Fancy an unusual exploration full of lively culture, diverse cuisines, and wonderous architecture? Amal Sarhan believes that Mumbai might be the place for you.
Mumbai is famous – or infamous, some might argue – for its overcrowded streets, the headache-inducing bustle of cabs and rikshaws, its suffocatingly polluted air and its loudmouthed inhabitants. On the brighter side, it is also known for its piquant and delectable curries and chicken tikkas imbued with aromatic spices, colourful saris, active film industry, and vibrant festivals.
The city, once an archipelago of seven islands, is saturated with a rich historical past. The Elephanta Caves is a primary example of this. Located on the small island of Gharapuri, the 5th-century caves showcase the sevenmetre masterpiece named Sadashiva, flaunting three carved faces of the Hindu Lord Shiva.
The city’s most prized monument is the grandiose Gateway of India, which was erected in 1911 to commemorate the landing of King George V and his wife Queen Mary. The Gateway was finished years later in 1924 and was thereafter utilised as a symbolic formal entrance to India for the Viceroys and the new Governors of Bombay.
The Taj Mahal Palace [hotel], an admired national landmark and renowned architectural gem, towers the Gateway in the background, with its pinkish, rust-coloured domes emanating a sense of Indian tradition, resilience and charm.
Mumbai is esteemed for its collection of architectural and historical buildings, recognised as World Heritage sites by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee held in Bahrain in 2018. The buildings were thereafter named the Victorian and Art Deco Ensemble of Mumbai.
The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus is a prime example of Victorian Gothic Revival architecture fused with classic Indian designs and is one of the buildings listed in the Victorian Ensemble, making it a UNESCO World Heritage site. Built from 1878 to 1887, its name changed from Victoria Terminus in 1996 as a way for the Indians to go back to their roots. Opposite the station is the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, known as BMC, another Victorian UNESCO site, built in 1865. Seen towering above the two buildings is the Rajabai Clock Tower, another UNESCO site, more than 140 years old and standing at a height of 85m radiating an image of everlasting strength.
The Art Deco buildings of Mumbai feature the second largest collection of Art Deco sites in the world, after Miami. The sites are mainly located on the east side of the Oval Maidan. These include the Eros Cinema, Marine Drive (a seafront and promenade also known as the Queen’s Necklace), as well as privately owned residences.
St. Thomas Cathedral and Fort was built over 300 years ago and visited by the King and Queen in 1911. Nearby lies the Flora Fountain, built in 1864 of Portland stone and named after Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and spring, whose statue adorns the top of the fountain.
Apart from St. Thomas Cathedral, Mumbai houses many other religious places of worship, including the famous Haji Ali Dargah, a 400-year-old floating complex and a prized sanctuary for the Muslims in the city. The Shree Siddhivinayak Ganpati Mandir and Shree Mahalakshmi Mandir are of equally great importance to local communities who frequent these cherished monuments, built in 1801 and 1831 respectively.
An absolute must-visit, especially for those enthusiastic about modern Indian history, is Mani Bhavan, a modest two-storey building, located on Laburnum Road, known as the ‘epicentre of India’s struggle for freedom’. It was originally the office of the heroic leader Mahatma Gandhi between 1917 and 1934 and is now a museum and memorial dedicated to the great liberator.
The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly the Prince of Wales Museum, is another impressive location as well as an Indo-Saracenic Victorian World Heritage site, featuring artefacts from the Indus Valley civilisation, Buddhist sculptures from the Maurya Empire and jewellery pieces from the Mughal Empire. Other museums include the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum and the RBI Monetary Museum. For art lovers and appreciators, head down to the National Gallery of Modern Art (a Neo-classical Victorian World Heritage site) and the Jehangir Art Gallery, where you will find installations featuring well-known local and international artists.
Mumbai is a place full of people with different ethnicities and backgrounds. You will find a blend of multiple communities, including Hindus, Parsis, Muslims, Sindhis and Gujaratis. Hence, there is no dearth of cuisines and restaurants. For a taste of traditional food, visit Café Madras, Shree Thaker Bhojanalay, and Lotus Restaurant.
A host of classic vintage Mumbai cafés is still functioning in the city, such as Leopold Café. Established in 1871, this endearing nook possesses a certain charm and offers a splendid mix of different cuisines. Others include Café Churchill and Britannia & Co. Mumbai’s famous Iranian cafés and bakeries include the iconic B. Merwan & Co., Kyani & Co., and Yazdani Restaurant & Bakery.
For special road-side snacks and fried goodies, visit Khau Galli, where you will find anything from charcoal-grilled corn on the cob, roasted peanuts in newspaper cups, fresh cane juice, frankies and toasties, samosa, bhel puri, pau bhaji, and yummy sandwiches. Check. And don’t forget to try hot masala chai while you are at it.
March is a good month to be in this vibrant city packed with festivities and fun events, including The Jio MAMI, Mumbai’s renowned film festival taking place from March 11 to 15, as well as the Holi Festival of Colours, an ancient Hindu celebration of spring where people come together in the streets and throw paint on each other, taking place on March 18. The Ganpati festival and Diwali are other important festivals taking place in September and October respectively.
While you’re there, be sure to check out the many heritage walks, bike tours and private tours for you to enjoy, including a Bollywood tour!