Curtains come down on Hotel Ashok

Sunny Dua
Jammu’s oldest hotel ‘Jammu Ashok’, popularly known as ‘Motel’ shut its door on guests thereby concluding a saga of hospitality that spanned about half a century (48 years). A notice pasted on the front glass door of hotel by it’sGeneral Manager (GM) stating “Indian Tourism Development Corporation Ltd. (ITDC)has ceased complete operations of Hotel Jammu Ashok due to non-extension of lease and land being resumed by Government of UT of J&K with effect from 17-06-2020) came as a shock for guests, especially for those who had been staying here or enjoying hospitality since its establishment on a small hillock over-looking river Tawi way back in 1972.
While a handful of employees who were running the entire operations have been asked to march and seek retirement under Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) or move to other properties of ITDC, the guests have been left high and dry who frequented their favourite city spot even in challenging times especially when the hotel was struggling to survive. The hotel during past few years was not functioning to the full capacity and its profits were on the downslope side. Today because of pandemics when entire hotel industry is closed and bearing the brunt of huge salary components besides maintenance and upkeep of their units, closure of Hotel Ashok also coincided with it.
From the notice pasted on front glass door of Motel by the GM it’s clear that since Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir (UT J&K) refused to extend the lease deed of 64 Kanals of land on which Hotel Motel (Jammu Ashok) is located. However, the hotel otherwise was also unable to sustain competition from private players and its closure was inevitable. Since a lot many new hotels had come up in the city offering modern amenities and better hospitality, ITDC didn’t pay much heed towards this unit in Jammu and Kashmir and gradually winded up all its operations thereby closing curtains on this property that was located amidst forest cover and surrounded by trees from all four sides.
Businessman of Ludhiana, Pawan Kakkar who had been staying in this hotel since 1976 expressed his emotions in just one line saying, “Motel was my second home in Jammu and I feel sad to see it getting shut. The morning mist in winters, fog that touched window panes of hotel in monsoon and warmth of Sun rays that sneaked through same panes in winters always attracted me to stay in Motel even when new properties had come up in Jammu and its vicinities”. However, time took its toll on the hotel and mismatched cutlery during past tome had started indicated its inevitable closure.
Having spent quality time in this property while travelling to Jammu and Kashmir in connection with business, Pawan Kakkar recalls, “the hospitality, warmth of staff (whom I knew by names) and their friendly gestures were enough to stay in Motel on every visit”. It was however regrettable to see the standards of this property scale down to lower grades during last few years. All those General Managers appointed from outside the state never showed any interest in reviving the lost glory of Hotel Ashok (Motel) thereby bringing it to this closure point.
There are many more like him who had their memories tied up to this property. The beautiful lawns and banquet of this hotel besides rooms and restaurants and bar stand witness to several marriages, political meetings, social events, stay of film starts besides high profile politicians and who’s who of the society. Now that it has been closed, clients and loyalists like Mr Kakkar recall the interiors of Hotel that was all decked up in staircases because of its architectural designs due to hill slopes. Staircase to lobby, restaurant, bar, banquet and even lawn provided a great ambience and style to the property, he recalls.
Owned by Union Government, India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) is a hospitality, retail and education company established in 1966 that has several other properties scattered across the nation under the Ashok Group of Hotels brand. While other properties are functioning well, Hotel Jammu Ashok has ceases to operate from June this year now. Located at the foothills of Himalayan Range, Hotel Jammu Ashok had all modern and comfortable amenities including ideally appointed rooms to make guests stay comfortable and convenient but today it has reached its dead end.
Having ample parking, lower tariff as compared to other private properties and spacious suite overlooking Himalayan ranges and river Tawithe hotel, during its peak days, provided doctor on call, laundry and dry cleaning, money changer, travel desk, business centre, telephone and accepted all major credit cards but lack of professional approach forced it to shut its doors on clients. The regular visitors of hotel recall its warm interiors. Gulistan – a multi cuisine restaurant located on a deck, Nagin Bar with black flooring and wooden partitions besides special seating arrangements made this hotel a most sought after property but today this White Elephant which earned less and spent more is dead.
According to RakeshPandoh who retired from this hotel as assistant manager, the hotel that was inaugurated on 9/11, 1972 by the then Union Tourism Minister Dr Karan Singh witnessed hustle bustle during that era. “Having served the hotel for 35 years, I feel sad to see the property closed for its valued guests”, he said adding that 45 room, three storied hotel had all the amenities of a good property and several Jammu people solemnised marriages and engagements of their children here which during that era used to be a matter of pride and talk of the town. The Hotel Ashok also stands witness to several hundred wedding anniversaries, birthdays, farewells, parties, officials meetings, seminars, HRD meets, business meetings and Diwali and Eid parties where who’s who of Jammu participated.
Tourism was at its peak and the hotel was running to full occupancy. Foreign travellers, film stars and Government officials all preferred to get rooms booked here. The property was also listed on social websites but it collapsed because of unprofessional approach, he revealed. Mr Pandoh goes on to recall glory of hotel and added that its swimming pool stayed functional for 20 years but for want of Rs 10 Lakh for repair and renovation it was shut forever. Harassment of staff, unprofessional approach, mismatched cutlery, poor housekeeping, unhygienic kitchen coupled with arrogance on the part of senior functionaries brought a bad name to this hotel, he regretted.
Politicans like late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi too have visited this hotel. Prime Minister Narendra Modi besides senior BJP leaders like L K Advani, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and several other leaders during their political rallies used to stay here, Mr Pandoh recalls and said that when BJP leaders once were destined to go to Lal Chowk in Srinagar for unfurling tricolour the night before they stayed in Hotel Ashok. Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, Professor Bhim Singh, MPs, foreign diplomats, tourists, TV and cine stars, including Anup Jalota, Jitendra, Sanjay Dutt, Govinda, Raj Kumar, Vinod Khanna, Anil Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna and entire team of Ramayana including Ramanand Sagar, Arun Govil and Deepika too have stayed here in this property, he recalled.
Since Katra never had good hotels during that era everyone visiting Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine used to stay here in Hotel Ashok before driving down to foothills of cave shrine. The entire cast of film Jani Dushman, he recalled also stayed in this hotel and from here went to Chenani to shoot the film scenes.
Senior advocate and a PIL activist, Sheikh Shakeel Ahmed giving his legal opinion on the subject said there’s more into it than just the lease deed being not extended shows as major cause of closure of Hotel Ashok. He alleged that a deliberate attempt has been made to close this property that was close to the hearts of people of Jammu, many of whom had their first exposure to hotel hospitality here in this Hotel Ashok and even solemnised marriages of their wards here. It was considered prestigious and was a matter of privilege to sit at a respectable and decent place like Motel in 70s. Many parents used to bring their wards for a pre wedding meet/approvals here as well.
Shakeel said that allotments of contracts, privatisation of banquets, engagement of temporary staff and poor management are all responsible for closure of this prestigious property that now calls for an in-depth inquiry into the mismanagement. Why is that contractors and others including senior officials associated with hotel made a lot of money and the hotel failed? By merely closing the property the ITDC cannot exempt itself from responsibility and also let the onus fall on UT of J&K Government for not extended lease, he asserted.
The ace lawyer said that the hotel has been deliberately failed whose lease had probably expired way back in 2010. How come hotel kept functioning ever since then is a question that needs to be answered. The ITDC could have collaboration with some good hotel chain, outsourced staff or planned something better to save the hotel and career of those working here since past several years. Why is that private hotels that have higher tariff than Motel are making money and this hotel failed is a question that ITDC must answer before winding up from Jammu and escaping from harsh reality checks. Instead of generating employment and brining more companies here, a reverse trend has started to wind up units from UT of J&K, he regretted.
There’s a buzz that Raj Bhawan is likely to be shifted at this place, he said adding that entire staff of hotel including temporary employees are in a fix. Their career has been put at stake. He concluded with a couplet jiskhet se dahqñkomayassarnahñroz, us khetkehar hosha-e-gandumkojal do (Find the field whose harvest is no peasant’s daily bread, Garner in the furnace every ripening ear of wheat!) and added that what’s the use of such investments that can’t guarantee employment for those who gave their lives to the hotel. Instead of shutting down the hotel, ITDC could have found an amicable way out to save property that’s close to the hearts of people of Jammu.
Many say that militancy started in Kashmir resulted in sharp decline of visitors to this hotel. From a staff of about 100 odd professionals it just came down to 20 in a short span. The wage bills soared higher than income. Electricity bill also started pinching the management and the hotel never returned to profitable financial figures. Today, its musty rooms, damp corridors and stinking washrooms have all become reasons for its closure. The first look of a Shikara kept at the entrance of first staircase always attracted tourists before driving or flying to Kashmir where they used to actually see it floating. This sight is sore now.
Madan Gupta, who worked at the front office since 1981 and retired in 2010 said that after Hotel Asia, Cosmo, Premier and TRC, Motel was the first 3 Star property that had come up in Jammu in 1972 and was most sought after area of Jammu’s elite. He said that after old guard retired, the hotel never hired professionals and temporary staff never paid required attention or displayed their professional skills. The management lacked marketing and new hotels also gave a tough competition to Motel. Delhi office started controlling finances and never appointed a good accountant or responsible person here. This resulted in decline of standardised services thereby bringing the hotel to the brink of closure.
Madan Gupta remembers having said a polite ‘NO’ to many for rooms as the hotel on several occasions used to remain jam-packed. There was advance booking system and groups used to descend here in Ashok to enjoy hospitality of only 3-Star property in Jammu. Our restaurant was all time favourite place of families and love birds to hang out for luncheon and dinner meets, he said adding that the beautifully designed bar in filmy style always used to remain jam packed. It’s golden stones cladded walls always attracted clients at first sight.
He said that out of 48 rooms, 10 were on ground floor, 12 on first floor and 26 on second floor. The view from second floor rooms was so serene that all guests used to demand those rooms. This was the only place close to Jammu city that also served the purpose of a picnic with family and friends. The vertical lights falling on ground on both sides of the long drive that guided drivers to the hotel entrance was a sight to watch during evening hours.
For Pawan Kakkar half-hearted renovation of hotel also could not make guests stay here who later switched their loyalty and moved on to stay in other hotels. Indian Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC), he said could have easily planned to retain this “Crown of Jammu” especially when Article 370 is gone and there’s no need of extending lease but the land along with infrastructure could have been easily purchased out rightly. Located close to Raj Bhawan, Jammu City and straightway connected with airport and railway station through a dedicated corridor (Flyover) this ideally located place today, however is a history.
( Inputs by PawanKakkar who had remained a valued guest of Hotel Ashok since 1976)