Heritage meets hi-tech

Heritage meets hi-tech

The heritage wing of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel at Apollo Bunder was designed and built in the last quarter of the 19th century and opened in 1903, eight years before the Gateway of India was erected, diagonally opposite its colonial facade. Designed by an in-house team of Indian designers, it stayed as the antiquated, charming and precious part of the hotel. It housed the Sea Lounge and some of the hotel’s best suites, including the Presidential Suite. It was a symbol of Mumbai’s inheritance.

The terrorist attacks in 2008 damaged this property almost entirely. Within months, the hotel undertook a massive renovation project involving four design firms—Wilkes Sdn Bhd from Malaysia, Bio Lissoni from the UK, BAMO from the US, and James Park Associates from the UK and Singapore—and spanning more than 20 months.

Click here to view a slideshow of a tour of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower’s newly opened heritage wing

The new heritage wing reopens on 15 August. Rooms have already been booked by the hotel’s old patrons, says Ajoy K. Misra, senior vice-president, sales and marketing, Taj group.

Nothing of the old template remains. Misra accompanied us on a tour through the corridors of the heritage wing, where all its 287 rooms are lined against spruced-up walls adorned by restored paintings from the hotel’s own collection. The ceilings and the corridor railings remain colonial in style, but the rooms themselves have a contemporary, hi-tech and global character.

It is a sprawling structure, and a walk though its six levels takes you back to the horrors of 26/11, when a few armed terrorists laid siege to it. Spine-chilling thoughts are bound to cross your mind, despite the fresh paint, the clean lines of the new furniture, the fuchsia, celadon and saffron walls and the technology-enabled interiors.

No two rooms on a level are alike; each level has 35-40 different types of rooms. “The brief that we gave our designers was to get a vibrant, new feel to the hotel. We wanted to maintain the classical look for which the heritage wing is known, but make the rooms suitable for business travellers from all over the world," says Misra.

The technology is everywhere: ergonomic chairs, universal adapters, 52-inch interactive television sets made for the hotel by Sony, infra-red temperature control censors that recognize a guest by mapping his or her body temperature, a recharging safe for laptops, multimedia player plugs, optically treated reading lights fixed to ceilings. The lifts of this wing of the hotel are now accessible only with a guest’s keys. There are window lock openers in each room for emergencies.

The overall scheme is a hybrid of different design sensibilities. The designers have tried hard to retain elements of Indianness by restoring some old furniture pieces and sourcing new ones from different parts of the country. Some of the grand luxury suites are predominantly Indian in their overall look. But the hotel no longer has the distinctive stamp of a “heritage hotel". It is meant strictly for the evolved, technology-savvy business traveller.

Misra says that after an assessment of the damage to the structure, the hotel management asked for feedback from patrons all over the world and gave the designers a broad brief.

The 23 executive suites, with a tariff of Rs85,000 for a night, are in lavender and Indian gold. The bedlinen, curtains and some furniture pieces are distinctly Indian in motif, but the overall look is defined by straight, clean lines, uncluttered and compact spaces. The themes are diverse: the Aquarius and Dolphin (marine life), Maratha (the Maratha empire), and the Bella Vista (made in Spanish rose marble) are luxury suites. The grand luxury suites are themed around music and royalty: the Ravi Shankar Suite, the Rajput Suite, the Seagull Penthouse and the Gateway of India Suite.

The tariff of the luxury suites is Rs1.2 lakh and that of the grand luxury suites, Rs1.5 lakh. What used to be known as the Presidential Suite, the hotel’s most luxurious experience, has been rechristened the Tata Suite and will open in September (the tariff is on request). “It will redefine luxury in India," Misra says.

In its new avatar, the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower brushes away the grotesque memories of 26 November 2008. A symbolic signpost of the city, it is a striking reminder of the old cliché: Mumbai has moved on.

The rooms of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower heritage wing will reopen on 15 August.

Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint