After leaving the view of Gateway of India and turning around you would be mesmerized again by a beautiful seven stories tall structure with a central dome which could be represented as a crown on the skyline of Mumbai if viewed from afar. This, my friends is “The Taj Mahal” Palace & Tower.
At a first glance, many people think that the Hotel was made by Britons. But in fact it was built by a person from Parsee community. Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, one of the most influential Parsee of them all. In those times the members of the Parsee community had grown rich and powerful by their relationship with the British Government. Jamsetji Tata made his first fortune in the cotton trade and later branched out into mills, hydroelectric works, a shipping line and numerous other businesses.
The history of the Taj Hotels is a very interesting one. It is said that on one day at the end of the 19th century, the influential Jamsetji Tata took his foreign friend to have lunch at Watson Hotel (Another interesting historical building which lies just 10 mins away from the current location of Taj Mahal Palace & Tower). But he was denied entry simply because he was not a European. Hence he conceived the idea of building a hotel worthy of the city, which would attracts Europeans, Indians and people of all races (which it still does).
The city of Bombay had recently been devastated in 1890’s due to Bubonic Plague. This worked as a catalyst for J. N. Tata to build the Taj Mahal Palace.
Some twenty five years before the Gateway of India was even made, J. N. Tata acquired necessary permissions to build a Hotel at Apollo Bunder at the Port of Bombay which would heartily welcome all the visitors.
J. N. Tata assigned two architects Sitaram Khanderao Vaidya and D. N. Mirza to design the original plans for the Taj Palace. But due to untimely death of Vaidya(in 1900) the project was assigned to and completed by W. A. Chambers (who designed the Watson Hotel too). These architects had worked with F. W. Steven (who designed Victoria Terminus a.k.a Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus in 1888) which has hugely influenced their work
The architects made sure that the hotel stands to its name and well fits the description of “Palace Hotel”.In 1898, the foundations 40 ft deep were laid on one hectare of land and on this rose a massive building flanked by two wings, creating a place for large courtyard. A six stories building with a central dome, with a design produced on a grand scale incorporating Indo-Saracenic architecture, with Victorian Gothic and Romanesque details, with Edwardian touches on the roof. With balconies on every floor, fancy woodwork of every kind, ornamental spikes and windows like mashrabiya casements of Arab houses has made many travelers looking at this hotel thoughtful.
It is a common misconception that the layout was reversed by mistake by the architect and he committed suicide. The Taj was deliberately designed in such a way that most of the rooms can enjoy the sea view and a well maintained garden was placed in the entrance so to trap the hot winds from the Back Bay. It was also a logical decision to make the entrance within the city so that it could be easily accessible. The entrance was then reversed to the front side due to growing traffic problems (and this is why the myth was formed). Originally where the carriages were parked is now converted into a swimming pool.
While the hotel was still in construction J. N. Tata went to London, Dusseldorf, Berlin & Paris for handpicking the furnishing, paying careful attention to every detail, from fabric to lighting fixture. In Paris he attended the opening of the Eiffel Tower and was inspired to order 10 pillars of spun iron, which now holds the ballroom of Taj.
It was the first building in Bombay to be electrified with its own power plant. It had its own four lifts, steam powered laundry, aerated bottling plant, mechanical dishwasher, telegraph service, post office, burnishing machine for silver and a Turkish bath. A gas operated ice machine provided refrigeration and helped to cool the suites. Later it was Bombay’s first licensed Bar, the first Discotheque and the first restaurant to remain open for 24 hours a day. It had both in house Doctor as well as chemist
Sambit Saha of the Telegraph India in his article says that
The hotel is a study in luxury with its vaulted alabaster ceilings, onyx columns, archways, hand-woven silk carpets, Belgian crystal chandeliers, cantilever stairway and collections of art and furniture. Its colonnades of shops are stuffed with the world’s most expensive brands.
It had cost 2,50,000 Pounds for the building itself, and additional costs of 5,00,000 pounds for making additional enmities available. The hotel was open for business in 16 December 1903
Sadly Jamshetji Tata was not able to see the full grandeur of The Taj Palace, as he passed away in 1904.
There used to be a neighboring hotel Greens which was famous among the sailors due to its low cost and wild parties. In 1973, it was acquired by the Tata Group and was demolished. In its place now stands what we know as The Taj Mahal Tower
In between 1980 and 1985, when Mr. Jamshed D. F. Lamb was the vice president of Tata Group it had ranked fifth best hotel in the World.
However, like every Mumbaikar The Taj Hotel has seen its dark days. During the World War I it was converted into 600 bed hospital. The Taj had faced demolition in late 1960, but Jehangir Tata (Great Grandson of J. N. Tata) and his staff fought hard to save the building. It has seen the 1993 Serial Blasts as well as August 2003’s explosions. On 26th November 2008, it had witnessed the most chilling terrorist attack where the whole place was bombed and 167 people were killed.
The hotel had become a social and a political center. It has hosted many events for famous personalities. Banquets for King George V and Queen Mary were held here twice. Edward, Prince of Wales visited here. May other notable personalities who visited Taj Palace were Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Mahatma Gandhi , Jawaharlal Nehru, Maharajahs and Princes and Royal figures from many states, Lord Louis Mountbatten (the first governor general of Independent India who held an inaugural speech here for the leaders), The Beatles, Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, The King & Queen of Norway, The Duke & Duchess of Kent, Roger Moore, The Duke of Edinburgh, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Barrack Obama as well as many other personalities.
Stones of the Empire – The Buildings of the Raj (Pg 149)
Asia’s Legendary Hotels – The Romance of Travel (Pg 36)
Grand Hotels – Reality and Illusion (Pg 202)