The 67-year- old iconic eating joint in Kottayam Bestotel which used to be a popular “meeting point” will be shutting down this August 31.
AKG's spirited political discourses, John Abraham's tussles, Devarajan master's free-flowing music-Bestotel was witness to all that and more. This hotel which used to have the cream of Kottayam's glitterati as their regular patrons will be closing its shutters. Bestotel was synonymous with the city's joie de vivre spirit!
Sixer Raghavan’s big hit
PM Raghavan who was known as the doyen of Kerala Cricket was the founder of Bestotel. He led the Thiruvananthapuram-Kochi team during the Ranji trophy. It was his glorious sixes that earned him the title ‘Sixer Raghavan.’ Co-incidentally Raghavan hails from Thalassery, the land of bakeries and cricket.
His father Mampally Gopalan is related to Mampally Bapu, the one who made the first cake in Kerala in 1883. Raghavan who shifted to Kottayam to start his bakery soon became one of them. Best Bakery was started in 1944 and the Bestotel came 10 years later.
That time there was a Central Theatre there which was located at Central Junction. When Raghavan heard that the theatre was for sale, he acquired it. But the theatre owners had one condition- retain the design of the building. Raghavan agreed. He made a hotel consisting of 22 rooms. That’s how Kottayam’s first hotel was opened at Central Junction. He also gave it a quirky name- Bestotel!
64 years ago lyricist Vayalar Rama Varma aka Vayalar and musician Devarajan was locked inside Bestotel’s Room no 7. They needed to create a song in 3 days. An introductory song that celebrated the first year of Indian Independence for its 100-year-old commemoration. The orchestration was handed over to Kerala Theatres, owned by Ponkunnam Varkey and CS Gopala Pillai. And convenor ‘KA’ Baby (of Kottayam Theatres, which was the drama troupe of the Communist Party’s Kottayam District Committee) had huddled Vayalar and Devarajan inside the hotel room to write a song for that. Malayalam cinema’s most famous revolutionary song ‘Balikudeerangale.’ was born in Bestotel’s room no 7. A Communist Party-led ministry had been elected in Kerala that year, the second elected communist ministry anywhere in the world after San Marino. 1957 marked the one-hundredth anniversary of India's first war of independence and the martyrs' column had been constructed in memory of the martyrs of the War. The song was written on the occasion of the inauguration of the martyrs’ column.
The first performance of the song was held as part of the programme, at the Victoria Jubilee memorial Town (VJT) Hall. Fifty singers including KS George and KPAC Sulochana – stalwarts of the Kerala People’s Arts Club (KPAC), associated with the Communist Party – performed the song. Advocate G Janardhana Kurup, an early communist leader, and Jose Prakash, who went on to act as the “villain” in many popular Malayalam films, were also among the singers
It is said that the organisers later staged a play to pay off the room rent. There was quite a list of celebrities who frequented the hotel during those days. Thakazhi Shivasankara Pillai’s Randidangazhi novel was conceived in room no 9. The 1948 novel tells the story of the cruelty meted out by feudal landlords to impoverished farm labourers. In 1958, a film adaptation with the same name was released.
Some of the popular characters of eminent writers like Ponkunnam Varkey, Kaanam E J, Muttathu Varkey also originated from here. The hotel was also a favourite haunt of filmmakers like Padmarajan, John Abraham and Aravindan. And Sheela, Madhu and Prem Nazir were frequent visitors to savour the hotel’s delicious meals.
Whenever KJ Yesudas visited Kottayam, he would only stay at Bestotel. “The singer would say the hotel had the sanctity of a temple,” says APA Gopalakrishnan who took over the hotel from his father Raghavan. They shared a special bond with the singer’s family.
Which room was AKG?
Whenever CPM Leader AK Gopalan passed through Kottayam, he would stay at Bestotel. “I think it was during the Idukki Amaravati Satyagraha in 1961. EMS Namboothiripad had come here to visit AKG and asked me which room he was staying in,” recalls PM Varghese who worked in the hotel for 47 years. Varghese was only 16 when he joined the hotel and had climbed to the position of a manager when he retired. AKG was Raghavan’s close friend. So was the writer and politician SK Pottakkadu. And Raghavan never asked them for room rent.
Even back then there were billiards and table tennis facilities in the hotel. Hindi superstar Shammi Kapoor has played Billiards here. The patrons from Hindi cinema included Dileep Kumar, Balraj Sahni and Saira Banu. According to Varghese, this hotel was also a favourite haunt of Kottayam journalists. When it comes to the meeting point, this was it!
This was where the wedding of famous singers Jaya-Vijayan was conducted. Jayan married Sarojini and Vijayan married Rajamma on the same day. Actor Manoj K Jayan who is the son of singer Jayan recalls that the hotel name was the ice breaker between him and filmmaker John Abraham. John warmly remembered the time he had played guitar to JayaVijayan’s songs. Manoj K Jayan still can’t get over the taste of the plateful of mutton curry he used to have from his hotel.
Arundhati Roy’s cream bun
Interestingly this best bakery gets a mention in Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things novel. One of the main characters of the novel, Baby Kochamma used to frequent this bakery for its cream buns.
When letters were the only source of communication back then best hotel’s postal address was frequently referred to. A lot of letters addressed to Post Box No 2, Kottayam 1. Even those who came to Kottayam for business purposes would use this address as a landmark.
When in Kottayam
When people from Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode used to extol about their beaches, Bestotel and Thirunakkara used to be their arsenal. Who need beaches when you have such a fabulous place to hang out? Along with cakes and coffee, you also got to see many celebrities there. Bestotel used to the cultural hub of Kottayam.
Professor CR Omankuttan has many sweet memories around the hotel. He recalls watching Dileep Kumar’s Aan (1952) and Sivaji Ganesan’s Parashakthi at Central theatre.
The Swaraj Bus service office was near the Central theatre. Omanakuttan’s father’s brother was a manager there. He remembers feeling sad when he heard that Central Theatre would be closed. But Bestotel more than made up for that loss. Unlike now, having hotel food was a luxury then and a meal from Bestotel was considered heaven send for kids. Even now the taste lingers.
As the shutters come down
The hotel is being run by APM Gopalakrishnan and his wife Sheela Gopalakrishnan. APM Gopalakrishnan is a former Renji cricket player and selector. An all-rounder in cricket he efficiently took care of his father’s legacy. He was extremely particular about maintaining the hotel's food quality. But finally, the hotel is being shut down.
They have already signed a deal to hand over the land where the Bestotel stood for decades to a Jewellery group. August 31 is the last day of this historic hotel. Though the business affected them during the pandemic and lockdown time, the fact that there isn’t anyone in their family who is willing to take the legacy forward is one of the main reasons behind this decision. Their daughters Sangeetha is in Kozhikode and Sandhya is settled in the US. At least they are retaining the best bakery, which will be run by their relative MK Raveendran. That’s something to cheer about for now!