To grasp the significance of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, an American might imagine something like this: In the 1870s, the richest black man in America (a stock broker named Jeremiah Hamilton, as it happened) is refused entry to the Waldorf Astoria because of his race. He immediately goes down the road and builds a hotel three times as large, grand, and opulent as anything in the world. His new, bigotry-free establishment is immediately hailed as one of the greatest hotels ever constructed (incidentally putting that Waldorf out of business). Both master and hotel go on to become spectacular symbols of their people’s industry and accomplishments.
Thus it came about for the Parsi steel magnate J. M. Tata in 1903 when the now long-forgotten Watson’s Hotel refused to admit him. The resulting Saracenic revival monument—incidentally the last thing the British saw in 1947 as they finally gave up their empire and withdrew all troops from India—has hosted kings, queens, emirs, and Presidents (up to and including Barak Obama), celebrities of every kind, and tourists like us on a once-in-a-lifetime splurge.
The details can be intimidating: A liveried chauffeur picks you up at the airport in a Jaguar and delivers you through tight security to a waiting hostess who checks you in at the desk in your room. In a few minutes, your butler and room staff stop by to introduce themselves. If you buy a sari in the markets, a female butler comes to dress you. A touch of the flu? A local chemist diagnoses the issue and, within minutes, delivers a remedy to your door.
Your room is made up three times a day, unless you want privacy, in which case absolutely nothing disturbs you. New rose petal patterns line your hallway when you return every afternoon. Your puzzled room staff will let you pack and unpack yourself, but they don’t understand why you’d want to.
The building and grounds are immaculate—a leftover fragment of New Year’s streamer startles because it’s the first hint of litter you’ve seen. The Maître D, bartender, and waiter all remember your drink, and the DJ remembers your music. Any restaurant in town immediately takes your booking, but if you go there by taxi, you have to leave the premises, because with all the limousines, there’s no room for taxis in the driveway. And if you need a shirt laundered for dinner, it can take eight hours, three hours, or—if you really need it—they’ll get it to you right away (roughly the same time it takes to have a new custom shirt cut and stitched in the shops off the lobby).
And yet… This is India, where it takes a major effort to spend a lot of money—so even if the Taj costs twice as much as the local Ritz, it’s still less expensive than that New Yorker’s Waldorf. And—this being India—the biggest surprise isn’t the opulence, but the people who make it happen. Everyone is so flat-out nice and helpful, both in and around the hotel, that it takes you a day or two to adjust. Yes, you might be footing the bill, but the simple truth is, that’s just how India rolls.
So if this all reads a bit gushy, the gush is deserved. The Taj might not be the best hotel on the planet, but it certainly feels that way.