It took a tragedy—two in fact—before I grasped the significance of the Taj Mahal Palace to Mumbai.
When I first set foot inside its marbled, mosaicked, and chandeliered extravagance in 1987, I hadn’t the faintest idea what the hotel symbolized beyond sublime luxury—two words rarely used to describe Mumbai. I was seeking an escape from the teeming masses and noisome streets of this wonderfully berserk city and found it in the chilled, perfumed air of the Taj. It was, still is, and always has been a paradise amid the pandemonium.
The hotel has been a constant of my many return visits to Mumbai. Usually I drop by for a long G&T at the Harbour Bar, holder of the city’s first liquor permit, issued circa 1933. But I have also stayed there, both in the blandly corporate 1970s tower block and in the 1903 palace hotel, Mumbai’s most envied address.
And I have dined there many times, most notably on August 25, 2003, the same day two car bombs exploded in the city—one across the road at the Gateway of India; the other some two miles north at the swarming Zaveri (Jewelry) Bazaar.
I was due to meet a local tourism chief for dinner at the hotel, but after the bombs, which killed fifty-two people and injured 300, I called to suggest we postpone. He wouldn’t hear of it.
So that evening I skirted broken glass and a lurching chandelier above the porte cochère to join him in the Taj’s Golden Dragon restaurant at 8pm. Behind boarded windows we ate king prawns and salt-and-pepper water chestnuts as he assured me that India is “… one of the safe destinations. We may fight against each other but we treat the tourist like the god.”
Far more deadly and crippling were the 2008 attacks by the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba that paralyzed Mumbai for three days. There were twelve strikes but the epicenter of the murderous rampage was the Taj Mahal Palace, where six bombs exploded and fires raged, gutting parts of the hotel and leaving thirty-one dead (166 in total across the megacity). The terrorists realized that if they wanted to bring India’s economic powerhouse to its knees, they must pierce its heart.
* On any normal day, crowds throng Apollo Bunder to gaze longingly at the hotel’s glorious seafront facade—cobbled grey, red domed, neo-Gothic, and so distinctive that in 2017 the Taj Mahal Palace became the first property in India to trademark its image. All these onlookers dream of one day setting foot inside. But for days after the attacks, people gathered outside and cried.
The hotel partly reopened a month later, but the ruined heritage wing remained shuttered until October 2010. Earlier that same year, in South Africa for the opening of Taj Cape Town, I listened to then chairman of the Tata Group, Ratan Tata, describe the restoration of Mumbai’s venerable landmark as “an issue of emotional triumph.”
“You can’t knock Bombay down like that,” he declared.
It’s a sentiment I’ve heard many times since.
Among the first to check into the reborn property were Barack and Michelle Obama, who christened the thirteen-room presidential suite. During an in-house speech the then US president described the Taj Mahal Palace as “the symbol of the strength and the resilience of the Indian people.”
I checked in a couple of months earlier in September 2010 and found the hotel looking more opulent and graceful than ever after its $28 million restoration. The 285 rooms of the palace wing fan out along balconied floors adorned with an impressive collection of modern Indian art.
Like its mother city, the Taj Mahal Palace is a palimpsest of layered triumphs and tragedies, of maharajas and movie stars, of courtships and corporate deals. And so many other stories besides.
“the Taj Mahal Palace is a palimpsest of layered triumphs and tragedies, of maharajas and movie stars”
It was opened in 1903 by the visionary Parsi industrialist Jamsetji Tata as Bombay’s first meeting place for all creeds; a private space where Indians and Europeans could mingle. India’s maharajas soon adopted it as their informal meeting place (in the Prince’s Room, which endures today). Their imprimatur ensured the hotel’s success.
It has been a pioneering property—site of India’s first disco, and Mumbai’s first all-day coffee shop. The Taj is credited with introducing tea dances, jazz, and cabaret to the subcontinent. A barefoot Gandhi gave an address here; the Freedom Movement firebrands plotted their liberation from British rule within these walls.
The late historian and publisher Sharada Dwivedi explained all this to me over tea and snacks in the first-floor Sea Lounge, Mumbai’s favorite venue for society courtships. She always loved being at the Taj and watching the crowds outside, staring up at this immutable symbol of an unfathomable city.
“It represents the hopes and aspirations of the people,” Dwivedi said. “I feel it represents the spirit of Bombay more than anything else in the city.”