The spirit world around this world of sense
Floats like an atmosphere, and everywhere
Wafts through these earthly mists and vapours dense
A vital breath of more ethereal air.
(‘Haunted Houses,’ W. H. Longfellow)
The scientific revolution in the West discredited all that was extra-sensory and instinctual, but what it failed to do was to dispel ghosts from the human imagination. What is it about haunted places that fascinate us? Artists, poets, philosophers and scientists have puzzled endlessly over the afterlife and the draw of the supernatural. It is perhaps the call of history that draws curious minds – a history that has leaped out of its bounds and continues to inhabit the present. The spectres move among us, carrying frozen time in their arms, as fragments of disembodied memories and experiences.
A global tourism industry has flourished around haunted sites – palaces, hotels, prisons, and even graveyards, see increasing footfalls every year. The hotel industry in particular has benefited immensely from the legacies and legends they are built on. At a time when tourists/visitors have innumerable options of staying at different locations, a haunted hotel with a dark history promises more than just bedding and breakfast.
India has a rich resource of traditional stories of spirits and voices from the dead – in folklore, literature and in canonical texts. However, the most famous stories of hotel revenants come from the colonial period and the violent history it brought to the subcontinent.
Here are some of the most spine-chilling hotels and their phantoms.
Savoy Hotel, Mussoorie
Image courtesy: Nick Kenrick
Built on the edifice of a school in 1902 by Cecil D. Lincoln, an Irish barrister, the Gothic turrets and archways of The Savoy boast of an enigmatic past. An air of decadence and mystery cloak the luxurious Edwardian interiors and aesthetic of the hotel. In 1911, a British spiritualist, Frances Garnett-Orme, was found dead in her room under mysterious circumstances. Soon after, the doctor who diagnosed it as a case of cyanide poisoning, was also found dead. The murder-mystery allegedly fired the imagination of many writers, from Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and Agatha Christie to Ruskin Bond, and brought the hotel into limelight. Ever since, travellers have not ceased to answer the beckoning of the mysterious ghosts of the Savoy who make their presence felt in the stately hallways and antique bedrooms.
Morgan House Tourist Lodge, Kalimpong
Image courtesy: Subhrajyoti
Another heritage building with a colonial past, Morgan Tourist Lodge is a visual treat amidst the hills of Kalimpong in West Bengal. An old colonial mansion, covered in dense ivy leaves and flowers, was home to a British family in the 1930s. After the death of Lady Morgan, it was abandoned unceremoniously. However, while the family left the building, Lady Morgan couldn’t let go of her home so easily. Tourists report hearing the sound of clocking heels on the floors at night reminding them that they trespass at their own risk.
The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai
Like the eponymous world wonder, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai has a staggering legacy of its own. Lurking behind its majestic architecture are stories of deep despair and anguish. The hotel was built in 1903, under the supervision of W. A. Chambers, to be one of the finest luxury hotels in India. The architect, upon return from a vacation, found that the hotel had been constructed in the opposite direction to that outlined in the blueprint. The disappointment made him jump to his death from the fifth-floor of the building. His wailing ghost has often been heard in the old wing of the hotel by staff members. In 2008, the hotel also came under a vicious terrorist attack that resulted in many deaths. Death still lurks as a warning in the corridors of this regal building.
Raj Kiran Hotel, Lonavala
Unlike the other grand historic hotels of India, this humble boarding house has gained its notoriety from its paranormal credentials alone. Located in Lonavala, a few hours from Mumbai, Hotel Raj Kiran has a room that guests have reportedly had bone-chilling experiences in. While asleep, flashes of a blue light jerk them awake and their bedcovers are pulled off by an invisible hand, as dark shapes flit about the room. Due to the serious threat guests face, this room in the corner of the building is no longer let out and is kept firmly locked. No one wants to risk the consequences of disturbing the dead.
The Fern Hills Palace, Ooty
Image courtesy: David Brossard
Hill stations are known in India for their ghost stories. Ooty, a small hill-station in South India, was under the East India Company’s rule. Built like a Swiss chalet, Fern Hill is an elegant and imposing building. However, it came in the public eye when paranormal activities were reported here during the shooting of a Bollywood horror movie – Raaz – in 2002. The crew members could not sleep at night on account of loud sounds furniture being moved in the room above; their late-night calls to the reception would not connect either. In the morning, they were told that there is no other floor above their room! The hotel has since been shut down.
Brijraj Bhawan Palace Hotel, Kota
A heritage property with a gory story, the Brijraj Bhawan Palace Hotel is one among the many antique palaces of Rajasthan. It was home to Major Charles Burton and his family, all of whom were brutally murdered in the house during the Sepoy Revolt of 1857 against the British Government. While the warm yellow facade of the building is welcoming, it is said to house the restless spirit of Major Burton even today. While no one has been harmed, the security guards have often complained of being slapped when asleep and chided in English by an other-worldly voice. Colonial ghosts seemingly linger on in times and places beyond their own.
Mysteries abound in different corners and crevices of these fascinating hotels of India. Unpleasant histories that are associated with all these sites paradoxically become the allure for travellers from far and wide.
Head to these venues if you, too, seek something both sensually and psychologically extraordinary. If not to see the hotels, to see those who flock to these monuments of spirits!