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Attacks on Mumbai hotel wound city's psyche

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

By PAUL PEACHEY, Associated Press Writer

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MUMBAI, India — 

The bullets that riddled Mumbai's grand Taj Mahal hotel and the flames that engulfed its majestic dome gutted not only the historic building, but also a proud symbol of India's independence.

Arising from the bitterness of colonial discrimination, the sea-front hotel became a Mumbai landmark, hosting kings, presidents, celebrities and, in recent years, India's new moneyed elite.

The five-star hotel was one of the most prominent of the 10 targets attacked in Mumbai last week. Militants stormed the building, killing dozens of revelers as they ate in its elegant restaurants, feasted in its 11 ballrooms and danced in the Insomnia nightclub. Their siege would last nearly three full days.

The Taj's history began with a snub from a hotel doorman.

Jamsetji Tata, a pioneering industrialist and the founder of India's mammoth Tata Group, planned to dine with a European friend at one of Mumbai's few good hotels in the late 1800s, but was turned away at the door because he was an Indian during an era of British colonial control.

Tata vowed to build the country's most sumptuous hotel as revenge. From that, in 1903, the Taj Mahal hotel was born, according to the hotel's own history.

More than a century later, another Tata vowed to rebuild.

"We're all committed that we will build back this hotel to what it is," Ratan Tata, chairman of the company that owns the hotel, told CNN. "However long it takes, whatever it takes, this hotel will stand."

The Taj "epitomizes the will of my great-grandfather, because it stood up to all the abuse it has. And we will have it in shape, hopefully, for another 100 years."

He said parts of the hotel appeared relatively unscathed, at least at first glance, but other areas had been devastated. "It looks like it's been hit by a bomb," he said of a restaurant where a firefight took place.

The Taj is now closed, except to investigators and a handful of staff. Wooden boards have been put up to cover its marble latticework and sea-front entrance.

Jamsetji Tata spent lavishly on the grand hotel overlooking the coast of what was then Bombay. Influenced by both Indian and western architecture, it would have dominated the skyline eight years later when Britain's King George V stepped from his boat to visit the city.

The hotel stands just steps away from the ceremonial Gateway of India built to commemorate where the British king came ashore.

The hotel's design was revolutionary, incorporating domes, vaulted alabaster ceilings and soaring arches. The gray basalt stone used in its construction ensured its solidity, even as it was rocked a century later by powerful explosions, said city architect and conservationist Brinda Somaya.

It became an enduring symbol and remains the only heritage building standing in Mumbai not built by the British, the colonial rulers until independence in 1947, she said.

The company renovated the hotel in later years, adding a modern 23-story tower in the 1970s that expanded the capacity to 565 rooms.

And it attracted the elites.

Along one of the plush hallways on the ground floor, photographs of famous guests lined the walls. The list includes world leaders _ former President Bill Clinton, ex-British leader Margaret Thatcher and India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru _ and celebrities like John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Somerset Maugham and Aldous Huxley.

The flames also destroyed a trove of treasures.

"Over the years, the Taj has filled it with the most magnificent furniture, furnishings and both ancient and contemporary Indian art. It was like a living museum," said Somaya.

A series of works by one of India's best-known artists M.F. Husain adorned the wall behind the reception area. He has vowed to paint new works after the previous ones were destroyed in last week's attacks, he was quoted as saying by The Times of India.

For many, watching the Taj Mahal hotel smolder was like watching an old friend get attacked.

"To see the hotel burning, I don't believe that any true Mumbaikar wouldn't have cried," said Queenie Dhody, a hotel regular and a leading Mumbai socialite.

"A wedding at the Taj had a different significance because it was at the Taj. I got married there, most of my friends I know got married there. I can't call it a hotel," she said. "It was like a second home."

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