Ever since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the principal gateway to the Indian Subcontinent has been Mumbai (Bombay), the city Aldous Huxley famously described as “the most appalling of either hemisphere”. Travellers tend to regard time spent here as a rite of passage to be survived rather than savoured. But as the powerhouse of Indian business, industry and trade, and the source of its most seductive media images, the Maharashtrian capital can be a compelling place to kill time. Whether or not you find the experience enjoyable, however, will depend largely on how well you handle the heat, humidity, traffic fumes and relentless crowds of India’s most dynamic, Westernized city.
First impressions of Mumbai tend to be dominated by its chronic shortage of space. Crammed onto a narrow spit of land that curls from the swamp-ridden coast into the Arabian Sea, the city is technically an island, connected to the mainland by bridges and narrow causeways. In less than five hundred years, it has metamorphosed from an aboriginal fishing settlement into a megalopolis of more than sixteen million people – India’s largest city and one of the biggest urban sprawls on the planet. Being swept along broad boulevards by endless streams of commuters, or jostled by coolies and hand-cart pullers in the teeming bazaars, you’ll continually feel as if Mumbai is about to burst at the seams.
The roots of the population problem and attendant poverty lie, paradoxically, in the city’s enduring ability to create wealth. Mumbai alone generates one third of India’s tax income, its port handles half the country’s foreign trade, and its movie industry is the most prolific in the world. Symbols of prosperity are everywhere: from the phalanx of office blocks clustered on Nariman Point, Maharashtrian Manhattan, to the expensively dressed teenagers posing in Colaba’s trendiest nightspots.
The flip side to the success story is the city’s much-chronicled poverty. Each day, an estimated five hundred economic refugees pour into Mumbai from the Maharashtran hinterland. Some find jobs and secure accommodation; many more end up living on the already overcrowded streets, or amid the squalor of some of Asia’s largest slums, reduced to rag-picking and begging from cars at traffic lights.
However, while it would definitely be misleading to downplay its difficulties, Mumbai is far from the ordeal some travellers make it out to be. Once you’ve overcome the major hurdle of finding somewhere to stay, you may begin to enjoy its frenzied pace and crowded, cosmopolitan feel.
Nowhere reinforces your sense of having arrived in Mumbai quite as emphatically as the Gateway of India, the city’s defining landmark. Only a five-minute walk north, the Prince of Wales Museum should be next on your list of sightseeing priorities, as much for its flamboyantly eclectic architecture as for the art treasures inside. The museum provides a foretaste of what lies in store just up the road, where the cream of Bartle Frere’s Bombay – the University and High Court – line up with the open maidans on one side, and the boulevards of Fort on the other. But for the fullest sense of why the city’s founding fathers declared it Urbs Prima in Indis, you should press further north still to visit the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), the high-water mark of India’s Raj architecture.
Beyond CST lie the crowded bazaars and Muslim neighbourhoods of central Mumbai, at their liveliest and most colourful around Crawford Market and Mohammed Ali Road. Possibilities for an escape from the crowds include an evening stroll along Marine Drive, bounding the western edge of downtown, or a boat trip out to Elephanta, a rock-cut cave on an island in Mumbai harbour containing a wealth of ancient art.