Thinking about a travel to western India? Maharashtra, Mumbai, and Bollywood bring to mind the chaos, spices, music, and sounds. Everything is true! Mumbai is a bustling concrete jungle. It will not disappoint those who know India from documentaries or Bollywood musicals.
Mumbai, situated by the Arabian Sea in Western India is also the largest and most populated city of India. The capital of the state of Maharashtra is a natural film set that is alive 24 hours a day. Lacing my now destroyed sneakers, I left the suitcase at the hotel and started my first venture in Mumbai.
I hoped to see the city fast to make the most of the limited time available. I relied on my iPhone and created a route that covered art, shopping, food, nightlife and outdoors.
I must be honest, as I was not sure if I wanted to go to Mumbai. On the one hand, it is not the former Bombay, as we were not going to walk its streets full of historic buildings. It is the same one where the film studios of Bollywood stands. But on the other hand, it is the largest city in India, millions of people crowd nearby. I did not want to repeat the chaos of Delhi, nor the noise, nor the dirt of Calcutta. Large cities often hide the worst of societies.
Delhi may have political power, but Mumbai has glamor. The capital of finance, fashion, and entertainment in India is fast-paced and frenetic, always bold, often shameless, but never forgettable. An amazing 12.5 million people call this city home, from the Dhobi-Wallahs (laundrymen) who clean the city's sheets to the millionaire financiers and Bollywood superstars.
I read somewhere that the big Indian cities are like giant monsters that end up devouring you little by little if you stay a lot in them. I attest to that. Bombay is one of those megalopolises that you have to know, but from which it is better to leave quickly. Bombay has its origins in the 2nd century BC when the great Emperor Ashoka ruled the Indian subcontinent at that time.
24 Hours in Mumbai
Despite all these doubts, I went. After getting up, having breakfast and paying our respective accommodation, breakfast, lunch and dinner bills, I went to get a auto rickshaw to take us to the airport. After an hour journey, I arrived at the airport and it was like entering another world. There was no cows or garbage is thrown on the ground. It was cool and in a restaurant, they offered hamburgers and chips. That noon I had the chicken burger with curry flavor, potatoes, and ice cream.
The flight was going to take four and a half hours to travel 1,700 kilometers and had no logic until I learned that we would first go to New Delhi. I arrived at the international airport of Bombay, rather, untimely (at dawn), but the city was already beginning to wake up, and it became bustling. A very uncomfortable hour. Just as there was a sunrise in Delhi, there was also a sunrise in Mumbai. Our hosts had told us that there was no problem with the time, but, being Sunday and not to disturb them, I decided to go to a slightly more decent schedule.
With the fatigue of a long flight behind us, and with my sleepy senses, Bombay welcomed me on a gray morning in late June with a warm, sticky breeze typical of the monsoon. I knew it was not the best time to travel. Like those sailors who in ancient times came from the Arabian Sea to this coastal city of India and envisioned its silhouette, the representative monument of the so-called Gateway of India was the first thing I wanted to visit in the city.
I took a taxi and started to explore the city. The taxi ride from the airport to the center of the city of Bombay was (to find a soft adjective to define it) "intense". My first impression of the city was that Bombay is half urban, half forest (urban) and a city, as we say in the city from which I come, very sweet. The smell immediately invaded me. A smell that is hard to define. It is something sweet mixed with the aroma of spices, cow dung, incense, and moist earth. I see that the monsoon had emptied heavily and the caverns of the road had become large lagoons in the middle of the city. Crows also roared and squawked freely.
At my pace, I find immense luminous towers, signs of opulence and wealth that is not seen in the rest of the country and a much more familiar image. But the most surprising thing was the loud noise, the traffic chaos, and the sounds of the horns everywhere. Everyone played the horns at once, short but fast sounds. There were hundreds of sounds per second that invaded our senses.
I liked a road sign that said something like "respect the lanes". What lanes? All the vehicles flooded the only existing lane. There were striking taxis and trucks, polluting motorcycles, bicycles that disarmed along the way. There were clueless cows, scrawny dogs, fierce pedestrians, and colorful three-wheeled wagons. Here it is called autorickshaws.
Everyone wanted to be preferential and pass first. There are hardly any traffic lights. Only traffic guards who from a pedestal try the impossible mission to bring order to the chaos based on whistles. Our taxi driver, a skillful driver, weighed amazingly and masterfully all the obstacles that stood in our way. This was the first impression of Bombay. A compendium of stimuli in the form of bizarre sounds, exotic smells, and strange sensations that assaulted us in an uncontrolled way. They are a thousand stimuli per second that saturate the senses, and you have to learn to digest in small sips.
Immediately I realized that despite the gray day, Bombay shone with a special light and full of color. And for the first time and after the long journey, I felt awake and very alive. In the watercolor of black and white that expanded before my eyes, I discovered the multitude of color palettes that the city offered us. I was already entering the rich part of the city, and in that area, I no longer travel in vehicles. Its access is prohibited. It was then that I caught a glimpse of the silhouette I was looking for.
Gateway of India
The Gateway of India is located on the waterfront of the port of Bombay opposite the Arabian Sea. It is a triumphal arch of basalt measuring 26 meters high, built in an Indo-Saracenic style, and designed by the Scottish architect George Wittet. The monument was erected to celebrate the visit of the British King George V, and his wife Queen Mary in 1911. Since then, it was used as a ceremonial symbol of entry to India by viceroys and governors.
Paradoxically (and although this does not tell much about the story), it was also the exit door for the British when India finally reached its independence. On February 28, 1948, the Light Infantry's troops paraded for the last time in front of it. The place, very busy, is also full of souvenir shops, taxi drivers, horse carriages, trinkets vendors, tour guides, and others who claim to be, as in all tourist places in India. The image is beautiful and the amount of people that invades the area at every moment gives a particular touch.
Once I entered the Gateway of India and explored its confines, I decided to finally go to rest at our hotel. I needed to assimilate the emotions and recover strength to continue exploring the city. In just a few minutes of contact, Bombay had shaken our senses intensely.
I finish our tour in a strange hotel-lodging of young people at Colaba. It is also the starting point for the excursion to the famous Caves of Elephanta Island. It is the area that I had been advised to stay since it is full of guest houses and is where the backpackers usually stay. The area is very close to the Yacht Club and the luxurious Hotel Taj Mahal Palace. The Taj Mahal Hotel was built in 1903 by Jamshedji Tata, who is said to have decided to build this majestic hotel when he was not allowed to enter the Watsons Hotel, meant only for whites.
I went down the stairs of the guest house and in the street was stopped by a boy offering a lodge. I followed him and he took me to another Guest House. They only had one room left. The room was not bad at all, neither was good. I left everything on the floor and went to sleep because I was tired. At 1:00 pm I got up and went outside to inspect the city. I relied on my iPhone and created a route that covered art, shopping, food, nightlife and outdoors.
I started my walk then by the Victoria train terminal that was a few blocks from the hostel. This train terminal (nowadays called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) is one of the most elegant architectural works of the Indian Victorian Gothic architecture. It was designed by Frederick William Stevens and completed in 1888.
From there my walk, by the way, quite disoriented, continues towards the University of Mumbai. A truly imposing building, in Victorian style in which stands a huge tower with a clock of 78 meters high, adorned with figures representing the different Indian communities.
In front of the University is a huge estate called Oval Maidan where young people play cricket. With a very strong sun just at the zenith, crossing the open field is hard. I continue walking towards the other train station in Mumbai, Churchgate Station. It literally looks like a church and from there I go towards the Marine Drive where dozens of people relax watching the sea.
My next stop was the Crawford Market, the colorful indoor market. Some guides call it Phule Market. It was within walking distance from Victoria Terminus. It was not what I see in other Indian markets. But it was interesting for its colonial architecture. The Chor Bazaar, a crowded flea market was more fascinating. It is a paradise for those looking for second-hand items. Here you can find everything from old gramophones and records to electronic goods.
Time was running out and the traffic and the crowds seemed to slow the race against time. But in Mumbai, you cannot leave without tasting the pav bhaji. I took advantage also to rest a bit. Then from the slopes of the Malabar Hill, I enjoyed the magnificent views of the waterfront.
The return to the hostel becomes long afterward. They are many blocks to retrace. I stop at the cafe and then I go back to the Gateway of India to see it illuminated at night. I sleep early and sleep because there is a lot of fatigue. It was a long but very interesting day. Nothing better than good music and to rest.
48 Hours in Mumbai
Today's morning passed quickly. In the hostel, I shared my room with a Canadian traveler. We went walking to the side of Victoria Station, and the park that lies behind it. I did not understand very well why we came to this area since it was not of much tourist interest once we crossed the train station. We walked back to the Colaba neighborhood and had breakfast at a restaurant in one of the Indian version of Starbucks, which is usually a meeting point for tourists.
The Elephanta Island
I continue to the esplanade of the Gateway of India to get the tickets and visit the Elephanta Island. As everything here was chaos, the rows for tickets, was disorderly. Anyway, we got the tickets and we had to find our boat in the dock. But it was such a clueless situation that we had that the people themselves were guiding us to our boat that was already leaving. We did not have to wait for anything. We went up and left. We were already facing the Gateway of India as the ship moved away amidst the haze of the Arabian Sea.
The ship had two floors and capacity for 50 people. We thought they would be full of people, but no. Everyone had their place to go sitting. We were located above (traveling there had an extra cost of 10 rupees). We took the opportunity to take good pictures of Mumbai while it was lost in the horizon and the pollution.
Because what surrounded us I am sure that it was not only sea mist but also pollution of this city that nobody stops polluting! The trip lasted about an hour. I enjoyed the scenery and a large number of boats moored on the outskirts of Mumbai. Ours was making its way between large fishing boats and cargo ships of all sizes.
Elephanta Island is an island off the coast of Mumbai, with caves carved with temples and images of Shiva from the sixth century. The island formerly called Gharapuri (fortified city) was renamed Elephanta by the Portuguese for a huge image of an elephant that was there but is no longer there. The temples of Shiva declared World Heritage by Unesco, date from the rebirth period of Brahmanism, which followed the decline of Buddhism.
To get to the temples, we have to walk along a long rock pier (or make the way in a very funny miniature train). We then go up along the endless stairs, crowded with souvenir stalls and people. The main temple has an entrance of 40 meters long, which is supported by two huge columns. There we can see a huge face of Shiva with three heads, or Maheshmurti. Each face gives an account of a manifestation of Siva, with serpents that adorn his hair.
On both sides, there are other representations of Shiva as Ardhanarishvara, his representation as a man and a woman while symbolizing the divine unity in which the opposites are found. Another representation is Shiva as Gangadhara. We travel the rest of the caves, all with huge sculptures. Then we entertain ourselves for a while watching a dozen monkeys that walk around the place with their babies. We had lunch there of a veg thali (pancakes to eat with different types of vegetables).
When we look at the map we see that in addition to these caves there were other called the group of the canyon. We suppose that this is a natural formation that there is on the island and after eating we cross the zone. When we arrived we found two huge guns of the world war I and families raising their children to the canyons. It was a bizarre image but managed to steal a smile!
Because of the time and weather, the clock allowed me to travel to Borivali National Park. This largest park in the world located within a city is one of the main attractions in North Mumbai. We complete the tour in a safari with lions and tigers. We continue to Kamla Nehru Park, Chowpatty Beach, the Prince of Wales Museum, Mani Bhawan and Dhobi Ghat.
New Years Eve in Mumbai
At eight o'clock at night, we go for dinner at the cafe and start our New Year celebrations. We had a few beers and then had dinner. I ordered a Thai plate and Chicken Manchurian with a rather spicy black sauce. Being eleven o'clock at night, we went by taxi to the Gateway of India where the local people of the city come together to celebrate. If Mumbai is commonly a chaos in this area, now this chaos is particularly multiplied. Dozens of police order (or mess up) with constant shouting at the people.
There are people everywhere, and taxi drivers who do not drive. In short, we arrived at Gateway of India and a police control separated the large esplanade in front of the Gateway of India in two groups into "women and families" and "men". The area was divided with fences and fabrics that did not allow to see from one side to another. On our side, all the families gathered, sitting on the floor, sharing food or drinks. On the other side, young people scream and jump. The police spoke through the speakers repeating tediously some phrases that we never understood.
At twelve o'clock, an ovation was heard and the fireworks started to leave the terrace of the Taj Mahal Hotel. The people became euphoric and greeted each other. The families started to sit down and slowly retreated. Within five minutes after twelve, no local family remained in that place. We did not understand anything. We and other travelers watch the fireworks, shouting happy new year. Also after a while, we left to continue our celebration in a bar.
Spending the new year outside the home is an experience of much learning because it looks like it is celebrated elsewhere. But at the same time, one would like to have his family close by to embrace them and remind them how much they loves them. I went to sleep after the arrival of the new year and greeting some friends. I accepted a challenge against time and also against my principles. As I do not like doing things on the run, I decided to make the most of the week available to explore this region.