January 2003 | T Damu

One hundred years of magnificence

The Taj Group of Hotels has won international acclaim for its excellent services and fantastic properties. Jamsetji Tata would be proud to see the heights his initiative has taken

More than a century back, before anyone had thought about tourism or the hospitality business in India, there was a visionary who conceptualised it — Jamsetji Tata. The father of modern Indian industry undertook the labour of love that resulted in the Taj Mahal Hotel, a landmark presence on Mumbai's landscape and every bit the modern equivalent of its legendary namesake in Agra.

This grand institution, the flagship of the Indian hotel industry, is marking its birth centenary in 2003. An in the 100 years of its existence, it has risen in stature to be worthy of comparison with the wonder in white marble that Emperor Shajahan built for his beloved wife, Mumtaz, at Agra in 1648. Mention Taj these days and it evokes two regal images, and you will not be faulted if you mistake one for the other.

Mr Tata, the founder of the Tata group, was a frequent traveller abroad and he felt that India needed a modern hotel that would compare with the best in the world. His idea found shape and substance in Mumbai, because he believed the city would blossom into the commercial core of India. Mr Tata saw the hotel as an essential component of and an inevitable condition for the city’s advancement.

The first steps
About 9,000 square metres of the Apollo Reclamation, as the borough was then called, were required to house the hotel. Mr Tata acquired this land from the Port Trust of Bombay on a 99-year lease, with an option of renewal for a like term. In 1903, the comforts and luxuries of this new spectacle, acclaimed as "India's first truly modern hotel", were thrown open to visitors. The event was described by The Times (London), as "a resplendent debut".

Jamsetji TataThe imposing structure, with a large central dome and two wings crowned with smaller domes, stands on a foundation that is 40 feet deep. It cost Mr Tata a staggering Rs25 lakh to construct the princely marvel. His intention was that the hotel should be "second to none east of the Suez". It had all the facilities one could imagine, and many one couldn't, for a hotel of its time: power laundry, electric irons, Turkish baths, a chemist's shop, post office, and more.

Mr Tata had toured many countries in Europe with the expansive plan for the hotel meticulously sketched in his mind. He visited London, Berlin, Paris and other cities to make many of the purchases, while his sons, Sir Dorab Tata and Sir Ratan Tata, put their hearts and heads into ensuring that the hotel’s interiors were moulded according to their father's desire. Thus, the premium hotel grew in stature and grandeur. By 1906, the Indian Hotels Company, the Taj's proud owners, had a capital worth of Rs30 lakh.

The Taj holds the distinction for achieving many firsts, among them India’s first air-conditioned restaurant and ballroom and Mumbai's first licensed bar, the Harbour Bar, both built in 1933. Further expansion of the hotel started in 1968, when a new tower, designed by Rustam Patell, was added to the heritage wing.

Changing with the times
The hotel has been continuously evolving ever since its birth, adding new facilities and expanding its physical properties. It's a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, and it has 582 rooms, including 49 spacious suites uniquely decorated with original artefacts and antiques. Be it the business traveller, the luxury lover or the gawking hoi polloi, the Taj has the pedigree, the quality and the resplendence to dazzle all.

History sleeps on the lap of the Taj. The stalwarts of India’s freedom struggle, social reformers and literary geniuses, eminent scientists and glamorous movie stars, high-profile personalities from all walks of life have had the pleasurable experience of the Taj's hospitality. Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, Somerset Maugham, Aldous Huxley, George Bernard Shaw, Sir Richard Attenborough, Yehudi Menuhin, Margaret Thatcher, Prince Charles, Bill Clinton and many others have walked the hotel’s hallways and enjoyed the warmth and kindness of its people.

It would be no exaggeration to say that Mr Tata played a great role in transforming Mumbai. The Taj is one example that came to life, but there are others that did not. Mr Tata, inspired by a visit to Venice, wanted a similar waterway system in the city. However, his plans to convert the Panjoo and Dongri islands near Uran into picnic spots with bungalows and groves, and develop low-lying lands that would be intersected by shallow creeks, never bore fruit.

Mr Tata bought a property south of Bandra in which he wanted to build houses at a moderate rental to help relieve Mumbai's congestion. His Mahim river reclamation scheme promised many benefits: swamps that would be converted into pasture grounds where cattle could be bred, malarial exhalations that could be carried out in the creeks to improve the health and sanitation of the city suburbs, fish farms that could give employment to hundreds of people, and so on.

Building institutions
But what Mr Tata did manage to create in his lifetime was impressive enough: the trend-setting Institute of Science in Bangalore, the Tata Iron and Steel Company in Jamshedpur, and the Tata Hydroelectric Project, the forerunner of Tata Power, in Mumbai.

When Mr Tata unveiled his intention to construct "a great hotel that will restore the image of Mumbai and attract visitors from abroad" to his sisters, they mocked him with the words: "You're going to build a bhatarkhana [eating-house] now?" Some eating-house the Taj has turned out to be.

The Taj Group of Hotels, which grew out of the original Taj, has won international acclaim for its excellent services and fantastic properties. Jamsetji Tata's successors have taken the company beyond the boundaries of India, and even Asia, making it a world-class hotel chain that has 56 facilities in 40 locations across South Asia and six hotels in other parts of the world. The great man would have been proud.

The writer is vice-president, Indian Hotels Company. He can be contacted at t.damu@tajhotels.com