It’s back to business as usual in Mumbai
Following last November’s terror attacks, Mumbai, setting for Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire is keen to show it is safe and still has a lot to offer.
Mumbai’s iconic Taj Mahal Hotel with the Gateway to India to the right
Very good price, very good price said the bright-eyed boy in the yellow T-shirt, who might have been an extra from multi-Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire. He poked his head through the car window and spoke quickly, offering Lord Shiva statuettes that dangled around his neck, arms and even from his finger tips.
“Just 200 rupees”. He saw me grimace and changed tack, “Okay 100 rupees, divine price for Lord Shiva”. Such was the urgency in his dark eyes that I handed over 100 rupees for a figurine and placed it in my handbag. And before I knew it the boy was away; his yellow T-shirt luminous against the cars as he zig-zagged through them.
I was sitting in grid-locked traffic on the main artery that is the national road into the city.
It’s the same every day, with cars, buses, motorbikes and ox carts, inching their way along, but frequently stationary, giving the under-aged entrepreneurs time to ply their trade. Roads are so dense with traffic that skywalks have been erected so that pedestrians can cross safely and not slow the traffic any further.
Through the car window I could see moving swathes of colour as women shimmied along the pavements in their pink, red and orange saris, and beyond that, the contrasting grey slums of corrugated-roof homes surrounded by plush high rise offices and apartments.
This is Mumbai, and anyone who has seen Slumdog would probably be surprised that actually, Mumbai is the financial powerhouse of India, where the stock exchange is the oldest in Asia and where property is the most expensive in the whole of the subcontinent.
My cab was inching towards the legendary Taj Mahal Hotel, the building targeted by terrorists last November.
Shortly before the Muslim terrorists hit, Mumbai was enjoying a spell of almost unprecedented freedom and security. Today, though the sun is still hot and the people still hustle, there is more caution. As I approached the hotel, a flurry of uniformed security guards ushered me through airport style security. Bags and people have to be scanned. It’s the same at other major hotels too.
With a 13 per cent downtown in tourism, Mumbai is keen to be seen to be taking every measure to make its city safe. But it was difficult not to notice the boarded-up Heritage section of the hotel currently being restored.
On a wall to the right of the reception there is a new memorial, a wood carving of the tree of life and, beyond a glass wall, a poignant plaque listing all those who died in the attack.
But life goes on. We all — thankfully — have short memories and many (especially we Brits) are far more resilient than travel industry pundits give us credit for.
Tourists visiting the home of Bollywood would still do well to start their exploration at the Taj as it ideally located for the bars and restaurants where those in the know would expect to spot a celebrity or two. And of course, for the best sights.
Directly opposite the hotel, peering over the Arabian Sea, is the iconic monumental arch, the Gateway of India. This symbol of both old Bombay and modern Mumbai was built in the ornate Indo-Saracenic style, and commemorates a 1911 visit by George V and Queen Mary.
The arch stands at an angle on the square perched at the edge of the water, where dozens of colourful leisure boats bob around.
I took a 50-minute trip aboard one of them to Elephant Island. From the harbour, a miniature train took me to the Elephanta caves. Not really caves, but hugely impressive carvings in the rock of Lord Shiva and other Hindu gods, whose story is told in a series of tableaux. A row of pillars give it the look of a temple. There is no particular reason why sixth-century kings decided to create this magnificent structure other than for art’s sake and the love of their Hindu gods.
Back on dry land, behind the Taj Mahal Hotel is Colaba, one of Mumbai’s most colourful and buzzy shopping districts. You can buy everything here, from sari fabric to sapphires, and mother-of-pearl inlaid knick-knacks to mangoes. Haggling is a way of life and expected.
The British arrived in the 17th century and it’s easy to see British influence in the architecture. The most obvious example is Victoria Terminal station renamed Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus after British rule ended in 1947.
A world heritage site, it is a living, breathing train station, through which three million people pass each day on 1,000 trains, making it the busiest and largest station on earth.
Its sheer size is impressive — think St Pancras and quadruple it — but the beauty of the station is awesome. Extravagantly ornamented, it combines the neo-gothic style of the early Victorian era with elements of traditional Indian architecture.
Mumbai is crammed with examples of Victorian and Art Deco architecture, much of it flaking off and shabby, but the city’s real charm is its people — especially its working people. No-one should miss the Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat. It is probably the world’s biggest open-air laundry and is nothing short of a theatrical spectacular.
Thousands of men from the Dhobi caste wash a million items of clothing in hundreds of soap-and-water filled concrete troughs, beating them clean then hanging them on washing lines (colour coded to denote ownership), and ironing each item before returning it to its owner the same day.
Then there are the dabbawallahs, the army of packed-lunch delivery boys dressed in white robes and white Gandhi hats, who descend on the city every day.
Each morning they pick up nearly 200,000 home-cooked meals from the outer suburbs, heat them at a central HQ and then deliver them at around 12.30pm to city workers wanting home-cooked food.
The most famous road in Mumbai is the coastal road, Marine Drive dotted with Art Deco buildings, which arcs out from the city along the shore of the Arabian Sea from Nariman Point to Chowpatty Beach and on to Malabar Hill. The promenade and beach at Chowpatty is a popular daily venue for couples and families who head there in the late afternoon as the sun cools and dips.
Young couples sit, entwined, on the promenade wall smooching in the twilight while mothers keep their children from the water’s edge and fathers referee games of cricket or football.
Being a solo visitor, I crossed the road to find a patch of wall of my own to enjoy the final moments of the setting sun on the edge of this magnificent city.
Somak (www.somak.com; 0208423 3000) offers three nights at the Taj Mahal Hotel (00 800 4588 1825, www.tajhotels.com), including breakfast and flights from £959. Kingfisher (www.flykingfisher.com) offer direct flights from Heathrow from £344, including taxes Le Passage to India (00 91 11 42795241; www.lepassagetoindia.com) offers car and driver from £16 for a half-day. Lonely Planet’s Best of Mumbai, (£7.99) offers pocket-size essential info and maps
The first Jews arrived from Judea on the Maharashtra shores near Mumbai 2,100 years ago, forming the Bene Israel community; l A second wave arrived from the Middle East 250 years ago. l The Gate of Mercy shul, built in 1796, is the oldest of the city’s nine active synagogues, but the easiest to visit is the delightful little Keneseth Eliyahoo in the central Fort district, with its sky-blue pillars, stained glass and chandeliers.
Mumbai has no kosher restaurants but the community is anxious to offer hos-pitality, particularly on Shabbat (www.kosherdelight.com)