After the end of colonial rule in India, the government had one ambitious plan- to revive the economy through rapid infrastructural development in the housing sectors. The first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru was very keen on it. The nation also had to grow out of its colonial roots and carve out its own identity symbolizing the birth of a new ‘Bharat’. The perfect time arrived as UNESCO’s 9th convention was said to be held in Delhi. The host was Hotel Ashoka. 

Ashoka Hotel by B E Doctor: Delhi's oldest 5-star hotel - Sheet1
Hotel Ashoka- A perspective from the early days ©Madan Mahatta Archives & PHOTOINK

The Birth of a Hospitality Giant  

The conference was to host the event and the world leaders who would stay in the capital. Hotel Ashoka is named after the great emperor as a tribute. Mumbai based architect B E Doctor was commissioned to construct the structure in a 25-acre space at Chanakyapuri, bang in Lutyens Delhi. 

Comfortably seated on a small mound, the hotel is built just 2 km away from Rashtrapati Bhavan. Yet, it enjoyed much privacy due to the still-developing capital city. The planning includes a pillarless convention hall, 550 guest rooms, a swimming pool and a large garden of 500 plus trees used by the chefs. 

The building was built in a revivalist style, going along with the other architects of this period who followed Russia’s socialist-style construction. Other architectural elements like arches, Darwazas and jali works are incorporated. Built using RCC, the structure was an architectural icon built on a scale which was previously unwitnessed. 

A project of this size needed investments from Rajas and Nawabs, 23 came forward as initial shareholders, among which 15 were princes. The building is modern but clad in pink sandstone, relating to the nearby monuments like Safdarjung Tomb and Qutub Minar. During the construction, Nehruji had inspected the construction progress riding over a horseback, from the foundations to the planting of trees. 

The golden period of Ashoka Hotel

Being the first five-star hotel, Ashoka hotel beat all the competitors at the time of inauguration by creating a non-existent business market. It invited flocks of industrialists, actors and other eminent personalities to relax and move around without the glamour or attention. It is a government-owned property and is the go-to guest house for government officials. 

Air India was a notable regular customer, groups of pilots and air hostesses used the Ashoka as their official place of stay. It also had permanent room bookings from the likes of Dhirubhai Ambani to others. The other star hotels bit the dust to the scale and grandeur of the Ashoka hotel. It was only in the 60s competitors like Oberoi and Taj were starting to bud.  

The Ashoka attained cult status, gaining a loyal fan base within the Delhi crowd. The ministry of tourism formed ITDC, who undertook the responsibility of managing Ashoka. Hotel Ashoka opened one of Delhi’s first night clubs, the supper club. It was also the first to introduce international cuisines. Tokyo, the first Japanese themed restaurant, burgundy, Mediterranean themed restaurants are popular with a fan following. 

Many films were shot, like Amitabh Bachchan’s Laawaris. Eminent personalities and leaders like Bill Clinton, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara have visited and stayed in the hotel. It also had famous staff who worked there, celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor, Usha Uthup sang in the restaurant in her early career days and award-winning novelist Arundhati Roy was a gym instructor. 

The hotel was known for its mango trees which provided for pickles, the Vishnu statue which stands in the lobby from day one to separate table reservations for each room. The room decor was inspired by cultures like South Indian, Kashmiri and others, where the rooms reflect the decor and the styling from the states. 

Ashoka Hotel by B E Doctor: Delhi's oldest 5-star hotel - Sheet2
Bill Clinton during his visit at Hotel Ashoka ©The Ashok’s facebook handle

Impact on Urban Fabric

Built in the posh residential zone, the hotel marks its identity among the diplomatic enclave filled Chanakyapuri. While the area was mostly dense vegetation during construction, Hotel Ashoka altered the urban sprawl as competitors like Leela, ITC Maurya and Samrat settled near it with more five-star hotels. Many embassies were built in the region between the span of the 1950s-70s.

Government officials and business tycoons resided in that area as Hotel Ashoka would accommodate their guests and organize official meetings while they stayed in the neighbourhood. Lush green spaces and open areas were added, which improved the living standards of the affluent families. The user demographic of the area ensured the best-in-class civic amenities and infrastructure. The development of Chanakyapuri was boosted by the hotel. 

Current Status of Hotel Ashoka

Hotel Ashoka was later named Hotel Ashok in the 90s, though called Ashoka colloquially. The rise of Taj and other star hotels dwindled the business of the Ashoka, added to the youngsters who demanded a contemporary hotel over the older ones whose loyal fans have aged beyond the building. ITDC was coping with gradual profit declines. 

At the turn of the millennium, Hotel Ashoka struggled with losses. The government in 2002 planned on disinvestment of the property for making the business profitable. In 2016, Niti Aayog decided to lease/ rent all government hotel properties. More woes arrived as the employees were ill-paid, their stay quarters became dilapidated.

Hotel Ashoka sustained, thanks to its pillarless convention hall that hosted large parties. Through those events came bookings which kept the business running. Though multiple ITDC properties have been sold away, Hotel Ashoka and its neighbour Hotel Samrat remain under the government’s eyes. Even during political turmoil, the management maintained the hotel in high standards, including attaining a LEED gold certification for existing buildings and upgrading hotel facilities to the latest client needs.  

Ashoka Hotel by B E Doctor: Delhi's oldest 5-star hotel - Sheet3
The grandeur of the hotel portrayed through its scale and massiveness  ©

Discussions have been held by the cabinet to convert the land into a commercial complex and to build apartments. Though the loss-making Hotel Ashoka has churned out good profits in recent years, the future of this historically valuable hotel depends on us, the government and its management.  




Vignesh Esakkinathan is a final year architecture student from chennai. He blogs about climate change and productivity with the hopes to become an architectural journalist. When he's not playing cricket, you can see him philosophising life at his rooftop.