Mumbaiwale: Fifteen tales of the Taj Hotel
It’s more than a hotel. As the Taj Mahal Palace turns 115, a closer look at the Mumbai landmark
The origin story you’ve heard is a bit of a stretch.
You’ve probably been told that Jamsetji Tata started building the Taj in 1898 because he was barred from the Europeans-only Apollo Hotel. While that may have happened, historians believe it couldn’t have been reason enough to sink money into a hotel. It’s likely that Tata decided to build the Taj to spruce up Bombay’s image after the plague hit the city in the 1890s. The hotel opened in 1903.
Not everyone approved.
Tata’s own sisters objected to the industrialist opening a bhatarkhana (eating house). But he went ahead anyway. In 1902, he even shopped in New York, Dusseldorf and Paris for electric lights, ice machines, cold storage cellars that could also cool rooms, and steel pillars. In 1904, the year after the hotel opened, he also bought the hotel next door, Greens.
The prices seem like a steal today.
Original tariff cards advertised “all latest comforts at moderate charges from ₹6 upwards”. But average room rates were ₹10 per day, with a princely ₹3 extra if you wanted a fan and attached bathroom.
But it struggled for a bit.
Europeans preferred European-run hotels. Indians thought it was too Western. At one point the Taj offered free dinners to steamship pursers to boost patronage. Only after the maharaja of Bikaner stayed here did other aristocrats start checking in, changing the Taj’s fortunes.
It’s older than the Gateway of India.
When Prince of Wales and Queen Mary visited in 1911, they entered via a domed plaster-of Paris structure. The basalt monument wasn’t completed until 1927. The Taj however, had been standing for eight years and hosted a banquet for them.
It’s been a hospital, petrol shop, car shop and garage.
The hotel served as a 600-bed hospital during World War 1. In times of economic trouble parts of it have been leased to a fuel distribution centre, a car showroom, and a taxi service.
Jamsetji Tata wanted to sell his hotel.
Historians believe Tata had no intention of running the Taj. But it proved hard to sell – no one wanted a property where the kitchen was on the top floor. It was only moved in the 1930s.
It helped our fight for freedom.
Records show that as early as 1916, in a backroom of the hotel, the members of the Muslim League settled their differences with the Hindu- majority Congress. The Taj also hosted Sarojini Naidu in a permanent suite for almost two decades, where she met with visitors who supported Independence.
Everyone believed that it was designed by an Englishman.
WA Chambers, the well-known English architect, was certainly the engineer when the hotel opened. But signatures on the architectural plans in the original booklet bore a different name: Sitaram Khanderao Vaidya. Chambers took over when Vaidya died, and his biggest contribution was to increase the size of the central dome.
It holds Mumbai’s first liquor licence.
Harbour Bar was the first in the city to be able to serve alcohol, in 1933. Their licence number is 1.
But it wasn’t the first five-star hotel.
That honour went to Juhu’s Sun N Sand hotel in 1962. The Taj didn’t have a swimming pool then and didn’t qualify.
It’s not built back-to-front.
Until the 1960s, entry to the hotel wasn’t from the sea-facing side but the side where the swimming pool now exists. Why? Vaidya’s design gave hotel guests a view of the sea. Today, most visitors enter from the Tower wing that replaced the Greens hotel site in 1973.
It has battle scars.
At least 31 people died and another 28 were injured at the hotel in the terror attack on November 26, 2008. But the Taj opened a month after, slowly restoring the original wing (which sustained much of the damage). It now houses a 12-foot-high memorial bearing the names of the deceased victims.
The book on its history took 30 years to write.
Historian Sharada Dwivedi was looking for information about the hotel’s history as far back as 1979, and put an ad in the papers asking the public to contribute to an archive. When that didn’t work, she began the research herself. She collaborated with British historian Charles Allen to bring out The Taj at Apollo Bunder in 2010.
The 115th birthday party is very fancy.
The hotel is holding a fundraising dinner to mark the milestone. You could book a charity table for a black-tie evening on December 15 and 16. Contributions start at Rs 1 lakh, towards the Taj Public Service Welfare Trust, which helps disaster-affected people. DAG gallery is also donating 20 iconic artworks, the sales of which will go to the Trust.