After a 3-year hiatus, I’m back in India. And it’s my 8th visit to this country. Roll out the red carpet, fellas!
My first trip to India was with my mom in 2003. We visited the Golden Triangle up north: Delhi-Jaipur-Agra. Then I began to make frequent business trips to Delhi throughout 2010-2011, and by that time, I was already bitten by the travel bug, so I took every chance I had to travel for leisure in other parts of North India such as Amritsar, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Ladakh. And in 2014, for a change, this 8th visit to India was actually my first visit to Mumbai.
Because of the frequent trips I had made, and have plans to return again, family members and friends find me strange. They can’t understand what’s my fascination with India and how I can endure the “discomfort” one would encounter during travels to India.
Only very close friends truly understand that I absolutely love culture, history and architecture. Combine that with the mad love for travel and appreciation for photography, India is the perfect place for me to have all these experiences in one package. India brings out the richness in history, culture and food, the vibrant colours, the grandeur of monuments, palaces and places of worship, and the interesting mix of languages and lifestyles seen across the country.
As for the “discomfort”, yes, sometimes it’s not the most enjoyable or comfortable journey. Filth and poverty are prevalent on Indian streets. Mad drivers and incessant honking. Indian Stretchable Time (IST), not Indian Standard Time (some Malaysians tend to practice this too!) – trains, flights or appointments sometimes are delayed. Not feeling well due to too much spices or masala. Or worse still, contract Delhi Belly because consumed something unhygienic!
I have had experienced all of the above except Delhi Belly (touch wood!) but that’s the unique thing about India: The Great Indian Paradox. You may see and experience India at the best of times but you will also see and experience India at the worst of times. I love the paradox and that makes travelling in India more adventurous! Besides, it gives fodder to my stories :-)
A French Castle in Mumbai
Flight landed earlier than planned. Immigration check was smooth. Luggage came late but that’s OK, I told myself, no rush, just go with the flow. Airport pick-up from hotel showed up as planned (unlike my 6th & 7th visits to Delhi). The drive was about an hour to my hotel, and soon enough we were nearing Chowpatty Beach, Marine Drive, and finally at my chateau.
Chateau, did you say? Yes, that’s right. Chateau. It’s the Chateau Windsor Hotel Mumbai located in Churchgate and a very short walking distance from Marine Drive. It’s hardly palatial or majestic but the building looks like an apartment, rather non-descript actually. I have no idea why it’s called a Chateau but do not let the drab façade fool you.
The hotel furniture (except for the flat screen TV) seems to be from the 1950s. The room and bathroom are very clean and spacious, and the bed is quite comfortable. The best thing I like about the hotel is the caged lift :-) Wifi is chargeable, thus I chose not to be connected to the internet during my 2-night stay there.
I woke up early the next morning and opted to have breakfast on the rooftop terrace. Guests can also have their breakfasts served in their rooms. The city was silent on Sunday 8am. The only thing I heard was crows. Not even motor vehicles or the ubiquitous Indian honking on the road. The view on the rooftop terrace ain’t that great – water tanks on top of other buildings and a cricket stadium nearby. But with table umbrellas giving me shade, the sun was not too hot and the crows kept me company for breakfast, it was an all right atmosphere. Given that the chateau is strategically located close to the main attractions of Mumbai, clean, decent and affordable, this 3-star hotel was indeed something of a gem.
I had a 9am appointment at Capitol Cinema opposite Victoria Terminus (VT). I found out the route from the hotel to VT and it is a rather straight-forward route, only 15 minutes’ walk.
Prior to my trip, I have read many times in the media that Mumbai is safe for women at any time of the day or night. And my Indian friends have mentioned the same as well. So I, a female foreigner, walked alone from the hotel to VT. And the verdict is: it is indeed safe. I was not hassled. There was a gentleman who wished me Good Morning. No one stared or gawked at me. I could never walk alone in other parts of India particularly up north in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh or Rajasthan. Having said that, although Mumbai is relatively safer than other cities, I still caution women to be street-smart, be alert and follow your instincts, like you typically would in your home city or anywhere else in the world.
OK, back to my appointment. I signed up for Racounteur Walks Mumbai and the tour at 9am was The Churchgate and Heritage Mile Walk. I came across their tour through another blogger GetSetAndGo who posted her experience on the same heritage walk in Jan 2014. Racounteur Walks Mumbai has been receiving consistent raving reviews on Tripadvisor. I found it intriguing as I have never been on a walking tour before, and walking tours seem to be springing up in major cities nowadays as an alternative and perhaps, more insightful way to understand a city.
I was the only one who signed up for the Churchgate Walk. Apparently, there were many others who signed up for The Apollo Gate and Front Bay Walk that Sunday but since I’m a history and heritage buff, I requested for Racounteur to accommodate my request for Churchgate Walk. I finally met my guide, a 24-year old engineer who loves history and loves his city, Mumbai.
The Good Bay
We started off the tour by standing across the road from Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus or commonly known as Victoria Terminus (VT). My guide shared the historical background of Mumbai, and based on his sharing and my research, I thought I give you an insight as to how Mumbai was known as Bombay, and the significance of VT…
Bombay consisted of 7 islands, and was formally surrendered in the 16th century by a Sultan of Ahmadebad to the Portuguese. The Portuguese originally dubbed Bombay as “Bom Bahia” (Good Bay), felt that the islands were of little importance while they focused on developments in areas elsewhere.
The largest island was given to King Charles II of England in the 17th century as part of the dowry when he married the Portuguese Infanta Catherine of Braganza. Later on, Charles II received the remaining islands and the harbour port, then anglicised Bom Bahia to Bombay. Because of its strategic importance for commerce, a deal was struck between Charles II and the East India Company whereby Bombay was leased to the trading company for a pittance.
The English went on to develop and strengthen their outpost, and by the start of the 18th century, Bombay became the capital of the East India Company. The governor at that time promoted and supported a community mix that still contributes to the city’s success, welcoming Hindu traders from Gujarat, Goans, Muslim weavers, and most notably, the business-minded Zoroastrian Parsis. By the time it was the 19th century, Bombay went through an age of expansion attributed by the arrival of the Great Indian Railways, the opening of the Suez Canal, cotton boom, so much so, it became a major industrial and commercial centre. Hence, the English felt that they needed to construct an extravagant railway station in the form of neo-Gothic architecture as a fitting testimony to this extraordinary expansion – Victoria Terminus.
Well, my guide certainly added a bit more pizzazz to the story by sharing funny and interesting anecdotes as well :-)
From VT, we walked along D.N Road, admiring one of the oldest parts of the city, and my guide pointed out a Parsis agiary. An agiary is a fire temple, a place of worship for Zoroastrians Parsis.
Columns of old buildings along D.N Road
Parsis are descendants of a group of Zoroastrians in Iran (Persia) who fled to avoid persecution from Muslim invaders during the 8th-10th centuries. At the time of Muslim conquest of Persia, the dominant religion in the region was Zoroastrianism. The Parsis fled to the western borders of India (Gujarat & Sindh), and over the centuries, they migrated from Gujarat and Surat to Bombay, the centre of commercial activities. The Parsis have integrated very well into the Indian society while maintaining their own distinct customs and traditions.
Zoroastrians worship communally in a Fire Temple or Agiary. They believe that the elements are pure, therefore fire symbolises purity and represents God’s light or wisdom. However, neither are they considered as fire-worshippers. Sacred fires are maintained in the Agiaries, never extinguished. In fact, no Zoroastrian ceremony is performed without the presence of a sacred fire.
It’s interesting to note that the facade of the agiary is always, perhaps intentionally, ordinary and free from embellishment. My guess is that the purpose of a fire temple is to house a sacred fire, not for anything else what is otherwise just a building. Unfortunately, I was not able to enter the agiary to satisfy my curiosity. According to Zoroastrianism traditions, non-Parsis are not allowed to enter the fire temple.
Art District and Art-Deco
After the Fire Temple, our walking tour continued towards the Flora Fountain which is a busy roundabout in the heart of downtown Mumbai. Across from the roundabout are many colonial buildings such as the old Public Works Department and the Telegraph Department. Further south of Flora Fountain is the city’s art district Kala Ghoda: Jehangir Art Gallery, National Gallery of Modern Art, The Prince of Wales Museum, David Sassoon Library and University of Bombay.
My guide continued to regale me with more interesting stories about the oldest surviving cast iron building formerly known as the Watson’s Hotel, and the philantropist Readymoney and his particular association with University of Bombay. Moving towards the west, we walked past the university and its Victorian buildings such as Convocation Hall and Rajabhai Clock Tower. I wished I could enter the university grounds especially to see the library with high Gothic windows and stained glass but I wasn’t allowed to.
Convocation Hall, University of Bombay
Opposite the university is the Oval Maidan where impromptu cricket matches are held almost every day. As we walked across the Maidan, we were towards the end of our walking tour where the buildings seemed to be completely different from the other side of the Maidan. From Victorian architecture to Art-Deco post-First World War. And this is where I found out that Mumbai has the second largest Art-Deco surviving buildings in the world after Miami!
Come to think of it, the Churchgate and Heritage Mile Walk actually started with the heritage streets first and then ended in Churchgate right before Marine Drive. All in all, the walking tour was truly interesting, fascinating and I enjoyed it thoroughly. My guide didn’t conduct the tour by reciting historical facts, instead he weaved in stories after stories for each heritage pit-stop throughout the tour. The tour was supposed to be 3 hours long but it went on slightly longer. I didn’t mind as it was so engaging.
So that was my first day in Mumbai and I must say, thanks to Raconteur Walks who helped to give me a very Bom (good) impression of this vibrant city!