I watched the recent terrorist crisis in Mumbai on TV with horror and sadness. It was terrible to witness the blatant acts of violence and to learn about the senseless loss of so many lives. But the tragedy also struck a personal note when I saw people – including a good friend from Hong Kong -- fleeing the Taj Mahal Palace and Towers and thick plumes of smoke coming out of its historic main building. My husband and I stayed at this lovely and gracious old hotel for a week last year, and this visit quickly became among our favorite and most memorable.
The Taj Mahal Palace is one of those great hotels from a lost era that are destinations in themselves. It shares this distinction with other grand dames like the Oriental in Bangkok, the La Mammounia in Marrakech, the Ciragan Palace in Istanbul, the Danieli in Venice, and the the Raffles in Singapore. These hotels offer special experiences of luxurious stays steeped in history, coupled with unparalleled service – the kind of confident service that comes from decades, if not centuries, of providing accommodations for discerning travelers.
We flew into Mumbai from New Delhi on a muggy afternoon and were met by the smiling Taj driver who cheerfully regaled us with local anecdotes on the hour-long trip into the city. My first impression of Mumbai proper was a jumble of orderly messiness: drivers with little regard for basic road rules; pedestrians and vendors crossing at random; dilapidated colonial buildings, modern skyscrapers and dusty slum dwellings all co-existing happily. Then our car turned into a seaside boulevard that mesmerized us the rest of the way with a wide frontage of golden sand and the calm Indian ocean peppered with sailboats and native fishing boats.
Finally we spied the Taj Mahal Palace, which proudly stood in an enviable location in the southern part of the city, fronting the sea and a stone’s throw away from the Gate of India, a 26-meter basalt arch which remains the city’s best-known symbol. We drove up to the old wing of the hotel, where turbaned attendants efficiently took care of our luggage, offered cold drinks and whisked us off to our suite on the second floor.
Our designated room at the Taj Mahal Palace had to be one of the most beautiful suites we had ever stayed in. Full of antiques and rich architectural details, but with all the comforts of more modern hotels, it had high ceilings and a grand foyer and living room area worthy of a villa, and an intimate dining room right in the circular tower that is visible in every iconic photo of the hotel, with windows that all faced the Gate of India. Our room spoke dramatically of a more genteel age of travel, when a trip was a journey of several months rather than a package tour, and people were more observant travelers than busy tourists. Outside our windows, too, it was like time had stood still – perhaps because the Taj Mahal Palace is located away from much of Mumbai’s modernity. Food hawkers and trinket peddlers noisily made their way along the street, jostling for space with hundreds of other pedestrians, the way they always have been doing for hundreds of years. I often had afternoon tea in the living room with all the windows open, just to savor the sounds below.
Staying at the Taj Mahal Palace was akin to living in a wondrous museum. No matter how many times we walked around the hotel, we were completely entranced by its graceful designs and details, its numerous artworks, and the richness of the overall experience. The entire hotel was a feast for the senses; with delicately carved balustrades made shiny over time, old carpets still laden with vibrant colors, intricate oil paintings of maharajas’ lives, and wooden corridors lined with brass oil lamps. I remember escaping from a dinner function at the hotel one evening just to sit quietly in one of the hallways and to try imagine the dramas that had been played out here over the years. The romantic atmosphere was conducive to recalling glorious tales and even to making up stories when reality failed.
I had no idea then that only a few months later the hotel would indeed be at the center of a very real and painful drama that will perhaps forever change its image as the perfect oasis of luxury and comfort.
This originally appeared in the January-February 2009 issue of Travelife Magazine.
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