-by Abhishek Sen
Author of the Book Transcending Parallels
“Mumbaikar” is a colloquial term used for a local resident of Mumbai who is perhaps born and bred in Mumbai. That’s me! I have been a “Mumbaikar” all my life till date, except for the two years of kindergarten that I had spent in Canada along with my mother at her sister’s place.
I am well accustomed to the city, needless to say! To the people, the ethos and the traffic ridden roads which gives me a nightmare at times and don’t even get me started on the Mumbai local trains; evokes a sense of paranoia! However, the same Mumbai local is referred to as the lifeline of the city for a simple fact that it’s the preferred mode of transportation for millions who commute to and fro on a daily basis. I too used it throughout my college days and it has its own fun and a sense of thrill of making it in…knowing that you elbowed a man bigger than your size and edged him out, making your way in, into a crowded train compartment that’s almost bursting through its seams, comes with a sense of achievement.
Despite having been a “Mumbaikar” all my life until date, I still feel like an out of towner at times. There are so many hidden treasures and quaint little allies and secrets that I have yet to explore and this blog post is my attempt to do so; an endeavor to re-acquaint myself with my own hometown!
Most of the blogs and travel posts that you see on Mumbai, all focus on the night life and the regular tourist attractions, but I want to use this opportunity to talk about things that I recently found out about my own city and things that have changed and evolved over the years.
However, since I mentioned nightlife, let’s get it out-of-the-way first. I really find it soul crushing having to sell my city to a westerner on the merits of its “nightlife” for I’m not really a party animal, one and two, I’m sure those living in the west must’ve seen a much better and a vibrant party scene in their hometowns and cities they belong to. Besides, what’s the point of travelling half way across the world, flying over an ocean, just to spend a night that you can in your own backyard.
However, if you do wish to kick back and unwind over a pint of beer or a few drinks, there are some good options. You’ll find everything, ranging from the fine dining experience with the best wine in town served in the most luxurious restaurants of some of the fanciest Five Star Hotels to a flurry of pubs and restaurants that have sprung up in the past decade or so, if you’re looking for cheaper options.
You’ll find some good options in South Mumbai, heading towards Colaba, like the Tryst in Lower Parel, for an Italian-Continental experience, the Wink-Vivanta by Taj in Cuff Parade for a Japanese feel, there’s Shiro in Worli that offers Japanese, Thai and Asian experience and if you’re looking for something closer to the airport, then you have the Opa! Bar and Café, for a quint essential Lebanese, European, Mediterranean cuisines. There are also a few good options that you’ll find in Bandra, which is called the queen of suburbs in Mumbai.
Bandra marks the beginning of the Mumbai suburbs and end of town. At this point, I want to highlight an addition to the Mumbai skyline and the growing infrastructure, which is the “Bandra-Worli Sea Link” a cable stayed bridge that links Bandra in the western suburbs of Mumbai to Worli in South Mumbai. It’s a 5.6 kms or 3.5 miles long bridge running over the Arabian Ocean, that has brought down the travel time considerably and decongest the roads in traffic hours; not to mention, it’s a scenic ride passing through the bridge, that feels as if floating over the swelling Arabian Ocean during the high tide. There are plans to extend the Sea link from both ends thereby connecting Versova in the Western suburbs all the way to Colaba in the southernmost tip of Mumbai.
The Sea Link is one of the many infrastructure projects that are in the pipeline including the first phase of Mumbai Metros that runs from Versova to Ghatkopar in Central Mumbai. The work for extension of the Mumbai Metros is underway, that will add another means of transportation thereby relieving the pressure on the overburdened local Train system.
The city seems to be evolving and going through metamorphosis as we speak. As a Mumbaikar, I have seen the face and the Demography of the city change over the years with an influx of migrants from other parts of the country and foreign Expatriates living in Mumbai.
Mumbai skyline has also changed over the years with a surge in construction of high rises that have overtaken the Mumbai skies. Mumbai is one of the most expensive cities in the world with a lucrative real estate market and property rates being on par with New York City, if not more and yet within the periphery of these plush, tall towers, you’d fine a piece of old Mumbai and little shanties, not making for a very pretty sight. Let me explain this further with two contradicting images.
Here on the left what you see is the picture of Dhobi Ghat, near Mahalaxmi Race course, one of Mumbai’s prime Real Estate location in South Mumbai. In traditional Mumbai culture, a dhobi is a laundryman who collects dirty linens from homes and returns them washed and neatly pressed from open-air Laundromats known as ghats, that’s where the name “Dhobi Ghat” comes from. It’s the world’s largest open air Laundry slum, where clothes from households, hotels and offices go to get washed, sitting right in the heart of Mumbai, amidst the costliest real estate in the world as you can see from the contradicting image on the right. These are towers constructed a few meters away from the biggest open air Laundromats in the world. This juxtaposition of poverty next to richness, tall, beautiful shiny structure alongside unsightly images of an open-air laundry and slum, where quite literally, people’s dirty linen is washed in the open, seems baffling and astounding to say the least. Nevertheless, that’s my city…a city of Dichotomy and contradiction!
Speaking of dichotomy, in a city that has turned into a concrete jungle over the years, who would expect to find a sanctuary? But there is one! Deep in the Western Suburbs, in Borivali (East) you will find Sanjay Gandhi National Park, which is a wild life sanctuary situated in Northern Mumbai. It’s a large, bio diverse, protected area spread over 104 sqkm (40sq mile) and is surrounded by three sides in the most populous city in the world. It is one of the biggest wildlife parks existing within a metropolis in the world and most visited, with over two million visitors a year.
It is rich in biodiversity in terms of its flora and fauna. It is home to some of the world’s most endangered species. But, the most hidden jewel of the city is bedded deep within the heart of the park. 2400 years old Kanheri Caves, sculpted out of rocky cliffs lie in the heart of the park.
The Kanheri caves are situated in the center of the park. These caves were a little township and an important Buddhist learning center and pilgrimage site sculpted by Buddhist monks between 9th and the 1st centuries BCE. They were chiseled out of massive rocks. The caves are 6 km from the main gate of the park and there are bus services operated by the park to take you in. Tourists can enter after 9:00 a.m. The Kanheri Caves demonstrate the Buddhist contribution to the art and culture of India. Kanheri comes from the Sanskrit word “Krishnagiri” which means black mountain. Throughout the caves you would find beautiful, hand sculpted statues and figures, chiseled out of massive rocks. The caves are an archaeological treasure trove.
The larger caves were “chaityas” or prayer halls for congregational worship and are lined with intricately carved Buddhist sculptures and pillars and contain rock-cut “stupas” which is Sanskrit for a dome-shaped, hemispherical structure built by the Buddhist for meditation as you can see here in the center of the congregational hall, in the picture above.
I took this picture somewhere during the afternoon when the Sun had moved past being directly over our heads. I like the way the light falls on the sculpted statue in the cave, partially illuminating it and the play of shadow and light. The best time to visit the caves is between ten in the morning and four afternoon, but better be out before sunset as there’s always a danger of wild encounters including leopards, striped hyenas, snakes stopping by to pay you a visit. There’s also a possibility of certain miscreants and petty felons trying to take advantage of dark-desolate corners within the caves and enclosed forest areas, so one must be watchful and alert at all times and make their way out of the park before it gets dark.
These caves are built on hills and surrounded by miles and miles of forest and surrounding mountains, deep in the heart of a buzzing, bustling concrete jungle. While meandering through these caves, marveling the craftsmanship and devotion of the Buddhist monks, several thousand years ago, who sculpted these beautiful monuments out of nothing but black rocks and using just a hammer and a chisel, one is left with an overwhelming sense of admiration and respect for their dedication and artistry, coupled with a sense of astonishment. You cannot be left unmoved by the serenity of the place as an overpowering sense of calm and tranquility consumes you.
Speaking of serenity, one must visit The Global Vipassana Pagoda, also situated in Borivali as is the National Park, however the Pagoda is in the West. It is a Buddhist “Vipassana” centre, which is Sanskrit for meditation center. You can visit the Pagoda between Monday to Sunday 09:00am to 07:00pm (entry will only be allowed till 06:30pm) and there is no entry fee or charge for any tour guide although, identification proof is mandatory for foreign tourist.
However, if you’ve had your share of Spirituality and serenity and exhausted yourself with a little night out, then you can simply enjoy the Mumbai Coastline by visiting one of its many beaches. Dadar Chowpay and Juhu beach are two of the safest and cleanest beaches in Mumbai with several food joints and easy accessibility throughout the day as they are centrally located unlike some of the other beaches, which are further out of city limits.
You can also enjoy water sports like Jet Skiing, Sailing, Para sailing, Cruise and Speed Boats and more such water adventure offered by H2O Water Sports Adventure Centre in Dadar Chowpatty, in South Mumbai.
This is an aerial view of the beach that I had taken from Hanging Garden, which is a terraced garden perched atop the Malabar Hill on Western side in South Mumbai, overlooking the Arabian ocean. The garden is also among one of the tourist attractions with several hedges carved in the shape of animals and is situated opposite Kamala Nehru Park, famous for its Shoe house that was inspired by the nursery rhyme “The old woman who lived in a shoe”.
You can also visit the Gateway of India that was built to welcome King George V and Queen Marry of England when they visited in 1911. The structure is a big draw for tourist and it faces the Arabian ocean, from where you can also take a boat ride in the ocean and ferries that can take you to Elephanta Caves, which are a network of sculpted caves located on the Elephanta Island, off the Mumbai coast.
A few meters behind The Gateway of India, you can see the outer facade of the majestic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, the unfortunate victim of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks of 2008. The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and the adjoining Taj Mahal Tower were built separately with different architectural influences and are flagship properties, part of the Taj Mahal Resorts and Palaces.
I have tried to throw light on some of the hidden jewels of the city and took you off the beaten path in an attempt to showcase my city in a light it has seldom been shown in. Mumbai is famous for its Glitz and Glamour, Bollywood, big buildings and nightlife which is a regular phenomenon seen in any big metropolis. However, I wanted to reflect on the spiritual and natural aspect of the city, taking away from the mundane and materialistic attraction of a concrete jungle that can be seen in any city in the Western World.
I hope you enjoyed a glimpse into the little world within the world, an ancient Buddhist city and township within the city I call my home, my Mumbai!
-by Abhishek Sen
Author of the book “Transcending Parrallels” available internationally on Amazon