Terrorists Downgrade Gateway Focus!
By John B Monteiro
Dec 2: The erection of a monument is superfluous; the memory of us will last, if we have deserved it in our lives. – Pliny “The Younger”, author and orator of ancient Italy.
Pliny is true if you consider the case of Gateway of India in Mumbai. December 2, 2011 marks the centenary of an event that provided the reason for constructing perhaps the most visited and photographed monument in India. That event was the landing of King George V and Queen Mary who proceeded to Delhi to hold the Royal Durbar later in the month. This information is carved on the top front façade of the monument, with the dates inscribed in Roman letters, and can be read from the front plaza. The Delhi Durbar was to commemorate the royal couple’s coronation in Britain a few months earlier and their proclamation as Emperor and Empress of India – and without any public forewarning the shifting of British India’s capital from Calcutta to Delhi.
Tracing the history of Gateway of India in Ten Heritage Walks of Mumbai, Fiona Fernandez says that at the end of Apollo Pier, jutting into the harbour is the historic Gateway, Mumbai’s most prominent landmark. Much before the present-day structure was built, it was a make-shift iron shed with a curved roof. It stood as a vantage point to incoming ships as they neared the natural harbour off Mumbai’s Apollo Bunder. The temporary shed was built in the style of a Mongol tent and became a shelter for passengers in the early British era.
According to Fiona, just before King George V’s visit to India in 1911, the iron shed was haphazardly replaced with a pavilion and hall made of white Plaster of Paris. The King and Queen departed from the same temporary structure on January 10, 1912. Soon after they left India’s shores, Governor Sydenham initiated a scheme to commence work on a permanent structure. The reclaimed frontage to the north of Taj Mahal was meant to be an imposing stone-landing stage, unique in design. The inaugural stone was laid on March 31, 1913, and work began to level the promenade around the plaza. Viceroy Earl of Reading formally inaugurated it on December 4, 1924. The impressive archway was eventually complete in 1927.
Designed by George Wittet, the Gateway is a cross between the Parisian Arc de Triomphe, a Moorish mansion and old Gujarati architecture. It comprises a main, large arch that reaches the maximum height of 83 feet, flanked by two smaller arches. The fretted framework above the arches is heavily influenced by 16th century Gujarati architecture. Honey-coloured yellow basalt stone to build the Gateway came from Kharody in Thane, while stone for the pierced stonework was brought from Gwalior. It cost Rs. 21 lakhs to build the Gateway. The then well-known Jewish business family, the Sassoons, who were one of the great contributors to Mumbai, offered the largest donation for the construction effort, contributing Rs.10 lakhs for the construction.
The central dome of Gateway is 15 metres (49 feet) in diameter and is 26 metres (85 feet) above ground at its highest point. The whole harbour front was realigned in order to come in line with a planned esplanade which would sweep down to the centre of the town. The cost of the construction was borne mainly by the Government of India. Due to lack of funds, the approach road was never built, and so the Gateway stands at an angle to the road leading up to it.
Ironically, when the Raj ended in 1947, this colonial symbol also became a sort of its epitaph: the last of the British ships that set sail for England left from the Gateway on February 28, 1948 – carrying the last British troops to leave India, the First Battalion of Somerset Light Infantry. Today this symbol of colonialism has got Indianised, drawing droves of tourists and citizens from the city, rest of India and abroad. To confirm Pliny’s statement, hardly anybody remembers, or cares to know, in whose honour this magnificent monument was built in the first place. The terrorist attack on the Taj Mahal Hotel has shifted the focus from the Gateway to the Taj. Time was when publications shooting corporate VIPs or film stars got the Gateway as backdrop. Today, the Taj is the preferred backdrop by far. Tourists now shoot photos with Taj included in the frame. But Taj is by no means a lesser monument – though its existence was understated before the terrorist attack on it on that fateful November 26, 2008 – the third anniversary of it was marked last week on a somber note.
It is not the first time that Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel at Apollo Bunder, downtown Mumbai, has witnessed terror. But, in 2008, as we watched in horror the unbroken TV coverage for three days, it was the victim as its gracious and opulent innards were raped by gun-fire, grenades and fire. Today, the Taj lies restored, with its beautiful ceilings, archways and cantilevered stairways back in their splendour. In the traditions of the House of Tatas, its owners, refurbished and restored it to its glory as per the vision of its founder, Jamsetji Tata, who conceived it in the 1890s.
As a monument, Taj has older antiquity than Gateway and a colourful history. Russi M Lala, author of For The Love of India – The Life and Times Of Jamsetji Tata, says that this heritage hotel was not started as a commercial venture. It was Jamsetji Tata’s gift to the city he loved – as the Taj Mahal of Agra was Shah Jahan’s memorial to the woman he loved. Before the Taj Mahal Hotel came on the scene, the two prominent hotels in Bombay were Watson’s Hotel at the south end of Bombay University’s Fort campus (which is said to have been barred to Indians) and Great Western Hotel, next to Lion’s Gate to Navel Dockyards. Both are today rambling and crumbling relics of another age, a combo of residential flats and offices.
Lala notes that being an ardent fan of Mark Twain, Jamehetji Tata may have read of the writer’s fate in the then so-called “best” Watson’s Hotel in Bombay. It is said that Jamsetji committed his own personalmoney, unlike that of the family in other cases, and bought a 2.5-acre plot at Apollo Bunder, fronting the harbour, on November1, 1898 on a 99-year lease. The foundation stone for the hotel, symbolized by coconut breaking and lighting the Parsi diya (oil lamp) was done in 1900. It cost Rs 25 lakhs (compared to the estimated cost of Rs 500 crores for its restoration after the terrorist damage) and was opened on December 16, 1903 – with seven guests – even before the building was complete. The famed dome of the building, which dominates the harbour skyline and was constantly on TV during the terror attack and has since been hogging media space, was completed after Jamsetji’s death – five months after opening of the hotel.
Before we leave the hotel, a reference may be made for a second reason why Jamsetji built it. On a visit to South Africa, he was barred from a hotel which had displayed a notice on the gate: “Indians and dogs not allowed”. Jamsetji was determined to avenge this insult to Indians and is said to have put up a notice at the Taj entrance reading: “South African Whites and dogs not allowed”.
The Taj and the Gateway were two prominent landmarks that passengers of ships, passing through the harbour to moor at Ballard Pier, saw and admired. Now, the Stock Exchange Tower and Reserve Bank tower over the older landmarks. But Taj and Gateway still dominate the harbour-front. Apollo Bunder, which hosts both Taj and Gateway, has emerged as a carnival spot with thousands thronging the place and others conducting periodic sombre candle-light vigil. Incidentally, to thwart assaults from potential terrorists and vandals, the Gateway wears a chastity belt in the form of a fencing which bars entry into the monument to admire its high dome. A posse of policemen now guard the monument and the Taj, waiting in Black Marias parked on the plaza. Is there a chance that in the context of the centenary celebration of the rationale of Gateway, it regaining its original dominant focus?
In this photo-feature, an attempt is made to project the scene in peaceful times.
John B Monteiro, author and journalist, is editor of his website www.welcometoreason.com (Interactive Cerebral Challenger) – with provision for instant response.