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HindustanTimes Thu,17 Apr 2014

Mark Twain’s Jewel of the East glitters again in Kolkata

HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times  Kolkata, November 19, 2013
First Published: 22:52 IST(19/11/2013) | Last Updated: 22:54 IST(19/11/2013)

A piece of living history, once described by American author Mark Twain as the Jewel of the East, was unveiled in Kolkata on Tuesday when chief minister Mamata Banerjee formally re-launched the 173-year-old Great Eastern Hotel.

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Once reputed to be the first luxury hotel of Asia, the hotel would be known as Lalit Great Eastern in its new avatar.

Built over an area of nearly three acres, the hotel has three blocks – New Block, Heritage Block I and Heritage Block II.

There are 244 rooms and suites, a tea lounge, a bakery, a beer bar, Maxim’s bar and restaurant and Baluchi – the signature Indian restaurant.

The hotel also boasts of an 8,000-sq-feet ball room, a business club with four meeting rooms, a spa, gymnasium, salon, swimming pool and a two-level parking space to accommodate at least 150 cars.  

“The hotel is, however, awaiting some of the licenses which it requires to operate a luxury hotel, one of them being the liquor license. This apart the Heritage Block I is still under restoration. Once these works are done we would be throwing it open for the citizens,” said a spokesperson of the hotel.

Exactly 173 years ago, Englishman David Wilson, encouraged by the success of his thriving confectionary shop in Kolkata, launched a hotel on November 19, 1840 and named it Auckland Hotel after the then Governor General.

Popularly known as the Wilson’s Hotel till 1865, it was renamed as the Great Eastern Hotel thereafter.

“In 1883 it became the country’s first hotel to be fully illuminated with electricity and was the favourite haunt of the elite,” Jyotsna Suri, MD of Bharat Hotels, that now owns the hotel.

The list of celebrities who stayed at the hotel includes Queen Elizabeth II, Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain among others. Mahatma Gandhi too had once stayed here.

Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemens and known for his famous novels ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ and ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, had visited India with his family in 1896.

The hotel, as it stands today, is an amalgamation of the styles of three different eras – Victorian, Edwardian and contemporary reflected in its various blocks.        

Time seems to be standing still as one moves through the various lobbies of the hotel adorned by iron beams and pillars. An eight-feet concrete cup – a replica of the trophy that AL Bilimoria, the then chairman of the hotel received from Queen Elizabeth II after his horse won the race in 1961 – stands tall in the balcony.

The bakery, another gem from the hotel is housed in heritage block II. Parts of the century-old oven, which is not functional anymore, have been preserved and adorn the interior of the bakery. The classic century-old piano – the pride of the legendary bar Maxim’s – has been restored to its original glory.

 “It was in 2005 that the late Lalit Suri bought the hotel from the West Bengal government and brought in architects from Singapore to restore the hotel. You can well imagine what pain we took to restore this hotel. It took 500 trucks to clear the dust, the debris and the wastes,” said Suri.

Great Eastern also marks another landmark – it was the first disinvestment by the former Left Front government.

Eastern lights

* November 19, 1840: David Wilson throws open Auckland Hotel to families and single gentlemen of the Raj era. Popularly known as Wilson’s Hotel.

* 1865: Renamed as Great Eastern Hotel.

* 1970’s: Hotel starts deteriorating as trouble starts among the owners.

* 1975: West Bengal government takes over

* 2005: Lalit Suri buys hotel

* November 19, 2013: Hotel re-launched as the Lalit Great Eastern

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