April 22nd to 23rd, 2014
I was enchanted by Mumbai (re-named Bombay by the Portuguese and reverted to the original name when India gained independence from the British). It is like a combination of Paris and San Francisco in an alternate universe - familiar, unfamiliar, frenetic, energized, crowded - and organized in the most disorganized and chaotic way. The architecture is stunning. Mumbai is the fastest growing, most affluent and industrialized city in India. Since we had two full days in Mumbai, we managed to squeeze in three tours to get a good sense of the city.
On our first day in Mumbai, we decided to do an excursion in the morning, rest, then go on a tour enticingly called "Mumbai After Dark". Our first outing was to Elephanta Island. Known in ancient times as Gharapuri, later the name Elephanta, was given by 17th century Portuguese explorers, after seeing a monolithic basalt sculpture of an elephant found here near the entrance.
We boarded a boat at the Gateway of India which is located at the port next to the Taj Mahal Hotel. If you remember, the Taj had a terrorist incursion in 2008. The security at the hotel (and other high-end hotels) is very tight. Cars are inspected before entering the portico and tourists can't just walk about and gawk - you must be a guest or an invitee.
We traveled nine nautical miles across Mumbai Harbor to Gharapuri Island. The island has twin hills rising from the sea, with the caves located halfway up the higher of the two. (This meant climbing substantial stairs in sauna like humidity.... I stopped at the same point as the man with emphysema which reflects badly on my exercise program). Carved out of solid basalt, the caves represent Mount Kailash, the heavenly mountain residence of Lord Shiva. This cave complex is a collection of shrines, courtyards, grand halls and porticos, filled with exquisite stone sculptures and reliefs of Hindu Gods and Goddesses.
At the entrance to the caves is the Trimurti, or the celebrated trinity of Elephanta: Lord Brahma, the Creator (holding a flute); Lord Vishnu, the preserver (holding a lotus); and Lord Shiva, the Destroyer (holding a cobra). Unfortunately, many of the sculptures inside were damaged by the Portuguese who took potshots at the Hindu Gods with their rifles. Trimurti was undamaged. The prevailing thought was that either it was behind a wall or the Portuguese viewed it as the trinity - therefore it had more value that the other "pagan" images. The site was designated a World Heritage Site in 1987.
Our tour guide was a wonderful and intelligent young woman and enchanted us with stories of the Hindu deities that guide and inform behavior. We had an abrasive couple on our tour who were hot to get back to Mumbai. They seemed to be disenchanted with everything - the tour, the heat, the boat ride, our cruise, and probably their lives. They approached the guide to tell her that they were leaving with group #1 (we were group #2) since it seemed to be departing ahead of us. She smiled serenely, "Of course." I think I must have rolled my eyes, as she smiled and said in a low voice, "We all leave at the same time." This sounded like a Hindu lesson to me - and, as it turned out, our boat was the first one out!
Monkeys, tourists, nicknack vendors and women selling water were everywhere.
That evening we toured the city at night.
The tour description was tantalizing: "This city ... transforms itself from a flourishing center of commerce and trade into a dazzling entertainment center when the sun sets and the lights come on..... (Well, not so much).....experience the Night Market with its variety ranging from street food stalls to spice shops to silks and jewelry. Browsing through here offers the opportunity to meet local `Bombayites' known for their easy going and friendly nature....(20 minutes of speed walking, no stopping to browse or buy anything)....
Next, it's a scenic drive past the impressive gothic style buildings of the High Court, the Art District of Kala Ghoda, Victoria Terminus, the Center of Science and the landmark Gateway of India at Apollo Blunder. Illuminated at night, each of these notable sights seems to take on a distinctive and perhaps more beguiling character than is seen during the day. (Nice photo ops)
You will also travel down the Art Deco Marine Drive, referred to as the Queen's Necklace at night due to the vision it creates with the curved shape of the bay being accented by thousands of sparkling lights. (Yawn..although we did drive buy two major wedding receptions complete with fireworks - our guide said that typical weddings involve 1-2 thousand guests!)....
”Stopping at the Regal Cinema Hall, Bombay's first Art Deco theater, you'll enjoy a short viewing of a typical Hindi film. (We must have been at the new Regal because it looked EXACTLY like the Regal Multiplex in Atlanta - I don't think Art Deco theaters have escalators).....Before returning to the pier, a final stop will be made at one of the city's trendy bars where you'll enjoy a nightcap before concluding what will surely be a memorable evening..." (No booze for us! Our trip was during the run up to the Indian elections and booze is banned for the week before the vote. The bar was in one of the Taj hotels - nice as hotel bars go but our crowd was definitely not feeling the the throbbing disco beat, not the juice with ice - verboten for us in India...all those pesky germs that wreck havoc in our intestinal tracks...and not the hors d'oeuvres - too spicy for the majority of our fellow travelers with delicate palates. Well at least I got to see Mumbai's version of a horse drawn carriage tour with the carriage covered with neon lights and sparkle which made me love India all the more!)
The next day, we started with a drive along Marine Drive, then up to the Malabar hill making a stop at the Hanging Gardens, (not really "hanging" but up in the hills with a view, a bit San Francisco-ish) this is the city's most exclusive neighborhood dating back to the 18th century.
Mumbai illustrates the contrasts of India. We passed a "house" - 42 stories high (6 of which consist of parking) and 600 servants.
A family of 6 live there - although the patriarch has not spent one night in the house due to the bad Indian version of feng shui. There are slums and there is housing for the middle class - tight quarters in the city and better in the suburbs.
The most interesting stop was at Dhobi Ghat, where thousands of pieces of clothing are sent each day to be hand-laundered, dried and ironed by Mumbai's dhobi wallahs or laundry men and women. It doesn't look too clean but our guide assured us that the clothes are pristine when returned and never lost although the system for keeping clothes separate by customer seems as murky as the water.
We then went on to Mani Bavan, the Gandhi Memorial. This used to be the Mumbai residence of Mahatma Gandhi, and is where he was arrested in 1932. The memorial contains a reference library with over 2,000 books, memorabilia, and a photo feature on the Mahatma's life. It was fascinating and very moving to read his correspondence with world leaders, including Hitler. Gandhi's humanitarian plea to Hitler obviously fell on deaf ears.
Our next stop was at ISKCON, the temple of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. The god Krishna, often blue and playing a flute, has a mischievous nature and his peasant background and legendary exploits with the milkmaids have made him one of the most popular gods.
I have a pet peeve about photography in houses of worship. If photography is allowed, snap away - but don't take mug shots of your traveling companions giving the thumbs up in front of a deity. At ISKCON, the main sanctuary was a contemplative place with many people praying and meditating. Of course, one of our more annoying travelers kept snapping pictures of his wife in front of Krishna. But, remember, Krishna has a mischievous nature! On the way back to the bus, the man came running to the guide "My wife needs a bathroom, quick!" Yes, she had a little accident....15 minutes later she was back on the bus in her damp dress. Oh, Krishna, you are a rascal!
This was a whirlwind tour with photo stops at the High Court, Churchgate Station, and Victoria Terminus. The architecture is wild with ornamentation, and with carvings of peacocks, gargoyles, monkeys, elephants and British lions mixed up among the buttresses.
Our last stop was the Prince of Wales Museum, opened in 1923 and built to commemorate King George V's royal visit to India. This was speed viewing as we only had 30 minutes in a wonderful museum that demanded a whole day. There were artifacts from Elephanta Island, Jogeshwari Caves, ivory carvings, terracotta figurines from the Indus valley, and a large collection of miniature paintings.
On the way back to the ship, we stopped again at the Gateway of India. This structure was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911, and is considered the principal landmark of Mumbai. Standing over 85 feet high, the archway was built in the 16th-century Gujarat style, with four turrets and intricate latticework carved into the yellow basalt stone.
Since it was lunch time, we could experience the thousands upon thousands of people out and about. It looked like a stadium of people exiting a concert - only this is daily life in mumbai.