During my first visit to India, my guide and now dear friend Vishal told my group that in India, “Guest is God.” This notion is actually comes from ancient Hindu scriptures which state that visitors to your home must be honored, respected, taken care of and loved. This is certainly true for during my travels there – every single need or want was delivered – sometimes even before I thought of it. I learned much about this philosophy at the Taj Palace, not only during my stay, but through its history explained in a guests only Heritage Tour of the hotel.
There is oft repeated legend that the founder of the hotels – Jamsetji Tata (founde of the vast Tata Group) envisioned opening a hotel like the Taj after being banned from a nearby hotel that had a sign that read “No Dogs or Indians.” There might be some truth to this that helped his vision, but the official story is that Tata wanted to create a magnificent hotel that would bring then Bombay status among the greatest hotels in the world.
Taking inspiration from European, Islamic, Oriental and Indian themes, the 22 story Taj has onion domes, arched balconies and Tanjore pillars and offers panaormaic views of the Arabian Sea and the Gateway to India. Inside there are exquisite trellises and balustrades. Its massive suites such as the Tata Suite and Presidential Suite have hosted many dignitaries and celebrities.
The Taj opened in 1903 with English butler service, Turkish baths, German lifts, and American fans. It was the first hotel to have electricity in India, and the first to have air-conditioning in Asia. Lord Mountbatten announced Indian independence from its steps. . During World War Taj’s space was converted into a 600-bed hospital.
The Harbor Bar, Mumbai’s first licensed bar has been going strong since 1933. In the 1970s, when a 22-story tower annex was added (known today as the Tower Wing) it included India’s first 24-hour restaurant, Shamiana, which by the way has scrumptious fare.
Many famous named people stayed at the hotel: from Emperor King George V and Queen Mary in 1909, to George Bernard Shaw, Jackie Onassis, Mick Jagger, Oprah Winfrey, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, the Dalai Lama and President Obama, who stayed in 2010, booked the entire hotel and all the restaurants. Photographs of these celebrities are rotated in a glass disposal in the lobby.
There is also a dark, sad history to the Taj. In 2008, members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamist terrorist organization from Pakistan, coordinated terrorist attacks on the city. Ten gunmen stormed the hotel, barricading themselves inside for 3 days while detonating bombs and shooting guests. In total 175 lives were lost including 9 of the terrorists.
Guests are God. Not one of the 1,500 staff left the building during the attack. Instead, they all stayed at their posts – from the telephone operators who provided invaluable information on the whereabouts of the terrorists, to the General Manager who continued to lead his team even after he found out his wife and children – who lived on the 6th floor of the hotel – had been killed. According to guests at the time, the staff stayed calm, composed and selfless. They led guests to safer areas of the hotel as soon as feasible. They offered comfort, reassurance and guidance and eventually led a small group out of the hotel through a back passage, waiting for the guests to leave first.
The heroic response, and dedication to duty, that the Taj staff displayed in the face of chaos and terror, their spur-of-the-moment bravery saved innumerable lives, and the Taj came to represent not just opulence in the Indian psyche, but resilience.
Today a simply designed memorial for the victims greets visitors in the hotel lobby. A waterfall cascades down behind glass, alongside an installation with names of victims and a tree of life.
This is the soul of the Taj… and of India.