Landing for the first time in Mumbai, most people usually experience a mild shock by the weather, the sheer rush of humanity and the noise. But once you get over the initial experience, you find that the city tends to grow on you. The millions of people hurrying past you will stop to offer help to fellow in need and disappear just as soon. There is order in the seemingly chaotic city which is the only reason that over 12 million people live in relative harmony in such limited spaces.
Previously known as Bombay, India’s commercial capital is vibrant and energetic, and you need to learn to keep pace with it, although not many can. Originally home to fisher folk, this archipelago was of barely any significance at one time. Then in 1661 the Portuguese offered the city as part of dowry to King Charles II of England on his wedding to Princess Catherine de Braganza of Portugal and then leased it to the East India Company for a measly £10! That amount would now not even fetch you an inch of land in this fast growing metropolis. The islands have since then been fused to form one of India’s most prominent ports.
Mumbai is the commercial and entertainment capital of the country. It has important institutions located in its boundaries including the Reserve Bank of India, the Bombay Stock Exchange, the National stock Exchange of India, many other corporate headquarters of leading companies, and the booming Indian television and movie industry. It is also one of the rare cities in the world to have a national park, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, within city limits.
Fortune seekers from all over the country come to the city of dreams to find their luck. In Mumbai you can find the glamorous rich and famous stars and starlets and right across the street from them you will find some of the poorest slum dwellers with just a plastic sheet pitched on the pavement for shelter. Here you will find modern, well-designed buildings next to crumbling old structures. It is definitely a place of dualities but it is said if you can survive here for six months you can survive anywhere in the world, but you wouldn’t want to go to anywhere else!
Overlooking the Arabian Sea on the western coast of India, just south of the tropic of Cancer, Mumbai is located on Salsette island at the mouth of the River Ulhas. This is known as the Konkan coastal region. The city comprises of seven islands, fused together by extensive reclamation projects. It is now 468 sq km in area and is connected to the mainland by bridges.
Mumbai has been a shipping and trading centre mainly because of its harbor between the city and the mainland, facing Africa and East Asia. The northern part of the city is hilly and is mostly made up of residential suburbs and the southern part, called Town has most of the administrative offices and commercial institutions. The highest point in the city is at 450m above sea level.
Vihar, Vaitarna, Powai, Tulsi and Tansa are the five lakes that supply water to the growing city. The city’s coastline is indented with many creeks and bays. In spite of being in a seismically active zone, Mumbai has not stopped growing and continues to thrive.
The city’s geographical location ensures a uniform warm and humid climate throughout the year. Some climatic variation is provided by rainfall during the monsoon months between June and September every year. Lying windward of the Western Ghats, Bombay receives most of its rain from the South Asian monsoon.
With its proximity to the sea, the humidity is a factor that most find hard to deal with. You always feel drenched in sweat. The winter months of December and January, and the cooling monsoons bring some relief though.
It is hard to believe that not too long ago that there was no city to speak of here, just a few islands with many villages, some of which like Girgaum and Worli still exist. The British established a port settlement near the harbor in the 17th century and since then there has been no stopping the growth and development in the city.
Although the Indian Ocean, specially the Arabian Sea was the world’s center of commerce but relatively undiscovered even by the likes of Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta. The archipelago has passed through many hands before establishing itself as a name to be reckoned with. The islands were ruled by the Silhara dynasty in the 13th century. The caves at Elephanta and part of the Walkeshwar temple complex date from this era. Some historians believe that a king by the name of Raja Bhimdev had made his capital in Mahikawati (present day Mahim and Prabhadevi) around the same time. In 1343, the Salsette island and the rest of the archipelago passed on to the hands of the Sultan of Gujarat.
In 1508, when Francis Almeida sailed into the deep harbor, the city started getting some identity of its own, at least in terms of it name. The Portuguese called it Bombay derived from the term for a good bay, Bom Bahia. Bahadur Shah of Gujarat was forced to hand over the main islands to the Portuguese before being murdered by invaders.
For many years, the Dutch and the British tried to get information on the sea routes to India and eventually it was given as dowry to Charles II of England. It was only when the city was passed on to the British East India Company, the foundation for the modern form of the city was laid. The Company then moved their main holdings from Surat to Bombay and the city had its first governor George Oxenden.
Gerald Aungier, the second governor saw the city’s potential and seized the opportunity to develop the islands into a commercial center to compete with other ports still in the hands of local kingdoms. He offered various incentives to skilled workers and traders to move to this city. The lucrative business opportunities attracted so many people that the population was estimated to have risen from a mere 10,000 in 1661 to 60,000 in 1675 – a six fold increase!
With increasing prosperity, the British started massive reclamation projects and large scale engineering works around the city. The developments, in turn, attracted more construction workers. From 1757 onwards, a civil administration was put in place. Then in 1853, a 35 km long railway line was inaugurated, the first of its kind in India. Around the same time, the first cotton mill was also founded and along with it came even more migrations whom the city welcomed with open arms.
Following the first war for independence in 1857, Bombay was handed back to the British crown. But the growth did not stop in any way. The 1861 American civil war and the 1869 opening of the Suez canal, exports, especially that of cotton became a major part of the country’s economy. The railway system, which was becoming more extensive by the day, helped with easy transportation within the country. The Bombay municipal corporation was also found around this time.
The construction of Imperial Bombay continued well into the 20th century and progressed at an even greater speed once India gained independence on August 15, 1947. Since then Mumbai has prospered as India's commercial and cultural capital and this period has seen the population grow tenfold to more than 16 million.
In 1997, the name that had become so synonymous with glamour, wealth, and poverty, was changed by an act of Parliament. The new official name, Mumbai was already in use by the local population. It is said to be derived from the fisher folk’s goddess Mumba Devi. A temple dedicated to her now stands in Bhuleshwar.
Getting there and around
30 km north of the city center is Mumbai’s sprawling Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, also called the Sahar Airport, since it is located in that area. However, most international flights usually arrive and depart at odd hours in the night making it a little inconvenient for first-timers. If you have a connecting flight to a domestic destination, you will need to transfer to the Santacruz Domestic airport 4 km from there, and 26 km from the city.
If you are arriving in the city by train from the north of the country you will most likely end up at Mumbai Central Station and trains from other parts of the country terminate at the grand Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, earlier known as Victoria Terminus.
Although the city life is highly fast paced, don’t expect the traffic conditions to be the same. Here if you want to know how near or far something is, it is measured by the time it takes to get there, not the actual distance! Already over a million vehicles ply the busy and often congested streets and each week many more join them, along with pedestrians who also feel they have every right to the roads.
The yellow and black taxis are available everywhere, and now so are the blue and silver air conditioned ones. The typical auto rickshaws operate in suburban areas and are only for the most adventurous and daring. These taxis all charge according to standard meters in which you pay according to the mileage predetermined by a structured fare card.
Train travel within the city is only for the most rough and tough visitor, especially during rush hours. The Central and Western railway systems take you through most of the city’s important areas and are the backbone of the city’s transport network. It will amaze you how over a 100 people fit into a compartment big enough to accommodate 20!
The red BEST buses are quintessentially Mumbai. They are used to cover medium to short distances within the city and the fleet now consists of single decker, double decker and air conditioned buses.
What to see and do
Colaba is the southern tip of the city, and is a tourist hub mainly due to the fact that it is in close proximity to most of Mumbai’s landmarks. The Colaba causeway has many budget accommodations and the glorius Taj Mahal Hotel at one end. It stands right opposite the Gateway of India in front of which there are flocks of pigeons waiting to be fed by passers by (but it has now been made illegal in a bid to try to keep the area clean), and from here you can see the oil rigs of Bombay High. The Gateway was built to commemorate the visit of King George the V and Queen Mary in 1911. From here you can catch a boat to the Elephanta Island, a UNESCO world heritage site where you can see rock-cut temples and caves dating back to the 6th century.
The areas around the Gateway is called Apollo Bunder and at the other end is Nariman Point, the bustling business district in the city. Here, the Marine Drive is a broad promenade following the curve of the seafront and is a great place to take a leisurely walk, When the sun goes down, the streetlights light up accentuating the dramatic arch of the road. Here you will also find Chowpatty beach which is always in the mood for a carnival with countless food stalls and ponies offering you a trot around the beach. After sunset, it is the ideal place for a romantic stroll, once you get used to the odor.
Behind the beach, is the prestigious Malabar Hill, a stony residential area with several fine parks including the Pherozeshah Mehta Gardens more commonly known as the Hanging Gardens with great views of the city. Beside them are the Towers of Silence, where the Parsi lay out their dead for the elements and vultures.
Mumbai’s suburbs are also picking up the pace. Bandra and Andheri is where the glamour is. The city’s elite live and hang out here and is therefore home to some of the trendiest bars, restaurants and clubs. Juhu beach is another escape from the concrete jungle.
For some shopping, Crawford market is well known, and so are Hutatma chowk, MG Road, Fashion street, Chor bazaar and the Colaba Causeway. If you are looking for something more upmarket, there are shopping malls sprouting at every corner of the city.
What to eat
When people think of Indian food, red chilies and spices which is not far from the truth. Coastal kitchens make strong and liberal use of fish and coconut, both of which are easily available in plenty. Apart from that though, Mumbai has its own local roadside flavor. At the risk of getting a stomach upset, don’t forget to try the vada pav (wheat bread split in half, with fried potato as filling), pani puri (deep fried puffed bread with tamarind and lentil sauce), pav bhaji (bread with fried vegetables) and bhel puri (puffed rice mixture). Improvised and Indianised Chinese dishes are also very popular.
Mumbai is the birthplace of Indian cinema and the booming movie industry here is fondly called Bollywood. The city has a large number of cinema halls frequented by a hoards of fans everyday, including Asia’s largest IMAX dome theatre. Mumbaikars are also avid theatre goers and the thriving theatres showcase English as well as regional language shows. Art is also appreciated by the culturally inclined residents and some of the popular galleries include the Jehangir Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Modern Art.
You cannot mention India without its most popular sport, cricket. It is a national obsession even though Hockey is officially the national sport of the country. You can expect a city as fast paced as Mumbai to almost come to a halt during an important match. The Wankhede and the Brabourne staudium in the city are of international levels. Mumbai has also been hosting the Mumbai Marathon for the last three years in an effort to popularize sporting activity in the country, and it even draws an international crowd.
Undoubtedly, the biggest event of the city is the Ganesh Chaturthi, an 11 day extravaganza around the months of August or September. Almost every house in the city, and communities come together to set up Lord Ganesh’s idol with great pomp and show and at the end of the festivals, the devotees bid a tearful goodbye by immersing the elephant headed god into the sea, pleading with him to return once again the following year.