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)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.