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Restoring Glory, Rebuilding Faith
The Taj Mumbai conducts massive repair and restoration of the hotel after the 26/11 attack with the help of project management
A three-panel artwork by the late artist M. F. Husain dominates the lobby, its golden glow filling the air with a sense of vibrancy and positivity. Elsewhere elegant pietra dura (marble inlay) work takes one back to India’s rich heritage in Mughal art. The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, a blend of the modern and the antique, of pride and perseverance, is today also a reminder of the country’s long fight against terrorism, a symbol of grit and fortitude, and triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

An artist giving finishing touches to a painting. The team camped at the Taj for nearly a year to complete the project

Photograph courtesy: Taj Mahal Palace Hotel
The image of thick plumes of grey smoke rising from the central red dome of the Taj Mahal Hotel on 26 November 2008 remains etched in the memory of most Indians. That day a group of Pakistani terrorists attacked Mumbai, leaving 164 dead and over 300 injured. The Taj endured a three-day siege in which 31 people died. In the gun battle between the terrorists and the Indian Army commandoes, the hotel structure, particularly the heritage wing, suffered severe damage.

A year and nine months later, the hotel reopened fully, with its old splendor befitting this property of over 100 years. It was an arduous journey of rebuilding and restoration of not just the hotel structure but also of the hundreds of artworks and artefacts. The hotel used project management to successfully combine the efforts of the various teams working on the restoration project and give back to Mumbai one of its most recognizable icons in all its past glory.

The project scope and challenges

The hotel was operational within a month but some sections took much longer to reopen. The tower wing opened first, the banquet halls in February 2009, The Sea Lounge the following May, Golden Dragon reopened with a new, contemporary look in November, The Harbour Bar and Wasabi by Morimoto the next month, the Crystal Ballroom in March 2010, and finally, the heritage section called the Palace wing in August 2010.

The rebuilding and restoration project team comprised of a project management company, architects, interior designers, structural consultants, mechanical engineering and plumbing consultants, security and safety consultants, audio visual consultants, art restorers and art consultants, original equipment manufacturers, luxury branded companies, artisans, workers, and the hotel staff. At the peak of the project, over 1,000 resources were used. These included project managers, supervisors, designers, coordinators, skilled artisans, and workers.

The project management office (PMO) coordinated and oversaw the project. The role of the PMO was to strategize, plan, execute, oversee, and monitor the overall work. The PMO was managed by experienced project managers whose main tasks were to ensure the work progressed smoothly, the teams were well aligned with the project objectives, and quality was maintained.

The maximum challenge came while redoing the heritage wing. Mr. Gaurav Pokhariyal, general manager, The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, said, “There were structural aspects to be considered as the hotel is more than 100 years old. We faced a lot of restrictions as the hotel is designated as a grade II heritage structure.” The other challenge was the complexity in design as no two rooms are the same. Plus the team had to renovate 19 uniquely themed suites.

Restoring the artworks that the hotel had collected over the years took significant effort. There were reportedly about 4,000 pieces of valuable artwork to be restored. The paintings were stacked up in a room with no air-conditioning for several months after the attack. Some of the paintings had got wet during the fire-fighting, and some covered in soot. During the months that they lay unattended, many of these paintings attracted fungus that attacked the pigments. Some canvasses shrunk; others had knife marks and bullet holes.

Project management helps restore old glory

Human resource management was one of the most important aspects of the project. It required people with specialized skills for most activities. The hotel’s architecture is a blend of Florentine, Moorish and oriental styles, and the interiors inspired by traditional Indian themes. It meant using resources with knowledge and skills in these unique styles of architecture and interior design.

Some of the paintings took several weeks to restore, which included adding pigments and redefining the artwork
“We divided the project into phases and zones with separate project teams and timelines. Different designers based on experience and capabilities worked on the project that helped us expedite the execution. We also appointed specialized consultants to help us on heritage, conservation aspects,” said Mr. Pokhariyal. Besides specialists from India, consultants from the US, Italy, the UK, and Singapore worked on the project. Specific sections of the hotel required specific skills. The project team brought craftspeople from Udaipur, Rajasthan, to restore ornate marble inlaid flooring in the famed Rajput Suite. Glass blowers from Delhi worked on the elaborate chandeliers that hang in the dining area.

Art restoration took close to a year. A team of five art restorers from the Delhi-based Art Life Restoration Studio toiled in the Crystal Ballroom to bring the vastest private collection of art in India back to life. The team first sorted out paintings that were worth the restoration effort. Many of these paintings were damaged beyond repair with fungus, soot, bullet holes, and knife cuts. Also not selected were paintings whose cost of restoration was estimated to be higher than its value. The selected paintings were fumigated before the artists started adding pigments and redefining the artwork. Finally only 300 paintings out of 4,000 made it.

The Tree of Life memorial to commemorate the lives lost at the hotel during the 26/11 attack
Many of the paintings were saved because of glass casings. Considering the hot and humid weather in Mumbai, in 2003, the hotel had started encasing the most valuable paintings in glass. That helped minimize their damage during the attack.

The top management conducted regular supervision and reviews of the project. The project team relied on them for guidance as the final product had to retain the unique Taj feel. The palace wing was reportedly repaired, restored, and upgraded at a total cost of Rs. 1.8 billion.

The loss of human life and damage to property was immense. But what stood out beyond the terror and tragedy was the resilience and bravery of ordinary people. Earlier the Taj Mumbai had fascinating stories to tell about the celebrities who stayed there. Today, the hotel resounds with stories of extraordinary courage of the Taj staff and commandoes who put down their lives to save the lives of guests and colleagues, and stories of duty and responsibility over personal grief.

The hotel now has a memorial in their honor. The Tree of Life is an artwork by Mr. Jaidev Baghel that stood on the sixth floor of the grand staircase of the heritage wing. This floor was gutted but the artwork survived unscathed. “The Tree of Life is in remembrance of our colleagues and guests who lost their lives during the attacks. The memorial is not a symbol of loss but a symbol of life in all its potency,” said Mr. Pokhariyal.

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