of the most expensive tea estates of the world, about 6000 feet above the sea level.
A palace with a story as interesting as the tales of the Maharaja himself — we know it today as the oldest heritage hotel of the Gurkha land, The Elgin, Darjeeling.
Built in 1887, The Elgin has played host to the likes of Dominique Lapierre, The Crown Prince of Sikkim and the great Bengali writer of detective fiction (among other things), Bharat Ratna, Satyajit Ray.
Ananda in the Himalayas: A place truly life-changing.
The Elgin was originally named after Lord Elgin, the opium baron par excellence, the acquirer of the prized Elgin marbles, the capturer of Hong Kong, the prime reason behind the burning of the parliament buildings in Montreal, the decimator of Guangzhou, the smasher of the old summer palace in Peking, and the Viceroy and Governor-General of British India.
After seeing so much action in life, Lord Elgin died due to a sudden heart attack when he happened to glance down while crossing a dodgy rope bridge, not very far from the erstwhile kingdom of Tehri and Garhwal, in the foothills of the Himalayas.
After the Indian independence, the last king of Tehri Garhwal, the custodian of the holy Badrinath temple, Lt. Col. Maharaja Manabendra Shah, decided to merge his kingdom in the union of India. His ancestral home, the Narendranagar Palace has now been converted into one of the most exclusive wellness spa and resorts in the world – The Ananda in the Himalayas.
Perhaps the most Instagram-friendly spa retreat in the world, this exclusive 100-acre palace, surrounded by virgin forests, is a happy marriage of modern amenities and the spiritual charm of an India we all seek.
Ananda in the Himalayas, today, is the No.1 go-to destination for Hollywood celebrities and the maharajas of industries around the world, offering a truly life-changing experience amidst breath-taking mountains and divine comforts.
If you’re here, do take some time out of your busy schedule of recharging your soul — grab a piping hot cup of coffee and sit for a while on a bench overlooking the holy Ganga, as it snakes down in a hurry through the town of Rishikesh. Perhaps it would make you think of the wishes that never came true, perhaps you’d have a long pending chat with your most special friend, You.
And thus ends our list of 13 special Indian hotels. 13 milestones in Indian luxury and hospitality. 13 jewels waiting to be rediscovered by you this year. Here is wishing you a happy 2021 and a Happy 72nd Republic Day.