It’s the words they’re forming as much as their sheen that mesmerises — inference placed on the wrong part of each sentence: “Welcome ladies and gentleman to the Taj Mahal Palace. I can tell you we have a treat for you today.” The owner of this cabaret dental display is guiding one of the regular tours around Mumbai’s tourist landmark: star of BBC series Hotel India.
If a hotel has its own group tour, surely it’s a sign you shouldn’t be checking in. Landmarks are to be observed, photographed but not slept in; always disappointing with their glass cabinet displays, fusty wallpaper and out-dated sense of their own importance. And yet. This is a hotel that’s still somehow as integral to the city’s soul as the public beaches and Bollywood studios.
The Taj has been welcoming guests since the days of the British Raj, its Indo-Saracenic turrets, pillars and dome some of the few bits of colonial-era Mumbai that aren’t actually colonialist, built in 1903 by venerable Indian-born industrialist, Jamsetji Tata. It was the first hotel in India to have electricity and the first to open a licensed bar. The only time it’s closed in over 100 years was during the 2008 attack by Pakistani militants that devastated several city landmarks.
Our guide pauses for a moment for silent reflection on this fact before ascending the grand central staircase, floral iron banisters curling above us, floor after floor, at once organic and yet utterly regal. We pause on a red-carpeted step here for a roll call of visiting dignitaries – Obama, the Dalai Lama, Bush, Clinton — and on a mahoganied half-landing, to learn of monarchs, majors and most of the Bonds, who’ve all appeared on these steps. Our guide, all wide eyes and hushed whispers, seems one stage cue from a high-kick, his performance surely willing the attention of a passing Bollywood scout.
But perhaps not. Simply the honour of performing within these hallowed walls may be status enough. The Taj — aka the People’s Palace — has seen generations of Mumbaikar trained and filed through its ranks, from back-of-house cleaners who commute hours from the villages, to the shiny-shoed minibar manager, Mr Chaskar, with 42 years of service and a wage that funds an entire family.
Outside, all economic strata of Mumbai society layer the Colaba district’s litter-strewn streets: beggars, pan-handlers and chai wallahs work, live and sleep on the pot-holed pavements radiating from the hotel. It’s hard not to see such landmarks as insular little islands of wealth bringing little benefit to local life and yet, as many will tell you, without The Taj there’d be no panhandling to tourists, no chai selling to its 1,500-strong army of workers.
‘Guest is god’ is a maxim uttered nowhere in India more than at this hotel, but, as our guide raises his eyes once more to the chandeliered ceilings in reverence, this seems to apply to the Taj itself.
The first of the four-part Hotel India series is repeated on BBC Two tonight at 23.20, with the second tomorrow at 20.00.