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Page last updated at 22:54 GMT, Sunday, 21 December 2008

Flowers and tears as hotels re-open

By Prachi Pinglay
BBC News, Mumbai

Christmas tree in the lobby of the Taj Mahal Palace and Towers hotel, Mumbai (21/12/2008)
The sight of Christmas trees greeted guests at the Taj hotel

Bhisham Mansukhani, a survivor of last month's Mumbai attacks, had come to "show solidarity to the hospitality industry" at the prayer meeting to mark the re-opening of the Trident Hotel.

Amid tight security, hotel staff welcomed guests, well-wishers and the media to the Trident - the less-damaged wing of the Oberoi and Trident Hotels.

Staff stood outside ushering everyone in and guiding them to the prayer meeting before the hotel bounced back to "just as it was on 25 November".

Mr Mansukhani said he owed a lot to the staff of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel who had kept their cool and put the safety of guests before their own.

The Trident-Oberoi and Taj Mahal Palace hotels were among the prominent locations struck by 10 gunmen on 26 November. More than 170 people, including hotel employees, lost their lives in the attacks.

Both hotel complexes were the scene of fierce battles between police and the gunmen that lasted for several days.

We propose to dedicate this re-opening of the hotel to the people who have lost their lives
Ratan Tata
Head of the group owning the Taj

For the re-opening, the area around the Taj hotel was cordoned off and security guards were not allowing the public anywhere near the hotel, but a crowd had gathered beyond the cordon and were heard shouting slogans.

The lanes adjoining the Taj buildings were empty, with only registered guests or media personnel waiting to get in.

The front of the hotel was lit up and several decorated Christmas trees in the lobby welcomed the guests. Regular visitors said the flooring looked different but the ambience was the same.

Anita Tahir was at the Taj for dinner with her friends and family to celebrate her birthday.

She said they were frequent visitors and it meant a lot that the hotel was re-opening so soon.

'Fighting back tears'

Efforts have been made to ensure that no traces of the attack are visible at the Trident. There were fresh flowers, soft lights, just the way it used to be.

Taj Mahal Hotel Ratan Tata greets guests at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, Mumbai (21/12/2008)

And hotel staff were alert and constantly looking after the visitors.

Dressed in saris and suits, reception staff handed out flowers to every guest.

As the multi-faith meeting heard prayers in tribute to those who had lost their lives, several guests fought back tears. Many were foreigners and regular visitors.

Most said they were keen to come back to their favourite restaurants at both hotels.

As the first guests started coming in, Taj reception staff greeted those who had made room reservations by putting a garland and an auspicious vermillion mark on their forehead.

A temporary memorial had been set up - a sculpture called the Tree of Life.

The names of victims were displayed next to it and candles lit up it, with flowing water in the background. Visitors read the names before proceeding to the restaurants.

Tree of Life sculpture in the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, Mumbai (21/12/2008)
The names of victims were displayed on the sculpture
The new Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Ashok Chavan, and Deputy Chief Minister Chagan Bhujbal were among the dignitaries attending the ceremony.

Ratan Tata, head of the Tata Group which owns the Taj, spoke to the media from a makeshift podium before the opening.

"We propose to dedicate this re-opening of the hotel to the people who have lost their lives," he said.

"We believe that the opening of this hotel will send a message that we have come alive in a record period of time and play host to everyone as part of this great city."

Hotel managers at both sites have paid tribute to employees, with the president of the Trident Hotels, Rattan Keswani, saying he felt "absolute deep pride" over their behaviour.

"There is grief because they have lost their colleagues and guests they tried to protect. But at the same time they are absolutely desirous that the hotel bounces back."

'Help pouring in'

Devendra Bharma, executive vice-president, Oberoi Hotels and Resorts, said the window panes and wood panelling of some floors at the Trident had been damaged.

Security at the Trident Hotel
Armed guards were on view at the Trident
"The marble floor of the lobby was damaged, as was the front porch. Fortunately the structure has not sustained any damage," he said.

More than $8m of damage had been done to the Oberoi and a precise estimate of restoration costs would take a fortnight to make, said Mr Keswani.

Damages to the Trident were much less, at an estimated $81,000, Mr Keswani said. He said the hotels were well covered by insurance and that help had been pouring in.

As for damage at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel, vice-chairman R K Krishnakumar said the cost was still being assessed.

He said they were covered by insurance and that restoration of the heritage wing of the hotel would be done as required.

'Need for scrutiny'

Both hotels have been in touch with international security agencies and have put in place measures like baggage screening, metal detectors and thorough checking of identity cards, as well as frisking.

Trident Hotel managers welcome guests (21 Dec)
The Trident hopes for at least 25% occupancy as it re-opens
The Taj is right opposite the Gateway of India and the entire area has been cordoned off.

There are restrictions on car parking.

Armed guards and sniffer dogs have been posted at both hotels and X-ray machines are to screen guests' bags.

Both the hotels have also said they will follow the Indian government's directions about foreign guests.

People are co-operating, as everyone seems to understand the need for scrutiny.

The Taj Mahal Palace and its modern Tower wing stand as an important symbol of the city, attracting crowds of tourists - Indian as well as foreigners.

The 105-year-old building - a heritage structure - sustained more damage than the re-opened one. But the Tatas are confident of bringing it back to its glory soon.

"When the old wing - the heritage wing - is restored and rebuilt to the extent that it could be, then we will send an even stronger message not only for the Taj but for the whole city, that we can be hurt but we cannot be knocked down," said Mr Tata.

"The old Taj will stand again for next 100 years as it has been for the last 105 years."

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