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Survival of the finest: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace Hotel

Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace Hotel stands as testament to the remarkable strength and resilience of India's largest city. Words and pictures by Tim Pile

 

As we sit motionless in the gridlocked Mumbai traffic, Arvind confesses that he has forgotten his 25th wedding anniversary. The cheerful hotel chauffeur reckons he's unlikely to be in the doghouse for long though.

"My wife won't be angry. She almost lost me five years ago so we're a lot more relaxed these days. I'll take her out for dinner tomorrow."

The 2008 terrorist attacks loom large in the memory of those associated with India's most famous hotel. But so does a tradition of overcoming adversity. "Taj spirit", as its known, dates back 110 years.

In 1898, just as Bombay (as Mumbai was known until 1996) was emerging from the ravages of bubonic plague, workmen began sinking the foundations of what would become a lodging legend. As construction gathered pace, industrialist and soon-to-be hotelier Jamsetji Tata embarked on an international buying spree, with money being no object. On his shopping list were Croatian horses and Belgian chandeliers. He bought 300 beds in London and pillars made from the same steel as that used for Paris' Eiffel Tower.

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel opened its doors on December 16, 1903, 40 days after the first edition of the South China Morning Post rolled off the presses in another part of the British empire. For the 17 guests booked in that night, the ultra-modern property offered a tantalising glimpse of 20th-century style and innovation - a fact emphasised in the breathless tones of the prospectus.

"The Hotel will be lighted throughout with electric lights, and many lifts, also worked by electricity, will convey residents from floor to floor with comfort."

The guaranteed power supply led to the installation of air conditioning. A giant refrigerator plant cooled guest rooms and meant that food could be stored "in a manner foreign to India".

Accommodation was "bright and gay", according to an early travelogue. A British visitor noted that "a manservant is always around the corner and if one claps one's hands, he appears".

Tata died a few months after the opening ceremony, ushering in a lengthy period of financial instability. Locals were reluctant to stay, assuming the hotel would be expensive and too Western. Anglo-Indians usually bypassed the place, heading instead for Victoria Railway Terminus and an overnight sleeper train.

Fortunes only perked up in the 1920s, when the Taj began to attract Indian princes, or maharajas, who brought glamour and an aura of celebrity. Room occupancy rates improved further with the introduction of cabaret evenings and cocktail parties, which proved popular with the city's bigwigs. International movers and shakers soon followed. And still do.

The iconic establishment boasts an impressive roll call of VIP visitors. Notable guests range from Britain's Prince Charles to America's Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. Hollywood star Tom Cruise has stopped by, as has Premier Li Keqiang. Barack Obama is one of six United States presidents to have checked in and, in 1931, a certain M.K. Gandhi spoke here at a private dinner.

Yet each time the future looks assured, monsoon-like clouds appear on the horizon. Mismanagement set the hotel back, as did the demise of the steamboats that deposited passengers a stone's throw from the front gates. The Taj has endured earthquakes, strikes and two world wars; not to mention snobbish colonial attitudes towards the Indian-owned venture. But it was the events of November 26, 2008, that nearly finished off the Grand Old Lady.

At 9.30pm, Arvind left the hotel to chauffeur a group of guests to Mumbai Airport. The errand may have saved his life. Minutes later, two Pakistani terror-ists entered the lobby, pulled assault rifles from their backpacks and began spraying bullets. Twenty guests, 11 staff and Lucy, the security dog, died in what was discovered to be part of a co-ordinated shooting and bombing attack on the city.

The venerable institution drew on its strengths and set about rebuilding the smashed infrastructure and shattered lives. In August 2010, an emotional but defiant reopening ceremony showed the world that the hotel and India's largest city were back in business.

 

IT'S TEMPTING TO spend your entire stay within the luxurious confines of the Taj but Mumbai merits exploration. The surrounding streets jolt visitors with a blast of sub-continental commotion. You're caught up and swept along by a seething mass of humanity. It's Causeway Bay at Christmas. With cows.

Near Crawford Market, a dozen passengers push a bus in an attempt to bump start the ageing vehicle. A moped groans past with a family of six balanced astride and a barefoot man seems to be stuck in a tree.

An estimated 60 per cent of Mumbaikars live in slums. Some choose to do so as it works out cheaper than renting an apartment in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

It's not only property prices that are heading north, however. Escalating food costs are stretching household budgets to breaking point. Fortunately for Mumbai's hard-pressed workforce, there is a unique solution.

Freshly cooked meals are collected daily from the homes of suburban office staff and delivered to their desks by an army of 5,000 dabbawallahs. The system, which was set up in 1890, is so efficient (one error for every 1.6 million deliveries) that admirers include The Economist magazine and Harvard Business School.

Ram Chandra, meanwhile, is old school. The 61-year-old from rural Maharashtra state is illiterate. He's been delivering lunches in metal "tiffin" tins for as long as he can remember and lets me join him on his round.

Chandra hopes to retire soon. The father of five has seen the profession change and wants out. He can't compete with dabbawallahs on bicycles or entrepreneurs with mobile phones.

The sinewy senior citizen negotiates his cart through the congested traffic on foot; manoeuvring through gaps between horn-honking vehicles. I struggle to keep up with him.

At New Ganesh Water Supplies, I'm allowed to present a surprised customer with his curry and rice and, at Haroon House, office workers come out to meet Chandra's new apprentice.

"It's about time he handed over the reins to a younger man," one of them jokes.

We race off again but I soon fall behind. Chandra claps his hands impatiently and shouts at me to get a move on.

It's funny how things go full circle. One-hundred-and-ten years ago the British were doing the clapping.

 

 

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