Wah Taj! When sentiment and luxury graced a heritage walk

Jul 29, 2012, 08:23 IST | Fiona Fernandez

In a first of sorts, Sunday MiDDAY gets access to the corridors of luxury and opulence as the Taj Mahal Palace opens its doors to a heritage walk that introduces not just guests but also the curious-minded to its stately stairways and history-laden walls, in a 90-minute experience. We were floored, to say the least

At various points during our heritage walk inside the Taj Mahal Palace at the Apollo Bunder, we had to pinch ourselves to shake off our make-believe imagery that had us starring in Granada TV’s Raj-inspired spectacle from the 1980s, The Jewel in the Crown.

The old garden and driveway that opened towards Mereweather Road has now given way to the swimming pool. In the old times, Victorias would line up outside to pick and drop guests

Circa late 1890s: Against the background of the plague, Jamsetji Tata suddenly announced his decision to build the Taj. This great hotel would help restore the image of then-Bombay and attract visitors from abroad.

“Welcome to the realisation of Sir Tata’s dream” Viren D’Sa, Experience Manager at the Taj Mahal Palace greets me on a muggy July afternoon at the Aquarius section, a residents-only enclosure that boasts of a swimming pool, gym, spa and al fresco dining.

The walk begins at Aquarius, which is a members only section at the Taj Mahal Palace. Pics/ Pradeep Dhivar

The azure waters of the pool make for the perfect starting point to our guided tour as we walk past well-manicured lawns dotted with middle-eastern-styled cabañas.

This forms the centre of the horseshoe-shaped wing that was restored in 2010 after the “incident” (staff use this term while referring to the November 2008 attacks). “The structure was designed to capture the sea breeze,” chips in Viren, dressed in his crisp black sherwani uniform.

The corridors are showcased with countless photographs of the crème de la crème, comprising leaders and celebrities from India and overseas who were guests at the hotel

Rajput bay windows, Moorish-Florentine domes and Edwardian-Gujarati trellises and balustrades run from one end of the building to the other. WH Chambers’ (along with Sitaram Khandekar) designs as well as its accurate restoration take our breath away. Who would imagine that on December 16, 1903, the doors of the Taj opened to the public at Rs 6 per room.

Today, a room costs Rs 28,000! “Outside is the original entrance that opened into the city on Mereweather Road,” Viren points out to the two gates at either end of the wing.

To this day, the 240-feet high central dome serves as an official daytime triangulation point for ships of the Indian Navy fix their positions by taking bearings on Middle Ground (the old naval battery sited on a tiny island opposite the Taj) and the dome of the Taj

We proceed to the Shamiana —India’s first 24-hour cafe, which is built on reclaimed land from the Apollo Bunder promenade. In the passage, intricate wrought iron Warli artwork grabs the eye — “We showcase local tribal art and tradition. Taj staff uniforms are made from handspun fabric woven in Varanasi.”

Next, we spend a moment at the memorial erected after the November 2008 attacks, graced by the Tree of Life. At the cusp of the old and the new is the main lobby, which was a road until 1971, when the Tatas bought over the erstwhile Green’s Hotel next door, to build the uber-luxe Taj Intercontinental.

French couturier, Pierre Cardin was remembered for the touch of glamour he brought to the city when he held his first fashion show in the Art Deco Taj Ballroom. It is built in a space that previously housed the Dining Hall

We marvelled at the interiors that are lightened throughout by the extraordinary arrangement of galleries. Our next stop is Harbour Bar — the city’s first bar to possess a liquor licence (001) in 1930.

Redone, post the attacks, the nautical theme has made way for a cosmopolitan vibe, celebrated by city artist Rajesh Pultawar’s mixed media artwork, The Golden City. Bartender Tehmton Mistry, who has been stirring up many a tipple for 34 years, fixes us a Harbour On 33. The legend behind the cocktail is fascinating, and its fruity overtures ensure we savour this classy moment even more.

This was painted by Ratan Tata and Laxman Shrestha in 2006. Tata practised for two weeks with the artist. You can spot it behind the desk at the original reception

We are treated to more gems, as Nikhila Palat, Director — PR joins in, like the dabba meal (served in a prototype of the dabbawalla’s tiffin carrier) and created for the single traveller at the Taj or the horse called Atruk, who in 1987, walked atop the grand staircase!

A wall at the original reception showcases Ratan Tata’s talent as an artist — a joint canvas done with Laxman Shrestha. Admiring the stunning Fleur-De-Lite work on its ceilings, we walk into the piece de resistance of our trail — the grand staircase.

The memorial with the Tree of Life (right) near the main lobby is a subtle reminder of the November 2008 terror attacks. It mentions the names of those who lost their lives, including sniffer dog Lucy

The central stairwell was inspired by FW Stevens’ design for the central dome in the Victoria Terminus. Viren draws us into the historic moment — “Six US Presidents, the Windsor dynasty, musicians and actors have climbed these stairs.”

The walnut doors of the Palace Lounge transport us to a stately calm, in contrast to the chaotic city and choppy Arabian Sea beyond. The Taj Ballroom is our next stop; its walls are decked with artworks by the likes of Anjolie Ela Menon and Vivan Sundaram.

Bartender T Mistry of Harbour Bar fixes the exclusive Harbour On 33 cocktail

The Ballroom is made from steel that was used to build the Eiffel Tower. Viren rattles off trivia from pre-Independent India, as we gaze at the pomp — “Tata Motors’ first car, Frasier, was displayed here. Lord Mountbatten gave his last speech on Indian soil, on August 17, 1947.

Madame Pompadour performed here too...” Our final stop is the Sea Lounge, the city’s second licensed bar. Considered a lucky space to find the ideal marriage prospect, the lounge even boasts of a “lucky couch” where every meeting has ended in happy wedlock.

The Taj Signature Pvt Reserve includes a limited edition of malt whisky and wine (red and white)

As we made our way down the grand staircase, we swear we heard a “thank you” emanate from a corner. Sir Tata’s bust was smiling back at us.

To take a heritage walk, call 66653366 or email tmhconcierge.bom@tajhotels.com

Structure Spectacle
>> The Taj Mahal Hotel was the first clear landmark of the city that could be seen from the sea as the ocean-liners of the P&O and other shipping lines approached that great bite out of the Konkan Coast that is Bombay harbour

>> On November 1, 1898, workmen began sinking the foundations of what was to become the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel

>> Why the Taj was built has always been something of a mystery. A popular story has it that Sir Jamsetji Tata was once refused admission to either Watson’s Hotel or Pyrke’s Apollo Hotel, on the grounds that he was not a European, and that an indignant Jamsetji vowed to build a hotel far grander than any in Bombay wherein all races might enter. Another tale has it that he (JN Tata) had the idea simmering in his mind, and had made much study of the subject and his sole wish was to attract people to India, and incidentally, to improve Bombay

>> In 1902, as it neared completion, Jamsetji embarked on an overseas buying spree, scouring for the most modern equipment that could be procured. All these additional purchases, together with other fixtures and fittings, pushed up Tata’s investment to nearly Rs 26,00,000

>> The 40-foot long panel of filigree stone in the tower wing lobby is made up of square jaali panels, cut by the stoneworkers of Agra whose forefathers had worked on the grieving Shah Jehan’s masterpiece, the original Taj Mahal

Trivia from the Taj treasure trove
>> On December 16, 1903, without a public announcement, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel opened its doors to its first paying guests

>>The first maharaja to stay at the Taj was His Highness Major Sir Ganga Singh Bahadur, KCIE, the Maharaja of Bikaner

>> During the King-Emperor George V and Queen Mary‘s visit, the Taj felt confident enough to slap a 25 per cent increase on its tariffs. For this visit, the Taj spent Rs 9,092 on illuminations to mark the occasion

>> In 1907, a permanent Taj Mahal Orchestra was established, which was supplemented occasionally by military bands from the British regiments

>> Saturday night dinner-cabarets were an enormous success. Saturdays were packed with Rs 15 for a three-course dinner with cabaret

>> For Madame Pompadour’s efforts in livening up the Taj, she was presented with a gold cigarette case from the management on behalf of Sir Dorab Tata.

>> Great jazz bands like Crickett Smith and his Symphonies, Teddy Weatherford and his Vagabonds, the Leo Martinez band and others who followed, brought a wealth of musical talent to entertain Bombay through the War years

>> The visit of Hollywood idol, Gregory Peck was memorable to the Taj’s carpenters because they had to extend the frame of his bed to accommodate his 6 ft 3 inch frame

>> George Harrison and wife Patti arrived incognito in Bombay in September 1966 and checked into a suite under the names of Mr and Mrs Sam Wells

>> Post renovation in the 1970’s the rooms cost Rs 90 for a single room without breakfast

>> For its first 40 years, the kitchens of the Taj were dominated by French chefs, while its dining rooms were commanded by Italian, French and occasionally English maitres d’hôtel

>> The Zodiac Grill opened with the ‘pay what you think is right’ policy. From day one, people queued to get a table — up to 150 an evening. Guests would overpay rather than underpay; this went on for six months 

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