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EXPERT SPEAK

Another Reason: THE ASHOK - Profit Plus - Hugh & Colleen Gantzer

Monday, October 13, 2014, 10:00 Hrs  [IST]

hugh_and_colleen_gantzer.jpgThe Prime Minister had a problem
As India’s first elected head of government he had to steer his ancient, but newly independent, country through the floating debris of the post-World War years. The smug colonial era had fractured. Socialism was the grand new vision but the people of India had given themselves a Sovereign Democracy. He realised that our rich cultural heritage could serve as a beacon to the war-ravaged people of the west, groping for meaning. The best way to do so would be to bring the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to India. A UNESCO meeting in Delhi would turn the world’s spotlight on our great strengths and most urgent needs. But to attract these international delegates he had to offer them the sort of facilities that they were used to.

That was the problem
He could spend the people’s money to build a suitable conference hall but where could he house the high-powered delegates?  There was no hotel in Delhi that could meet their high expectations. How could he sell the idea of a super-luxury hotel built with money that, arguably, should be spent on the poorest of the poor? It was a critical moral dilemma. He found a superb solution.

Very astutely he tapped the goodwill and the resources of the ruling princes of India, generally revered by their people as the living embodiments of their heritage. Most of them were eager to contribute to the development of new India. Of the 23 original shareholders of The Ashoka Hotels Limited, on  October 22, 1956, 15 were from the ruling princes starting with  His Highness Yuvraj Karan Singh of Jammu & Kashmir  and  Her Highness Yuvrani Yasho Rajya of the same princely state. The largest financial contribution was made by the ruling family of Nawanagar. Fittingly, H.H.Jam Saheb Digvijayasinghji of Nawanagar, in Gujarat,  presided over the ground-breaking ceremony, the bhoomi poojan, of the new hotel.

Sohan Singh – a spry, bearded, 78-year-old tailor, and the oldest employee-contractor of the Ashok – remembers those days with remarkable clarity.

the_ashok_new_delhi.jpg

There was only a path through the jungles then but everyone was working tirelessly - the workers, the supervisors, everyone. The contractor was Tirath Ram Ahuja and he had the whole hotel built in one year. He was so good that the British asked him to build their Embassy. It was the first Embassy in Chanakyapuri.

After the ground-breaking ceremony, the wilderness became a hive of activity. Sandstone, quarried from Rajasthan and matching the predominant red of Lutyens Delhi, was cut and shaped by traditional artisans.

To us, the soaring arch above the entrance evokes images of the northern entrance of Delhi’s 16th century Talaq Darwaza in the Old Fort of the Mughals. But the great wheel of the Hindu Sun Temple in Konarak, and hints of Buddhist idioms, proclaim a more ancient heritage..

This is where the Ashok rises far above the profit motive that underlines all other hotels, including those housed in palaces, castles and other heritage properties. According to scholar-prince, Dr.  Karan Singh who was the first  Minister of Tourism and Civil Aviation of India,  the Prime Minister called him and said:

“This should also be a cultural centre, a place where Indian art and culture are displayed’ ... I bought a beautiful Nataraj. I also added the Konarak Wheel”

The Wheel dominates the flight of steps leading to the main entrance of the hotel. It is a replica of one of the 24 great stone wheels of the famed Temple of the Sun, signifying the 24 fortnights of the year. To really understand such icons, we have to read beyond the beautiful form of the image and understand its content.

The Nataraj bronzes in the Ashok resemble South Indian sculptures crafted in the 12th century, and yet they have been interpreted to express 21st century ideas. The Tandav dance of Lord Siva both destroys and then re-creates the Universe, the ring of fire encircling the Nataraj could depict the expanding universe and his flowing strands of hair may represent a preconception of the modern String Theory. Then, in Indic belief, when Siva ends his dance, the universe descends into the quiescence of a Night of Brahma

How does it all begin again?  Also in the Ashok is an icon of Lord Vishnu, the Preserver, sleeping on the serpent of eternity, Shesha. His name could mean  ‘Remainder’. Something of the initial impetus remains dormant. Then, when the period of dormancy ends, a lotus sprouts from the navel of the sleeping Vishnu and flowers to reveal Brahma, the Creator, seated within it. The universe is reborn.

The lotus is a symbol of rebirth in all Indic faiths.

After its rebirth in the Day of Brahma, the world passes through ten ages. Every age requires a spiritual guide who is an incarnation of the Preserver, Vishnu. He comes to the earth “ ... age after age, to redeem the sin of the sinner and restore righteousness”

This is depicted in a beautifully carved panel in the lobby of one of the floors. There is Matsya, the Fish Incarnation; Kurma  the Tortoise; Varaha the Boar; Narasimha, the Man-lion; Vamana, the Dwarf; Parasurama, Rama with the Axe; Ramachandra, the Prince; Krishna, the Urbane Leader; Buddha; the Spiritual Reformer; and Kalki, the last incarnation of the Day of Brahma riding on a horse. In some depictions of the Ten Avataras, the Dusavataras, Balarama with the plough of a farmer is included and the Buddha is left out

This sequence seems to pre-date Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by many centuries. In fact, it goes beyond it to include the social development of humans. In an inspired flight of imagination, Avatara Kalki on his horse is interpreted as depicting the Bionic Man, humans and machines perfectly melded.

This is why we say that though the Ashok earns a profit as all other hotels do, it  goes far beyond that.  It is also a prime icon of our ancient, and perceptive, cultural heritage.

(To write this, Hugh & Colleen Gantzer drew on their extensive notes made in the Ashok when researching their coffee table book The Ashok:Capital Icon.)

 
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