A love affair which began 16 years back and shows no sign of abating. Bombay, Mumbai or Aamchi Mumbai, by whatever name you call it, remains the City of Dreams for so many and for me.
On one side is the glitz and glamour of the rich and the famous and Bollywood (India’s movie industry) and on the other side is the seedy underbelly fed by gangsters and mafia. It is fascinating to be a part of the dichotomy of Mumbai. A city so full of life, bursting at its seams with people, that is strangely liberating, if sometimes not so forgiving.
When I started writing this post, I had intended it to be a post which would showcase all the attractions Mumbai has. But then I realised Mumbai is not just a city, it is an experience.
An experience for which I find it difficult to be objective, simply because I love the place so much. It is almost like when two people are in love, and turn a blind eye to each other’s faults. Well, that’s what Mumbai means to me. And it is a true love affair, one of a kind that engulfs you unawares. It started with hate and ended in complete acceptance and love without me even realising it.
Mumbai can be overwhelming and so before understanding the things that the place has to offer, the essence of the city has to be felt. Too many people get daunted by the city which never sleeps. Stay put and it will grow on you like no other place.
The origin of the name “Bombay” may be traced to several theories. Some say that it is derived from the Portuguese words “Bom” meaning good and “Bahia” meaning bay or harbour. According to tradition, the name “Mumbai” is derived from the name of the patron Goddess of the Koli fisherfolk, the original inhabitants of the region – Mumbadevi.
I had my first brush with Mumbai in the year 2003 for an interview for a potential job. As the train entered the city, I could feel myself getting a tad nervous. Rows after rows of buildings with apartments the size of pigeon holes passed by.
And the crowds. Oh the crowds! As the train made stops at some designated stations, the sheer number of people and the chaos totally overwhelmed me. I had never seen anything like this, being from a small city as I was.
There was nothing remarkable about this trip except for the fact that while returning to my city, I made up my mind to apply for a transfer to a place near to my hometown, since the organisation had offices at many places in India.
January 2004 was when I actually got the job offer and the joining was in Mumbai. The initial months passed in a haze. I was staying in a small flat with four other people, all coming from different corners of the country and cultures. It took a while but finally we adjusted well, a mini India in mega Mumbai!
Travel was arduous, taking more than an hour and a half on both sides, and involved walking, bus, train and walking in the same order. The train and bus journey was strenuous to say the least, with barely enough space to stand.
The first six months left me totally drained while I was trying to balance my work and life, realising I had no time left for anything else. Frustrated, I applied for a transfer since I felt that I won’t be able to cope up with this fast paced city, never for once believing that this would be the city which would always be my home.
As luck would have it, I fell in love at the same time with my now husband while simultaneously falling in love with the Vada Pao :-).
I also realised that all the while hating the chaos and the travel time and the crowds, I had started to appreciate the clock work precision with which the city functioned. The aah so cool monsoons. This place laced with so much history but with such a modern vibe. The safety it offered to women. The absolutely vibrant food scene. A truly cosmopolitan city, which also opened my mind so that I started appreciating different cultures. I had made friends with some of my colleagues and life wasn’t looking so bad after all.
One day, very quietly, I withdrew my transfer request, determined to make it in this amazing city. I decided to stay on and enjoy myself. As they say, to make the most out of it.
And saw many faces of the city. And just fell in love with it. And just stayed back. And so much so, that never felt like moving to another place. The one place which has given me everything (well, almost) my heart ever desired. And most of all, the freedom to just be.
“Can’t speak about Mumbai without speaking about the first thing which comes into mind when I think of it. The indomitable spirit of its people, to fight the adversities and come out of it smiling.
While people normally go around their lives in a clinical way, the city comes together like anything in times of crisis. The class divides are forgotten, the slums and highrises are forgotten, it becomes just about surviving the crisis, and that too in a most humane way”.
Well, so that’s a bit of my own story. Going by the number of experiences the place has to offer, it would not be possible to capture everything in one post. And so I have decided to write this post about the experiences which totally captivated me and made me the Mumbaikar I am.
UNESCO World Heritage sites
Mumbai has it all. A home to multiple UNESCO World Heritage Sites, right from the majestic and stunning Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus or the Victoria Terminus, and the different Victorian and Art deco buildings around Oval Maidan and the ancient Elephanta Caves.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus
I wouldn’t say that my first introduction to this majestic and stunning UNESCO World Heritage site, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST or VT as it is also known) started on the right note.
I still remember the first day I stepped inside the station and got totally overwhelmed by the crazy crowds and the constant buzz of local trains coming and going. I felt totally lost. And now I can’t imagine Mumbai without its chaos and noise which never ever lets you feel lonely.
This not just a railway station, but also one of the iconic structures which have come to define Mumbai.
Formerly also known as Victoria Terminus (VT), CST was built in the late nineteenth century by the Colonial British and is the most remarkable of the Gothic buildings which were built in Mumbai between 1860 and 1900.
The trip to the Elephanta Caves is best combined with one to the Gateway of India. The islands were named so after a huge statue of an elephant which used to stand at the entrance.
I have been to the place twice now, each time coming back more impressed than before. Firstly the journey till the island is very nice with the gentle sea breeze caressing your face. And then the temples in the island are nothing but stunning.
Beautiful rock cut temples dating back to somewhere between 5th and 8th centuries CE, dedicated to the Shaiva Shiva Sect, on this Island known as Elephanta or Gharapuri (city of caves) take you through an amazing journey of history.
Among all the temples sculpted out of basalt rock, the one which really strikes to me as unique is the imposing 17 feet tall sculpture of ‘Trimurti’ (or three faces of Shiva) in Cave Number 1. However, there are actually five faces of Shiva and it is also known as Panchmukhi Shiva or Sadashiva. But only the three faces are visible. Cave No. 1 has most of the sculptures while the other caves do not have many sculptures.
The history buffs will have a field day here. I have often wondered as to the level of craftsmanship which would have been required to carve out such sculptures from large slabs of stone without having the tools and machines at disposal as we have now.
|–Boats leave from the Gateway of India every half hour or so from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased from the official booking counter for luxury boats or ordinary boats.|
-Expect to pay about 200 rupees ($2.79) per person for the round trip.
For 10 rupees extra, payable aboard the boat, you can sit on the upper deck. It is recommended for the best views (including the iconic Taj Palace Hotel and Gateway of India in one frame).
-Once you arrive at the jetty on the island, you’ll need to walk up about 120 steps to reach the entrance of the caves. Alternatively, it’s possible to take the toy train (10 rupees per person) or be carried on a chair tied to two wooden poles (Rs. 2000/- approximately). Climbing some stairs is unavoidable, though, so do consider this.
Victorian and Art Deco Buildings around Oval Maidan
The Oval Maidan offers a spectacular ensemble of Victorian Gothic buildings on its eastern side, and another impressive ensemble of Art Deco buildings on its western side as a testimony to the modernization phases that Mumbai went through leading to a modern independent India in 1947.
Gateway of India
Built to commemorate the arrival of King George V, Emperor of British India and Queen Mary in 1911, this is the most iconic structure of Mumbai. It is another story that they got to see just the cardboard model of the monument and the proper construction which began in 1915 ended only in 1924, when it was also opened for the public.
On February 28, 1948, the First Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry, the last troops to leave India post Indian independence passed through the Gateway with a 21-Gun salute, signalling the end of the British Rule.
You can see this monument upclose and personal and spend some time there. However, if you really want to appreciate the beauty of this imposing structure, get aboard a ferry which will take you to a tour of the Arabian Sea and while on your way back, you will be greeted with the most stunning views of the Gateway, in its full glory, against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal Palace & Hotel.
While visiting the Gateway, do take a moment to visit the iconic Taj Mahal Palace & Hotel, if only from outside.
The Taj Mahal Palace & Hotel
This iconic hotel also known as the ‘diamond by the sea’ next to the Arabian Sea, occupies a place of pride amongst the topmost architectural marvels of Mumbai and has an interesting story behind its construction.
The story goes that Jamshedji Tata was refused entry at the elite Watson Hotel which limited it self to serving only white patrons. However, this story has been challenged by many and it is said that Jamshedji had built this hotel to give the people an experience worthy of Bombay.
The hotel opened its gates to guests on December 16, 1902, much before the foundation for the Gateway of India was laid and used to be the first sight for ships calling at the Bombay port before the Gateway even came into existence.
|-Construction of the Taj cost over Rs. 4 crores. The hotel is a six-story building with a central Moorish dome and magnificent architecture of the Indo-Saracenic style.|
-Was the first building in Bombay to be lit by electricity.
-The hotel acquired an ‘Image Trademark’ under the Trade Mark Act 1999 for its architectural design. This is the first ever building in the country which got an intellectual property rights protection under the Image trademark. With this, 114-year-old Taj Mahal Palace building proudly joins the small group of trademarked buildings like Eiffel Tower, Empire Estate Building and Sydney Opera House Building.
-The hotel boasts of many firsts in the Indian hospitality industry – it used American fans, German elevators, Turkish baths and English butlers to give a great experience to its patrons.
While exploring the Colaba area and surroundings, there are some places which one must try out for food and the happening vibes, which is so typical of Mumbai.
I would strongly suggest that please have the famed Prawns, Chicken Tikka or Paneer Malai at the iconic Cafe Mondegar, popularly known as Mondy’s. This is an old cafe with a very happening vibe and a great place to unwind with great food and some lovely beer.
Right behind Taj is Bade Miya (“elder brother”) , an iconic food stall established in 1946, by Mohammad Yaseen who came to Bombay at the age of 13 from Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh. It started out as a small makeshift kabab outlet and now is a permanent food stall at the original location.
The place is very popular and it is forever crowded. No fancy dining this, but food is heavy on taste and soul. It is famous for its kebabs, mutton bheja fry(goat brain) and mutton bhuna, which is my personal favourite and teamed with a roomily roti, makes for an absolutely delicious meal. Since the seating arrangements are basic and the place is always crowded, it is not uncommon to see people eating the food on the hoods of their cars.
This hip and iconic cafe was made even more famous when it appeared in the popular book Shantaram authored by Gregory David Roberts. And then it came into limelight because of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack where it was an early site of gunfire. Many people were killed and the restaurant was extensively damaged. The bullet marks on the wall still remain, a tell tale sign of the terror attack.
These incidences apart, the cafe has a history of its own. Founded in 1871 by Iranis, it is one of the few surviving Irani cafes doing well and is almost always crowded. What is interesting is that the cafe started out as a whole sale cooking oil stores but over a period of time, has been a store, a cafe and a pharmacy and hence the name “Leopold Cafe & Stores”.
The place has a vibrant vibe and you will find a mix of foreign tourists as well as the local people enjoying the food and drinks. Your attention will definitely go to the wall covered with Harley Davidson metal plates and to the old Art Deco which reflects the fun vibe of the cage.
The food is decent but the Chicken Stroganoff and the Butter Chicken stand out. The appetisers, burgers and pastas are quite delicious. They also have a separate menu for Chinese food.
Britannia and Company
Relish the Berry Pulao and the caramel custard at this 97 year old Parsi restaurant, located at a quiet street in Ballard Estate. Its nice to see the the very old but very cheerful owner of the restaurant, Boman Kohinoor (now Late, he passed away in 2019) go around chatting with the diners and taking their orders.
The place has an old world charm and the ambience of the place takes you to another era.
Considering the kind of reputation this place has, I would say that the meals are priced very reasonably. The place opens only for four hours everyday and is almost always crowded, so plan well when you want to visit this place.
Dr. Bhau Daji Lad (Formerly Victoria & Albert) Museum
The Museum is Mumbai’s oldest Museum and opened to the Public in 1857. It also won UNESCO’s international Award of Excellence for cultural conservation in 2005. You will find the museum while you go towards CSMT station surrounded by lush tropical gardens.
The museum is home to collections that include the decorative arts, paintings, rare books and photographs, models and dioramas that document the life of the people of Mumbai and the history of the city from late 19th to the early 20th century.
The beaches of Mumbai and surroundings
Marine Drive – The Queens Necklace
To tell you the truth, I have a personal bias towards Marine Drive, since I always remember the day when my hubby proposed to me on a beautiful starry night, on Marine Drive. I have gone there multiple times, sometimes to have some fun with friends, and sometimes to just enjoy the sight of the beautiful sun going down, in solitude.
To truly experience the beauty of Marine Drive, take a walk at the Promenade, a lovely stretch of foreshore that hugs the Arabian Sea on the southern edges of Bombay. When the streetlights come up, it transforms the seafront into a dazzling arc of glittering lights, making it look like the ‘Queens Necklace’.
On the other side of the promenade are very old but beautiful Art Deco buildings and five star hotels like the Trident. Evenings are pleasant and its worth your while to sit on the promenade for a while and see the sun go down. Have some cutting chai and Bhutta (Corn on the Cob) and enjoy the bliss.
When at Marine Drive and in the mood for some awesome pizzas, I always make it a point to go to the Pizza by the bay, a beautiful restaurant having a view of the sea and serving truly amazing pizzas. Their breakfast menu is also pretty good and you can enjoy it at leisure.
If you are in the mood for an ice cream, do visit the K Rustom ice cream shop at nearby Church Gate Area, a quaint Iranian ice-cream parlour serving delectable ice-cream sandwich since 1953.
The shop is modern, in line with the times, yet has retained its old world charm. This iconic ice-cream is served as a thick slab sandwiched between wafer biscuits and wrapped in thin butter paper. Its most popular flavours, walnut crunch and kesar pista are also layered with bits of walnut, caramelised sugar, and pista respectively.
Walk along to reach the Chowpatty beach, which comes alive on weekends with street entertainment and Mumbai’s beloved street food like pav bhaji, bhel puri, chaat and gola.
While at Chowpatty, do make it a point to try the freshly squeezed juices, milkshakes, wraps, rolls, pasta, and sandwiches at Bachelorrs, a small eatery having a special place in the hearts of Mumbaikars. The cherry on the cake is that it is open till 1:30 AM.
Worli Seaface and Haji Ali
Though not a beach, its always worth your time enjoying the peace at the Worli Sea Face. Visit early in the morning or evening to enjoy the pleasant sea breeze. The sea face has an open gym and frequently has people pumping up some iron and enjoying the spectacular view on offer.
Take a picture with the statue of RK Laxman’s The Common Man and of the beautiful structure of the Sea Link.
If you have time, do make it a point to visit the Haji Ali Dargah, a beautiful mosque floating in the middle of sea. The mosque was built in 19th century and houses the tomb of Saint Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari.
It is said that Saint Haji Ali, while on a pilgrimage to the Holy city of Mecca died, and miraculously, his casket floated across the sea and ended up on the shores of Mumbai. This is how this beautiful monument having glimpses of Into-Islamic and Mughal architecture came into being.
The Mirror work in the structure with stunning Kaleidoscopic patterns and the marble pillars make for a pretty sight.
A visit to this beautiful mosque cannot be complete without a visit to the Haji Ali Juice Centre, famous for its sandwiches and awesome shakes. However, what takes the cake for me is the mixed fruit cream, which tastes just heavenly.
Juhu Beach and surroundings
And now lets talk about the most happening beach, the Juhu Beach. I still remember my multiple visits to this vibrant place, to be honest more for the street food than the beach.
Have great tasting and reasonably priced street food like bhelpuri, pani puri, pav bhaji with ice gola at this place. Juhu incidentally, is also famous for being home to a lot of Bollywood movie stars.
Spend some time enjoying your pav bhaji and watching the orange hued sun go down.
If you are into celebrity gazing, then Juhu is the place where a lot of superstars of the Indian Hindi Film Industry or ‘Bollywood’ as it is known, reside. Legendary actor Amitabh Bachchan’s residence is at Juhu. He lives in a Bungalow named ‘Jalsa’ and crowds of fans gather on Sundays to see him when he makes an appearance to greet his fans.
Want some peace and experience spirituality? Walk down from the beach or take an auto rickshaw to reach the ISKCON temple or the Sri Sri Radha Rasabihari ji temple, one of the beautiful temples of Lord Sri Krishna. And if you like simple soul food, treat yourself to sumptuous vegetarian food at Govinda Restaurant, part of the temple complex. They have a reasonable priced buffet and the Indian fare is quite delicious.
While on beaches, it is important to understand that monsoons are a different experience in Mumbai. They bring a semblance of serenity to this otherwise chaotic and vibrant city. The beaches look stunning during the monsoons and make you fall in love with the city even more.
And you might ask how are they best enjoyed? Well, just have a Cutting chai with hot Kanda Bhajiya (fritters) or the ubiquitous vada pao. If at the beach, nothing like the corn cobs or bhuttas from the roadside stalls.
Have Vada Pao
This is actually a no-brainer..
Meaning ‘thieves market’, this historic shopping district is in the heart of Mumbai, on Mutton street. Apparently the street was nicknamed ‘shor bazaar’, meaning noisy market, but was mispronounced and so gained its more notorious-seeming moniker.
Go if you want to buy beautiful lamps, brassware, antique decorative pieces, vintage cameras and records. And please don’t forget to bargain. Don’t pay more than half the price quoted for the goods. The streets here can get really crowded so you just need to be careful of pickpockets. The best way to reach here is to take the local train till Grant Road and then just walk a bit.
The Mumbai local
If you haven’t experienced this, then you really haven’t seen Mumbai. Mumbai local trains ferry around 7.5 million commuters daily over its train lines spread over 390 Kilometres.
Well, my first time and in fact many times in the local train was very scary. You would keep on wondering whether you would be able to get inside the train because of the unimaginable crowds. Well, no reason to worry since the crowd would push you in when you are trying to get and push you out when your station arrives.
And you just have to catch that 7:50 local. If you miss your train, your whole schedule will go for a toss. It teaches you the value of time, how each second counts. I definitely learnt it the hard way.
A seat is a prized possession. People adjust and somehow make space for a fourth person in a seat meant for 3 people. I have seen friendships developing in trains.It is not surprising to see women cutting vegetables and chattering, fully utilising the time available to them while travelling back home. Some groups sing devotional songs as some play cards.
It would do you good to spend a little more on the first class ticket to enjoy a comfortable ride. You will still get a crowded compartment albeit with seats which are slightly more comfortable.
Ganesha or the elephant God is Mumbai’s very own much loved God and every year all Mumbaikar’s come together to celebrate the Ganesh Chaturthi festival with full fervour. Ganesha is worshipped by the Hindus before starting any new task or auspicious activity.
Commencing on Chaturthi or the 4th day of the waxing moon phase, the festival ends on the 14th day on which the idol of the deity is immersed in the beaches and lakes of Mumbai.
Mammoth and royally decorated idols of Lord Ganesha are displayed in beautifully decorated pandals throughout the city. You have to see the crowds and the energy with which they chant ‘Ganpati Bappa Mourya’ to actually believe the extent of enthusiasm and zest with which the festival is celebrated.
And while we are talking of Ganesha, how can I forget the sacred Siddhi Vinayak Temple, in Prabha Devi area. The temple, which is dedicated to Ganesha, is one of the most popular religious sites in the city of Mumbai.
The original temple was a modest 3.6 sq.m. brick structure which was then renovated into a building due to the generous donation by a rich Agri woman named Deubai Patil.
Today, it is one of the richest temples in the India with the inner roof of its sanctum being plated with gold. The Ganesha idol was carved out of a single black stone and is quite unique since Ganesha’s trunk is to the right instead of left.
This one is really popular and yours truly also makes it a point to go and seek the deity’s blessings from time to time. If you feel the need to spend some time here, do go and visit.
Well, on this note, I conclude my first post on Mumbai. I think I could have gone on and gone, but as they say, all things must come to an end. I have tons of more experiences to share about Mumbai which I will be shortly sharing in my other posts.
As one of my friend’s said about Mumbaikars – “While some find us running, we are born to run and while some find it stinky, we still breathe. We are Bombayites or Mumbaikars.” Well yes, life is fast paced but equally rewarding. Mumbai will always be the city of dreams.
Thank you to my friends Richa, Manjula, Sheetal, Saroj, Purba, Shilpi and Neeti. This post would not have been possible without their inputs and thoughts.
Thanks to Amit, Richa, Deena, Kranti, Chaitali, Garima, Shinod, Amol and Laxman, many more other friends for making me love this city even more :-). I owe so many memories to you all.
If you have been to Mumbai or have stayed there, how was your experience? Do share it.
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