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27. May 2021
Over 500 years, a huddle of fishing villages has morphed beyond recognition into India’s most modern metropolis, where a staggering 16 million inhabitants occupy a narrow strip of reclaimed land. Mumbai’s high-powered cityscape, fanned by the salty air of the Arabian Sea, is an exciting base to stumble upon a host of unexpected bounties, including the transcendental rock-cut sculptures of the Elephanta Caves.
Chemistry of opposites
An archipelago of seven islands, bequeathed as dowry when King Charles II of England married Catherine of Braganza, ended up as a coveted British colony, jumpstarting one of the greatest episodes in global mercantile history. Blessed by its patron goddess, Mumba Devi, a handful of hamlets has evolved into the capital of commerce, the mecca of moviemaking and the harbinger of haute couture in India. Multi-layered, multi-cultural and multi-faceted, Mumbai exemplifies extremes like no other. Native Koli fisherfolk rub shoulders with silver-screen celebrities, shoddy slums sprawl under the shadow of sleek skyscrapers and Irani tea houses stand cheek-to-jowl with trailblazing restaurants, while the City of Dreams continues its relentless ride on wheels of electrifying energy.
Fiery and free-spirited, effervescent and enterprising, breezy and bold, Mumbai has an eclectic, enchanting vibe that never ebbs. After sundown, Mumbaikars throng along the seductive curve of the seafront promenade, which glitters like a string of precious solitaries set against the black velvet of the Arabian Sea. Beyond the waters, on a forgotten island, a timeless treasure lies embedded deep within a gigantic cavern. Make the city your base to seek one of the country’s most magnificent specimens of rock-cut architecture, the Elephanta Caves.
Elephanta Caves: Deeply divine
Skim across the shimmering waters of the Arabian Sea, 10 kilometres northeast of the Gateway to India, to alight at the island of Gharapuri - City of Caves - home to a unique UNESCO World Heritage Site, Elephanta Caves. The name is credited to a chiselled hulk of a pachyderm which now occupies a pride of place at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum on the mainland. The magic that unfolds here has no connection with the realm of living creatures of any species on the planet.
The caves on the island executed by literally scooping out solid rock from a giant hill are stone canvases of Hindu and Buddhist iconography. Hailing back to the 6th-century, the monolithic rock-cut cave temples constructed by King Krishnaraja of the Kalachuri dynasty venerate the glory of Lord Shiva as the supreme deity. The showstopper, arguably, is the main cave dedicated to Lord Shiva.
Tread 120 steps up a hill, to arrive at a 38 meters-deep, 37 meters-wide and 60,000 square feet hall – Mandapa - embedded into the gigantic rock face. Spurred on by a deep sense of curiosity, get enveloped by a shadowy, surreal vastness, divided into corridors by 24 elegant columns. Up close with the square bases supporting the fluted shafts ending as pincushion capitals to support the roof, salute the design sensibility of the unnamed craftsmen who made such a marvel possible.
The sanctum sanctorum - Sarvatobhadra Garbhgriha - with the lingam - phallic-shaped emblem of Shiva - is surrounded by walls heavily embellished with exquisite reliefs. Peerless examples of Indian artistic heritage, these hidden sculptures are one the most priceless collections representing the Shiva cult in the country. Feel the goosebumps as you witness the alchemy of three elemental tools of artistry - hammer, chisel and devotional aesthetic. The overtones of a sublime presence survive even after 1300 years. The ravages of time and serious vandalism by Portuguese invaders could not wreck the wizardry that still lives in these gloomy gaps in the hills. The staggering eloquence will stun you into silence.
Grabbing eyeballs is the enigmatic 6-metre-high Trimurti, which embodies Shiva in three avatars. On the front is Sadashiva or Maheshmurti representing divine energy and creativity; on the left is Aghora-Shiva, the symbol of destruction; and on the right is Vamadeva, the protector. In reality, the sculpture has two additional heads, one facing the back of the cave, Tatpurusha, in a meditative pose and one on top with Sadyojata Shiva, the creator. Conjure up a vision of hundreds of flickering oil lamps illuminating the contemplative pose with closed eyelids for a faint whiff of Nirvana.
Complex and mystical, the sculpture of Ardhanarishwara, denotes the androgynous form of Shiva and his consort Parvati, a blend of feminine and masculine energies. In Gangadhara, trace the contours of the three-headed Goddess Ganga emanating out of Shiva’s matted hair, depicted as the holy river flowing through the three worlds. Other noteworthy sculptures in the cave are an ode to important mythological events, including the wedding of Shiva and Parvati, Shiva slaying a demon and Shiva in the form of Nataraja - God of cosmic dance ... yes, there is such a thing. Graceful poses, life-like features and divine aura - a mesmeric meltdown into the metaphysical is not implausible.
The City of Dreams
Disembark at the Gateway of India on mainland Mumbai to make the big switch from metaphysical to materiality. Get under the skin of a city with a lineage of fewer than 400 years. Begin with the 85-foot-high triumphal arch located at the outer edge of Apollo Bunder built to commemorate the landing of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911. It made its first appearance as a cardboard cutout, because of overambitious planning by the architect. Ironically, the symbol of the British Raj was destined to become an icon of patriotism, because it was through this very gateway that the British troops finally exited India in 1948. Gloat at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel on the opposite side, a glowing tribute to Indo-Saracenic architectural styles and a fine blend of Victorian Gothic, Romanesque, Edwardian and Moorish elements. The brainchild of Jamshedji Tata, founder of the Tata empire, this historic hotel has been setting international standards in the hospitality industry for over a century.
The colonial theme continues over most of South Mumbai, so hit the heritage trail right away, where a sumptuous ensemble of Victorian architecture and Art Deco mansions adorns wide tree-lined boulevards. Catch glimpses of Victorian Gothic Revival architecture at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, a historic railway station and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Architecture and art lovers can treat themselves to an array of treasures like Gothic arches, Mughal domes, pillared arcades, stained glass in addition to a massive mechanical timepiece with a diameter of 9 feet and a pendulum weighing a whopping 25 kilograms. Later, browse through museums and boutiques of the crescent-shaped Kala Ghoda district to get your art fix. Drift through the majestic buildings of the area, including the Session Court, the High Court and land up at the Raja Bhai towers, the Big Ben of Mumbai, where British tunes still chime every 15 minutes.
Ransack the shops of Chor Bazaar - Thieves Market - for old Bollywood posters, vintage boom boxes and faded wall art. Other significant attractions include St. Thomas Cathedral, Mumbai’s first Anglican Church, the building housing Asia’s oldest newspaper and the classical-styled Town Hall - now Asiatic Library - loaded with rare books and manuscripts. Bibliophiles will be delighted to locate one of the two original copies of Dante’s Divine Comedythat exist in the world.
In the evening, linger on the palm tree-lined promenade - Queen’s Necklace - connecting Nariman Point to Malabar Hill. Follow the big ball of fire dip silently into the depths of the endless sea or join the throngs at Chowpatty to savour sugarcane juice, Bhelpuri (street snack of puffed rice, potatoes and onions tossed in a tangy tamarind sauce), or Pao Bhaji (round flatbread served with mashed vegetables simmered in butter). Swing into Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, housed in a restored 19th-century building to get a snapshot of Mumbai’s history over time.
Pore over a collection of intriguing exhibits including early maps of the city, displays of traditional headwear and busts from the 1930s. Dive into the thriving cultural scene by booking a seat for a play, music concert, literature festival or stand-up comedy at the National Centre for the Performing Arts.
…and its citizens
From the sensibilities of design to the spirit of the denizens. Wake up with the city at sunrise in Sassoon Docks, the first commercial wet dock in western India that helped establish the cotton trade and laid the foundations for Mumbai’s glorious maritime history. Here Mumbai’s original residents, the Koli fishing community turn into stars of a daily show, which involve utter chaos amid the unloading of tons of freshly caught fish, including the famous Bombay Duck, a much-loved local delicacy.
The curious euphemism caught on because the fish was transported in train wagons labelled 'Bombay Dak’ - Bombay Mail. The near 150-year-old fishing district has another unexpected avatar, as a public art gallery. Installations, murals, screenings and audio-visual experiences of the Sassoon Dock Art Project have reinvented the area as a hip hangout for the artsy-minded.
Wander through the world’s largest, open-air, human-powered laundry in Mahalaxmi where two hundred families of washer-folk scrub and beat the Mumbai grime from dirty clothes, ensuring that each cleaned and folded garment is delivered within a day. Vats of caustic soda bubble away and clothes flutter on rows of laundry lines, making it a colourful spectacle for photo enthusiasts. Close by, at the Haji Ali Dargah Mosque, a causeway leads from the mainland to a revered shrine that seems to float over water, where mystics and musicians congregate at dusk. Tread slowly at dawn for a flash of surreal.
Further away from the historic centre, explore the twin personality of Bandra. Hop across to Mount Mary Basilica, deeply venerated by people of all faiths and cultures. Uncover war intrigue at the old ruined Portuguese fort of Castelle de Aguada. Spot a Bollywood celebrity at the Walk of Stars on Bandstand. Slip into the back lanes of Hill Road to search for a slice of Portuguese history. Change the mood with kitschy graffiti of the Bollywood Art Project, where huge murals and hand-painted film posters celebrate the city’s craze for the silver screen.
Finally, zone in on Dharavi, Asia’s biggest shantytown, which sprawls out over an enormous 430 acres. Buzzing with an entrepreneurial spirit, it boasts of 15,000 small industrial units as diverse as recycled plants, soap factories, papadum-makers, artefact manufacturers, leather outfits and warehouses.
Wind up a high-octane trip in Mumbai from a snazzy rooftop bar overlooking the 5.6-kilometre cable-stayed Sea Link bridge. Think of this enduring image of the glittering skyline of India’s financial nerve-centre, and a million Mumbai's rolled into one.
I don’t like cricket, I love it
Even if you are not a follower of cricket, visiting a game is a must on any trip to India. Mumbai is home to two main cricket stadia – Brabourne Stadium and Wankhede Stadium. The latter is home to the Indian Premier League side – Mumbai Indians – and is packed to rafters with crazed fans on match days. You will experience Indian life in a day - with overpowering smells, colours and fanaticism that in India, only cricket truly elicits. It is a grand day out.
Where to eat and drink
Wasabi by Morimoto at Taj Mahal Hotel whips up gastronomical gems of every Japanese variety that you can imagine right here in Mumbai. Classics on the menu include white fish carpaccio or the Wasabi crème brûlée and the white cod miso. Views of the Gateway of India and warm saké make for a perfect dining experience.
Bombay Canteen offers a reinterpreting of Indian traditional food – and this theme has made it a trendsetting restaurant. Get surprised by innovative Indianised versions of international favourites and experiment with regional Indian dishes with a modern twist. Must-try specials include Keralan-style duck curry, Sikkimese shrimp and fish momos.
The Table – guests settle at the 20 feet Burma teak community dining table to dive into dishes soaked in global flavour. Think concoctions inspired by countries as diverse as America, Italy, France, China, Thailand and Japan. Regular guests are addicted to Boneless chicken wings in a sweet ginger glaze, yellowfin tuna tataki with Hass avocado and sesame vinaigrette and seafood tagliatelle in red curry.
Where to stay
Pick the southern part of the city for the art-deco and colonial architectures, hipster bars, avant-garde restaurants, upscale shopping and curvy waterfront. Alternatively, you can consider the trendy, modern northern suburbs of Juhu, Bandra or Andheri, which are closer to the airport.
Navigating the city
Mumbai is a sprawling city and India’s largest. While some neighbourhoods lend themselves to exploration on foot, it is a challenge to traverse the length and breadth of the city. Hail a cab to travel long distances and avoid rush hour as far as possible. Taxi drivers identify more with landmarks, rather than street names, so do your homework in advance. The suburban train network is one of the world's busiest and is best avoided unless you want to make an experience out of the jostle-ridden journey.
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