- By: Deepali Nandwani
Many hotels of a certain pedigree across the world have linkages to World War I, epidemics and several such crises, besides possessing a strong sense of community service, which underlines their history.
IHCL, the mothership that includes brands such as Taj, Vivanta, SeleQtions, Ginger, The Gateway, Taj Safaris, Ama Stays and Trails, has a long history of serving the community. A history that dates back to the First World War (WWI), which saw global-level destruction and carnage.
A hospital in WWI
Between 1914 and 1918, during the Great War, the Taj Mahal Hotel (now Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai) was turned into a 600-bed hospital. Not many today are aware that over 1.25 million Indians served in the British army in WWI. Many of them were Mumbai residents. You will find plaques paying tributes to the bravery of these men at Malabar Hill and St Thomas Cathedral, the first cathedral in the city, close to Horniman Circle.
The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai served the imperial army’s war efforts, and the people of Mumbai, by converting parts of the hotel into a hospital. However, the hotel has also played a huge role in India’s freedom movement, hosting numerous meetings by freedom fighters.
Going back further, to the plague years
If we turn the pages of history a bit further, we go back to 1898, to Bombay (as Mumbai was known until 1996) which was slowly emerging from the ravages of the devastating bubonic plague. This is the year when Jamsetji Tata began laying the foundations of what was considered “a lodging legend”, opposite the Gateway of India.
Even as the hotel was being constructed, the industrialist and soon-to-be hotelier embarked on an international shopping expedition. He bought Croatian horses, Belgian chandeliers and 300 beds in London. He travelled to Paris to buy the pillars made from the same steel that was used in the construction of the Eiffel Tower.
The luxury hotel, that laid its foundation during the plague years, went on to become an icon in India’s travel and hospitality history, hosting several heads of states and celebrities from across the globe.
In 2008, the group created the Taj Public Service Welfare Trust (TPSWT) to provide relief and support to victims of natural or man-made disasters.
During the pandemic: From quarantine services to 2.5 million meals
Then to now, IHCL has kept its promise of community service alive. Across the country, IHCL has partnered with several state governments to offer many of their hotels for quarantine purposes.
Even more significant is their meal service during the COVID-induced lockdown. Together with TPSWT, they worked with local authorities to provide nutritious meals to those in need, delivering over 2.15 million meals under the initiative. The nutritious meals—for which the group partnered with Chef Sanjeev Kapoor—were distributed to medical staff in key hospitals and COVID-19 centres in Mumbai, Bengaluru and New Delhi.
In Mumbai, the group worked closely with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to offer over 10,000 meals a day to the medical fraternity at the Kasturba Hospital, The King Edward Memorial Hospital, Lokmanya Tilak Municipal Medical College and General Hospital, Nair Hospital and J J Hospital. Over 9.5 lakh meals were delivered till 25 June.
The group also distributed over 26,000 meals to medical staff in Victoria Hospital and Old Diseases Hospital in Bengaluru, in partnership with the Taj West End, and over 1.91 lakh meals in Delhi, which began with Lady Hardinge Medical College and expanded to include seven hospitals. The initiative was extended to Coimbatore and Agra as well.
The commitment to community
IHCL’s community outreach straddles several spheres—environment and habitat preservation, creation of livelihood opportunities, adoption of zero-plastic, water conservation and renewable energy policies. Under Aspiration 2022 strategy, IHCL reimagined its brandscape, augmented the development pipeline significantly, and ensured proactive asset management with all-round efforts to improve efficiencies.
According to Alok Vijayvergiya, Associate Vice President – Sustainability & CSR, “IHCL always had an active CSR policy. We have a multi-pronged approach to CSR and sustainability, which straddles the environment, the community, wildlife and heritage. We are enablers for community development and environment preservation. We have touched several lives through our social projects.”
Across most of its major hotels set in natural settings, from Coorg to Andamans, Rajasthan to Madhya Pradesh, the group works with forest officials, local authorities and communities to ensure habitat conservation. “The Taj Safari hotels are particularly dependent on habitat and wild species preservation, but even in other destinations, particularly those abounding in natural beauty, we work with the authorities and communities to ensure their preservation,” says Vijayvergiya.
Jaipur’s Rambagh Palace has created an endearing video of one of their resident peacock, Sultan, recounting the history of this palace. Built-in 1835 as a home for the queen’s favourite handmaiden, it became a royal guesthouse and hunting lodge, then the residence of Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II and Maharani Gayatri Devi, and is now a Taj property. Its grounds, however, have always belonged to the peacocks and the peahens, who are lovingly looked after by the hotel staff.
In the ecologically fragile Coorg, IHCL has ensured no destruction of the forested surroundings while building Taj Madikeri Coorg. It is fringed by a 180-acre rainforest and the various spaces are inserted into the natural clearings within the jungle. In the Maldives, Taj Exotica Resort & Spa and the Ocean Dive Centre are working to increase the coral coverage and encourage healthy coral growth on the local reefs. The Coral Garden is located just off the shore of Taj Exotica Resort & Spa in the second-largest lagoon.
Working with the weavers
The community is placed at the core of all their initiatives and IHCL helps people hone their skills, even employing them in their hotels.
One of their biggest initiatives has been with the weavers of Varanasi through its rich historical and cultural heritage. IHCL works with weavers through a Livelihood Support Programme across three villages—Sarai Mohana, Milki Bangla and Kazi Sarai. Taj commissions them to create weaved Banarasi silk sarees that are worn by the front office and housekeeping staff in its luxury and palace hotels.
Their Female Weavers’ Training programme helps young girls from the weaving communities to learn the art and craft. The women trained by master weavers are awarded professional certification on completion of the course. Over the last decade, the company has identified weaver communities with quality raw material, designs and training and allied welfare measures to enable a larger circle of opportunities. IHCL also supports many such handlooms and handicrafts initiatives and retails them through its in-house lifestyle store, Taj Khazana.
IHCL’s outreach programmes have helped the group connect with the community in the destinations they are in, establishing strong local synergies.