The origin of the hotel industry in India cannot be traced to a definitive point of time, there is evidence of its presence even during the Indus Valley Civilization and Vedic Era. In olden days, travel was predominantly undertaken for pilgrimage and trade. The concept of char dham ( i.e., visiting religious places located in the four corners of India) among the Hindu community is an important indicator of significance accorded to pilgrimage by their ancestors.
The country stands dotted with many such shrines, some of which are frequented by people of all faiths. Ancient texts and literature, as also Hindu mythology, have many references to travel and the provision of accommodation facilities for traveling pilgrims and traders by the authorities of those days.
Ancient India was well known for its silk, spices, gold, and gemstones. Record of famous travelers of the yore speaks of Indians trading with countries like Greece, Italy, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, and Japan, among others. The main mode of transport were animals on land, and boat and ships that crisscrossed rivers and seas for connectivity with distant lands.
The origin and evolution of the hotel industry in the country can be broadly categorized in the following three periods:
- Ancient and Medieval Era
- Colonial Era
- Modern Era
Ancient and Medieval Era
The beginning of the hospitality sector in India stands rooted in the Hindu philosophy of ‘ atithi devo bhava‘, implying that an unannounced guest is to be accorded the status of God. While it is not clear when hospitality emerged as a commercial activity in ancient India, there is evidence of accommodation facilities for travelers and guests, though not as organized as we see them today.
The lodging houses during those times were known as Dharamshala (dharma in Sanskrit means religion and shala school). Dharamshalas, the resting places for pilgrims, are believed to have their origins in village chaupals, which served as a meeting ground for the villagers to plan and discuss various social welfare and development measures.
These become the places of lodging as travelers started putting up camps there due to safety reasons. Gradually, with help of local residents, the financial assistance from the rulers, zamindars, or other influential people, permanent structures (or dharmashala) were built for travelers. Here they were provided with a safe place to relax and spend the night.
Record of many foreign visitors and philosophers who came to India speak highly of the hospitality facilities. Famous Chinese scholars Fan Hien (AD 399-424) and Huein Tsang (AD 629-643), who came during the reigns of Chandragupta Vikramaditya and Harshvardhana respectively, have mentioned the existence of shelters for travelers.
In the medieval era, between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, many sarais and musafirkhanas were built, primarily as resting places for messengers of the postal system established by the Sultans of Slave or Mamluk dynasty.
The Mughals continued the practice and built many such sarais to accommodate travelers. The sarais during those time fulfilled the basic necessities of a traveler – they provided water, a room, a stable for livestock ( like horse, elephant, or camel) along with fodder, and sometimes also a place of worship.
The organized existence of the hotel industry in India started taking shape during the colonial period, with the advent of Europeans in the seventeenth century. The early hotels were mostly operated by people of foreign origin to cater to the needs of the European colonizers and later officials of the Raj.
Among the first such properties were taverns like Portuguese Georges, Paddy Goose’s, and Racquet Court, which opened in Bombay between 1837 and 1840. However, within a period of about ten years, most of the taverns disappeared and more respectable hotels like Hope Hall Family Hotel began to make an appearance.
Until 1900, almost all hotels were constructed and run as per Western traditions. The first Indian style hotels were Sardar Griha, which opened in 1900, and Madhavashram in 1908. The two world wars brought a fresh lot of hotels in Mumbai, an important port city of the times.
Post-independence, there were big leaps in the hotel trade in the country. The Oberoi Group of Hotels and the Taj Group took over several British properties, maintained high standards of services and qualities, and expanded their business overseas. The later decades saw corporates like the ITC also join the hotel industry with properties under ITC WelcomGroup.
Over the last few decades, various well-known international hotel chains have come to India. These include Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, InterContinenal Hotels and Resorts, Marriott International, Hilton Hotels, Best Western International, etc.