Mumbai: The first stop in US President Barack Obama`s India calendar is the famed Taj Mahal Palace and Towers, much of it reduced to a charred shell during the 26/11 terror attack and now meticulously rebuilt to outshine even its former glory.
It is in this landmark 107-year-old hotel that Obama and his entourage will stay on Nov 6 and 7, before flying to Delhi. And it is from this hotel, where armed militants fired guns and grenades, that he will send out an emotive message against terrorism.
The architectural marvel, right next to the Gateway of India and offering a panoramic view of the Arabian Sea, was one of the 10 sites targeted by terrorists on the night of Nov 26, 2008.
The mayhem that started when terrorists got off boats at the Gateway of India ended three days and 60 hours later at the Taj in a hail of bullets and blasts, killing 166 people. Blamed on Pakistani militants, it was India`s worst terror attack, striking at the heart of the country`s financial capital.
Given the sensitivities involved, it is being speculated that the American contingent has booked all the 565 rooms in the palace and tower wings, though there is no confirmation.
The president is likely to hold his brief first official address from the Ball Room or Princess Room soon after landing in India Saturday morning, well informed sources said without going into details.
The area around Taj is virtually under siege with unprecedented security at all entry/exit points and all staff and visitors having to undergo security checks each time they enter or leave the two buildings.
Besides ground security, even the Arabian Sea opposite the Taj being made secure, plus aerial security in the vicinity.
The sea-facing landmark of India`s commercial capital was built in 1903, with its architecture blending Moorish, Oriental and Florentine styles. Visitors to the hotel have come away in awe of its Indian influences, vaulted alabaster ceilings, onyx columns, archways, carpets and chandeliers, its dramatic cantilever stairway as also its collection of art and antique furniture.
For the more adventurous ones, it also offers luxurious yachts for select guests to spend time in the Arabian Sea.
After the 26/11 attack -- when images of smoke billowing out of its windows and traumatised staffers and guests stumbling out after three days of bloodshed were flashed across -- the hotel has made a determined effort to look ahead.
While the adjacent tower wing was left unscathed in the 26/11 attack, the heritage wing was extensively damaged and repaired at an estimated cost of Rs.175 crore ($30 million).
The palace wing has got more royal with multimedia systems and an emergency escape route added.
One feature in the rooms and suites are the special levers that allow guests to open the window in an emergency. Upping the security quotient, special access control elevators are installed on the premises, allowing only guests to operate them with a valid key.
Internationally acclaimed designers like Lissoni Associati from Milan, BAMO from San Francisco, DesignWilkes from Malaysia and James Park Associates from Singapore carried out the extensive restoration of the heritage wing of the hotel.
On Dec 16, 1903, the Taj opened its doors to its first 17 guests. Seven decades later in 1973, the Tower wing became operational.
Over the years, the hotel has played perfect host to maharajas and princes, presidents and legends, performers and world figures, offering them the ultimate in luxury, fine dining and impeccable service.
Ratan Tata, chairman of Indian Hotels Company Ltd (IHCL), had said soon after the attack in December 2008 that he would do whatever it takes to restore the "old lady" to its former glory.
"When we open the heritage wing and do whatever it takes to get back its old glory; we will send a stronger message - a message that strongly resonates among all of us that we can be hurt, but we cannot be knocked down," Tata had said.
That is perhaps precisely the message that President Obama hopes to convey during his Nov 6-9 visit. And why he has chosen the Taj Palace and Towers, now more than just a hotel.