Lining the anarchic jumble of streets beyond Lokmanya Tilak Road is Mumbai’s bustling central bazaar district – a fascinating counterpoint to the wide and Westernized streets of downtown. In keeping with traditional divisions of guild, caste and religion, most streets specialize in one or two types of merchandise. If you lose your bearings, the best way out is to ask someone to wave you in the direction of Mohammed Ali Road, the busy road through the heart of the district (now surmounted by a gigantic flyover), from where you can hail a cab.
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Crawford (aka Mahatma Phule) Market, ten minutes’ walk north of CST, is an old British-style covered market dealing in just about every kind of fresh food and domestic animal imaginable. Before venturing inside, stop to admire the friezes wrapped around its exterior – a Victorian vision of sturdy-limbed peasants toiling in the fields during his time, as designed by Rudyard Kipling’s father, Lockwood, principal of the Bombay School of Art in 1865.
The main hall is still divided into different sections: pyramids of polished fruit and vegetables down one aisle, sacks of nuts or oil-tins full of herbs and spices down another. Around the back of the market, in the atmospheric wholesale wing, the pace of life is more hectic. Here, noisy crowds of coolies mill about with large reed-baskets held high in the air (if they are looking for work) or on their heads (if they’ve found some). Animal lovers should steer well clear of the market’s eastern wing, where all kinds of unfortunate creatures are crammed into undersized cages. Beyond the pets section, the meat hall is not for the squeamish.