An Indian Icon Reborn: The Imperial Hotel Reclaims Its Glory Days

Since it was built in the early 1930s, the Imperial Hotel has been the place to be for politicians and celebrities alike. Newly, refurbished, it’s back, and more glamorous than ever.

05.13.14 10:00 PM ET

Few hotels feature in the blueprint of a city.  

In the early 1900s, when British architect Edwin Lutyens designed New Delhi with its concentric roads lined by majestic trees, he left a spot for the Imperial Hotel on one of the main boulevards, Queensway (later renamed Janpath). A stylish art-deco building with 80 spacious suites, the luxury hotel has become an icon in the city. 

Throughout the years, though, the Imperial emerged as more than just a sleeping spot. Built in the early 1930s, and seated in the heart of the British Raj’s political capital (which shifted from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911), the Imperial hosted influential leaders of the time: India’s president-to-be Jawarharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Pakistan’s future president Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and the British Raj’s commander-in-chief Lord Mountbatten. Often meeting in the coffee shop, they would discuss, debate, and determine the future of India. Nehru and Jinnah even stayed at the Imperial for extended periods of time in private suites. 

The room rates hovered near 20 rupees a night, compared to 20,000 rupees a night nowadays (about $350 per day). Even then, it was beyond the reach of most Indians; only a select few of the elite met there for social gatherings. In 1936, however, Lord Willingdon, the British viceroy, held a regal ball for 15,000 guests, in hopes of raising more funds to furnish the hotel. 

As India gained freedom, and matured into herself, the Imperial began to fall apart. The five-star hotel was anything but a luxury destination in the ’60s and ’70s.  Rather, it turned into a stomping ground for backpackers.  

In the 1980s, Jasdev Singh Akoi, a Delhite whose grandfather built the hotel, began the tidying-up process, which lasted nearly two decades.  And tidy he did: adding a massive 5,000-piece private art collection of vintage photographs, paintings, antiques, and sculptures; new restaurants such as the famous Southeast Asian-inspired Spice Route; Italian marble floors; a larger, more open foyer and lounge; French linens; American fixtures; and much more.   

While the fixings received a global touch and a Chanel shop found its way into the lobby, the Imperial retained the romanticism of bygone days. Down the main corridor, endless photos and sketches line the walls, illustrating Delhi’s majestic Mughal architecture, and portraits of historical royalty. In fact, the Imperial is referred to as Delhi’s largest art gallery today, especially for colonial and postcolonial gems. The Patiala Peg, a polo bar, pays homage to its namesake: the Maharaja of Patiala, a clever fellow who intoxicated the British team before a sporty match of “tent-pegging,” in which players use a lance to fetch a peg while perched on a horse. His team routed the British and hence, at the Patiala Peg, drinks are served in 75 ml glasses, compared to the standard 60 ml. “A little extra doesn’t hurt,” jokes Vijay Wanchoo, the general manager and executive vice president of the Imperial. 

The Imperial’s affair with politics continues today, though perhaps not as deeply as it did in the Nehru-Gandhi era.  Sonia Gandhi, the leader of India’s Congress Party, began frequenting the hotel as a newlywed in search of European-style pastries over 30 years ago. Today, she still visits the hotel for its acclaimed Italian restaurant San Gimignano.  But she’s got glittering company in the form of global celebrities such as Virgin’s Richard Branson, the Queen of the Netherlands, and a league of Hollywood stars. 

They’re all greeted by one man, Mr. Inder Kumar.  Kumar has stayed with the Imperial through its renovations, starting his career in 1985 at the hotel. His job description is rather odd, but typifies the hotel’s attention to service. Kumar is the “lobby mascot.” He gestures the traditional Indian hello—“namaste”—fluffs the pillows in the lobby, and skirts guests to the closest elevator. 

Only a few other hotels pre-date the Imperial—the Taj Mahal in Bombay (1903), The Great Eastern (1840) in Calcutta, and The Maidens (1903) in New Delhi.  Today, however, Delhi has over 60 high-end hotels, competition that could make the Imperial worry about its place in the luxury market.  But, as Mr. Wanchoo says, “You can’t replicate the Imperial.  It’s unique.”