Day 19: Bombay (Mumbai), India (Part 2)
ABOARD OCEANIA’S NAUTICA — We joined an all-day Oceania excursion on day two in Bombay and gained a new perspective on the city even with some overlap of sights. First, it was a work day and what seemed like a busy but manageable city on Sunday was monumentally congested with people and vehicles on Monday. Second, our guide, Silpa, a wise and well-traveled woman, offered some additional insights.
She started off by saying that even though the city’s name was officially changed to Mumbai in 1995, she still called her home Bombay and so did most locals. She said the change was just a case of politicians who seemed to have nothing better to do.
She gave us a thumbnail history of this city of 20+ million people, including its Portuguese and British heritage; explained how seven islands eventually became one peninsula; and observed that India’s wealthiest city pays 34 percent of the country’s income tax (with less than 2 percent of the country’s population).
She pointed out the headquarters of the Maharashtra State Police indicating its proximity to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and other targets of a deadly 2008 terrorist attack, and proclaimed, “That says much about our police, they must have been asleep that night.”
During a visit to Babulnath, a Hindu Temple dedicated to the god Shiva, we witnessed throngs of worshipers ring a bell announcing their presence, then jostle for the chance to pour yogurt and water on the lingam in the inner sanctum. As we left we stopped to see a bearded holy man who blessed several in our party, including Janet.
From our bus window we glimpsed Dhobi Ghat, Bombay’s renowned outdoor laundry, where dhobis wash much of Bombay’s clothing and linens, and of shanty-towns built on sidewalks and vacant land. We were afforded about 20 minutes on Colaba Causeway for shopping and about the same at Crawford Market, a wholesale and retail fruit and vegetable market supplying much of the city.
Silpa pointed out a couple of Parsi Fire Temples as we drove past and relayed the story of the Parsi community who, she said, totaled about 60,000 people in Bombay, roughly half of the world-wide community. Migrating from Persia to escape forced conversion to Islam, these people practice the ancient Zoroastrian religion of that country. Silpa said they have been very successful in India — Bombay’s first mayor was a Parsi, the Tata family, who own one of India’s largest industrial companies, are Parsi, as is renowned maestro Zhubin Mehta.
We enjoyed our visit to the Albert Museum (also called Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum), as much for the building’s Renaissance revival architecture and its exquisite UNESCO award-winning renovation completed in 2007, as for its collections.
Our favorite part of the excursion was Khotachiwadi. It’s a fascinating enclave of two-story, 19th century bungalows lining narrow alleys. Here we met James Ferreira, a fashion designer who lives in his 150-year-old home and invited our group in for tea. Sometimes referred to as Old Portuguese Bungalows, the houses were built by East Indian migrants whose ancestors were baptized Christian by Portuguese priests and took Portuguese names.
We learned that only 27 of these houses remain (down from 65) and that development and high real estate prices threaten even those. Perhaps 50 yards from Ferreira’s house the city has approved construction of a 22-story building on a 25-foot wide lot fronting a 10-foot wide street without vehicular access (except motor bikes).
Ferreira has established the non-profit Khotachiwadi Trust to try and preserve what remains of this unique community. The trust benefited from our visit.
We sailed from Bombay that evening headed for Muscat and the Arabian Peninsula, but Bombay, in fact, all of South Asia, has left a vivid and indelible impression — a striving, yet traditional and incredibly diverse place.