Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

A new BBC series shines a spotlight on the Taj Mahal Palace, and the century-old grande dame is back on sparkling form

By the time I reach the third floor, I am lost in indecision. Should I continue downwards, or retrace my route by three storeys – to savour the descent, and the view, all over again?

The central staircase at the Taj Mahal Palace rather fails at its main job – which is to take guests swiftly between their rooms and the lobby of this vastly elegant hotel. The problem is one of distraction. So beautiful is this ornate curl of steps, and the cathedral of space that  it serves, that it is difficult to use it without stopping to admire the scene. It is easily the equal of any noble sweep in, say, the regal confines of Versailles. It may even be superior, imbued with a subtlety no royal residences have ever reached for. It hugs the walls in the way a vine clings to a stake in a sunny pocket of the Champagne region.

Finally, I reach the ground level of a retreat that knows its place in the world – that place being Apollo Bunder, a small harbour area on the Arabian Sea in the southerly Colaba district of Mumbai. It is a salubrious address, and one that makes the Taj Mahal Palace the statement hotel in India’s most populous city – as it has been since it opened in 1903.

Tonight, this institution will be visible via Hotel India – a four-part series that will take BBC2 viewers into the Taj Mahal Palace’s suites and rooms. The makers spent six months on site, filming what, on the surface, is a realm of wealth and privilege. The camera rests on figures such as the Texan oil heiress who spends half her year in the hotel. It also shows the fuss and finesse required of a five-star landmark in a city where the Bollywood film industry exudes a monied glow. Witness the footage that captures the preparations for a society wedding, with its endless guest-list worries – and the scenes which show the build-up to a Christie’s auction of much-desired Indian art. The first episode, meanwhile, uncovers the thousand small checks that have to take place ahead of a VIP guest’s arrival.

This gilded side of the hotel’s life is clear on the afternoon I check in. The West Indies cricket team, freshly beaten by India, are dozing by the courtyard pool, the captain Chris Gayle swamping his sun-lounger with his  6ft4in frame. Hilary Swank and Sharon Stone, in town for an Aids charity event, are somewhere upstairs. Both actresses will presumably make the honours board – a cabinet of photos in a corridor off the reception area – as the hotel is keen to celebrate the A-listers who rest their pretty heads on its plump pillows. They are all here, check-in moments preserved by flashbulb – actors Richard Gere, Michael Douglas, Roger Moore and Alfred Hitchcock; rock stars Mick Jagger and John Lennon; politicans George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Back in business: Taj Mahal Palace’s staff members Back in business: Taj Mahal Palace’s staff members  

The last two are pertinent. Both the current US president and his possible successor have visited in the past five years – both in response to the dark hours of 2008, when Mumbai was attacked by Pakistani militants. For three days (26-29 November), the hotel came under siege, gunmen running amok in its halls. The carnage left 31 staff and guests dead (fatalities in the city totalled 164). The victims are saluted by a small memorial in the lobby – a quiet tribute that acknowledges the tragedy without dwelling on the trauma.

It is understandable that the hotel wants to move on from this bloody chapter. It has, and did. Parts of the complex reopened within a month; the ground-floor Harbour Bar, which was heavily damaged, inside a year. Pull up a seat now, and you would hardly know what had happened. The bar is an image of urban sophistication, its “From The Harbour Since 1933” cocktail tipping its hat to the end of Prohibition in America with a rich mix of gin, peach liqueur and cranberry juice. And the upper-floor Wasabi is just as chic, a restaurant voted on the San Pellegrino list as one of the top 20 in Asia in 2013. The cuisine is Japanese but the view is utterly Indian, the windows gazing on to the twinkling lights of the metropolis.

All very intoxicating, in other words. And only one side of the tale. The joy of Hotel India is that it also meets some of the 1,500 staff who make the property function. It introduces Mr Chaskar, the loyal soul who has been in charge of the mini-bar service for 42 years. And it follows home some of those who labour for the hotel’s greater good – to houses that are unsurprisingly different, in style and comfort, to the splendid chambers in which they work.

This contrast is even starker outside the hotel. When I take an evening walk along the harbourfront, a stream of super-cars is queuing for the valet parking service, as, adjacent, a chi-chi club plays host to a grand wedding – music blaring from colossal speakers set up by the water. None of the expensively dressed attendees notice the man in rags on the pavement, cooking dinner for his family of six on a charcoal stove.

This is the ugly contradiction of modern India in microcosm. Yet it would be churlish to criticise the hotel for thriving in this context, not least because it is a local success. Unlike other relics of the Raj in Mumbai – the Gateway of India, hewn to mark George V’s tour of the country in 1911; that spectacular 1878 railway temple, the former Victoria (now Chhatrapati Shivaji) Terminus – the Taj Mahal Palace is not a fruit of colonialism. It was built by Indian industrialist Jamsetji Tata. The story that he created his own place to stay after being refused entry to the nearby Watson’s Hotel, though sadly plausible, is probably apocryphal. More likely, he constructed his retreat because he felt that Mumbai lacked a hotel of grace and charm. Over a century on, it is impossible to say that he did not achieve his aim. µ

The four-part series ‘Hotel India’ starts tonight on BBC2 at 8pm

Travel essentials

Getting there

Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7310; virgin-atlantic.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Jet Airways (0808 101 1199; jetairways.com) and Air India (0208 745 1005; airindia.com) fly direct to Mumbai from Heathrow.

Staying there

Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai (00 91 22 6665 3366; tajhotels.com). Double rooms cost from R12,916 (£128), with breakfast.

More information

incredibleindia.org

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum