The 1880s and 1890s were a time of great construction in Bombay. The Grand Victoria Terminus was built, and after it the Municipal Corporation building, another beautiful structure, followed by the Churchgate headquarters of the B.B. & C.I. Railways (now Western Railways). But there was no hotel worthy of the growing city.
Being an ardent fan of Mark Twain, Jamsetji Tata may have read of the writer’s fate in the so-called ‘best’ Watson’s Hotel: Mark Twain and his family were roused every morning at dawn by doors slamming, servants shouting, and “fiendish bursts of laughter, explosions of dynamite.” The Irish chef at the hotel was apparently more conversant with the French language that with French cooking, “serving up Irish stew on 14 occasions under 14 different French names.” Sir Stanley Reed, Editor of The Times of India, said Jamsetji had an intense pride and affection for the city of his birth, and when a friend protested against the intense discomforts of hotel life in Bombay, he growled: “I will build one.”
One day without consulting anybody, not even his sons or partners, he announced his plan to build a grand hotel. It was his personal contribution and money he was putting in — not that of Tata & Sons. Along the present Yacht Club at Apollo Bunder was a little bay where yachts used to scull. The British were reclaiming the land and he bought a substantial site of two-and-a-half acres on November 1, 1898 on a 99-year lease. There was no formal laying of a foundation stone but a traditional coconut was broken and a Parsi diva (oil lamp) was lit, perhaps by the well or spring between the present swimming pool and the lifts. This ceremony took place in 1900.
Many an interesting story is invented round the Taj being designed by an Italian/French architect who, after his exertions, went home and returned to find the building was put the wrong way around — what should have been in the rear was in front and vise versa. Heartbroken he went to the top floor of the Taj and flung himself out of the window. Dramatic! Touching! But not true. As anyone who stayed at the then-non-air-conditioned Taj in the summer would attest, the late afternoon breezes that blow across Colaba do not spring up from the harbour but sweep in from across Back Bay. The U-shaped wings of the hotel were positioned to trap this breeze and extract the most benefit.
Indeed, the necessity to draw whatever relief there might be from the torrid heat of western India was certainly the inspiration behind the hotel’s two most original features. At the time, the clientele Jamsetji expected was from abroad and his endeavour was to make the hotel as cool as possible. Thus it had high ceilings and wide corridors, which would be conducive to air circulation. Furthermore, the Wellington Mews — another property Jamsetji bought — behind the hotel site was where the horses and carriages were housed and these could roll in directly from the west side.
One convincing explanation comes from the daughter of a Goan customs officer, Francis Xavier D’Mello, who was stationed in the customs shed at Apollo Bunder and witnessed the Taj rising stone by stone: “Jamsetji Tata came regularly to watch his great hotel being built. The customs shed provided the only shelter from the blazing sun, so Mr. Tata used to come there and have long chats with my father. Once my father asked him why he had put the entrance to the Taj at the back, and Jamsetji told him that he wanted the majority of his hotel guests to have rooms overlooking the sea. Jamsetji surely had some hand in his broad instructions to the architect.”
Sadly, having designed the Taj along with a Parsi architect under Jamsetji’s instructions, Sitaram died of malaria. The dome designed on the model of the Victoria Terminus (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) had not been built. W.A. Chambers was called to help. Khansahib Sorabji Contractor built the solid structure.
The prospectus for the hotel to be underlined some salient features: “The Hotel, when completed, will be five storeys high, and will accommodate, beside hotel boarders to the number of 500, a number of permanent residents. Immense cellars, below the ground floor level will contain the refrigeration plant, which will cool the rooms of the inmates, and will also enable their food to be stored in a manner foreign to India. The ground floor will be occupied by the offices, first-class restaurants, and shops for the sale of articles generally desired by travellers. The first floor will be mostly taken up with a grand dining room, drawing room, reading rooms, billiard room, and a few grand suites, all provided with electric fans. The second, third, fourth and fifth floors will contain bedrooms, mostly double and furnished in the Continental style with sofa, tables and chairs, and other furniture, and on each floor bathrooms and lavatories. The kitchens etc., will be on the top of the house with a roof garden. The Hotel will be lighted throughout with electric lights, and many lifts, also worked by electricity, will convey residents from floor to floor with comfort. A Turkish bath will also be fitted up in the Hotel.”
Jamsetji personally went to order the electrical machinery from Dusseldorf and chandeliers from Berlin. Furthermore, he made sure that if by chance electricity failed, a back up system of gas lights was at hand. There was the in-house soda bottling plant, an electric laundry, fans from the USA — and the first spun-steel pillars from the Paris Exhibition where the Eiffel Tower was then the latest wonder of the world. These pillars, a hundred years later, hold up the ceiling of the Banquet Hall.
For all his projects Jamsetji got the costing done thoroughly but not for the Taj. It was his gift to the city he loved — as the Taj Mahal of Agra was Shah Jahan’s memorial to the woman he loved. It cost about Rs. 25 lakh. When the hotel opened, it had a large staff of waiters but only seven guests. It was Bombay’s first public building to be lit by electricity and when it happened, those present outside clapped as they saw it lit.
As if such a grand edifice was not enough, he purchased two small islands near Uran called Panjoo and Dongri so that the guests at the Taj could go on picnics.
Jamsetji wanted to lease out the Taj to an experienced European hotelier. The plans fell through and finding the staff and running the hotel was to fall initially on him in 1902 and later on his partners and colleagues. The Gateway of India came up only in 1924 to commemorate the visit of King Emperor George V and Queen Mary in 1911. Before that at the Gateway site, sahibs used to sit at tables sipping burra and chotta pegs.
Perhaps, says Allen and Dwivedi (who have done research on the Taj), Jamsetji believed in starting a new venture on an auspicious date, Muhurat as it is called. It was decided to open the hotel on December 16, 1903, before the building was complete. Only one wing was ready and the dome had not been completed. A study of Jamsetji’s medical reports of the late-1903 shows his health was deteriorating. His sons and colleagues may have decided to speed up the opening so he could have the satisfaction of seeing at least one of his dreams come true. Steel, the hydro-electric venture, and the Indian Institute of Science came up after his death.
Five months after the Muhurat, when Jamsetji died, a leading journal of Calcutta, The Empress, wrote in the obituary: “The new hotel represented, to Mr. Tata, something more than a mere commercial venture, and he had determined that the Taj Mahal Hotel should set an example, which should re-act throughout India, in removing one of the greatest hindrances to agreeable travel in this country. The plans were drawn with the sole purpose of securing an entirely worthy building, and he looked for no immediate financial returns. There is something peculiarly saddening in the coincidence that the fixing of the key-stone of the noble dome should have preceded, but only a few days, the death of the man who inspired it.”
The lives of the clientele, which was mainly British, revolved round news from home. The P. & O. brought the mail every Friday morning and left every Saturday evening. The London GPO’s largest single destination was mail for India. It was rushed from London, sorted out between Aden and Bombay and special bags delivered within an hour of the arrival of the steamer. Saturday was spent in answering letters. The Sea Lounge at the Taj was created as a letter-writing room and by special arrangement mail from the Taj was directly delivered to the ship.
In years to come, world-renowned personalities have stayed there, from Somerset Maugham and Duke Ellington to Lord Mountbatten and Bill Clinton. The hotel was featured in a hundred books, including Louis Bromfield’s One Night in Bombay, which is centred on the Taj.
The maharajas become the great patrons of the Taj and invited the hotel to do special catering in their states. The Chamber of Princes was to meet there regularly every January — hence the ‘Princes’ Room’ at the southern end of the Taj. The business maharajas were to follow next; today the Taj is the most sought after venue for wedding receptions, and one can frequently see fire crackers being let off at the gate as the bridegroom’s party dances merrily away.
As there was no Gateway of India for 20 years after the Taj came up, the hotel offered the first view of the city to ships sailing into the harbour until 1924. Even now, with many more tall buildings on the skyline, the hotel engages immediate attention. It is a symbol of Mumbai.
(Russi M. Lala is the author of For the Love of India — The Life and Times of Jamsetji Tata. He lives near the Taj Mahal and even closer to Nariman House.)