India hotel for the stars - and you

RICHARD TULLOCH
Last updated 05:00 19/01/2014

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Viren bounces with the enthusiasm of the young manager in the film Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

"I want you to take away a memory! I want you to have an experience! Please be careful, sir, if you step back to take that photo you will fall in the swimming pool."

We're not used to hotel introductions that last an hour and a half. A few minutes are normally ample to show us how to work the lights and find BBC World on TV.

Viren's passion for the history of the Taj Mahal Palace, combined with his theatrical flair when telling a story, encouraged his employers to allow him to work fulltime researching the hotel's colourful past and leading daily heritage tours for guests.

There's plenty to tell. Mahatma Gandhi's bare feet padded up the carpet of the colonial staircase. Lord Mountbatten's speech in the grand ballroom ushered in Indian independence in 1947. Ravi Shankar taught George Harrison to play the sitar here.

The elaborate domes, the central one a replica of the cupola of Florence's cathedral, the light filtering through latticework onto the potted palms in the corridors, the glorious masses of fresh flowers and the turbaned doormen all point to an exclusive institution established by the British in the glory days of the Raj.

Quite wrong. The Taj is proudly Indian and always has been. Parsee industrialist Jamsetji Tata opened it in 1903 "for the common man" meaning Indian guests were welcomed, when most hotels of the day excluded them. Rooms had cost from six rupees, at a time when a pound sterling bought 13 rupees.

The Taj was ahead of its time in other ways, too. It was the first hotel in India with electricity, elevators, ceiling fans, a fine dining Indian restaurant, and en suites. The first fashion parade in the country was held there. During both world wars it served as a hospital for soldiers.

The celebrity guest list could be transcribed directly from Who's Who. King George V and Queen Mary kicked things off by staying there in 1911. Since then, the hotel has hosted a constant stream of royals and presidents, sporting stars and film stars. Photos of Oprah Winfrey, Mick Jagger, Jacques Chirac, Prince Charles, Sachin Tendulkar and John Lennon tell us discreetly that this is the place to stay when in Mumbai.

In the Masala Kraft, one of 11 restaurants in the hotel, we share a superb modern Indian meal and learn we are sitting at Hillary Clinton's table. Famous or not, we are all treated to the highest level of service: Friendly without being casual, attentive without being obsequious. We feel very comfortable here. My wife expresses interest in buying DVDs of particular Bollywood movies. The concierge locates them for her in no time.

Local Mumbai people have a particular fondness for the Taj, too.

"They say all marriages are made in the Sea Lounge," staff member Nikhila says. She celebrated her engagement there, looking out at the ferries bobbing on the bay.

Viren grew up just down the street from the Taj and, as a child, came for icecreams, and to run screaming with excitement down the echoing marble corridors.

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The Tata business empire is renowned throughout India for its success and revered in Mumbai for its philanthropy. A share of the hotel's profits regularly goes to support local charities, and people spontaneously tell us of other generous gifts by the family.

On request, Viren runs art tours, too. The art on the hotel's walls comprise more than 4000 pieces, hundreds of them of museum-quality.

During the 1950s and '60s, the hotel offered gallery space to up-and-coming artists in return for donations of unsold work. Over the years, some emerged to become India's greatest artists, incalculably increasing the value of the collection.

The witty interior of the iconic Joy Shoes shop is a work of art in itself. It was designed by India's most successful painter, M F Husain; this is ironic, since the artist notoriously went barefoot all his life.

At the end of Viren's heritage tour, we pause at a list of 32 names inscribed on the wall in a corner of the lobby. It can't be avoided. These people died in the terrorist attack on the hotel in November 2008. Among them are 12 members of the hotel staff and, poignantly, a dog. Including Lucy reminds us of the innocence of all the victims.

The Taj people naturally don't want those dreadful events to be all that the hotel is known for. It's one story in a continuing narrative. But they are justifiably proud of the heroism of staff members who placed the welfare of their guests above their own safety during those dark days.

As one of the first guests after the attacks noted in the visitors' book: "Your staff is a symbol of graciousness and resilience. Barack Obama."

Richard Tulloch was the guest of the Taj Mahal Palace and Abercrombie & Kent.

- Sunday Star Times

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