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The Taj Hotel: Jamsetji Tata’s love letter to his hometown

In #TataStories, Harish Bhat explores why Jamsetji Tata built the Taj, and many other little-known events that shaped the Tata group.

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A popular and apocryphal story that has made the rounds over the years is that Jamsetji Tata wanted to create the Taj Mahal Hotel because he was refused admission to the Watson’s Hotel in Mumbai since he was not European and the hotel did not admit Indians. Therefore, he wanted to build a grand hotel that could be used by Indians and Europeans alike. This story is almost certainly untrue even though such discrimination based on race may well have existed in those days. In fact, the historians Sharada Dwivedi and Charles Allen have said that this ‘seems far too petty a reason to fire a man of the calibre of J.N. Tata, who in the past had not hesitated to cross swords with governments and petty commercial combines’.

In that case, could the desire to build a large hotel business have been the primary motivation for building the Taj? After all, Jamsetji Tata was constantly driven by a restless desire to expand his business ventures. But this also was clearly not the reason because Jamsetji had no desire to run a hotel company. In fact, he had hoped to dispose of the lease of the hotel to a European company, but unfortunately, the negotiations fell
through. And that’s how he found himself handling the hotel.

A third possible reason could have been the desire to gain significant financial returns from this investment in a hotel. Indeed, this is a legitimate goal for any business person to pursue. But in this specific case, this appears untrue too. Consider the facts for a moment. Jamsetji Tata’s prospectus for the hotel talked of first-class restaurants, grand suites, India’s first Turkish bath and the first commercial building in Mumbai to be lit with
electric lights. He also went on a global buying spree for the hotel, across London, Dusseldorf, Berlin and Paris, sparing no cost to equip it with the finest infrastructure and accessories—a carbon dioxide ice-making plant to provide India’s first cooling system for hotel rooms, German lift machinery, American fans and spun steel pillars from Paris for the ballroom of the hotel.

All this cost enormous sums of money, eventually pushing up his investment to Rs 26 lakh, a stupendous figure in those days.

When the Taj Mahal Hotel opened its doors in 1903, rooms were priced starting at a ‘moderate’ Rs 6 per day—which was perhaps the competitive room rate for those times. Yet it opened with only seventeen guests. Clearly, if significant financial returns had to be earned in the near future, building such a grand and lavishly appointed hotel was not the answer. In fact, the hotel and its expenditure posed a risk to his overall earnings,
and some of his contemporaries called it ‘Tata’s white elephant’. This brings us to what is perhaps the only plausible reason for Jamsetji Tata’s burning desire to build the Taj—his love for his home town, Mumbai, and his belief that a very good hotel was essential for the city to attract visitors and develop further. While there are no letters or documents written by Jamsetji himself in this regard, notes maintained by his personal assistant A.J. Bilimoria (and quoted by Jamsetji’s chronicler, Frank Harris) are revealing. One of these notes says:

As he believed that the installation of an up-to-date hotel in Bombay was one of the essential conditions of the city’s advancement, and that no other capitalist was likely to
venture, he considered it was his duty to provide the want.

Similarly, a friend of Jamsetji Tata, Lovat Fraser, who served as editor of the Times of India in Mumbai, said, ‘He [Jamsetji Tata] came to me and told me that the idea had long been
simmering in his mind, and that he had made much study of the subject. He had not the slightest desire to own a hotel, however; his sole wish was to attract people to India, and
incidentally to improve Mumbai.’

At that time, Mumbai did not have a first-class hotel that could place it anywhere among the top cities in the world, that would attract people to come and visit or stay. In fact, the city’s Saturday Review had lamented in 1865: ‘When will Bombay have a rest house worthy of the name?’ Jamsetji Tata himself had travelled extensively to Europe and America, and he had seen for himself the comforts available to travellers in those countries. This had perhaps further fuelled his love for Mumbai and the reputation of his city and nation.

What made matters worse is that in 1897, just one year before Jamsetji announced his desire to build the Taj, Mumbai had been ravaged by the bubonic plague. There was death
everywhere and mortality rates reached 1900 deaths every week that year. Large numbers of people had left the city, industries had closed down, and business confidence had plummeted. Now, in addition to medical treatment and inoculation, which was already in play, this great city, the commercial capital of India, also desperately needed grand symbols of recovery to get up and walk and, very importantly, to get back its pride.

Jamsetji Tata must have been driven by this factor too—wanting to create a grand hotel which would present a superb new image of a reconstructed Mumbai to the world at large. The historians Sharada Dwivedi and Charles Allen have discussed this in greater detail in their excellent coffee-table book The Taj at Apollo Bunder.

So, at the heart of it all, the reason why Jamsetji Tata built the Taj Mahal Hotel was his love for Mumbai and India. For him, the ‘why’ was so powerful that it urged him to stake
his reputation, withstand all scepticism, and invest a very large sum of resources to create the iconic hotel. When the ‘why’ is powerful enough, the what and the how eventually
reveal themselves to us, and are fulfilled in many ways. And particularly because we live life but once, figuring out our own ‘why’ is so important to unlocking the power of our lives.

This excerpt from Harish Bhat’s ‘#TataStories: 40 Timeless Tales to Inspire You’, has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.

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