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Articles Blog

Mumbai, India

Karyn Planett

Washed by the Arabian Sea

Long ago, a well-heeled gentleman scribbled down his thoughts about this teeming city.  This inveterate globetrotter proclaimed that Bombay (as it was known then) was…“A bewitching place, a bewildering place, an enchanting place--the Arabian nights come again!”

Of course, this quote emanates from the celebrated author Mark Twain in his 1897 work, More Tramps Abroad.  His ability to capture the essence of any destination he visited was uncanny.  Mumbai was no exception.

It is bewitching, almost hypnotic.  Oxcarts lumber down boulevards, wizened garland vendors create floral art, and giggling gaggles of school children march two-by-two.  Graceful women flow past draped in a rainbow of eye-dazzling hues.  All around are silk saris, turbaned Sikhs, and sacred cows with painted red and green horns the length of cricket bats.

Mumbai is bewildering, as well.  The ebb and flow of the human tide as it jostles along busy thoroughfares forms an almost-impenetrable wall.  There’s precious little silence.  Yet the city is all the while enchanting.  This enchantment lives on in its stately landmark structures and pampered parks.   The Mumbai that so captivated Mark Twain more than a century ago remains unchanged.

Tidelands and Titled Royals

From mud flats and marshy swamps, a massive city grew.  And, over time, Mumbai became India’s major cultural center as well as the industrial gateway to the Arabian Sea…and beyond.  Many historic landmarks, remnants from the city’s 19th-century Victorian Golden Period, are clustered around Bombay Fort.  This colorful district, named for the old fortification, extends two miles north from Apollo Pier to the neo-Gothic Victoria Terminus Station.

Apollo Pier is home to the monumental “Gateway of India.”  As the midday heat beats down, visitors gather in its shadow.  When night falls, local people stroll arm-in-arm around the gateway, delighting in its great beauty.  This Moslem/Hindu-style arch was erected to commemorate the 1924 visit to India by England’s King George V and Queen Mary.

Some 26 years later, however, the last British soldier snapped to attention, then marched tall and square shouldered beneath this arch with his head held high.  This gesture signaled that the final chapter of England’s 300-year rule over India had drawn to a close.

Just opposite the “Gateway” stands the famous Taj Mahal Hotel.  Recently modernized, this grand dame of hotels still conjures up the glory of the British Raj.  The upstairs lounge serves as the ideal vantage point from which to sip a refreshing Pimms.  Just outside the windows swirl colorful masses gathered along the jetty in the cool afternoon.  Beyond the crowded harbor is a flotilla of brightly-painted boats bobbing in the Arabian Sea.

North of this hotel is the impressive and important Prince of Wales Museum, noted for its remarkable displays of Asian art and archaeology, both ancient and medieval.  This museum houses one of India’s best natural science exhibits.  The domed building also features exquisite miniatures, porcelain, jade, and fine Buddhist carvings.

A Clock Tower and Hutatma Chowk

Facing a popular park known as Oval Maidan, along Queens Road, is the 260-foot-high Rajabai Clock Tower.  Built in the 1800s, it served as a memorial to a wealthy local banker’s mother.  This intricately ornamental, neo-Gothic tower truly stands out amidst the hodgepodge of other architectural styles nearby.

Hutatma Chowk is another notable landmark in Bombay’s bustling business district.  It is more commonly known by its anglicized name, the Flora Fountain, and adds an almost surreal beauty to the crossroads of Mahatma Gandhi Road and Veer Nariman.

Churchgate Station is one of the oddest yet most compelling of the area’s structures.  Just to the west along Veer Nariman Road toward the Marine Drive, this elaborate complex resembles a neo-Gothic cathedral more than an actual train station.  Its balconies, arches, turrets, and glorious stained glass windows combine to make it one of the area’s most unique buildings, especially when lit at night.

British influence on the architecture and life-style of this cosmopolitan city smacks you between the eyes when viewing the impressive facades of the Victoria Terminus Station and the General Post Office.  Similar to the Anglo-Indian splendor of the Churchgate Station, the Victoria is another example of neo-Gothic architecture from the late 1800s.  This imposing civic structure serves as the hub of downtown railway travel and is a beehive of activity long into the night.  Its Victorian grandeur not only inspires respectful awe, but also provides the backdrop for the frenetic flurry as waves of locals arrive from and depart to all parts of India.

Bombay requires some reflection.  To ponder its former glory and future challenges, its hustle and bustle, hues and blurs, retreat to a polished marble lounge at the Taj Mahal Hotel and let your thoughts gel.  Your head will surely be swimming.