In the unlikely event that anyone living in India was unfamiliar with the Taj Mahal Hotel in front of the Gateway of India, the tragic events of 26/11 and the bravery shown by the staff of this storied hotel has made this establishment an integral part of modern India’s fabric. In his bestselling book ‘Tata Stories: 40 Timeless Tales to Inspire You’, Harish Bhat, custodian of the ‘Tata’ brand, writes about how the founder of the Tata empire, Jamsetji Tata, gave birth to this hotel:
“One fine day in 1898, Jamsetji Tata, founder of the Tata Group, suddenly announced that he would build a grand hotel in Mumbai. He said he had bought out the lease of a large plot in the Apollo Bunder area of the city from the Port Trust specifically for this hotel.
The announcement took everyone by complete surprise. Even his closest business associates did not know that such a venture was on its way. By then Jamsetji Tata was already a prosperous businessman who had established successful textile mills. He was also one of Mumbai’s most progressive property owners. He had already announced his vision of creating India’s first integrated steel plant and the country’s first hydroelectric venture. But a hotel? Here was a successful industrialist; what did he know about being a hotelier?
…But the old mystery remains – why did Jamsetji Tata build the Taj? Why did he so suddenly lease out two and a quarter acres of land from the Bombay Port Trust and then invest a huge amount in building this hotel?…
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 that case, could the desire to build a large hotel business have been the primary motivation for building the Taj?…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.
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 AJ 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….
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?””
So more than a century before Simon Sinek authored his famous book ‘Start With Why”, the great Jamsetji Tata set an example of millions of Indian entrepreneurs with his ‘why’ for the Taj Mahal Hotel: “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.”
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