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, traffic fumes and relentless crowds of India’s most dynamic, Westernized city.
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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 more than sixteen million people – India’s largest city and 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 most prolific in the world. Symbols of prosperity are everywhere: from the phalanx of office blocks clustered on Nariman Point, Maharashtrian 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 Maharashtran 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.
Places to visit in Mumbai
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 of Mumbai
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 Surat to the north, 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 export 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 governorship 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 coordinate 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 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 Thackeray, whose death and cremation in 2012 brought the state to a standstill. 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, when a group of rampaging gunmen ran amok across the city, killing 166 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.
Mumbai or Bombay?
In 1996 Bombay was renamed Mumbai, as part of a wider policy instigated by the right-wing Maharashtrian nationalist Shiv Sena Municipality to replace names of any places, roads and features in the city that had connotations of the Raj. The Shiv Sena asserted that the British term “Bombay” derived from the Marathi title of a local deity, the mouthless “Maha-amba-aiee”, Mumba Devi for short. In fact, historians are unanimously agreed that the Portuguese, who dubbed the harbour “Bom Bahia” (“Good Bay”) when they first came across it, were responsible for christening the site and that the later British moniker had nothing to do with the aboriginal Hindu earth goddess.
The name change was widely unpopular when it was first imposed, especially among the upper and middle classes, and non-Maharashtrian immigrant communities, who doggedly stuck to Bombay. A couple of decades on, however, “Mumbai” seems to have definitively taken root with the dotcom generation and even outgrown the narrow agenda of its nationalist originators – just as “Bombay” outlived the Raj.
Accommodation in Mumbai
Finding accommodation at the right price when you arrive in Mumbai can be a real problem. Budget travellers, in particular, can expect a hard time finding decent but affordable accommodation. The best low-cost places tend to fill up days or weeks in advance, so you should book well ahead to avoid a stressful, sweaty room hunt. Tariffs in mid-range and upmarket places are also especially high for India. State-imposed luxury tax (currently ten percent), and service charges levied by the hotel itself further bump up bills. A short ride from the railway stations Colaba makes a handy base, and is where the majority of foreign visitors head first. The streets around the Gateway of India are chock-full of accommodation, and the area also offers more in the way of food and entertainment than neighbouring districts. At the western edge of the downtown area, swanky Marine Drive (officially Netaji Subhash Chandra Marg) is lined with four- and five-star hotels taking advantage of the panoramic views over Back Bay and the easy access to the city’s commercial heart.
Eating in Mumbai
Mumbai is crammed with interesting places to eat, from glamorous rooftop lounge bars to hole-in-the-wall kebab shops. The cafés, bars and restaurants of Colaba encompass just about the full gamut of possibilities, while a short walk or taxi ride north, Kala Ghoda and Fort are home to some of the best cafés and restaurants in the city, including its last traditional Parsi diners, whose menus (and sometimes decor as well) have changed little in generations.
The city is renowned for distinctive street foods – especially bhel puri, a quintessentially Mumbai masala mixture of puffed rice, deep-fried vermicelli, potato, crunchy puri pieces, chilli paste, tamarind water, chopped onions and coriander. More hygienic, but no less ubiquitous, is pao bhaji, a round Portuguese-style bread roll served on a tin plate with griddle-fried, spicy vegetable stew, and kanji vada, savoury doughnuts soaked in fermented mustard and chilli sauce. And if all that doesn’t appeal, a pit-stop at one of the city’s hundreds of juice bars probably will. There’s no better way to beat the sticky heat than with a glass of cool milk shaken with fresh pineapple, mango, banana, chikoo (small brown fruit that tastes like a sweet pear) or custard apple. Just make sure they hold on the ice – which may be made with untreated water.
Mumbai’s size and inconvenient shape create all kind of hassles for its working population. One thing the daily tidal wave of commuters does not have to worry about, however, is where to find an inexpensive and wholesome home-cooked lunch. The members of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust (NMTSCT), known colloquially as “dabbawalas”, see to that. Every day, around 5000 dabbawalas deliver freshly cooked meals from 200,000 suburban kitchens to offices in the downtown area. Each is prepared early in the morning by a wife or mother while her husband or son is enduring the crush on the train. She arranges the rice, dhal, subzi, curd and parathas into cylindrical aluminium trays, stacks them on top of one another and clips them together with a neat little handle.
This tiffin box is the linchpin of the whole operation. When the runner calls to collect it in the morning, he uses a special colour code on the lid to tell him where the lunch has to go. At the end of his round, all the boxes are carried to the nearest railway station and handed over to other dabbawalas for the trip into town. Between leaving the cook and reaching its final destination, the tiffin box will pass through at least half a dozen different pairs of hands, carried on heads, shoulder-poles, bicycle handlebars and in the brightly decorated handcarts that glide with such insouciance through the midday traffic.
To catch them in action, head for CST (VT) or Churchgate stations around late morning, when the tiffin boxes arrive in the city centre to a chorus of “lafka! lafka” – “hurry! hurry!” – as the dabawallahs rush to make their lunch-hour deadlines. Nearly all come from the same small village near Pune and are related to one another.
One of the reasons the system survives in the face of competition from trendy fast-food outlets is that dabba lunches still work out a good deal cheaper, saving precious rupees for the middle-income workers who use the system. Competition has recently arisen from high-end takeaway joints in Mumbai, some of whom offer freshly prepared gourmet food delivered in tiffin tins. But the dabbawalas are not sitting on their heels in the face of the new competition, with a website to facilitate booking online and by SMS. An excellent initiative called “Share my Dabba” has also been launched to prevent wastage of uneaten food and distribute it to the needy.
Mumbai drinking and nightlife
Mumbaikars have an unusually easy-going attitude to alcohol; popping into a bar for a beer is very much accepted (for men at least), even at lunchtime. Colaba Causeway is the focus of the travellers’ and local students’ social scene but to sample the cutting edge of the city’s nightlife, you’ll have to venture to the suburbs, where the trendiest places have turned the city’s draconian licensing laws to their advantage by serving gourmet food to complement the range of imported beers, wines and cocktails.
Despite a 1.30am curfew (only clubs within hotels are allowed to carry on later), Mumbai’s clubbing scene remains the most full-on in India. Tiny, skin-tight outfits that show off razor-sharp abs and pumped-up pecs are very much the order of the day for boys, and spray-on mini-dresses and kitten heels are de rigueur for the girls. Dancefloors get as rammed as a suburban commuter train and the cover charges can be astronomical on weekends. Door policies and dress codes tend to be strict (“no ballcaps, no shorts, no sandals”), and, in theory, most clubs have a “couples-only” policy. In practice, if you’re in a mixed group and don’t appear sleazy you shouldn’t have any problems.
Shopping in Mumbai
Mumbai is a great place to shop and prices compare well with other Indian cities. Locally produced textiles and export-surplus clothing are among the best buys, as are handicrafts from far-flung corners of the country. In the larger shops, rates are fixed and credit cards are often accepted; elsewhere, particularly when dealing with street vendors, it pays to haggle. Uptown, the central bazaars are better for spectating than serious shopping.
Best time to visit Mumbai
As a coastal city, the temperature in Mumbai hovers around 30ºC for much of the year; the weather is most pleasant from October to March, when it’s not too humid. If possible, avoid visiting the city during April and May when it’s particularly hot and humid, and during the monsoon (June–Sept), which often causes flooding in the low-lying areas and disruptions to public transport.
Festivals in Mumbai
- Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (Feb)
The country’s largest multicultural festival is held across nine days, with hundreds of events covering literature, performing and visual arts, among many other things.
- Elephanta Festival (Feb/March)
Two- to three-day festival that sees classical Indian dance performed against the backdrop of the eponymous caves.
- Ganesh Chaturthi (Aug/Sept)
Ten days celebrating the beloved elephant-headed god Ganesha: street processions, loud music and lots of dancing culminate in idols of the god being immersed in the sea on the final day.
- Krishna Janmashtami (Aug)
The birthday of Lord Krishna sees mass celebrations in the city, including special decorations and chanting of hymns at temples and homes, and rangoli (colourful floor designs).
Mumbai’s main tourist enclave is the district of Colaba, at the far southern end of the peninsula. Even though it’s a long, sweaty drive from the airport and far from representative of the city as a whole, most visitors base themselves in the neighbourhood and rarely venture beyond it. As the home of the super-swanky Taj Mahal Palace hotel, as well as some of the city’s trendiest bars and restaurants, Colaba certainly has its glamorous side. But the dimly lit streets between its dozen or so blocks of dilapidated colonial tenements are also awash with junkies and touts, and after a day of being hissed at from doorways by sellers of “brown sugar” most people head for the bazaars and brighter lights of uptown. Colaba's chief sight is the Gateway of India, the landmark most iconic of Mumbai in the Indian imagination.
The Gateway of India
Commemorating the visit of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911, Colaba’s principal monument is the Gateway of India, India’s own honey-coloured Arc de Triomphe. Featured in countless Bollywood movies, it was built in 1924 by George Wittet, whose brief was to combine the grandeur of a Roman triumphal arch with decorative motifs from Hindu and Muslim architecture. The resulting structure, every bit a symbol of “power and majesty”, was originally intended to be a ceremonial disembarkation point for passengers alighting from the P&O steamers, but is, ironically, more closely associated with the moment in August 1947 when, amid much pomp and ceremony, the last remaining British soldiers on Indian soil slowly marched to their waiting troop ship as the Union Jack was lowered – to euphoric cheers from a vast crowd. The hour around sunset when thousands of visitors mill about the archway and plaza, munching bhel puri and having their photos taken, is the best time to visit.
Immediately north of Colaba, Kala Ghoda (“Black Horse”) district is named after the large equestrian statue of King Edward VII that formerly stood on the crescent-shaped intersection of MG Road and Subhash Chowk. Flanked by Mumbai’s principal museum and art galleries, the neighbourhood has in recent years been rebranded as a “cultural enclave” – as much in an attempt to preserve its many historic buildings as to promote the contemporary visual arts that have thrived here since the 1950s. Fancy stainless-steel interpretive panels now punctuate the district’s walkways, and on Sundays in December and January, the Kala Ghoda Fair sees portrait artists, potters and mehendi painters plying their trade in the car park fronting the Jehangir Art Gallery.
Northeast of Kala Ghoda stretches the yawning expanse of Oval Maidan, where impromptu cricket matches are held almost every day, against a backdrop of giant palms and even taller Raj-era buildings. Green during the monsoons and parched yellow for the rest of year, it is flanked on its eastern side by some of Mumbai’s finest Victorian piles, dating from the high point of British power. The travel writer Robert Byron famously described them as forming an “architectural Sodom”, claiming that “the nineteenth century devised nothing lower than the municipal buildings of British India. Their ugliness is positively daemonic”. Today, however, they appear not so much ugly as intriguing.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum
The Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, or Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya as it was renamed by the Shiv Sena, ranks among the city’s most distinctive Raj-era constructions. It stands rather grandly in its own gardens off MG Road, crowned by a massive white Mughal-style dome, beneath which one of India’s finest collections of paintings and sculpture is arrayed on three floors. The building was designed by George Wittet, of Gateway of India fame, and stands as the epitome of the hybrid Indo-Saracenic style – regarded in its day as an “educated” interpretation of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Gujarati architecture, mixing Islamic touches with typically English municipal brickwork.
The foreigners’ ticket price includes an audio tour, which you collect at the admissions kiosk inside, though you’ll probably find it does little to enhance your visit. The heat and humidity inside the building can also be a trial.
Dominating the east side of Oval Maidan is the Mumbai High Court, originally the Old Secretariat, which the Raj historian G.W. Forrest described in 1903 “a massive pile whose main features have been brought from Venice, but all the beauty has vanished in trans-shipment”. With its gigantic pitched roofs and balconies shaded by enormous rattan blinds, the building has changed little since. Take a peek inside, where lawyers in black gowns, striped trousers and white tabs bustle up and down the staircases, and office desks are piled high with dusty beribboned bundles of documents – a vision of Indian bureaucracy at its most Dickensian.
East of Oval Maidan stretches the spectacular Fort district, site of Mumbai’s original British settlement and the first East India Company fort – hence the name. The sloping ramparts, moats and fortified gateways were pulled down in the mid-nineteenth century following the demise of the French threat to British supremacy in India, but this is still the commercial hub of the southern city. It's a great area for aimless wandering, with plenty of old-fashioned cafés, department stores and street stalls crammed in between the imposing Victorian buildings.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Victoria Terminus)
Inspired by St Pancras Station in London, F.W. Stevens designed Victoria Terminus, the barmiest of Mumbai’s buildings, as a paean to “progress”. Built in 1887 as the largest British edifice in India, it’s an extraordinary amalgam of domes, spires, Corinthian columns and minarets that was succinctly defined by the journalist James Cameron as “Victorian-Gothic-Saracenic-Italianate-Oriental-St Pancras-Baroque”. In keeping with the current re-Indianization of the city’s roads and buildings, this icon of British imperial architecture has been renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, in honour of the famous Maratha warlord. The new name is a bit of a mouthful, however, and locals mostly still refer to it as VT (pronounced “vitee”).
Few of the three million or so passengers who fill almost a thousand trains every day notice the mass of decorative detail. A “British” lion and Indian tiger stand guard at the entrance, and the exterior is festooned with sculptures executed at the Bombay Art School by the Indian students of John Lockwood Kipling, Rudyard’s father. Among them are grotesque mythical beasts, monkeys, plants and medallions of important personages. To minimize the sun’s impact, stained glass was employed, decorated with locomotives and elephant images. Above it all, the statue of “Progress” stands atop the massive central dome.
A polished black marble memorial next to the station’s main entrance commemorates the 58 passengers and staff gunned down by terrorists during the 26/11 attack.
Central Bazaar District
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.
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, 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 pet section, the meat hall is not for the squeamish.
Netaji Subhash Chandra Marg, better known as Marine Drive, is Mumbai’s seaside prom, an eight-lane highway with a wide pavement built in the 1920s on reclaimed land. The whole 3km stretch – still often referred to by Mumbaikars as the “Queen’s Necklace” after the row of lights that illuminates its spectacular curve at night – is a favourite place for a stroll; the promenade next to the sea has uninterrupted views virtually the whole way along, while the peeling, mildewed Art Deco apartment blocks on the land side remain some of the most desirable addresses in the city.
Situated at the top of Marine Drive, Chowpatty Beach is a Mumbai institution. On evenings and weekends, Mumbaikars gather here in large numbers – not to swim (the sea is foul) but to wander, sit on the sand, eat kulfi and bhel puri, get their ears cleaned and gaze across the bay while the kids ride a pony or a rusty Ferris wheel. At the back of the beach, a bronze bust recalls the bravery of Tukaram Omble, the policeman who lost his life capturing terrorist Ajmal Kasab during the 2008 attacks. Omble held on to the gunman’s AK47 long enough for his colleagues to overpower the attacker, but was shot several times in the process and later died of his injuries.
Its shirt-tails swathed in greenery and brow bristling with gigantic skyscrapers, Malabar Hill, the promontory enfolding Chowpatty Beach at the north end of Back Bay, has been south Mumbai’s most desirable neighbourhood almost since the city was founded. The British were quick to see the potential of its salubrious breezes and sweeping sea views, constructing bungalows at the tip of what was then a separate island – the grandest of them the Government House, originally erected in the 1820s and now the seat of the serving governor of Maharashtra, Raj Bhavan.
Although none of Malabar’s landmarks can be classed as unmissable, its Hindu shrines and surviving colonial-era residences form an interesting counterpoint to the modernity towering on all sides. Bal Gangadhar Kher Marg (formerly Ridge Road) is the district’s main artery. You can follow it from Mumbai’s principal Jain Temple, with its mirror-encrusted interior dedicated to Adinath, all the way to the tip of the headland, where the famous Walukeshwar Temple stands as the city’s oldest Hindu shrine surviving in situ. According to the Ramayana, Rama fashioned a lingam out of sand to worship Shiva here, which over the centuries became one of the Konkan’s most important pilgrimage centres. Today’s temple, erected in 1715 after the original was destroyed by the Portuguese, is of less note than the Banganga Tank below it – a rectangular lake lined by stone ghats and numerous crumbling shrines.
The Towers of Silence
High on Malabar Hill, screened from prying eyes by a high wall and dense curtain of vegetation (and strictly closed to visitors), stand the seven Towers of Silence, where the city’s dwindling Zoroastrian community (better known as Parsis) dispose of their dead. Pollution of the four sacred elements (air, water, earth and, holiest of all, fire) contradicts the most fundamental precepts of the 2500-year-old Parsi faith, first imported to India when Zoroastrians fled from Sassanid Persia to escape Arab persecution in the seventh century. So instead of being buried or cremated, the bodies are laid out on top of open-topped, cylindrical towers, called dokhmas, for their bones to be cleaned by vultures and the weather. The remains are then placed in an ossuary at the centre of the tower.
Central Mumbai: Mahalakshmi to Byculla
The centre of Mumbai, beyond Malabar Hill, is mostly made up of working-class neighbourhoods: a huge mosaic of dilapidated tenements, markets and industrial eyesores left over from the Victorian cotton boom. For relief from the urban cauldron, residents travel west to the seashore to worship at the Mahalakshmi Temple (if they’re Hindus) or the island tomb of Haji Ali (if they’re Muslims). Both make great excursions from south Mumbai, and can be combined with a foray across town to the recently revamped Dr Bhau Dadji Lad Museum in Byculla, calling en route at the Mahalakshmi dhobi ghats – one of the city’s more offbeat sights.
Mumbai’s busy Mahalakshmi Temple, dedicated to the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity – the city’s most sought-after attributes – stands on the shoreline off the frenetic Bhulabhai Desai intersection. The approach is via an alley lined with stalls selling spectacular floral offerings and devotional pictures. A heavy security cordon has to be crossed before entering the main shrine, where a statue of the devi glittering with gold jewellery and bangles, and seated astride a tiger and demon, is propitiated by a constant stream of worshippers. Donations pile so high that the temple pujaris run a money-spinning sideline reselling them. While you’re here, find out what your future holds by joining the huddle of devotees pressing rupees onto the rear wall of the shrine room. If your coin sticks, you’ll be rich.
Haji Ali’s Tomb
Occupying a small islet in the bay just north of the Mahalakshmi Temple is the mausoleum of the Muslim saint, Afghan mystic Haji Ali Bukhari. The site is a great place to head on Thursday and Friday evenings, when large crowds gather around the promontory to watch the sunset and listen to live qawwali music.
The tomb is connected to the mainland by a narrow concrete causeway, only passable at low tide. When not immersed in water, its entire length is lined with beggars supplicating passers-by and chanting verses from the Koran. Non-Muslims are welcome, but all visitors need to keep well covered (a headscarf should be worn by women).
If Mumbai is notorious for its poverty, then the city is no less famous for the glittering wealth of its richest inhabitants, and they don’t come richer than Mukesh Ambani, chairman of the Reliance Industries petrochemical corporation. With a net worth of US$21 billion, Ambani is officially India’s richest man, and his recently built home on Altamount Rd in the Cumballa Hill district of south-central Mumbai is said to be the world’s most valuable piece of real estate. The futuristic, 27-storey skyscraper – known as Antilia – enjoys a majestic view over the Arabian Sea on one side, and Dharavi slum area on the other. Completed in 2010, it cost an estimated US$500–600 million to build, and is valued at somewhere between US$1–2 billion. Six floors are given over to a 168-car parking area. The building boasts nine elevators, three helipads, a glittering ballroom with solid silver balustrades and ceilings festooned with crystal chandeliers, hanging gardens of hydroponic plants and an ice room where the Ambanis can beat the summer heat in flurries of man-made snow.
Reaction to this behemoth on Mumbai’s skyline has been mixed, to say the least. While most of the locals and sightseers regard it with wide-eyed wonder, members of India’s intelligentsia – from industrialist J.R. Tata to novelist Arundhati Roy – have been less than complimentary, deploring the Ambanis’ apparent lack of social conscience.
Just beyond the northern limits of Mumbai, Gorai is a low-lying, sparsely populated peninsula separated at its tip from the mainland by tidal creek. Among the city’s residents, this isolated green belt, settled by Portuguese priests and Catholic converts in the sixteenth century, is famous for two starkly contrasting attractions: if you’ve a day to kill in Mumbai between flights, and can’t face exploring the city, either the Esselword amusement park complex or adjacent Global Vipassana Pagoda might be worth considering – though be warned that getting to and from Gorai from downtown can take upwards of two hours at peak times.
An hour’s ride northeast across Mumbai harbour from Colaba, the island of Elephanta offers the best escape from the seething claustrophobia of the city – as long as you time your visit to avoid the weekend deluge of noisy day-trippers. Populated only by a small fishing community, it was originally known as Gherapura, the “city of Ghara priests”, until the island was renamed in the sixteenth century by the Portuguese in honour of the carved elephant they found at the port – now on display outside the Dr Bhau Dadji Lad Museum in Byculla. Its chief attraction is its unique cave temple, whose massive Trimurti (three-faced) Shiva sculpture is as fine an example of Hindu architecture as you’ll find anywhere.
On the principle that laughter is the best medicine, Mumbai doctor Madan Kataria and his wife Madhuri – aka “the Giggling Gurus” – have created a new kind of therapy: hasya (laughter) yoga. There are now more than three hundred Laughter Clubs in India and many more worldwide; around fifty thousand people join the Laughter Day celebrations in Mumbai on the first Sunday of May each year, with tens of thousands more participating in seventy countries worldwide.
Fifteen-minute sessions start with adherents doing yogic breathing while chanting “Ho ho ha ha”, which develops into spontaneous “hearty laughter” (raising both hands in the air with the head tilting backwards), “milkshake laughter” (everyone laughs while making a gesture as if they are drinking milkshake), and “swinging laughter” (standing in a circle saying “aaee-oo-eee-uuu”) before the rather fearsome “lion laughter” (extruding the tongue fully with eyes wide open and hands stretched out like claws, and laughing from the tummy). The session then winds up with holding hands and the chanting of slogans (“We are the laughter club member [sic]…Y…E…S!”).
Laughter Clubs take place between 6am and 7am at various venues around the city, including Colaba Woods in Cuffe Parade and Juhu Beach. For the full story, go to laughteryoga.org.
Film is massive in India. The country produces around 1200 movies annually, half of them in the studios of north Mumbai. Known as “Bollywood”, the home of the All-India cinema industry has experienced a sea change over the past decade, as its output has started to reach mass audiences of expat Indians in Europe and North America. The resulting global revenues have financed much higher production standards and a completely new approach to plot, acting styles and scripts – rendering redundant the old cinematic stereotypes of the so-called “masala format”, which dominated Indian film for decades. Big song-and-dance numbers still very much have their place in the modern Bollywood blockbuster, as does melodrama. But the overall tone these days tends to be much more sophisticated, with glamorous foreign locations, more plausible story lines, cutting-edge camera work and even state-of-the-art CGI deployed to wow cinemagoers at home and abroad. Much of it is now developed in-house, helmed by VFX studios like Red Chillies.
Whereas in the past, hit movies tended to incorporate a bit of everything – romance, laughs, fight scenes, chases, lurid baddies, a set of instantly recognizable stock characters and convoluted plots that emphasized traditional values – now the industry is making big bucks from more nuanced genre flicks. The highest grossing movies of the past decade were a cross-border comedy drama (Bajrangi Bhaijaan; 2015); a sci-fi comedy satirizing religious dogma (PK; 2014); a caper (Dhoom 3; 2013); an action flick (Ek Tha Tiger; 2012); and a love story (Bodyguard; 2011) – radical departures from the Bollywood mainstream. Though “commercial” film-makers like Karan Johar and Rohit Shetty continue to churn out tried-and-tested formulaic films, a crop of directors like Vishal Bhardwaj, Dibakar Banerjee and Anurag Kashyap are unafraid to experiment with themes.
Some elements, however, remain consistent. Not even the most serious Indian movie can do without at least two or three “item numbers” – the set-piece song-and-dance sequences that give all hit films their essential anthems. And the cult of the Bollywood star shows no sign of abating. A-listers in the industry enjoy almost god-like status (only the country’s top cricketers come close to matching their exalted mass appeal). Images of the current heartthrobs appear everywhere, from newspapers to cheesy TV ads.
At the top of the heap stands the veteran, white-bearded éminence grise of Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan, whose record-breaking career as a screen hero saw a startling revival in the 2000s after he came out of de facto retirement to host India’s version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, called KBC (Kaun Banega Crorepati). Only a notch behind him comes rival Shah Rukh Khan, the smouldering lead of countless romantic blockbusters and the man the Los Angeles Times dubbed “the world’s biggest movie star” in 2011. SRK has great overseas appeal, and the Khan trilogy is completed by Bollywood bad boy Salman Khan and Aamir Khan, the actor-director-producer behind hits such as Lagaan, Ghajini, 3 Idiots and PK. Other leading men of the moment include action stars Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgan, dancing sensation Hrithik Roshan, newcomer Ranveer Singh and talented Ranbir Kapoor who represents the fourth generation of the illustrious Kapoor clan, India’s first family of cinema.
Not surprisingly in such an image-obsessed industry, female leads tend to have a shorter shelf life than their male counterparts, although contemporary starlets such as Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, Katrina Kaif, Anushka Sharma and Kangna Ranaut are tackling increasingly demanding roles in an attempt to prove themselves as serious actresses.
Even so, their off-screen antics and romantic dalliances continue to capture more attention than their acting skills, as do any public appearance of India’s biggest celebrity couple, star actor Abhishek Bachchan (son of Amitabh) and his wife Aishwarya Rai. A former Miss World whose extreme beauty and svelte figure are often credited as spearheading the crossover of Bollywood into Western cinemas, Aishwarya has maintained her great popularity despite having had her first child in 2011. The career trajectory of Bollywood actresses has tended to be downwards after marriage (the assumption being that Indian audiences aren’t prepared to accept a married woman, or even worse, a mother, as a romantic heroine). But with several other Bollywood queens – Madhuri Dixit Nene, Karisma Kapoor, Rani Mukherjee and Vidya Balan –making comebacks after starting a family, the times may well be changing.