Once you’ve survived the initial shock of Mumbai it can be easy to find yourself wondering just where to begin. Built over seven islands and the reclaimed land in between the area that would become Mumbai has been inhabited in some form or another since the stone age. From Koli fishing villages to the financial capital of a space faring civilisation Mumbai is steeped in history.
During it’s time it has had many rulers including the Mauryans, the Gujarat Sultans, the Portuguese and the British to name a few. Mumbai has also had a long history of naval commerce being an important trade hub with the Egyptians, the Persians and the Romans.
This rich historical narrative is evident throughout Mumbai from her temples, docks, parks, food, architecture and sculptures. So it’s easy to see just why it can be daunting knowing where to start with Mumbai. This being said the are a number of must sees for anyone visiting the city.
If you are staying in Colaba or Fort you can pack the main attractions in three or four days. You can start the day with breakfast at Leopold’s, a famous eatery in the city, not just for it’s appearance in Shantarm. Opened by Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran in 1871 Leopold’s (named after the Belgian king of the day) has survived different incarnations and upheavals, even having been directly targetted during the 2008 terrorist attacks on the city.
From Leopold’s it’s only a short walk to the ornate Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Opened in 1903 the Taj is a glorious example of Indo-Gothic architecture and considered an institution of the city, a bastion of luxury and hospitality where no detail is missed and no demand too great. Over it’s prestigious history it has hosted scores of notable guests from royalty, industrialists, tycoons, heads of state, film and rocks stars.
Over the street is the Gateway Of India. Began in 1911 to commemorate a visit by Emperor George V, His Majesty only ever saw it’s cardboard model. Completed in 1924 and built with basalt rock this triumphal arch would have been the first sight greeting visitors coming by sea to India. In the days of the British Raj this was the point where dignitaries would alight from their voyage. This was also the place where, in 1948, the last British soldiers ceremonially left India when the country gained independence. You can easily walk around The Taj but you have to pass through a security check-point to access the Gateway. Here you’ll be approached by photographers offering to take you picture for a fee (personally I don’t think it’s worth it).
There are touts that will try to sell you tickets for ferries to Elephanta Island as well. Whereas these are accepted they’re usually overpriced as well, you can buy a ticket directly for the ferries if you just wander behind the gate itself where the boarding point is hidden. They shouldn’t cost more the 200 Rs. for a return journey. While you’re appreciating the Gateway you might find some Indian tourists taking an interest in you as well and coming over wanting to have their picture taken with you leaving you feeling like a celebrity for a few minutes.
After the ferry crossing to Elephanta you might be met by “guides” waiting to give you a tour of the caves. Though somewhat knowledgeable these are locals more interested in taking you to their shops than giving a value for money tour. If you do want to be given a proper, informative tour you’ll find licensed guides waiting for you just after you step through the ticket office. To get there you have to go up a stone stair-way lined with stalls, which is mercifully under canvass providing much needed cover from the sun while climbing the many steps.
The caves themselves are a collection of Buddhist and Hindu rock carvings depicting scenes from the Vedas and other important religious texts. The precise date of when these were begun is a topic of historic debate but are most commonly placed from the 5th-6th Century A.D. The caves, unfortunately, were not treated favourably by the Portuguese after the island was ceded to them in 1534 and some of the sculptures are defaced or in a state of ruin (though some point the finger at earlier Gujarati rulers). The main cave has since been restored and despite evidence of vandalism the caves remain a testimony to the artistry, genius and meta-physical beliefs of a civilisation gone by.
While you’re visiting you’ll notice monkeys and dogs wandering quite prevalently here. Though it might be tempting to approach them to try and get a good picture be careful, they will defend themselves if they feel threatened. The Macaques don’t respond well to smiles either, considering bared teeth as a challenge to fight.
Back in Mumbai there is plenty more to be seen, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus is a fine example of architectural fusion, mixing Victorian and Indo-Gothic styles that are reminiscent of the grandeur of Indian palaces. Finished in 1887 to commemorate the fiftieth year of Queen Victoria’s rule the CST, as it’s otherwise known, is one of India’s busiest stations. It serves both Mumbai’s metro and long-haul journeys out of the city. If you’re heading to your next location via train you will most likely leave from here.
Marine drive makes for a splendid walk along the beach front, if you’re lucky you might even catch a wedding taking place on the east side of the road which is highly popular for wedding venues. As the sun starts to set you’ll notice young couples lining the walk way, holding hands and enjoying each other’s company. Public displays of affection between the sexes, so much as holding hands in the street, can still be taboo in India. But here, along this 3.6 kilometre stretch of road, as twilight draws in there seems to be some sort of magic here where this does not hold sway and couples can openly share their fondness for one another.
Toward the north-side of Marine Drive is Chowpatty Beach, popular with city residents and tourists from further away in Maharashtra and India. People often flock here to play cricket, football and to perform ceremonies and rituals. It is not advisable to swim in the sea here as many storm and sewer drains find their way into Back Bay. More wholesome than the sea, though, are the numerous fast-food stalls that the beach is famous for. Here you’ll find a varriety of vendors offering sweet and savory dishes that are well worth trying out.
If you really want to be immersed in India cuisine I’d personally recommend making the small pilgrimage to Mini Punjab’s Lakeside Restaurant. Located in the north of the city in Powai, this restaurant boasts Mumbai’s largest thali whose size demands that two waiters are needed to carry it over. With a selection of forty-four different traditional dishes this is a colossus of a feast, if you’re not sure what it is your eating ask the staff, they’re more than happy to tell you about the individual items. You’ll need a friend or two at least to tackle this one.
The Haji Ali Mosque is a shrine to a Sufi saint of the same name placed on a small island in Worli Bay. Haji Ali Shah Bukhari was a wealthy Uzbek merchant and traveller who would come to settle in Mumbai in the 15th century. Having made the pilgrimage to Mecca Ali would go on to preach Islam in the city and gather a following to himself, legend states that he even performed a number of miracles. Built in 1431 this tomb is a wonderful example of Indo-Islamic architecture and is reachable by the causeway that connects it with Worli, which itself was one of the seven original islands of Mumbai.
Finally, if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, there’s the Dharavi Slum to visit. This is one of the largest and most densely populated slums in the world. Made famous in Slumdog MillionaireSlumdog Millionaire the slum has a number of cottage industries such as leather tanners, potters, plastic recycling, repairing and re-supplying white goods. All this is packed into 520 square acres of prime real-estate along side a population of just under one-million. Finding a guide is a sensible idea as most are former, if not current, residents and you, as their guest, will be left alone by potential thieves. You can find these online or by asking your hotel or hostel. A tour of the slum gives visitors a taste of a vibrant community spirit and the industriousness of the people who call Dharavi home.
While you’re in the process of getting to grips with how things are done in Mumbai these are the best places to experience. In between dodging cows and hailing auto-rickshaws these locations will give, figuratively and literally, a taste for a city that has been through drastic changes during it’s history. From humble stone age villages, to Islamic, to colonial rule and now a global financial powerhouse, Mumbai thrives with it’s history very much still on display and interwoven with a boisterous modern city. Enjoy and mind the monkeys.
Dharavi Slum Tour
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