Imagine for a moment you are a weary traveler approaching the storied city of Bombay at the turn of the 20th century. No planes or trains have eased your travel burdens; it’s been a journey of weeks by boats of varying degrees of comfort. India’s summer sun greets you with an oppressive hug as you enter Bombay’s harbor. It is a heat that makes mere movement seem impossible and you long for a cool breeze. Despite that longing, this British colony holds so much intrigue and mystique that turning back to the cooler winds of your Western home are not an option. All of a sudden, rising out of the humid mist of the harbor waters, you see your destination: a hotel with all the Greco-Roman and Florentine flourishes of home but with a grand and exotic touch promising that famed Indian hospitality within. Though your journey is at an end, The Taj Mahal Palace is just the beginning to the luxurious tales of Bombay you will tell for the rest of your life.
An Indian Vision with World-Class Amenities
By the 1890s in Bombay, India, Jamsetji Tata was a wealthy industrialist that could hold his own with any of his American counterparts. Exports, trading, cotton, you name it; this visionary had capitalized on it creating wealth for himself and his family and jobs and progress for the people of his beloved Bombay. Tata was a man who constantly had a plan and he was part of the tremendous growth and industrialization of Bombay as a new century began. After extensive travel abroad, Tata wanted his city to have a luxury hotel on par with those of the rest of the world, especially as tourism to India was beginning to increase. Without fanfare and using his own personal money and not that of his company, he bought a parcel of land in 1900 (technically via a 99 year lease from Britain) right up against Bombay’s harbor waters and, with the ceremonial breaking of a coconut and lighting of an oil lamp, construction on the hotel of his dreams began.
Tata utilized Indian architects Sitaram Khanderao Vaidya and D.M. Mirza to design his vision, which was a U-shaped mash up of the Florentine-Renaissance, Romanesque and Victorian styles of buildings he had seen in his European travels. It was also to have a distinct Moorish flare with domes that made it look like a cross between a Venetian castle and an Indian temple. Tata was adamant that the majority of the guest rooms in his hotel would face the ocean, which was unheard of in India, with the hotel’s entrance at the back of the building facing the land via a massive and elegant courtyard that channeled cooling breezes. When lead architect Vaidya died suddenly of malaria during construction, Tata replaced him with an Englishman, W.A. Chambers, who presided over the plans set forth by his Indian predecessors until its completion. Though he is often credited with the hotel’s design, it was Vaidya and Mirza’s vision that he followed down to the last arch and dome.
When Tata was not supervising the construction of his hotel he was travelling abroad procuring the finest modern conveniences and luxuries for it. His hotel would be the first in the country with electricity, refrigeration, fans imported from the U.S, elevators imported from Germany, Turkish baths, and British butlers. The Indian construction team he employed created the “floating staircase” that would become famous for being held up solely by cantilevers as it wound its way up from the lobby to the floors above, seeming to touch the dome at the very top. In his travels to Paris, Tata saw the Eiffel Tower being built and ordered the very same steel being used in its construction to be sent home and used for the ten pillars that would uphold his hotel’s grand ballroom. No expense was spared, no luxury was denied, and no equal to this hotel would be found.
A Gift That Kept on Giving
In 1903, Tata opened the doors of his Taj Mahal Palace in a ceremony that gifted the grand hotel to the people of Bombay. It superseded the construction of the Gateway to India by a good twenty years and was the sole structure on the harbor as it greeted travelers and natives alike. Indeed, it was the first hotel in the city that was open to white British colonists and international tourists as well as the native Indian people. However, this inclusiveness was pricey to the point where the average Bombay citizen could only dream of staying there. Consequently, the Palace became a home away from home for the Indian maharajas that governed the country’s states for Britain, providing them with the luxury to which they were accustomed as well as a respite from formality and government business. It was not unheard of for their entourage to include their pet tiger in their strides through the lobby. Sadly, Jamsetji Tata never got to see the world enjoy his vision. He died suddenly while abroad only five months after opening it.
Over the next few decades, the Palace became host to international politicians, superstars and such Western novelties as classical orchestras, jazz bands, dance performances, and the country’s first licensed bar and all-day restaurant. King George V and Queen Mary visited in 1911, followed by the likes of Duke Ellington, Bernard Shaw and Douglass Fairbanks. India was exotic and mysterious and now with luxury accommodations so a who’s who of names found their way to the Palace. Though World War I turned the hotel into a hospital, it reopened after the war to a new political climate in India. Over time this climate gave rise to the Indian Freedom Movement and Indian patriots like Mahatma Ghandi and Jawahrlal Nehru would meet at the hotel regularly, with supporters such as Aldous Huxley, to plan India’s independence. When India finally became free from British rule in 1947, the Taj Mahal Palace hosted one of the first independent speeches to the country’s industrialists.
As time went on the hotel continued to be a benchmark in luxury accommodations, attracting the biggest names in the world. In 1968, “maestro of the sitar” Ravi Shankar taught a star-struck George Harrison how to play the instrument during The Beatles’ two week stay at the hotel. John Lennon and Yoko Ono would return on their own to lock themselves in the Rajput Suite for five days of private meditation, surrounded by the suite’s marble flooring and inlaid wood carvings and topped by it’s own personal dome above. In 1973, the hotel opened an additional building called the Taj Mahal Tower and launched the Taj Group of Hotels, building and operating luxury hotels throughout India and, eventually, Europe and Asia. Meanwhile, everyone from Prince Charles and Margaret Thatcher to Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie, and the Clintons found their way to this Indian mecca that became as alluring as the original palace of love for which it was named. Over time, the hotel became more than just a beautiful place to stay in the renamed city of Mumbai; it was a symbol of pride to the people of India.
Forgive me for a moment as I fast-forward us from this alluring picture of enduring luxury to one that is unimaginably opposite. For it is the hotel’s very status as a symbol of Indian pride that caused it to become the site of one of India’s greatest horrors. On November 26, 2008, Pakistani terrorists attacked the Taj Mahal Palace, targeting it as an emblem of Indian wealth and progress. Over a three day period in which hostages were taken and the hotel’s roof set ablaze, 167 of the hotel’s 450 guests were killed, 31 of which died at the hotel. Indian special operative police succeeded in killing the gunman, who had barricaded himself in the hotel, on November 29th. The Taj Group was determined to reopen as soon as possible following this tragedy, showing the world that not even an act of evil can quell the spirit and ingenuity of India.
One month later, the less affected parts of the hotel were reopened, while the more damaged and more historical lobby, domes, and courtyard-facing public spaces took several more months to restore. In July of 2009, then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stayed at the Palace to cement US-India relations. After additional renovating and updates in 2010, US President Barak Obama became the first foreign head of state to stay at the hotel following the attack, calling it an ongoing symbol of “Indian strength and resilience.” His handwritten remarks remain in an open guest book next to a sculpture of the tree of life commemorating the victims.
Let us fast-forward one last time to the present day. The Taj Mahal Palace remains the height of luxury, in a class by itself among other hotels of the world. It is still owned by the Tata Group, who has fulfilled its founder’s legacy in all areas of Indian infrastructure, higher education, and hospitality. The butler service, the gold leafed columns, the hand-blown crystal chandeliers, the lux gardens and pathways, the art gallery of paintings and sculptures; all of these are just a fraction of what makes the Palace one of the premier hotels of the world. What any experienced traveller will tell you is that it’s the hotel’s service that puts it on a level above all others.
The Palace is a place where housekeeping not only turns down your bed with fresh flowers, but also organizes the wires of your laptop and phone chargers so that they are attractively situated out of your way. The servers not only blanket your lap with napkins and set down your meals in unison, but they remember your name and your preferences. When you retire by the pool in that Indian summer sun, there is already a steward there to position your umbrella, roll your towel, and provide you with lime-infused water.
The Palace is made up of employees that have been generationally taught for over one hundred years to anticipate your needs before you even know you need them.
One final example of service is from that fateful day in 2008, when guests were hiding under tables in the Sea Lounge for hours. Finally, one guest emerged to look for a bottle of champagne and, upon finding one, poured it into the tables’ water tumblers in an attempt to steady shattered nerves. The barman emerged, striding to the bar with alacrity, exclaiming, “Sir, I cannot let you do this!” The guest stammered, “Even in a time like this?” To which the barman replied, “Please, I must fetch you the proper glasses.” It is this level of service that makes a stay at the Taj Mahal Palace a unique experience, an experience and a feeling most of us will never have again. Like the weary traveler of generations past, all you can do is talk of it in the tales you tell for the rest of your life; tales of what it felt like to stay in a Palace in Mumbai.