A Day in Mumbai

Mumbai, Maharashtra State, India

July 21st, 2018

I had to go on a business trip to our Mumbai office and decided to add a weekend for some sightseeing. So, this is a short blog post about what you can do if you have only one day in Mumbai.

I had booked a sightseeing trip with a local guide through My guide Ajit and a driver picked me up from the hotel at 8:00 am. My hotel was near our Powai office, which is in the North of the city, while the old part of Mumbai is on the Southern end of the peninsula. Mumbai is an absolutely enormous city with horrendous traffic. The estimated population of the city is around 13 million, with well over 20 million in the larger metro area. Saturday traffic is not as bad as during the week, so our drive took only about an hour despite the fact that is was pouring down and we had to swerve around half flooded streets a couple of times. July is not the best time of the year to visit Mumbai. It is the middle of Monsoon season and it rains very heavily almost every day.

Fortunately the rain eased off by the time we reached the Gateway of India, which is a large arch that was built to celebrate the visit of King George V in 1911. (The king only saw a cardboard model of it though, since construction did not finish until 1915.) Right next to the Gateway is the beautiful Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which first opened in 1903. In 2008 is was the site of one of the worst terrorist attacks in India, when heavily armed terrorists stormed the hotel and over the course of the next 48 hours killed more than a hundred people.

The main site I wanted to visit in Mumbai, were the Elephanta caves, which are a series of ancient Hindu cave temples located on the small and hilly Elephanta Island in Mumbai Harbour about 10 km to the East of the city. The boats for the island leave from the Gateway of India and the trip takes about an hour (in calm weather conditions). There are not many boats during monsoon season, and in fact I was lucky that the sea was calm enough for the crossing at all. The boats don't seem to run on a regular schedule, they just wait until the boat is full, which in my case took about an hour. The trip out to the island was a bit bumpy but not too bad. During high season these boats are full of tourists and they go a lot more frequently. Today most of the passengers were locals, many of them carrying large boxes and containers with them.

The name Elephanta Island was given to it by Portugues merchants who found a large elephant sculpture here. There is archeological evidence that the island has been occupied since the 2nd century BC. Today about 1200 people live on the island, with tourism being largely the only source of income. I got a local guide, who was born and lived his entire life on the island. He was very interesting, even though some of the historical information he gave me turned out to be a bit sketchy, which I found out when I read up on it afterwards. To reach the entrance to the main cave you walk up 120 stairs, which are lined by souvenir shops and lots of monkeys.

The inside of the cave was absolutely amazing. There is still some debate around the exact age of the carvings, but most scholars now believe that they were carved out of the basalt rock in the 5th and 6th century and had been largely completed by 550 AD. The importance of these caves was recognized internationally when they became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.

Many of the reliefs and statutes are severely damaged. My guide told me that this was due to the Portuguese colonists using them as shooting practice targets. But that is only one theory among scholars. The caves were extensively restored in the 1970s.

The main temple is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. All the major statues and reliefs are of the different incarnations of Shiva (as a dancer, yogi, lover and warrior).

The large sculpture in the center, the so-called Trimurti, is the most important sculpture in the cave and considered a masterpiece of Hindu art. It is 6 meters high and depicts a three-headed Shiva, which symbolizes the three aspects of Shiva - the creator, the protector and the destroyer. It truly is a stunning monument in particular considering its age.

There are several other smaller caves nearby, but most of their sculptures have been completely destroyed and the caves are largely empty.

The return trip on the boat was a lot rougher and took quite a bit longer. It rained heavily now and the waves were rather high. I was soaking wet by the time we got back to the city in the early afternoon.

After a quick lunch at a Western restaurant, we started the city tour. Out first stop was the fascinating Dhobi Ghat (literally translated "washerman’s place"), which is the largest outdoor manual laundry facility in the world. In the center square there were these large rows of concrete vats, where men wash the laundry by hand, by scrubbing and hitting it against the stone. My guide told me that only men are doing the washing.

All the washer men and their families live and work in the surrounding huts. We walked through some of the narrow passage ways to see people everywhere ironing (using very heavy irons), folding and carrying huge bales of laundry. Apparently people get paid so little working here, that it is still cheaper for many hotels and hospitals to send all their laundry here instead of buying washing machines.

Our next stop was the main train station, formerly named Victoria station (renamed to Chhatrpati Shivaji Terminus in 1996). It is a huge and gorgeous building, and my second World Heritage site today. It became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004, for being the outstanding example of Victorian Gothic Revival architecture. Construction started in 1878 and took 10 years to be completed.

It is one of the busiest railway stations in the world, being used by about 3 million people every day.

From here we slowly made our way back up North towards my hotel, stopping for pictures at a few more sites like the Rajabai Clock Tower, which is part of the University of Mumbai campus:

We also saw the world’s highest and most expensive single family home. This is where Mukesh Ambani, one of India’s richest men, lives with his family and a staff of 600.

This is the crescent shaped Back Bay, also colloquially referred to as the Queen's Necklace:

This beautiful small mosque on an island is the Haji Ali Dargah Mosque. It was built in the early 15th century, and is linked to the shore by a causeway that is only accessible during low tide.

I left Mumbai on a Sunday morning flight back to Singapore. Mumbai is not one of the major tourist destinations in India, but it is a fascinating city, well worth a visit (and probably even better outside of Monsoon season).

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