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Standing on Hallowed Ground

Editorial: Following a Recent Visit to Mumbai, J.M. Daniels Reflects on A Remarkable Hotel and the People Who Work at the Taj Mahal Hotel.

(3/4/2009) As reported on balidiscovery.com, I was privileged in late February to travel to Mumbai as the guest of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) India Chapter with the generous support of Jet Airways and the Taj Mahal Group. See: From Bali to Bombay with Love]. That trip allowed me to share my Bali-based observations with members of the Indian travel industry on the revival and recovery of a destination following acts of terror.

Prior to my departure on February 19th, I was inundated by report on CNN an other media serving a daily fare of film clips showing the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower on fire and under terrorist siege. Less than 3 months before, the attack on Mumbai from November 26 -29, 2008, left 164 civilians and security personnel and 9 terrorists dead. Gunfire and explosives during the same attack also resulted in more than 308 people wounded. Recorded among the dead were 28 foreigners hailing from 10 countries.

Not quite sure what to expect staying at a hotel so recently visited by death and destruction, I was delighted to find the grand old lady of Mumbai still sparkling, showing the all proud defiance and determination that have seen the Taj weather many storms over the past century since first opening its doors in 1903.

Following the November attack, much of the older original wing is ensconced behind temporary partitions, shielding engineers and builders busily repairing the damage done by fire and gunmen. However, in the rest of the hotel life goes on with guests enjoying luxurious accommodation in of the Tower wing; dining in some of Mumbai's most outstanding restaurants; meeting friends in the city's premier private club; swimming in the central oasis that houses the Taj's pool; shopping in the Hotel's fine array of branded stores; getting pampered in the Jiva spa or working up a sweat in the well-equipped sports club.

And, yes, sadly, terror has left its mark. Guests and visitors now disembark on the street side and pass through no less than 3 security screenings before arriving in the hotel's lobby. Every floor of accommodation is manned by round-the–clock security guards keeping watchful eye on all comings and goings. And bathed in the tropical sun, a marble monument stands serenely in the lobby's water garden bearing the names of guests and staff members who died in the November attack. Nearby, a large book rests on a pedestal where hotel visitors may pen written tributes to the Hotel, those who died and those who carry on her fine traditions of service.

Other poignant traces of the tragic events of just 3 months before are also present; perhaps less tangible, but no less felt. There are heroic stories of chefs executed summarily by the terrorists for assisting guests down back passages to safety. Tales also abounded of hotel staff who continued to care and attend to guest made hostages, seemingly oblivious that their lives were also in mortal peril. An evening meal enjoyed on the Taj's roof top terrace overlooking the majestic India Gate, humbled as I realized we were being served by some of surviving staff members who inarguably put customer care and comfort before all else. There was also the unforgettable and very awkward moment while sharing a drink with the Hotel's General Manager, Karambir Singh Kang, who tended to guests and staff members in the immediate aftermath of the attack despite the loss of his wife Niti and two sons, Uday (14) and Samar (5) in the attack.

Service that Goes Beyond the Call of Duty

As a former hotelier, I firmly believe that if I am allowed to sit quietly for 10-15 minutes in the lobby or outlet of any hotel I can obtain a pretty accurate assessment of the personality of the property's general manager merely by observing how the rank and file staff engage their guests. Without fail, I have found that courteous and attentive staff take their lead from a man or woman at the helm displaying those same attributes.

Similarly, the stories I could share of the exemplary service I encountered during my 4 days at the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower are mirror reflections of the remarkable Mr. Kang and the ambient he bequeaths to the dedicated team who work under him. Butlers who insisted on helping in the packing and unpacking process; the endless parade of chocolates and fruits that appeared in my suite each afternoon; gym attendants who expertly guided me through an excellent array of exercise equipment; staff members who would never point the way, but insisted on personally guiding me to my next hotel destination; chefs who consulted, asking how I'd like my food prepared; and the pianist behind a magnificent 100-year-old Steinway in the lobby who paused a song to ask if I had a song request.

I am professionally and personally inclined to be critical of every element of the hospitality service industry. And, in truth, the only down note I can sound on my Taj Mahal Palace and Tower experience is that 4 days spent there seemed to pass by at a faster pace than normal.

This weary sojourner has nothing but praise and admiration for Mr. Kang and his splendid co-workers in Mumbai.

The Taj Mahal Palace & Hotel's defiant response to terror has left no doubt that the "good guys" triumphed and prevailed in this latest battle with the forces of evil.