No, I'm not writing about the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel!
The Taj is undoubtedly a city icon, but Bombay has been home to several other fancy hotels; some older than the Taj, and some its contemporaries. It's time someone wrote about them! By some quirk of history, none of these grand hotels now survive as working hotels, except the Taj. But several buildings remain, reminders of past days when these were grand hotels where the elite of the city hob-nobbed and conducted business.
The Majestic Hotel, Colaba, 1909 (built just 6 years after the Taj Mahal Hotel).
The Majestic used to be one of the city's premier luxury hotels; it was built by an Italian firm that ran the super-snobbish Savoy at Mussoorie and Carlton in Lucknow. Nothing but the best would do for the Majestic! These days though, it houses a hostel for members of the legislative assembly, a basic canteen, and a department store on the ground floor. Quite a come-down from its glory days!
The Majestic is not the only old grand hotel; there were others too. Where did these hotels come from? Who built them? For whom?
To look for answers, we must go back 150 years, to a glorious era of prosperity when Bombay became an important global centre of trade and commerce.
In the 1860's, Bombay saw unprecedented growth because of two key events. First, the American Civil War (1861-1865) led to a global shortage of cotton, because exports from the cotton fields of America were blockaded. The demand for cotton from Bombay shot up; prices rose to astronomical levels, and dizzy fortunes were made overnight by the city's cotton traders and shipping merchants. The second momentous event was the opening of the Suez Canal in 1864, which dramatically improved shipping.
As trade grew, traders and merchants from overseas started coming to Bombay for business; and naturally the demand for hotels went up. Hotels were certainly a more attractive option than the "chummeries" or clubs that gentlemen could stay in. What's more, travellers by sea had become used to the high hospitality standards offered by well run steamships, and looked for similar comforts in the ports.
Among the earliest grand hotels was Watson's Hotel; which reflected Victorian enthusiasm for ironwork in the French colonial style.
Watson's Esplanade Hotel, 1867-69
It was a 'Whites Only' hotel; and was built by John Watson, who ran a drapery business in the city. The building's unique cast-iron frame was imported from England, and reassembled here. In its heyday, the hotel boasted 150 well-appointed rooms, and a grand ballroom. It's most attractive feature was an atrium. The waitresses, I am told, were imported from England as well :) After John Watsons died, the hotel closed down. Today it is a warren of small offices. I took a photographer on a walk into this building, and she clicked this very interesting photo of the nameboards inside Watsons.
After Watsons came The Bycullah Hotel built in 1871; and the Green's Hotel built in 1890. Both these buildings were earlier mansion flats; they were converted to hotels.
Green's Hotel was bought by the Tatas, and demolished in 1973, and in its place, the Tower wing of the Taj came up.
The Bycullah Hotel, 1871.
I'm not sure what happened to the Bycullah Hotel - but it's not there any more. The pillar in the photo is still there, it's locally called "Khada Parsi" or The Standing Parsee. It is now squashed between two flyovers; see this photo. So Bycullah Hotel has disappeared, then. Does anyone know when or how?
The next hotel to come up was The Great Western, converted to a hotel in 1890 or so. In the late 1700's, this building was the residence of the Governor of Bombay; then subsequently it was the home of the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian fleet. In the 1800's it was the Recorder's Court House. Today, the building houses small businesses, an art gallery, and a designer garments store.
The Great Western Hotel, 1890, originally home of Governor Hornby (who bunded the breach at Mahalakshmi)
The road on which Great Western is located is Dockyard Road, now called Shahid Bhagat Singh Marg. The facade of this street remains the same today as it was all those years ago. The Doric porte-cochere of the hotel was demolished to widen the street, so the Great Western is like a face without a nose :) but other than that, walking on this street is a great way to experience the old Bombay.