Even though I have visited India several times, this was my first trip to Mumbai.
I knew it was the target of a deadly terrorist attack on the Taj Hotel.
I knew it was the financial and business capital of India with a sprawling skyline.
While Mumbai was modern in many ways, I was aware it was still India with cows roaming the streets.
Since I mostly associated Mumbai with Indian movies, particularly Slumdog Millionaire, I decided I would visit the slums and see if it was similar to the movie.
I discovered that many of the connotations of a slum (crime-ridden, hopeless denizens) did not apply. Instead, I found it was bustling with many hard-working people pursuing their dreams. My visit there made me realize that every time I thought I knew something about Mumbai, my impression often changed by walking around the corner.
In January 2019, I finally was able to realize my dream of visiting the Kumbh Mela, the biggest religious festival in the world. I was able to stop in Mumbai for three days as part of the trip. I thought it would be informative to visit, but found it is a captivating city that I should have experienced long ago.
Mumbai is the most populated city in India with over 22 million. The city has had explosive growth over the last two decades with migrants seeking business opportunities…
…and millions of commuters going to their jobs through Chhatrapati Shivaji Train Station.
Mumbai provides about one-third of India’s tax income, processes about half the country’s foreign trade, and is the home for most of India’s largest corporations. Let’s not forget, Bollywood is the biggest producer of films in the world (sorry Hollywood !).
The city was called Bombay for much of the last four hundred years, possibly from the Portuguese phrase Bom Bahia meaning “Good Bay”. The name Mumbai has been used in the main local languages for at least as long. The name is a combination of a local Hindu goddess (Mumba) and mother (“Aai” in Marathi). The city changed its official name from Bombay to Mumbai in 1995.
Mumbai, like most metropolitan areas of India, has many languages spoken including Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati. I found I could get by with English, as many people have at least a rudimentary understanding, but deciphering the accents was often a challenge.
How did Mumbai grow from a fishing village to one of the world’s largest and most dynamic cities in less than 500 years?
In 1534 Portugal captured seven islands, including Mumbai, from the Sultan of Gujarat. In 1661, England obtained the islands through marriage with Portuguese royalty. Between 1782 and 1845 the British combined the original seven islands into one landmass through reclamation projects.
The British expanded their territory by annexing adjacent Salsette Island in the late 18th century. They later reclaimed more land and incorporated Mumbai into Salsette Island. Today Greater Mumbai is most of Salsette Island and the planned city of Navi Mumbai which is across the Thane River.
The city grew dramatically in the 19th century. In 1853, the British opened the first Indian railway starting from Mumbai, which lured many immigrants to fill new jobs. The textile industry boom in 1854 made Mumbai a major industrial hub in the country. Mumbai’s trade flourished with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, increasing the cargo ship traffic to the city’s large harbors.
Mumbai was important to the Indian Independence movement. In 1885, the Indian National Congress, India’s dominant political party for decades, was founded here. Mahatma Gandhi resided in the city pre-independence and his headquarters is a small museum worth visiting…
Mumbai’s economy has continued to prosper since independence. Textiles continued to be an important component, but not the mainstay, as there are substantial operations in light manufacturing, auto production, food processing, financial services, Bollywood and other industries.
Since I was there only a few days before going to the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, I took two tours from Mumbai Dream Tours. One was a small walking group through Dharavi and the other was a personal tour in a car through Mumbai City (southern part). The guides were knowledgeable, personable and spoke easy-to-understand fluent English.
On my way back to New York, I had a half-day stop in Mumbai and hired Altaf, who was also my Mumbai Dream Tour driver to drive me to the Kanheri Caves in the Sanjay Gandhi Park north of the airport.
Here is a photo of Altaf and Mumbai Dream Tour guide Arjun.
The following map shows some of the sites I visited in Mumbai City.
The Gateway of India
The Gateway of India, the unofficial symbol of Mumbai, looks over the harbor and the Arabian Sea.
The gateway was built over eleven years, next to the Taj Hotel. It was finished in 1924 and welcomed King George V and Queen Mary. Ironically, it was the site where the last soldiers from Great Britain left India after independence. I found the late afternoon to the early evening was best for photography, as the sun is shining on the land side of the gateway.
Colaba sits on a peninsula at the southern tip of Mumbai and is the tourist headquarters of the city. It is filled with restaurants, cafes, street vendors, shops and public art such as this baby sculpture by Chintan Upadhya.
The artist used vivid colors to paint traditional and contemporary iconography on the head of a happy baby.
Every evening, there is a gathering of people on the promenade next to the bay to watch the sunset.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus
The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus was built over ten years, finishing in 1888. It was originally called (what else?) Victoria Terminus. The station’s name was changed in 1996 to honor the 17th-century founder of the Maratha Empire.
This is an excellent example of Victorian Gothic Revival style, a subset of Indo-Saracenic which combines British, Italian, and Indian architectural features.
UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site because “its remarkable stone dome, turrets, pointed arches and eccentric ground plan are close to traditional Indian palace architecture.”
Crawford Market, officially Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Mandai, is within a colonial building and is a bustling food market.
Its official name comes from a social reformer from the 19th century who was an advocate for women’s education.
They sell wholesale fruits and vegetables…
I found the market to be tidy, clean and well organized, which is not the case for many comparable ones in India.
Mangaldas Market is the main cloth market in Mumbai City, offering material for sarees, dresses, shirts, pants, pillows, bed covers, furniture and many other things.
The vast selection from numerous small stalls within several buildings is well priced.
The Jama Mosque is a fairytale-complex made out of brick and stone.
The original one-story building was completed in 1802 and has expanded considerably since. It is known for its library of sacred books.
The Chor Bazaar got its name as the “thieves market” when the British mispronounced the original name of Shor Bazaar, meaning “noisy market”. There were two aspects of the area that stood out to me.
First were the streets where discarded cars are dismantled in order to sell the recycled parts.
Second, were the nearby streets with curio and antique shops.
I travel so much, I try not to buy things to clutter my home, but I could not resist snagging a small item here.
The house called Mani Bhavan was the residence of Mahatma Gandhi from 1917 to 1934, where he launched several of his social and political movements. Now a museum, it has documents, mementos and dioramas about his life. I liked this poster, which has a message that is especially important today.
Barack Obama visited in 2010 and Martin Luther King in the 1950s.
The Banganga Tank is situated in the wealthiest neighborhood of Mumbai. In the center is a post with an orange flag. While I was there, there were two gentlemen engaging in purification bathing in the small pool in the front.
The story goes that the orange flag was an arrow shot by the god Rama. When it embedded in the ground, the waters from the Ganges sprang into the tank. The tank was built in 1715.
Babu Amichand Panacai Jain Temple
Jain temples are generally known as the most beautiful in India and this is one of the most renowned.
Jainism is an Indian religion teaching a path to spiritual purity by practicing nonviolence to all living creatures.
In my primary and secondary education, I was taught there were five major religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism. Through my travels, particularly in India and Iran, I found this is not true. Along with Hinduism and Buddhism, Jainism is one of the three most ancient Indian religious traditions still in existence. There are perhaps four million adherents, mostly in India.
Hanging Gardens and Kamala Nehru Park
The Hanging Gardens were built in 1881 and occupy the top of Malabar Hill. In the middle, there is an oval walking path with plants shaped into animals.
Here I met a couple from southern India. They had children living in the United States and the gentlemen retired from a bank.
One odd thing about the park was the presence of vultures which I had not seen anywhere else in Mumbai.
The Mumbai Parsi community (followers of Zoroastrianism who immigrated to India from Iran over a millennium ago) continue with the tradition of disposing of dead bodies by exposing them to scavenger birds. This ritual takes place in the “Tower Of Silence” (Dakhma) which here is concealed by trees. However, in places where Dakhmas are not allowed, such as in Delhi, the dead are buried in community plots in Christian cemeteries. In Mumbai, this practice may end, not because of the Health Department, but because the population of vultures is declining from the loss of habitat. Of note, Freddie Mercury’s family of the rock group Queen were Parsi and from Zanzibar.
One of the main attractions in the gardens is the Boot House, inspired by the nursery rhyme “Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe”. Children can climb within the house and explore.
It is in the Kamala Nehru area of the gardens. She was the wife of the first Prime Minister of India and mother of Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma), the famous Prime Minister of India.
Mumbai is a city over 20 million people and relatively few washing machines. Dirty clothes are not a new phenomenon, so 140 years ago the open-air Dhobi Ghat was established. Dhobi means laundry or laundry-man. Ghat is a stairway or access to water. Each day the workers in Dhobi Ghat wash over half a million pieces of clothing for hotels, hospitals, and homes. They use stones, various soaps and water, involving a great deal of flogging of the clothes on the sides of small concrete pools.
Once the primitive but effective washing is done, the clothes are hung on the rooftops to dry.
There are many specialized processes, such as dedicated cleaning areas for hospital linen.
I spent a fascinating hour there admiring the efficiency of the process even though it was extremely labor-intensive.
Dharavi is reputedly the largest “slum” in Asia. I take issue with this pejorative term, but over a million people live there in small rooms and work in very low paid jobs. Walking through the maze of streets and alleys with a Mumbai Dream Tours guide (it would be too confusing without one), I noticed that many businesses are involved in recycling, including equipment I couldn’t identify.
There are over 100,000 “rag-pickers” who daily pick up tons of rubbish and bring it to Dharavi. Amazingly about 80% of the solid waste is recycled.
Dharavi is well known for its leather businesses: manufacturing, wholesale, retail and recycling scraps.
Dharavi has its internal economy which is interesting to observe…from vegetable markets…
…to small shops…
…to paint stores…
…to street vendors.
The most endearing images are the local folks, from a child at a doorway…
…to primary school children in uniforms…
…to college students casually, but fashionably, dressed with backpacks…
…to grandmothers still working…
…to pedestrians with varying degrees of body covering…
…to simple amusements for children.
The Kanheri (Black Mountain) Caves in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park are a complex of over 100 Buddhist caves built into a single hill. The caves were built between 1st century BC to 11th century AD encompassing the rise and decline of Buddhism in India.
Since there are so many caves, I went to the first few which are interesting and everyone visits…
…including Cave 3 with the giant Buddha.
I asked a security guard which ones are the best. His recommendations included Cave 90 with extensive wall sculptures…
…and Cave 34 with the ceiling painting.
Other caves worth visiting are 41 with the eleven-headed statue and 11 which is a dining hall.
As this is a place of great historical and religious significance, I expected all visitors to be focused on the cave details and history. Not really…I was not surprised when I saw each person of this couple taking selfies of themselves at the same time.
A very interesting aspect of the area is you can see some of the skylines of Mumbai in the distance.
There are so many activities and sites in Mumbai, it would be an achievement to experience all of the major ones. Some of the other popular sites include the Bollywood Tour, the Prince of Wales Museum, the Kala Ghoda District, the Haji Ali Mosque, and the Elephant Caves. These are on my list when I return next time. However, when I left Mumbai, my focus was on the Kumbh Mela, the subject of my next post.