Desert Traditions
…where new journeys into life, tradition & culture begin

Other Sides of Mumbai

Just like any other mega city in today’s world, Mumbai is multi-lingual, multi-layered and multi-facetted. It’s like a well cut gem - containing hidden depths and reflecting all aspects of humanity from its surface. In fact, the more I look into it the more I see and learn about myself! And it is huge. With a population estimated at 13 million (who is counting?) and growing at an annual rate of 4.5%, Mumbai is the fourth most populous city in the world. It has a population density of around 55,794 people per square mile; there is not a lot of room to move but I never feel crowded.

About 42% of the population of Mumbai identifies as ethnically Maharashtrian. The next largest ethnic demographic is the Gujaratis, which make up about 19% of the city. The rest of the population is from other all parts of India. The literacy rate of the city is just under 90% and the *shanty towns of the city are the most literate in the entire country with a literacy rate estimated to be over 69%. Contrary to outside belief, 95% of children from the now famous settlement of Dharavi attend school regularly. Due to its ethnographic make-up the religious population of Mumbai is also very diverse. The majority identify as Hindu, Muslim, Zoroastrian, Christian, Jain, or Buddhist. The largest belief system is Hinduism at around 69% followed by Islam at 19% and Buddhism and Christianity come in at around 4% each. As a result there are wonderful places of worship to see and one can always be guaranteed of a festival or two during any visit.

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Haji Ali Mosque © Carole Douglas 2013

Ritual, Jain Temple © Carole Douglas 2013

Ritual, Jain Temple © Carole Douglas 2013

I have to admit that I did find Mumbai difficult on my first few visits so I tended to fly in, stay the night and then get myself quickly to Gujarat. I now move around Mumbai with ease and besides, there is always something fascinating to watch when stuck in traffic. I am never bored by the passing parade of humanity going about its daily business.

Family on the move and only compulsory for the driver to wear a helmet © Carole Douglas 2013

Family on the move and only compulsory for the driver to wear a helmet © Carole Douglas 2013

Building under wraps and no, Christo was not here © Carole Douglas 2013

Building under wraps and no, Christo was not here © Carole Douglas 2013

Mumbai is a rapidly modernising city and is assuming the role of India’s financial capital however when you dig beneath the outward displays of growth and wealth you find a hardworking mainstream and a fascinating history. Every time I hear one of my tour guides relating how the British acquired it as a dowry gift from the Portugese my mind reels. In those moments I do give thought to the Koli fisher folk, Mumbai’s original inhabitants, who had no say in the matter and who now precariously hang on to the city’s edges! There are not a lot of fish in the bay left to catch. The city has, however, finally acknowledged them by changing its name from Bombay, derived from the Portugese meaning ‘good bay,’ and renaming it after their patron goddess Mumbadevi. Her temple is located at crowded Zaveri Bazaar - in itself is worthy of a visit. Believed to be almost 400 years old, this iconic shrine, one of the oldest temples in Mumbai, was relocated to its present site when the British required the land for Chatrapaati Shivaji Station (formerly Victoria Terminus).

Elegant Sea Link bridge connects to Worli © Carole Douglas 2013

Elegant Sea Link bridge connects to Worli © Carole Douglas 2013

Fishing boats, Worli © Carole Douglas 2013

Fishing boats, Worli © Carole Douglas 2013

No visit to Mumbai is complete without visiting one of these original fishing villages. I first noticed Worli when crossing the bay over Sea Link bridge, an elegant new landmark and masterpiece of engineering. I was attracted to the brightly painted houses that glow like beacons at sunset as do the fishing boats bobbing in the bay.

Worli was one of the seven islands that eventually constituted the city of Mumbai. It became connected to the mainland in 1784 and is now an integral part of South Mumbai which extends from Haji Ali mosque to Prabhadevi, a small up-market district neighbourhood that is home to many rich and famous Indians. With the opening of the Sea Link in 2009, Worli sea face became joined to Mumbai’s western suburbs. The sea wall, that runs along most of Wolri (and south Mumbai) is a major landmark and is the busiest promenade in the city. Every day thousands of Mumbaikers use it for their morning or evening walks, lovers perch on the wall and it is famous for the giant waves that sweep in from the Arabian Sea during monsoons.

Fixing lights for Navratri festival, Worli village © Carole Douglas 2013

Fixing lights for Navratri festival, Worli village © Carole Douglas 2013

Goddess Durga, Worli village Navratri celebration © Carole Douglas 2013

Goddess Durga, Worli village Navratri celebration © Carole Douglas 2013

We visited Worli last November during Navratri and a group of women invited us to admire their outfits and later, the men proudly showed us their nine night temple complete with flashing LED lighting and brightly coloured deities. They had finished the day’s work and were playing card games under a sweltering plastic canopy. They offered us cold drinks and proceeded to tell us their woes. It’s easy to understand why the bay is overfished, that competition is fierce and that there are few vocational options for men whose lives are attuned to the sea. On our way back to the bus a group of youths told us that they were studying at college and had no intentions of following family traditions. Such is change. Inevitable, irreversible and exciting - for some.

Enjoy this small glimpse of Mumbai. There are more where this came from.

* I prefer to use the word settlement or shanty town rather than slum which is considered derogatory by the residents.

Goddess Durga is one of the Goddesses worshipped during the nine night festival of Navratri. Also called Divine Mother, Durga protects humanity by destroying evil forces such as selfishness, jealousy, prejudice, hatred, anger, and ego. She is an incarnation of Parvati the divine spouse of Lord Shiva and is the mother of Ganesha. Her companion, the tiger symbolizes unlimited power. Her eighteen arms signify that she possesses the combined power of the nine incarnations of Lord Vishnu. The sound that emanates from a conch is the sound of the sacred syllable AUM, which is said to be the sound of creation. A conch in one of the Goddess's hands signifies the ultimate victory of virtue over evil. Other weapons in the hands of Durga convey the idea that one weapon cannot destroy different enemies.
Durga is just one of the reputed 70 million gods and goddesses in the complex cosmology of Hinduism.

 Tips for Travellers to Mumbai.

Where to stay: Colaba, in South Mumbai, where most travellers head is the district containing many famous sites and attractions including the Gateway to India, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (Prince of Wales Museum), outstanding examples of colonial architecture, good shopping, galleries and restaurants (it is foodies’ heaven).

Hotels: Top end: The Taj Mahal Palace; Mid range: Fariyas Hotel; Good budget: my favourite and my ‘home away from home’ The Godwin; All within walking distance of local amenities and attractions.

Eating Out: too many good places to recommend – try Khyber for great North Indian fare, Indigo for Indian Nouvelle Cuisine, Leopolds Café for nourishing food and atmosphere and the three hotels listed all serve great food.

How to get around: from the airport to Colaba takes 1-2 hours depending on time of day; catch a prepaid taxi (Rs400) or a modern fleet taxi (Rs650) inside the airport; for your safety, your details are taken and checked as you depart the airport grounds; taxis are reasonable and can be hired for as little as Rs1000 for 8 hours.

Money Exchange: change a little money inside the airport before exiting; do not change cash outside with anyone who offers; counterfeit notes are rife so always use an accredited office, it is well worth the little extra cost.

Tipping: it is a big city, there are touts everywhere and everyone expects a tip; they are not compulsory; I have a  personal tipping budget of Rs100 per day and Rs20 is a minimum tip; begging is outlawed so be prepared.

Tours: there are some great tours on offer; to Elephanta Island, Dharavi, walking tours, city tours, heritage tours etc.

I am happy to advise independent travellers and recommend reputable guides and local tour companies.

© Carole Douglas 08-01-2014