Culture seekers in Mumbai

Arriving in Mumbai in the early hours of the morning, shortly after New Years Day found this sprawling, dirty, incredible city remarkably quiet. The train pulled into Central Station Victoria (CSV for short) and spilled us, along with many others, out onto the platform rather unceremoniously. A short bus ride later we were at our lodgings in Colaba ready for the day and were able to see the Gateway to India and the Taj Mahal hotel, golden, in the early morning light. It was our first taste of a major Indian city and instantly appealed to our London sensibilities.

Gateway of India, Mumbai

The Gateway to India is an Indo-Victorian structure typical to Bombay and combines Hindu and Islamic architectural styles. Once it must have dominated the skyline but is now dwarfed by the Taj Mahal complex and surrounding buildings.

Gateway of India, Mumbai

Later when we returned, we were glad to have seen it earlier. Where we had be able to walk freely, a long queue of people snaked from the now only entrance to make their way through airport scanners. The terrorist attacks of 2008 have had a long and lasting impact on the character of this city which was most prevalent in this area. Armoured vehicles lined the street and police armed with rifles patrolled. But still, throngs of people swarmed over the area as hawkers touted snacks, the opportunity to be photographed and guided tours of Mumbai and Elephanta Island.

Armoured vehicle, Mumbai

After weeks of beach life we relished the opportunity to explore the city’s museums and art galleries and spent hours at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahala Museum (what a mouthful!) and Jehangir Art Gallery where we were sorely tempted to purchase some stunning sculptures by the late Dr Jaidev Baghel. We are kind of regretting that we didn’t now, but shipping home a brass sculpture of considerable size was a task too daunting, not to mention the hole it would have blown in our budget.

The mark of the British is prevalent in Mumbai’s architecture and as we wandered the streets admiring the buildings, we were reminded of home, particularly by Rajabai clock tower at Mumbai University with its resemblance to Big Ben!

Museum, MumbaiMumbai Victorian architecture

Less appealing was the air quality. Mumbai’s roads are choked with vehicles chugging out a smog of exhaust fumes and industry plants belching out black smoke. Early one morning we heading out to Elephanta Island, an hours boat ride from the city. On our return we could see the haze of smog above the city and the closer we got the more we could smell the toxicity of the air. No sooner than we docked, we could feel our throats constrict and it was no surprise to see the electronic billboard in the square announcing the low quality of the air that day.

We attempted an escape by visiting the Hanging Gardens and Kamala Nehru Park to enjoy the view of Marine Bay and Chowpatty Beach (never swim here! The waste from the slum openly flows into the sea at this point).

Marine Bay and Chowpatty Beach, Mumbai

On route we stopped at Mani Bhavan, where Gandhi stayed whenever he visited the city. Nowadays, the house has been turned into a donation only museum marking key moments in his life. From here he formulated his philosophy of nonviolent protest and launched the 1932 Civil Disobedience campaign. On display was his letter to Adolf Hitler just before the outbreak of the Second World War which was particularly poignant. It was an interesting excursion and raised many questions for us as we realised our knowledge of this period in history is somewhat lacking.

Our culture thirst sated we turned our attention to the other side of the city: its street and slum life.

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