Haunting History: The Sordid Past of Mumbai’s Beloved Taj Hotel

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“Light is the left hand of darkness and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together, like the end and the way.”


― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

While this may seem a strange quote to open with, it is surprisingly fitting for today’s topic.

The Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai is one of the most elegant structures in history and arguably holds its own as one of the most attractive hotels in India even in the present day.

In the early 80s the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel & Tower was ranked the fifth best hotel in the world for two years running and upgrades made in the 90s ensured that the hotel kept up with the times.

It’s past, however, is nowhere near as beautiful as its façade.

For those in the architectural and design industry, thinking of the birth of the Taj probably takes you to the way in which it broke from tradition by combining European, Islamic and Oriental styling.

Perhaps your brain goes to the hotel’s centerpiece, described by Traveller.com as a “magnificent ornamental cantilever stairwell, which rises several floors inside the palace wing to meet a heroic, domed ceiling.”

But while these architectural wonders deserve the recognition they receive, if local tour guides are to be believed, your mind should go to a much darker place.

It is said that the American architect/engineer who finished the project, W. A. Chambers, departed for a holiday during construction, having approved the final draft of plans. Upon his return, however, the architect discovered that his masterpiece had been erected back to front.

As the story goes, his grief over the butchering of his design ultimately led to him throwing himself from a fifth-floor balcony.

It’s understandable that if you’ve got your heart set on a vision and someone slaughters it, then that hurts, but I can’t even fathom how upset you’d have to be to leave your own (semi-literal) bloodstain on your legacy’s past.

It should probably be noted here that many will argue that the hotel was deliberately built with its windows to the sea to enhance the view from guest’s accommodation, but as there is no definitive information regarding the end of Chamber’s life, the legend lives on.

Now, if you’re a purist and currently offended by my title, don’t go screaming for my head on a pike just yet, because this was not where the Taj’s macabre happenings ended.

During the first World War, the hotel was converted into a military hospital in order to treat casualties of the hostilities.

Favored for its inclusion of modern sanitation, considered the height of luxury at the time, the Taj became a 600-bed institution for injured and dying patients across the years of 1914 to 1918.

Hunger and depression spread, and the dark, sepia tones of the period’s photography fit well with the somber mood that hung over the Taj during these years.

While this may have spelt the end for a less determined team, the hotel’s owners and staff were like dogs with bones and managed to stage a comeback after the end of the war.

Things were never really the same, however, and in 1966 it was declared by the president of Hilton hotels that the building would stay together “only as long as the termites keep holding hands”.

Of course, everyone loves an underdog and as we know the Taj continued its cycle of reinvention, even expanding to include what used to be Green’s Hotel, a local favorite among army personnel.

The brainchild of American architect, Melton Bekker and Swiss designer Dale Keller, Taj Tower was a completely different style to the original section of the hotel and carried unique Indian design elements.

While this may not seem to make much sense, the two buildings work surprisingly well together and, having added over three hundred rooms plus retail outlets to the hotel’s offerings, the tower was quickly accepted and celebrated as its own exquisite entity.

Apparently, however, the universe or whatever higher power is out there has a real problem with the Taj as tragedy struck again on November 26, 2008.

Pakistan based Islamic terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taliba devastated Mumbai through a series of bombings and shootings. The death count reached almost two hundred and over three hundred residents were injured.

When the hotel was finally freed by Indian commandos on November 29, the structure had suffered substantial damage and 35 lives had been lost.

Some thought this was the end for the beloved icon, but the Taj refused to surrender.

Repairs began and on the twenty first of December, the less damaged areas of the complex were re-opened.

In the months that followed, the heritage wing was carefully put back together with the help of international consultants and the newly repaired and upgraded section was revived by August 2010.

During this time Rockwell Group redesigned the Harbor Bar and Wasabi by Morimoto restaurant which helped the hotel to come back bigger and better than ever.

In the present day, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel maintains its decadence, although visits may hold a more somber context.

The phrase bigger is better seems to have been applied here with guests able to hire a luxury yacht or private jet during their stay for as little as four hours’ notice and with amount of famous clientele, these features would hardly be short of use.

This is not to say, however, that the Taj has swept its history under the rug.

The lobby is home to a memorial to those lost during the attack in 2008. Possibly the only remaining evidence, the monument lists all guests and staff who fell as well as a brave security dog inscribed alongside the quote, “For now and forever you will inspire us“.

As the fountain trickles alongside the sobering list of names, some swear that they can still hear the ghosts of those lost, an unsurprising feeling given all that has befallen the venue during its century on our planet.

With the owners showing no intention of closing the hotel, it should definitely be high on your list of places to stay should you ever decide to visit India but while you’re admiring the beautiful construction, don’t forget to remember its dark past.

Let me know your thoughts on the Taj in the comments.

I created this post as part of my duties as a Junior Marketing Manager and Lifestyle Editor at SiteSupervisor.
SiteSupervisor is a SaaS platform helping the construction industry communicate and collaborate effectively.
I am currently managing their social media and content output and as such felt obliged to declare this as sponsored/affiliate content.

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