Curiosity led me to Kala Ghoda on a recent rainy Wednesday, to park myself in front of a building steeped so richly in Mumbai’s colonial history that the Taj Hotel was once seen as a rival upstart.The erstwhile Watson’s Hotel, now called Esplanade Mansion, still stands tall, sprawling across a chunk of Kala Ghoda’s Mahatma Gandhi Road, but it is in ruins. On the basis of a structural audit, the Indian Institute of Technology—Bombay (IIT—Bombay) recommended that the1869-built building be demolished, leading to an evacuation plan for its reluctant tenants this past June.
I crossed the busy road and walked over to what I believed was the entrance, only to find my path blocked by a bright blue barricade running along the perimeter of the heritage building. At the centre was a sign—“Andar jana sakt mana hain”—entry strictly forbidden. As if that wasn’t ominous enough, there was a big brass lock right in the gate’s centre. Cursing my luck for not having visited the building before, I wandered to a side-lane to the western side of the building, passing a parked police van on my way.
As I swerved past a flurry of black robes—lawyers running back to the Mumbai City, Civil & Sessions Court post lunchbreak, I remembered reading somewhere that back when Watson’s Hotel first made the transition into Esplanade Mansion, its earliest tenants were advocates who favoured the easy commute to their daily workplace. The court, built in the Venetian Gothic style of architecture that is so characteristic of British Bombay, presents a striking contrast to its neighbor in terms of its condition.
At the mouth of the lane that houses the Sessions Court, on the western side of Esplanade Mansion, I saw a banana seller taking a break between sales. Seeing a possible opening, I half-walked, half-ran towards him to pose a few questions. Kishan told me he set up his small banana stall next to the building over a decade ago. He seems unsurprised by my questions about it, explaining that he’s caught the attention of many a traveller inquiring about its history.
“The building started deteriorating noticeably in the past 15-20 years,” Kishan revealed. “It got condemned, so I guess the authorities figured there was no point in running further expenses on it.” He shrugged. “Even till a few years ago, this place used to be flocked by tourists carrying cameras and photographing the structure,” he said. “They are bound to, considering that it was designed abroad. I’m not implying that tourists don’t come around here anymore. They do, just in lesser numbers and they aren’t allowed to go inside anymore.”
To understand why not, I had earlier spoken to Alisha Sadikot, who spearheads the Inheritage Project and organizes historical walks around the city. “I keep the Esplanade Mansion as a stop on a multitude of routes,” she said. “I often throw this in as a bonus. In many ways, I actually think of this heritage building as the highlight. If the building is demolished, it will be like a gaping hole in the middle of the experience,” she told me.
I asked her about the building’s reputation of being structurally unsafe. “I don’t take my group of walkers inside the building,” she said. “But it’s not like I haven’t walked inside the building. Years ago, I had even walked under its arcade. However, as the years have gone by, its condition has deteriorated. The chances of something happening are slim, but I am not taking that kind of a risk.”
With her words lingering in my mind, I turned back to the lost grandeur of the building. I noticed the broken remnants of luxurious ornamentation on some parts of the crumbling walls. Once a handsome five-storey building with a cast-iron frame imported from England and a red stone plinth and column bases from Cumberland, Watson’s is now a shadow of its superior architectural self.
I imagined what it would be like to be a guest at the hotel during its peak through the 1870’s-1890’s—perhaps dancing the night away in the ballroom amid a cascade of top-hats and lace-edged gowns. Would I be greeted by John Watson himself? Watson, an English businessman, initially envisioned building a store, but when the opportunity to present Mumbai with its first luxury hotel presented itself, he enlisted architect Rowland Mason Ordish, known for his detailed work on the single-span roof of St Pancras Station in London.
As the hotel became established, it hosted travellers like the British explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton, Hawaii’s King Kalakaua, Muhammed Ali Jinnah—who apparently played billiards there, and even author and wanderer Mark Twain.
Twain wrote about his luxurious stay at the hotel in his book Following the Equator, describing the place in detail. “The lobbies and halls were full of turbaned, and fez’d and embroidered, cap’’d, and barefooted, and cotton-clad dark natives… in the dining room every man’s own private native servant standing behind his chair, and dressed for a part in Arabian Nights.”
Of course, the natives were not allowed to sit in the chairs themselves. Watson’s gates were initially thrown open to ‘Europeans only’. However, it is said that through the years, it expanded its list marginally to include other white-skinned guests as well.
Several factors led to the hotel’s closure in the 1960s. In 1896, Bombay was hit by a bubonic plague epidemic, which also affected the hotel’s business. Then, according to Sadikot, “The fortunes of the city were on a decline in the early 1900s, because the city itself was changing.” The freedom movement and its demands for a swadeshi economy impacted the hotel, she explained. “It couldn’t keep up with other hotels and what was happening in the 20th century.” The hotel couldn’t keep up with the changing norms of society either. If lingering rumours are to be believed, business tycoon Jamsetji Tata was once denied entry into Watson’s Hotel. With that slight to his ego and affront to his reputation, the burgeoning industrialist went ahead and built what we now know as the Taj Mahal Palace, supposedly in retaliation. The Taj was unanimously declared the grander of the two.
After Watson’s death, the hotel passed through many hands, until it finally closed in the 1960s and was divided into smaller sections, which were rented out as residences and office spaces. The earliest tenants of Esplanade Mansion perhaps thought that with its still rare cast-iron structure, enviable location and status as an architectural icon among overseas travellers, their new home would be safeguarded by its past glory. They couldn’t have anticipated this massive turnaround of its fate within a space of two generations.
Following the IIT-Bombay recommendation, the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) oversaw the evacuation of all tenants in the building. The mentioned blue barricade was then set up to mark off the building and a court hearing was initiated in the Bombay High Court for July 4th, with the latter stalling on making a decision for its demolition. So far, the High Court has only progressed to recommending that the whole building be netted. Amid all this confusion, conservation groups and activists have put their feet down, demanding that the state provide funds to restore the heritage estate, looking to fight any decision made otherwise.
“The problem is no one maintained it,” Ajay, a pakora vendor who is set up near Kishan, explains simply. “If they had maintained this building from the very beginning, it wouldn’t have come to this sorry state of dilapidation. After all,” he added, flipping over five pakoras at one go, “this was the first Taj.”
Sanjana Ray is that unwarranted tour guide people groan about on trips. When she isn't geeking out on travel and history, she can be found walking around the streets, crying for Bengali food. She is former Digital Writer at National Geographic Traveller India.