Mumbais bustling street life a delight to the senses


Local Color: If You Go

The best time to visit Mumbai is from November to April. For more information on Mumbai (and the rest of India), visit the Web at

The India Tourism office in New York is at (212) 586 4901; e-mail [email protected].

Mumbai, the bustling metropolis of 15 million people on the west coast of India, is a city of contrasts and extremes. Within its sprawling boundaries, the very wealthy and the indigent stake out their positions, often cheek by jowl. Vestiges of Victorian times are still to be found in many old buildings dating from the days of the British Raj. Traditional fishing boats still bring in the catch each morning to a harbor and port that handle more than half of Indias foreign trade.

It is the countrys financial and economic nerve center.

Out at FilmCity on the outskirts, Bollywood churns out a copious production of films -- it is the worlds largest film industry -- and the stars are national celebrities.

Visiting this vibrant city is a delight for all the senses.

The Fort area of Mumbai, the commercial hub of the city, is built on the site of an old British garrison. Street vendors clutter the pavement along with imposing banks and other commercial enterprises.

There are many fine Victorian buildings, especially along Mahatma Gandhi Road and the edge of Oval Maidan, an extensive open space.

The Gateway of India

The Gateway of India, Mumbai. Photo by Roger AllnuttAt the edge of the harbor is the imposing Gateway of India, built in 1924 to commemorate the visit of King George V in 1911. Crowds mill around it all day. 

Close to the Gateway is the harbor, where ferries transport visitors to Elephanta Caves on an island six miles away.

The World Heritage-listed caves feature carvings dating from around the 5th to 8th centuries of the life of Shiva. They are well worth a visit. The Prince of Wales Museum and the National Gallery of Modern Art are also nearby.

Opposite the Gateway is the majestic Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbais most famous and luxurious accommodation.    The Taj Mahal Hotel invokes the glory of a bygone era and is a pleasant place to while away a relaxing few hours to indulge in afternoon tea.

There are some lovely, old residential buildings close to the Taj Mahal Hotel, but many could do with some repairs and a coat of paint.

Mahatma Gandhi is still a universally revered figure in India, and his name adorns many roads and other places.

Mani Bharan, the home where Gandhi stayed when he visited Mumbai, has been converted into a museum and a research center with a library.

The memorabilia of his life depicted throughout the house are fascinating.

The focal point for commuters in Mumbai is the main rail terminus, Chhatrapati Shivali Terminus, commonly referred to as Victoria Terminus.

From the outside, this splendid Gothic structure looks nothing like a railway station, but inside, a mass of people dash hither and thither as they are disgorged from the trains. 

Half a million people use the station daily. The facade of the building, completed in 1888, displays wonderful ornamentation and embellishment.

Inside, there are exquisite panels and friezes on the walls, windows and arches. A majestic dome complements the exterior. A life-size statue of Queen Victoria stands in front of the central facade.

North of the station, Crawford Market sells all kinds of fresh produce, although the main action is early in the day. 

Bas-reliefs by John Lockwood Kipling, Rudyard Kiplings father, adorn the Norman-Gothic exterior.

Other markets are nearby in a maze of narrow streets and choking traffic. Entire streets are often devoted to a single product.

Chowpatty Beach

The headlands of Malabar Hill and Colaba form the boundary of Back Bay. Marine Parade sweeps along its edge with Chowpatty Beach at one end.

Relatively deserted during the day, in the evening Chowpatty Beach takes on a carnival atmosphere, with rides for children, families strolling, astrologers and numerous food stalls.

Marine Parade is a great spot to watch the sunsets over the Arabian Sea.

At the Malabar Hill end of Marine Parade, the Pherozshah Gehta Gardens, popularly known as the Hanging Gardens, provide a welcome green respite from the bustle of the city below. Numerous hedges have been trimmed into animal shapes.

It is a Friday, and crowds are gathering at the lovely Haji Ali Mosque situated at the end of a long causeway reaching into the Arabian Sea.  

The mosque shimmers like a mirage in the boiling sun and appears to float on the water; it can only be approached at low tide. Crowds of faithful buy offerings and flowers. Beggars seek alms.

Mumbais wallahs

Some things never change in Mumbai. Under the burning rays of the sun, the dhobi wallahs (laundrymen) operate their open-air laundry near the railway station in Mamalakshmi.

Standing in hot water, these industrious workers beat and clean thousands of sheets, shirts and other items before hanging them out to dry.

In other parts of the city, the incredible tiffin wallahs (lunch couriers) bring the thousands of tiffin boxes (lunch boxes) prepared in outlying homes via the train network to be delivered to offices across the city.

They sort the tins at stations like West End and Church Gate and then carry them head-high through the milling populace.

Out near the international airport, about 20 miles north of the city center, a new business area complete with international-standard hotels has been developed.

Among the many hotels are the Leela Kempinski, Le Royal Meridien, Sheraton and Hyatt Regency.

A highlight of any visit to Mumbai (and indeed the whole of India) is the food. Throughout the city are many excellent restaurants.

I stayed at the Leela Kempinski, which has six restaurants. Its Citrus restaurant serves an amazing variety of Indian and European dishes with wonderful curries, salads, fruit and desserts.

Alongside the luxury, squatters and other itinerants from rural areas live in the most primitive conditions. 

Yet when I wandered around the area on a busy Saturday morning, I was greeted with friendly smiles and greetings.

The din of the crowd

The drive into the city from the airport is an adventure in itself. Road construction close to the airport makes progress very slow. Thousands of taxis, three-wheel tuk tuks, motorcycles, lorries and delivery vehicles crowd the available road space. 

Pedestrians walk close to the edge of the road. Even animals seem to know to walk in a straight line just off the tarmac. Hundreds of tiny shops, garages and market stalls fight for position.

It is clear that nothing is wasted; tires are patched and bits of steel and other materials are recast into new products. Buses are packed to overflowing.

It is just another hectic day in Mumbai.

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