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One year since Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace and Tower fully reopened on 12 Aug, 2010, and two and a half since the terrorist attacks that set this famed hotel ablaze, all 560 of its rooms are booked out. Demand has never been so high – this monument to a city’s ambition has become a focus for discreet defiance.

At 5pm each day, a tour takes guests through highlights of the Palace Wing’s restoration; one that set out to reintroduce much of the grandeur for which the Taj became known when it first opened in 1903. It was remarkable for being the first hotel in India with electricity, and offered such luxuries as hot water, its own laundry and machines for creating ice. It went on to become the first hotel in Mumbai to be equipped with a lift, and the first in India with an air-conditioned dining room.

“Here, maharajas would have been entertained. Just imagine the clothes the diners would have worn,” says today’s guide, Nikhila Palat. She points to a small watercolour from the 1930s that inspired the renovation of the dining room. In keeping with the opulence of those times, many thousands of sheets of gold leaf again adorn the steel pillars, lit by vast chandeliers created by glass blowers from Delhi.

Our tour takes in the Rajput Suite, for which craftsmen were brought from Udaipur in Rajasthan to restore the ornate inlaid marble flooring. John Lennon and Yoko Ono once locked themselves away in these rooms for five days, asking not to be disturbed.

We also pass through the Presidential Suite: an interconnecting maze of rooms including a boardroom, gym and spa, served by a team of butlers – 13 members of the Taj’s total staff of 1,700. Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and the USA’s Barack Obama have all visited this suite in the year since the reopening. “No photos, please,” says Nikhila. “We like to maintain an air of mystery.”

Behind the lobby, a sculpture of a tree of life, recovered from the hotel’s wreckage, forms part of a memorial to those who lost their lives here. Nearby, the guestbook lies open at Obama’s message: “Thank you for your extraordinary hospitality. Your staff is a symbol of graciousness and resilience.”

We head to the Harbour Bar to view a collection of paintings cleaned of the smoke damage left by the actions of the terrorists. Over a drink, Nikhila tells a tale recounted by survivors of the attacks – one of service to the last. In the Sea Lounge, above where we sit, a door was barricaded as chaos reigned outside. The guests hid beneath tables until one emerged to look for the bar’s finest bottle of champagne. He went to pour it into tumblers when the barman leapt up, saying: “I cannot allow you to do that!” “Not even at a time like this?” asked the guest. “Sir”, said the barman, “allow me to fetch the correct glasses.”

Peter Grunert is Editor of Lonely Planet Magazine.

This article was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.

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