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The Taj Mahal Palace was Mumbai's first harbour landmark
Heritage

Diamond By The Sea

When the Taj Mahal Palace first opened its doors in 1903, it inspired pride in every Indian, exactly as Jamsetji Tata had intended it. Over a 100 years later, it continues to be a grand icon of Indian hospitality

1250 words     |     5-minute read

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Jamsetji Tata was more than an industrialist—he was a nationalist with a fervour to see India ranked among the great nations of the world. To this end, he passionately pursued his dreams for India, only one of which was truly complete in his lifetime—a hotel Bombay and the country could be proud of. 

Picture this: it’s Bombay, circa late 1800s. A stately carriage rolls up to one of the leading hotels in Bombay, an impressive hansom cab drawn by a pair of proud Hungarian horses, with a liveried coachman perched high. It’s the first carriage in the city to be fitted with rubber tyres and its noiseless passage draws amazed crowds every time Jamsetji Tata drives past.

When the Taj Mahal Palace opened for business in 1903, it was the country's first harbour landmark — 20 years before the Gateway of India

Of course, the simple, almost austerely dressed man who steps out is no stranger to attention. He shuns the limelight but, paradoxically, it follows him wherever he goes. Invited by a foreign friend to dine at one of the city hotels, Jamsetji Tata walks in with his host, only to be rudely accosted by the supercilious English hotel manager with that ignominious line, “We don’t allow Indians in here.”

How would you reply to an insult like this — an insult to you, to your country, to your countrymen? Well, if you’re Jamsetji Tata, you choose your answer carefully. You build one of the finest hotels in the world. You choose a site facing the magnificent ocean. You select one of the world’s leading architects. And you equip it with the best the world has to offer.

A Hotel to Inspire Pride

Jamsetji Tata spent more than £300,000 on the Taj Mahal hotel. A hundred years ago that was an enormous sum of money. But more than just money was the care and attention he lavished on it. His sons, his friends, his business associates — everyone urged him not to go ahead with the project. It’s going to lose money, they insisted. But Jamsetji was obdurate. “Perhaps it will,” he said, “but that makes no difference”. He wanted Indians to get what they needed — a great hotel that would be proud to serve them.

The hotel's architecture has mixed influences, including Moorish, Rajput and Oriental styles

Under Jamsetji Tata’s watchful eye, the Taj rose on the seafront, an impressive edifice that dominated the landscape, predating Bombay’s Gateway of India.

When the Taj opened its doors in Bombay in 1903, it inspired delight and awe in every Indian, and not just for its imposing exterior. To many Indians who had never travelled abroad before, this Taj was an incredible wonder of the modern world, a tantalising glimpse into the future. The Taj was the first building in Bombay to be electrified. It had the first ice-making machine. The first soda maker. The first lift. The first generator. The first mechanised laundry. The first polishing machine. Most important of all, it was a hotel into which any Indian could walk with his head held high, confident that he would be treated with courtesy and respect.

The old lounge at the Taj

One hundred years after it was opened, the Taj has retained its position as one of the world’s great hotels, often a destination in itself. Over the years, the hotel has been a witness to many historic events of local, national and international importance. The farewell speech of Lord Mountbatten, for instance, took place in the hotel’s ‘grand ballroom’ (he boarded his ship and left India after his speech here). There is the ‘princes’ room’, where the royal princes met to discuss becoming a part of the new India. More recently the hotel has been the port of call for practically every important head of state. The Taj continues to have that cachet in the corporate world, too.

It has spun off an entire chain of hotels, the largest in India. Today, the Indian Hotels Company Ltd (IHCL)  is a chain of over 100 luxury, business and resort hotels across 62 destinations worldwide. Each hotel built with the same careful attention. But more than bricks and mortar, it’s Indian courtesy that sets them apart.

Ultimately, as Jamsetji Tata well knew, this is really our finest Indian heritage.

The old dining hall at the Taj was later converted into the ballroom

Did You Know?  

  • The foundation of the Taj Mahal, laid in 1898, is 40 feet deep. The hotel was built at a cost of more than Rs. 4 crore.

  • It was the first building in Bombay to be lit by electricity, the first to have telephones in every room, electric elevators and an ice-making machine! It also was the first to have American fans, German elevators, Turkish baths and English butlers.

  • At the time, a suite of rooms, including full board, cost the princely sum of Rs. 30.
One of the old, luxurious suites at the Taj
  • It preceded the famous Gateway of India by over 20 years. Until then the hotel was the first sight for ships calling at the Bombay port.
  • The imposing edifice of the hotel is an amalgam of styles that range from Moorish domes to Oriental and Rajput architecture.
  • An early report describes the horror of a receptionist looking up to see a monarch march in, followed by his pet tiger on a chain.
  • Jamsetji Tata had visited the famous Paris exhibition at the turn of the century (for which the Eiffel Tower was built). He saw there, pillars of spun iron displayed for the first time, and ordered 10 to be shipped home for his new hotel. Today they seem indestructible as they continue to hold up the hotel's famous ballroom.
  • Something written in 1905 is worth repeating. A Mr GA Mathews says about the Taj in his Diary Of An Indian Tour: "The Taj Hotel is on such a scale of magnificence and luxury that at first it rather took one's breath away. There is no other hotel in India which will bear comparison with it, as it is in a rank of its own."
  • When it opened the Taj was perhaps the only place in the world where staunch Congressmen could debate with defenders of the British Empire, and where sailors on shore leave could flirt with Pompadour follies.
  • During World War I (1914 to 1918), the hotel was converted into a 600-bed hospital.
  • The Taj had Mumbai's first-ever licensed bar, the Harbour Bar (bar licence No 1), India's first all-day dining restaurant, and the country's first international discotheque, Blow Up.
  • Mohammed Ali Jinnah (the originator of the idea of partition and, later, the first head of state of Pakistan) and Sarojini Naidu (president of the Indian National Congress), both held court in suites at the Taj.
A 23-storey tower wing, with arches and balconies, was added to the Taj Mahal Palace in 1973
  • In 1947, independent India's first speech to industry was made at the hotel.
  • In 1973, a tower wing was conceived with 23 storeys of arches and balconies, topped by a jagged diadem.
  • In its centenary year, 2003, the Taj was rejuvenated. It has a new name — The Taj Mahal Palace and Towers — new restaurants, beautifully restored guest rooms and a charming new lobby lounge. Two venerated restaurants were reopened in new avatars: 'Masala Kraft' for the erstwhile Tanjore and 'The Souk', earlier the Apollo Bar.

 

Source: JN Tata Centenary Diary, Tata Steel, 2004 and 'An Icon and an Ideal', Tata Review

 

 


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