Fashion capital, coastal metropolis, Art Deco enclave, Bollywood epicentre, financial hub. No matter how you chose to describe it – Mumbai is anything but boring, especially when you only have 24 hours in which to explore India’s largest city.
As we step off the train at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Station, I hear many locals interchangeably referring to Mumbai as Bombay. I wonder if it’s solely for our benefit. Two decades have passed since the name change – that honours the city’s patron deity, Hindu goddess Mumbadevi, and speaks of India’s independence – and yet it only seems to be catching on.
Home to over 22 million people, Mumbai is India’s largest metropolis. It’s not called the city of dreams for no reason. Hundreds of thousands of people journey here to study, pursue their Bollywood careers, join the IT work force, and with hopes of becoming crorepatis or what the locals call millionaires. Their aspirational grit has mixed with the humidity and the flavoursome scent of Pav bhaji.
You have to be fast to keep pace with the city’s energy. Our 21-day G Adventures guided group tour from northern to southern India is packed with adventure, but there’s always sufficient free time on the itinerary. While some chose to relax in the hotel, we chose to spend our time exploring our new stop over. So within an hour, we drop off our bags at the three-star Supreme Hotel and hail a taxi. Tuk-tuks are not permitted in the CBD, unlike in other Indian cities. And so we find that taxis are the best way to navigate the city. Four of us pile into one. And three into the other.
Our knowledgeable driver, Idrish Ahmed, doubles up as our guide. Over the next four and a half hours we make 12 stops at the city’s most popular landmarks. It gives us the chance to oogle Mumbai’s collection of over 200 Art Deco buildings and Mughal-Gothic style hotels along the way.
Canoodling couples – an unusual sight for us in India – are sitting along the promenade of the 3.6-kilometre-long crescent-shaped Marine Drive. The seaside road is also known as Queen’s Necklace as at night the street lights resemble a string of pearls. By day it hides behind a heavy mist. Children crowd around ice-cream sellers at Chowpatty Beach on the northern end of the stretch. They’re overlooked by their parents from the many street food vendors that serve up Bhelpuri – a popular beach snack of puffed rice and vegetables in a tangy tamarind sauce.
From here we drive through the quieter and upscale Malabar Hills suburb to the manicured Hanging Gardens that float atop the city’s underground water reservoirs. It shows off with views over the Arabian Sea. The pathway leads us past hedges modelled in the shape of elephants and giraffes. Locals unwrap their home-made lunches on the many benches.
South Africans will appreciate our next stop. Mani Bhavan was once Mahatma Gandhi’s home. It was the epicentre of his political activities from 1917 to 1934. Numerous photographs, press clippings and letters relate to his time in South Africa, where he practiced Satyagraha. The museum displays what is most likely Gandhi’s most famous letter. It is addressed to Adolf Hitler and requests that he refrain from war.
One moment I am gazing at the 27-storey Antila building, which is the ostentatious $2-billion home of India’s wealthiest person, Mukesh Ambani. And a few minutes later we make our way to Dhobi Ghat – the city’s largest open-air laundromat. This juxtaposition is a real-life illustration of the many contrasts experienced in Mumbai, and indeed in India, every day. Dhobi Ghat services the city’s hotels and hospitals. From the bridge I try spot my laundry above the rows of concrete wash pens. But there are thousands of items of clothing and finding it would be akin to a scenario from Slumdog Millionaire.
Another of the city’s most recognisable landmarks is the Gateway of India. The foundation stones of this 26-metre high basalt arch were erected in 1911 to commemorate the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary on a state visit to the colony. It was only completed in 1924. Since then it has welcomed many a seafaring visitor, as well as local and international travellers. Rainbow-coloured boats travel from the Gateway to India to Elephanta Caves every 30 minutes. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a collection of 5th century cave temples dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and rock-cut stone sculptures.
Across the road from the Gateway of India is the pockmarked Taj Mahal Palace. Another site that holds cultural cult status is the Leopold Café. It is one of the most popular places, among tourists, to dine in the city. The food and drinks here are pricier when compared to other restaurants. The surcharge is due to the fact that it has been immortalised in Shantaram, as the author, Gregory David Roberts, was a regular here during his time in Mumbai. Please read The God of Small Things instead, or any other book written from a local’s perspective for that matter. Chances are high that it”ll be better written too.
By 6am the following morning, fishing boats start floating into Sasson Docks and dock along the concrete pier. Fishermen offload their catch, while hunched women start shelling the shrimps we’ll most likely eat for dinner. Baby sharks (you’re singing the song, aren’t you?), squids, sting rays, lobsters, barracudas and buckets-full of small fish are displayed in colourful plastic buckets, polystyrene boxes and on top of wooden tables. Some merchants catch their clients’ attention by waving their stock about in the air. Auctioneers scour the crowds for the highest bidder.
And after breakfast, we G-Adventure off to our next destination.
If you have more time to explore Mumbai
Atul Kumar and his team at Art Deco Mumbai have catalogued the city’s Art Deco Buildings onto an interactive map. The NGO’s online inventory filters the localities, features and elements of each building they have classified. The Regal, Liberty and Eros theatres are most likely the easiest to recognise.
Pin it for later
I was hosted by G Adventures while on assignment as a freelance journalist. As always, I maintain editorial control of all content published on this website, but you already know that! ;)