In Memoriam

New Year’s Day tragedy: A Mumbai resident’s quest to mark the Emperor Ashoka air crash, 40 years on

On January 1, 1978, Air India’s first-ever Boeing 747 crashed into the Arabian Sea off Mumbai, killing all 213 people on board.

In 1971, Air India bought its first Boeing 747 – a prestigious “Jumbo Jet” – and named it after the Mauryan ruler Emperor Ashoka. It was the first in a fleet of several Maharaja-themed luxury airplanes that Air India acquired in the 1970s. They were advertised as a “palace in the sky”.

Seven years later, the Emperor Ashoka was involved in a New Year’s Day tragedy. On January 1, 1978, minutes after taking off from Mumbai’s Santacruz airport at 8 pm, the plane crashed into the Arabian Sea barely 3 km off the city’s coast. All 213 people on board the flight to Dubai died in the deadliest flight accident in Air India’s history.

Two minutes after take-off, the Mumbai airport departure controller had asked the pilot to report back after the plane crossed 8,000 feet. The pilot, Madan Lal Kukar, with more than 18,000 hours of flying time under his belt, asserted that he would. “Happy New Year to you, sir,” he greeted the control tower. Twenty two seconds later, Emperor Ashoka hit the water.

The crash occured so close to the coast, some residents of Mumbai’s Bandra suburb reported that they had heard an explosion. Some claimed to have actually seen a fireball diving into the sea – though they thought at first that it was a meteor.

For days after the crash, Bandra residents thronged the fort on the suburb’s promontory trying to catch a glimpse of the rescue operations, although nothing could be seen at that distance. At first, navy ships scoured the sea, hoping to find survivors. When it became clear that there were none, they attempted to salvage the wreckage and retrieve the flight recorder that held vital data that could explain the cause of the crash.

Now, on the 40-year anniversary of the Emperor Ashoka crash, one Mumbai resident wants to keep the memory of the tragedy alive.

Debashish Chakraverty, the son of an Air India pilot who had lost several colleagues and friends in the New Year’s Day accident, wants to erect a small memorial in honour of the victims of the crash on Bandra’s Bandstand promenade. For more than a year, Chakraverty has lobbied with local politicians and corporations to have a memorial plaque installed, but his efforts have not been successful.

“The Emperor Ashoka crash was one of the biggest tragedies of its time, but it is such a disappointment that nothing has been done about it,” said Chakraverty, a stock market investor living in Bandra. “It is important for us to remember that 213 people died that day, right near the coast of the city.”

Air India bought Emperor Ashoka on March 22, 1971. (Photos: Debasish Chakraverty / Private collection of Capt. D.M. Chakraverty)
Air India bought Emperor Ashoka on March 22, 1971. (Photos: Debasish Chakraverty / Private collection of Capt. D.M. Chakraverty)

A close shave

The Emperor Ashoka crash came as a shock not just to India but to the world. Boeing 747s were known to be sturdy planes with distinctive upper decks that often had no passenger seats but were designed as luxurious first-class lounges with carpets, sofas and bars. Among them, Air India’s Emperor-themed 747s stood out with Indian murals on the inner walls of the aircraft and a separate flight attendant for the upper-deck lounge.

“Only the very pretty air hostesses were chosen to serve in the lounge, and they wore elegant Rajasthani ghagra-cholis,” said Elfin Fernand, a former flight attendant who joined Air India in 1974 and retired in 2009. “The 747s were fabulous planes with floral prints on the panels of the cabins and different coloured wallpaper for different sections of the plane.”

The upper-deck lounge of Emperor Ashoka, shot in the summer of 1972 at Geneva airport.
The upper-deck lounge of Emperor Ashoka, shot in the summer of 1972 at Geneva airport.

Fernand, who had flown Emperor Ashoka several times during the 1970s, had a close shave on New Year’s Day in 1978. “My seniors wanted me to take the flight heading to Dubai, but I had a bad cold and decided not to report to work that day,” said Fernand. That Dubai flight turned out to be the ill-fated Emperor Ashoka’s last, aborted journey. “It could easily have been me on that flight. I was horrified when I heard about the accident.”

A flight attendant serving passengers in Emperor Ashoka's lounge in 1971.
A flight attendant serving passengers in Emperor Ashoka's lounge in 1971.

Those who died

On the night that it crashed, Emperor Ashoka was carrying 190 passengers, 20 flight attendants, captains Kukar and Indu Virmani, and a flight engineer named Alfredo Faria.

While there have been conspiracy theories about explosions and sabotage, the cause of the accident has largely been attributed to a malfunctioning attitude director indicator – the instrument that informs pilots about the orientation of the aircraft relative to the Earth’s horizon. Soon after takeoff, the doomed flight’s ADI is said to have wrongly indicated to the pilots that the aircraft was tilting to the right, when it was in fact straight. The pilots made a sharp left bank to correct the angle, and hit the Arabian Sea waters instead, with the aircraft’s nose at a 35-degree angle.

“We used to live near the airport and my mother rushed to Bandra when we heard the news of the crash,” said Chakraverty, who was three years old in 1978. Chakraverty’s father, who had served as an Indian Air Force pilot for 27 years before joining Air India, was friends with Emperor Ashoka’s pilot Captain Indu Virmani, who was also an Air Force veteran. “My father lost many friends that night.”

Some of the flight attendants who lost their lives in the Emperor Ashoka crash.
Some of the flight attendants who lost their lives in the Emperor Ashoka crash.

Retired Air India staffers also have vivid memories of their friends and colleagues who died in the 1978 crash.

Fernand, for instance, remembers partying with 24-year-old air hostess Ranjana Lal in Hong Kong, just weeks before the tragedy. “She was a young trainee who had just joined us from Lufthansa, and was dealing with a very strict supervisor at the time,” said Fernand, who decided to take Lal for a night out with one of her friends in order to cheer her up. “We had a blast that night. And the next thing we heard is that she had died in the crash.”

Fernand’s college friend Kettu Paymaster and her colleague Jeroo Dinshaw were also among the flight attendants who died in the crash. Seven years later, Dinshaw’s brother – also a flight attendant – lost his life in the 1985 Emperor Kanishka bombing in which 329 people died.

Dev Bhowmik also lost two friends in the Emperor Ashoka tragedy: flight attendants Adil Dubash – a “very mild, likeable person” from Bhowmik’s batch – and Kali Kotwal. “I had flown Emperor Ashoka many times before, and after the crash I was shocked and sad, but not scared,” said Bhowmik, who worked as an Air India flight attendant for 36 years before retiring in 2006. “This was a freak accident. It was fate.”

A brochure for one of Emperor Ashoka's first flights.
A brochure for one of Emperor Ashoka's first flights.

Memorial trouble

Chakraverty rues the fact that besides the family and friends of those who lost their lives, few people remember the Emperor Ashoka tragedy today. “There are so many other memorial plaques in the city, so why not one for this?” he said. Chakraverty is now trying to draw attention to his Facebook page about the air crash in order to spread awareness about the accident.

Among the many local political and civic leaders that Chakraverty claims he approached for permissions for plaque at Bandstand, the only one to show an interest in his work was Asif Zakaria, the municipal corporator from Bandra. He too, however, could not fulfil Chakraverty’s wish.

“Making memorials is ultimately the job of the government, it is beyond the purview of the civic corporation,” said Zakaria. “But this is a very good initiative. I hope that the civil aviation department takes it up.”

Emperor Ashoka's maiden flight was from London to Mumbai in 1971.
Emperor Ashoka's maiden flight was from London to Mumbai in 1971.
We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

It’s the new year and it’s already time to plan your next holiday

Here are some great destinations for you to consider.

Vacation planning can get serious and strategic. Some people swear by the save and splurge approach that allows for one mini getaway and one dream holiday in a year. Others use the solo to family tactic and distribute their budget across solo trips, couple getaways and family holidays. Regardless of what strategy you implement to plan your trip, the holiday list is a handy tool for eager travellers. After having extensively studied the 2018 holiday list, here’s what we recommend:

March: 10 days of literature, art and culture in Toronto

For those you have pledged to read more or have more artistic experiences in 2018, Toronto offers the Biblio-Mat, the world’s first randomising vending machine for old books. You can find the Biblio-Mat, paper artefacts, rare books and more at The Monkey’s Paw, an antiquarian bookseller. If you can tear yourself away from this eclectic bookstore, head over to The Public Library in Toronto for the Merril Collection of over 72000 items of science fiction, fantasy magic realism and graphic novels. With your bag full of books, grab a coffee at Room 2046 – a café cum store cum studio that celebrates all things whimsical and creative. Next, experience art while cycling across the 80km Pan Am Path. Built for walking, running, cycling and wheeling, the Pan Am Path is a recreational pathway that offers a green, scenic and river views along with art projects sprinkled throughout the route. You can opt for a guided tour of the path or wander aimlessly for serendipitous discoveries.

Nothing beats camping to ruminate over all those new ideas collected over the past few days. Make way to Killarney Provincial Park for 2-3 days for some quiet time amongst lakes and hills. You can grab a canoe, go hiking or get back to nature, but don’t forget to bring a tent.

If you use the long-weekend of 2nd March to extend your trip, you get to experience the Toronto Light Festival as a dazzling bonus.

June: 10 days of culinary treats, happy feet and a million laughs in Chicago

Famous for creating the deep-dish pizza and improv comedy, Chicago promises to banish that mid-year lull. Get tickets for The Second City’s Legendary Laughs at The UP-Comedy Club - the company that gave us the legendary Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Key & Peele. All that laughter can sure work up an appetite, one that can be satiated with Lou Malnati’s classic deep-dish pizza. For dessert, head over to the Ferrara Original Bakery for mouth-watering treats.

Chicago in June is pleasant and warm enough to explore the outdoors and what better way to soak in the sunshine, than by having a picnic at the Maggie Daley Park. Picnic groves, wall climbing, mini golf, roller blading – the park offers a plethora of activities for individuals as well as families.

If you use the long weekend of 15th June, you can extend your trip to go for Country LakeShake – Chicago’s country music festival featuring Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley.

August: 7 days in London for Europe’s biggest street festival

Since 1964, the Notting Hill Carnival has been celebrating London’s Caribbean communities with dancing, masquerade and music ranging from reggae to salsa. Watch London burst into colours and sparkle at the Notting Hill Carnival. Home to Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens Museum, London is best experienced by wandering through its tiny streets. Chance encounters with bookstores such as Foyles and Housemans, soaking in historic sights while enjoying breakfast at Arthur’s Café or Blackbird Bakery, rummaging the stalls at Broadway market or Camden Market – you can do so much in London while doing nothing at all.

The Museum of Brand, Packaging and Advertising can send you reminiscing about those old ads, while the Clowns Gallery Museum can give you an insight in clown-culture. If you’d rather not roam aimlessly, book a street-art tour run by Alternative London or a Jack the Ripper Tour.

October: 10 days of an out-of-body experience in Vegas

About 16 km south of the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and St. Rose Parkway in Henderson, lies a visual spectacle. Seven Magic Mountains, an art installation by Ugo Rondinone, stands far away from the wild vibe that people expect in Las Vegas and instead offers a sense of wonder. Imagine seven pillars of huge, neon boulders, stacked up against one another stretched towards the sky. There’s a lot more where that came from, in Las Vegas. Captivating colour at the permanent James Turrell exhibit in Louis Vuitton, outdoor adventures at the Bootleg Canyon and vintage shopping at Patina Décor offer experiences that are not usually associated with Vegas. For that quintessential Vegas show, go for Shannon McBeath: Absinthe for some circus-style entertainment. If you put the holiday list to use, you can make it for the risefestival – think thousands of lanterns floating in the sky, right above you.

It’s time to get on with the vacation planning for the new year. So, pin up the holiday list, look up deals on hotels and flights and start booking. Save money by taking advantage of the British Airways Holiday Sale. With up to 25% off on flight, the offer is available to book until 31st January 2018 for travel up to 31st December in economy and premium economy and up to 31st August for business class. For great fares to great destinations, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.