Friday, February 25, 2011


Of all the Indian cities, Mumbai is the one which has, let‘s call it previous. With an unforgiving reputation that could come and meet you off the train its sheer size, thronged streets, and sweltering temperatures mean that it’ll be the first true experience I’ll have of an Indian supercity as I’d imagined them to be. And for the 48 hours that I spend there I absolutely love it but it’s very much a city of two halves - the southern half of Colaba and Churchgate is where all of the heavy hitting sights are to be found and the further north you walk from there the narrower the streets become and the more classically Indian the city becomes. Mumbai is equally famous for its dearth of decent budget accommodation but following a recommendation from a guy I met in Bhuj I found a hotel room in Colaba for 350INR in what was the smallest room of the entire trip and there has been some serious competition for that accolade.

I have so little time left in India now that this next week will be a bit of a rush around Maharashtra to see Ellora and Ajanta caves and so it is with Mumbai. There’s much to see - too much - in both Colaba and Churchgate but some of the buildings here are magnificent, not least Victoria Terminus - a massive, imposing and very, very British train station. There’s the underwhelming Gateway of India - one of those commemorative constructions (the visit of King George V) that’s famous for being famous in the same way that Pete Doherty is. I walked into the Town Hall, another impressive architectural relic, and walking into the place with its dusted reading rooms, moth-eaten tomes and ancient bookcases makes it feel like it’s still 1920 in there. Southern Mumbai is the air-brushed or photo-shopped version of the city - shit, there’s even a Body Shop there - and so by the end of Day 1 I still feel as if I haven’t seen the real city.

Moving north on the second day I see a different side to Mumbai - poorer, noisier, narrower and a hell of a lot more claustrophobic with bazaars and mosques littered everywhere - this is Muslim Mumbai and the poverty immediately becomes more apparent. The northern part of the city is also home to the wonderful Towers of Silence. There are 7 of them in all and they’re where Mumbai’s Zoroastrian community (no, me either), eh, dispose of their dead. They believe that pollution of the four sacred elements - air, earth, water and fire - contradict their beliefs and so when members of their community die the bodies are laid out on top of the cylindrical towers where the bones are to be ‘cleaned‘ by vultures and the weather. And you thought cremation was unusual. In recent years the tradition has died out - sorry - due in no small part to the decline in the population of India’s vultures but, hey, what a way to go when you’re gone.

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