The early history of accommodation for travellers can be said to have its origin in the Greek Word ‘Xenia’. By this word ancient Greeks meant not only hospitality but also all forms of protection given to a visiting stranger. In ancient Greece, hospitality was a sort of divine order. The city or a town itself was bound to offer hospitality to a visitor and protect him from any discomfort. This was a custom. In the city of Sparta, whose extremely rigorous customs did not attract many visitors, it was the goddess Athena who was considered as protector of strangers, and hence her name ‘Xenia Athena’.
Travelling during this period was not an easy affair. Travellers were mainly diplomats, philosophers, intellectuals and researchers. There were no lodgings specially designed to receive visitors. Guests were invited to stay in the dwellings of noblemen. This was rather a gift comprising a place to stay, food, care and bath. This explains the presence of baths in most archaeological finds. In ancient Olympia one can find one of the first buildings constructed with the aim of accommodating strangers, called the “Leonidio”, built in 4th century B.C.
As travelling became more frequent, accommodation for travellers was viewed in two ways. The traveller who left his home required accommodation at his destination and, during journeys which could be completed in a single day, he needed overnight accommodation. The institution of ‘inns’ came into being. Inns can perhaps be considered to be the first of such accommodation units which catered to the needs of travellers in early times. During the Roman Empire many such inns were established which provided food, drink and also entertainment to weary travellers. However, with the decline of the Roman Empire by about A.D. 500, the institution of inn-keeping lost its importance and for many years there was not much development since people travelled very infrequently and there being not much trading activity, there was not much need felt for inn keeping.
Later, when travelling began to be undertaken in coaches, travellers were lodged in ‘Hostelries’ situated at the relay stations where both the traveller and their horses found rest and food. From this time onwards, hospitality was not always offered free. Payment for accommodation used was being resorted to.
After the advent of Christianity, it was the Church which came to the rescue of the travellers. Travel grew again for religious pilgrimage purposes. Travellers in thousands visited religious centers. Monasteries took over the role of providing lodgings and facilities to travellers who were mainly pilgrims. These welcomed the travellers and made their stay a comfortable experience. Every large monastery had a person responsible for reception of visitors and their well-being. The accommodation and the hospitality provided were free.
By the 15th century, the institution of the ‘inn’ once again developed in several countries in Europe, specially in England and France. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the facilities provided in the inns were expanded. Some of the inns had as many as 30 or more rooms. The English Common Law declared the inn to be a public house and imposed social responsibility in the innkeeper for the well-being of the traveller. Even today over one hundred odd inns are still operating in England as hotels as part of Trust House Limited. Some of these were built about four hundred years ago.
In the United States of America another type of accommodation unit, known as the ‘tavern’, was opened in the year 1634 by a man called Samuel Coles who had come by ship to the New World in search of a fortune in the year 1630. By 1780, taverns were popular meeting places where people used to come for eating, drinking and entertainment. Many important events were associated with taverns. In the year 1783, General George Washington bid farewell to his top ranking officers at the Frances Tavern in New York city. The famous Boston Tea Party was planned in a tavern called Green Dragon.
In India the concept of shelter for travellers is not new. In fact, it is as old as its recorded history. The historical records are replete with the mention / references of viharas, dharamshalas, sarais, musafirkhanas, etc. These establishments provided a home to all wayfarers, be they pilgrims, scholars, adventurers or merchants. The shelter under various names has always been a part of India’s culture as a valuable institution, providing a vital service. The ancient Buddhist monks were probably the first to institutionalise the concept of a shelter in India. The cave temples scattered all over the south-western region of India have both a chaitya (sanctuary) for worship and prayer and a vihara (monastery). These monks, although living in their quiet retreats, away from towns and villages, were nevertheless mindful of the needs of travellers and pilgrims who found shelter and food at these monasteries. It is interesting to note that these monasteries were located on the ancient trade routes between important centres of pilgrimage of the region. It is gathered from& some inscriptions that merchants gave liberal donations for the construction and maintenance of these establishments. Mere charity was obviously not the motivation in these displays of generosity. The trader travelled with their merchandise and money on these routes and the viharas were their ‘hotels’.
In the medieval period this ancient institution gradually assumed a more secular character. Although religious centres invariably had dharamshalas and musafirkhanas attached to them, the caravan sarai appeared as an exclusive traveller’s lodge with a Nanbai or the cook attached with it. Sher Shah Suri, the Great Afghan Emperor and the builder of the Grand Trunk Road, is credited with having built caravan sarais at regular intervals all along this highway creating favourable conditions for commerce and travel. However, he was not alone in this venture. The Mughals built such facilities all over their empire. Later kings, rajas, nawabs, rich businessmen and philanthropists built sarais making travel less arduous.
At approximately the same point in time, the inn was the western counterpart of India’s sarais. With the expansion of commerce, travelling became profitable and with it emerged the business of providing comfortable shelter and good food to the growing number of travellers. The sarais in India, like the inns in Europe, or the stage coach stations in the USA of the 18th and 19th centuries, stood all along the well-travelled routes. They provided food and shelter to the travellers and fodder to their horses. The amenities these early hotels offered would seem to us to be primitive but they conformed to the life-style of that age. However, with the passage of time, the age-old institution of the sarai or the inn adapted itself to the ever changing and constantly growing requirements of the market.
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