By N.K.A. Ballal, Retd. Sr. Vice-President, ITDC
Lalitha Mahal Palace Hotel is in the news again. The Chairman of Jungle Lodges and Resorts (JLR), in his news briefing, wanted to have a Centenary celebration of the building which was commissioned in 1921 by our then Maharaja for the stay of Viceroy which never materialised. Excellent news.
There is a lot of confusion on the land size of the Palace. I had got the land officially measured by a professional and it was about 40 acres and 24 guntas. Apart from this, the State Government in its wisdom had transferred some land to the Tourism Department around this property. Originally there was a mango orchard which was a part of this property but since there was water shortage from inception, the orchard was transferred to the Horticulture Department.
Even during my tenure in the Hotel, a landshark from Bengaluru had tried to occupy some land opposite the Hotel claiming that it was sold to him by the Maharaja but we got him evicted by proving that the land belonged to the Hotel.
This magnificent building would have been another one of the heritage buildings which would gone down the drain but for the vision of one Sundara, a Mysurean, who was the Chairman of the itdc in the seventies. He realised that this building could be converted to a magnificent heritage hotel and he somehow convinced the State Government to hand over the building to itdc, which appointed one H.N. Murthy as the Project Manager for this conversion work. They also appointed Rajinder Kumar Associates, the topmost hotel architect of that period, as the architect for this project.
In the seventies, no one had any experience of renovating a heritage building unlike the present time when there are hundreds of heritage hotels all around.
The building was in shambles and in poor condition. The building had to be completely water-proofed. The full garden had to be relaid. A major problem that time was the shortage of water and thus a new 3 inch line was laid from Vani Vilas Pump to the water sump at the entrance of the hotel at a cost of Rs. 3 lakh for exclusive use of the hotel. Due to the shortage of water, the step garden was also not redone.
But meanwhile Siddartha Layout came into existence. Due to local demands, the water meant for the hotel was diverted to the Layouts. Social justice.
The bathrooms in the old wing was not modified since they did not want to break the floor and re-lay the pipes. But the furniture of the 4 major suites rooms [Viceroy and Duplex] including the beds were completely done up with designs given by Rajinder Kumar. 20 carpenters from Delhi were brought in and they stayed in the hotel for 3 to 4 months to complete the work. The existing furniture was distributed to other rooms in the old buildings. Real silk curtains were installed in the old wing rooms.
Another problem faced by Murthy was the colour of the walls. The original paint of dark olive green was imported and was not available then. Nowadays one can get any colour since machines do the mixing and matching but in the seventies there was no such facility. Murthy then contacted the management of Asian Paints. They sent a team to collect the sample of the colour. They managed to match the colour and supplied about 400 litres of colour paint to the hotel for the purpose of repainting the front of the hotel with that particular olive green colour.
End of 74, the heritage hotel opened up for business and for about 6 years it was a white elephant making losses year after year. The reason was simple. A 24-room hotel with different size rooms can never make money. Groups shunned the hotel since one could not offer same kind of rooms for all the members. Then itdc with the approval of the State Government built 30 modern rooms and a pool in 80s in such a way that it was not visible from the front. Once this modern rooms were built, group movement started and this hotel became an international star.
The lift, an original Otis built wooden carriage could not be commissioned during the inauguration. But luckily in my tenure, the grandson of Otis was coming on a visit to Mysore. I contacted the chief of Otis and told him about our problem. He immediately despatched his top engineers and got the lift commissioned before the arrival of the chief guest, who was thrilled to see his company antique lift in operation!
Since itdc itself was on the disinvestment list, the management decided to hand over the building back to the Karnataka Government and did so in 2018, though the lease period was upto 2023. The Government in its wisdom asked JLR to take care of the property. This was supposed to be a temporary phase and a tender was supposed to be put out for leasing this property to ensure that this “jewel in the crown” was maintained in its full glory. JLR runs Jungle Lodges and they do not have the expertise or experience of managing heritage property.
Lalitha Mahal Palace Hotel is a deluxe heritage hotel and the statement of the Chairman that he wants to convert this hotel to a “people’s hotel” is ominous. Another heritage hotel at Hyderabad, the Taj Faluknama, charge Rs. 4,000 for just a visit. Why? The reason is simple. If too many visitors visit a heritage property, there is a chance of a damage. That is the reason the top heritage properties like Udaipur Palace Hotel etc., charge a lot to maintain their snob value. I do hope that the State Government calls the tender for leasing out this property at the earliest to some international chain. Otherwise this property, a jewel in the crown of Mysuru, shall become another basket case like our Lansdowne or Devaraja Market over a period of time.
It would be a shame to loose this “Jewel” I hope the state government heeds to your advice and nominate you and other experts in maintaining historical buildings.
Lalitha Mahal is a white elephant. State government should sell it.
The govt should lease this property to either Tatas/Oberois or ITC Welcome Group as the top three companies in the hotel industry in India. The property should be given on a long lease with the understanding that they will invest in renovation including maintaining the heritage status of the main building and refurbishing all the rooms/suites and restaurants to reflect the glory of the bye gone era.