India //

Mumbai

Ever since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the principal gateway to the Indian Subcontinent has been MUMBAI (Bombay), the city Aldous Huxley famously described as “the most appalling…of either hemisphere”. Travellers tend to regard time spent here as a rite of passage to be survived rather than savoured. But as the powerhouse of Indian business, industry and trade, and the source of its most seductive media images, the Maharashtrian capital can be a compelling place to kill time. Whether or not you find the experience enjoyable, however, will depend largely on how well you handle the heat, humidity, hassle, traffic fumes and relentless crowds of India’s most dynamic, Westernized city.

First impressions of Mumbai tend to be dominated by its chronic shortage of space. Crammed onto a narrow spit of land that curls from the swamp-ridden coast into the Arabian Sea, the city is technically an island, connected to the mainland by bridges and narrow causeways. In less than five hundred years, it has metamorphosed from an aboriginal fishing settlement into a megalopolis of over sixteen million people – one of the biggest urban sprawls on the planet. Being swept along broad boulevards by endless streams of commuters, or jostled by coolies and hand-cart pullers in the teeming bazaars, you’ll continually feel as if Mumbai is about to burst at the seams.

The roots of the population problem and attendant poverty lie, paradoxically, in the city’s enduring ability to create wealth. Mumbai alone generates one third of India’s tax income, its port handles half the country’s foreign trade, and its movie industry is the biggest in the world. Symbols of prosperity are everywhere: from the phalanx of office blocks clustered on Nariman Point, Maharashtra’s Manhattan, to the expensively dressed teenagers posing in Colaba’s trendiest nightspots.

The flip side to the success story is the city’s much-chronicled poverty. Each day, an estimated five hundred economic refugees pour into Mumbai from the Maharashtrian hinterland. Some find jobs and secure accommodation; many more end up living on the already overcrowded streets, or amid the squalor of some of Asia’s largest slums, reduced to rag-picking and begging from cars at traffic lights.

However, while it would definitely be misleading to downplay its difficulties, Mumbai is far from the ordeal some travellers make it out to be. Once you’ve overcome the major hurdle of finding somewhere to stay, you may begin to enjoy its frenzied pace and crowded, cosmopolitan feel.

Nowhere reinforces your sense of having arrived in Mumbai quite as emphatically as the Gateway of India, the city’s defining landmark. Only a five-minute walk north, the Prince of Wales Museum should be next on your list of sightseeing priorities, as much for its flamboyantly eclectic architecture as for the art treasures inside. The museum provides a foretaste of what lies in store just up the road, where the cream of Bartle Frere’s Bombay – the University and High Court – line up with the open maidans on one side, and the boulevards of Fort on the other. But for the fullest sense of why the city’s founding fathers declared it Urbs Prima in Indis, you should press further north still to visit the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), the high-water mark of India’s Raj architecture.

Beyond CST lie the crowded bazaars and Muslim neighbourhoods of central Mumbai, at their liveliest and most colourful around Crawford Market and Mohammed Ali Road. Possibilities for an escape from the crowds include an evening stroll along Marine Drive, bounding the western edge of downtown, or a boat trip out to Elephanta, a rock-cut cave on an island in Mumbai harbour containing a wealth of ancient art.

Brief history

Mumbai originally consisted of seven islands, inhabited by small Koli fishing communities. In 1534, Sultan Bahadur of Ahmedabad ceded the land to the Portuguese, who subsequently handed it on to the English in 1661 as part of the Portuguese Infanta Catherine of Braganza’s dowry during her marriage to Charles II. Bombay’s safe harbour and strategic commercial position attracted the interest of the East India Company, based at nearby Surat, and in 1668 a deal was struck whereby they leased Bombay from Charles for a pittance.

Life for the English was not easy, however: “fluxes” (dysentery), “Chinese death” (cholera) and other diseases culled many of the first settlers, prompting the colony’s chaplain to declare that “two monsoons are the age of a man”. Nevertheless, the city established itself as the capital of the flourishing East India Company, attracting a diverse mix of settlers including Goans, Gujarati traders, Muslim weavers and the business-minded Zoroastrian Parsis. The cotton crisis in America following the Civil War fuelled the great Bombay cotton boom and established the city as a major industrial and commercial centre, while the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the construction of enormous docks further improved Bombay’s access to European markets ushering in an age of mercantile self-confidence embodied by the grandiloquent colonial-Gothic buildings constructed during the governership of Sir Bartle Frere (1862–67).

As the most prosperous city in the nation, Bombay was at the forefront of the Independence struggle; Mahatma Gandhi used a house here, now a museum, to co-ordinate the struggle through three decades. Fittingly, the first British colony took pleasure in waving the final goodbye to the Raj, when the last contingent of British troops passed through the Gateway of India in February 1948. Since Independence, Mumbai has prospered as India’s commercial capital and the population has grown tenfold, to more than sixteen million, although the modern city has also been plagued by a deadly mixture of communal infighting and outside terrorist attacks.

Tensions due to the increasing numbers of immigrants from other parts of the country, and the resultant overcrowding, has fuelled the rise of the extreme right-wing Maharashtrian party, the Shiv Sena, founded in 1966 by Bal Thackery, a self-confessed admirer of Hitler. Thousands of Muslim Mumbaikars were murdered by Hindu mobs following the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992–93, while in March 1993, ten massive retaliatory bomb blasts killed 260 people. The involvement of Muslim godfather Dawood Ibrahim and the Pakistani secret service was suspected, and both Ibrahim and the Pakistanis have been linked with subsequent atrocities. These include the bomb blasts in August 2003, which killed 107 tourists next to the Gateway of India; the subsequent explosions in July 2006, when coordinated bomb blasts simultaneously blew apart seven packed commuter trains across the city; and, most dramatically, the horrific attacks of November 26, 2008, during which a group of rampaging gunmen ran amok across the city, killing 172 people.

Despite these setbacks, Mumbai has prospered like nowhere else in India as a result of the country’s ongoing economic liberalization. Following decades of stagnation, the textiles industry has been supplanted by rapidly growing IT, finance, healthcare and back-office support sectors. Whole suburbs have sprung up to accommodate the affluent new middle-class workforce, with shiny shopping malls and car showrooms to relieve them of their income. Even so, corruption in politics and business has drained away investment from socially deprived areas. Luxury apartments in Bandra may change hands for half a million dollars or more, but an estimated seven to eight million people (just under fifty percent of Mumbai’s population) live in slums with no toilets, on just six percent of the land.

Read More
  • Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Victoria Terminus)
  • Mumbai or Bombay?
  • The 2008 Mumbai attacks: 26/11
  • Bombay duck
  • Dabawallahs
  • Dharavi: the £700 million slum
  • Performing arts in Mumbai
  • Bollywood
  • Accommodation
  • Eating
  • Bars and nightlife
  • Shopping
  • Sports