Mumbai is, arguably, the most cosmopolitan Indian city, comprised of migrants from all corners of the country and, indeed, the world, who have contributed to its history and bestowed on it a composite culture that has no parallel in India. It has the distinction of being the world’s ninth-most crowded city. Originally this was not even one landmass, but a group of seven disjointed islands inhabited by Koli fishermen and before them, Buddhist monks, who lived in the numerous small hills surrounding the city during Magadhan rule in the 3rd century BCE.
Today, as the capital of the Indian state of Maharashtra, the megapolis is the country’s undisputed commercial epicentre. For a first-time visitor, the sheer size of Mumbai can be intimidating. However, since so many universes coexist in every suburb of the city, it is always possible to find your own niche here. With its Colonial and Art Deco skyscrapers, chock-a-bloc traffic and frenetic pace of life, Mumbai is a unique city, and sifting through its layers of history and rediscovering imprints that each successive generation left behind is an experience like no other.
Find your bearings
The vast urban sprawl of Mumbai spans an area of over 600 sq km—a narrow promontory that ultimately juts into the Arabian Sea. The historic Fort in South Mumbai is the proverbial heart of the city, with the best choice of high-end hotels, great restaurants and cultural landmarks. Marine Drive, or Netaji Subhash Chandra Road, curves along a sea facing promenade and connects the suburbs to the city’s main commercial and administrative areas. Most of the city’s posh residential areas lie along the western coastline, just north of Marine Drive.
A 10-minute drive eastwards from the esplanade leads to Kala Ghoda (home of the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival), Mumbai’s de facto cultural district. Some of the city’s most important museums, libraries, and art institutions are located here, along with famous restaurants and book and music stores.
The suburban areas, such as Andheri, Juhu and Malad stretch further northwards. Three suburban railway lines—Western, Central and Harbour—connect the various parts of the city to each other. Taxis and buses are convenient ways to get around within the city. In the suburbs, auto-rickshaws operate by metre.
THE MUMBAI MUST-DO
Any amount of time spent in the ‘maximum city’ is not enough to explore its rich history and beautiful alleys. However, there are certain experiences one should not miss on a trip to Mumbai.
The Classic: Gateway of India
The Gateway, the city’s most popular communal space, teems with people no matter what time of the day it is. However, it looks absolutely magnificent at night—illuminated and framed against the backdrop of the vast Arabian Sea.
Undoubtedly Mumbai’s most famous monument, the Gateway of India was commissioned, in theory, to commemorate the visit of King George V and his consort Queen Mary to India in 1911. However, when the royal couple reached the shores of Bombay, they were greeted by a mock structure made of cardboard. The actual building was only completed in 1924, 12 years after the royal visit. After its completion, the iconic structure became the first sight to welcome travellers who arrived in India by ocean liner.
The then governor of Bombay Sir George Sydenham Clarke laid the foundation stone of the monument on 31 March, 1911. However, construction only began in 1915, after Scottish architect George Wittet’s design of the monument was sanctioned in March 1913. Wittet combined elements of the iconic Roman triumphal arch and traditional Gujarati architecture of the 16th century to create the look of the structure.
Yellow basalt and reinforced concrete was used for construction. While the stone was sourced locally, the perforated screens in the base of the monument were brought from Gwalior. The foundations were completed in 1920, and construction was finished in 1924. The gateway was opened for the public on 4 December 1924, by the then Viceroy of India, the Earl of Reading.
Ferries moored at the barge offer regular trips to the island of Elephanta, where you should head next. Otherwise, you could sign up for a Victorian buggy ride, which were reintroduced earlier in 2021 as horseless carriages with audio tours. (Fare Rs 500/750 for short and long rides)
A History Tour to Elephanta Caves
The ferry will transport you, in less than 75 minutes, back to the early centuries of the last millennium. In 2019, UberBOATS by the cab giant was launched where speedboats would take riders from Mumbai to Elephanta Caves and Alibag in flat 20 minutes. However, you'll have to shell out a lot more and check for any COVID-19 related-suspension in services.
The cave temples at Elephanta, dating from the 6th century AD, are dedicated to Lord Shiva and are great specimens of Indian sculptural art. Believed to have been carved during a period of Brahmanical revival after the decline of Buddhism in this part of the country, the cave temples are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the pier, a short walk leads visitors to a steep flight of 125 steps that in turn lead to the temples’ entrance—a huge pavilion supported by two dozen pillars.
In a deep recess in the rear wall is carved the massive triple-headed Shiva statue, known as the Maheshamurti. The three faces represent the three facets of Lord Shiva as the Creator, the Preserver and the Destroyer. There are other representations of Shiva as well: dancing as the Nataraja; slaying demons; playing chausar (game of dice) with Parvati and as the Ardhanarisvara. Visit the ASI Museum as well, where the history of Elephanta’s cave temples is presented in an easily understandable format.
Entry Rs 40 for Indians and travellers from SAARC nations (Rs 600 for other foreign nationals) Ferry ~ Rs 200; Timings 9am-2pm; closed on Mondays
THE MUSEUM RUN
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya
This handsome museum, with a dome that is said to inspired from Bijapur's Gold Gumbaz is a protected heritage structure constructed from locally sourced basalt and kurla stone. The sheer range of the collection is enough to satisfy even the most discerning connoisseur of art. The museum boasts collections of Indian Miniature Paintings, Far Eastern Art, artefacts from the Indus Valley Civilization, arms and armour, coins as well as relics from the Maurya and the Gupta periods.
There are approximately 60,000 artefacts housed in this vast museum divided into three broad categories, Art, Archaeology and Natural History. From the main central hall, a staircase leads to the upper storeys, with galleries branching out on either side. The ground floor has sculpture, the Pre-and- Proto History Gallery and the Natural History section. On the first floor are the Miniature Paintings, Nepalese and Tibetan galleries and decorative arts. The third floor houses European Paintings and arms and armour.
The Archaeology collection of the museum boasts Indus Valley artefacts that date back to 3,000 BCE as well as sculptures and figurines from the Maurya-Gupta period (320 BCE-800 CE). All main schools of Indian painting find representation in the miniature painting collection, be it Mughal, Deccani or Rajasthani. In fact, palm leaf manuscripts dating back to the 11th–12th centuries are also displayed. The European Painting galleries showcase some classic landscape paintings by John Constable, an English Romantic painter. The Natural History section has dioramas and habitat group cases that illustrate the diverse Indian wildlife.
For entry fee and timings, check out the museum website.
Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum
This museum is situated inside a grand Palladian building with high Victorian interiors, which was built in 1858 to showcase industrial arts and life as it was like in 19th century Bombay. The building was opened to the public in May 1872 as the Victoria and Albert Museum. However, lack of regular upkeep resulted in the deterioration of the museum and in February 2003, the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation along with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) signed an agreement with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) for its restoration.
Today, it contains one of the finest collections related to the city’s origins, history and evolution. The artefacts are kept inside stunning polished wooden cases which are retrofitted with state-of-the-art lighting. The exhibits on the ground floor are objets d’art, ranging from pottery, bronze and metal ware, miniature paintings and ivory sculptures, while on the first floor are dioramas and clay models that trace the history and cul-tural development of Bombay during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The most important exhibits are clay model representations of all the communities of erstwhile Bombay.
Their attire, occupation, religious beliefs, music, dance and festivals are all documented in painstaking detail. Another section here showcases the urban development of Mumbai from a group of disjointed islands to the sprawling metropolis that it is today through a series of maps, lithographs and photographs. Read more about the historical musuem here.
For tickets, public tours and timings, see here.
Jehangir Art Gallery and National Gallery of Modern Art
By far the most famous exhibition space in Mumbai, the Jehangir Art Gallery has four halls that have displayed the works of almost all renowned Indian artists. The museum shop sells reproductions and art print T-shirts, mugs and other collectibles.
The National Gallery of Modern Art was originally Sir Cowasji Jehangir Public Hall and played an important role in Bombay’s public and cultural milieu for several decades. However, the hall, which once hosted rallies by freedom fighters and concerts by Yehudi Menuhin, was eventually overshadowed by newer venues. Renovated and relaunched as the NGMA Mumbai in 1996, it now houses collections from some of India’s best known artists and has, on occasion, exhibited works by legendary artists such as Picasso. Entry is free.
This temple looks upon the tomb of Peer Haji Ali. The temple was built by contractor Ramji Shivji, who was working on the Hornby Vellard Reclamation Project linking Bombay and the Worli islands. But the embankment kept crumbling into the sea repeatedly, derailing the project. It is said that the devi appeared to Ramji Shivji in a dream and told him to retrieve an idol of hers from the Worli creek. The idol was duly recovered and installed in the temple and the project was completed without any further hindrances.
Mahalaxmi, Mahasaraswathi and Mahakali preside in the temple. The approach to the ornate gateway is along a narrow pathway dotted with smaller shrines to various gods. Great crowds visit the temple during the festival of Navaratri.
Shree Siddhivinayak Temple
This revered shrine dedicated to Ganesha was constructed in 1801 by contractor Laxman Vithu Patil with the financial support and instructions of Late Mrs. Deubai Patil, a rich, childless woman belonging to the Agri Samaj. She had the temple constructed so that other childless women could pray to the Ganapati and have him grant them the boon of offspring.
The sanctum sanctorum is located in the middle of a small mandapam, and has doors on three sides for the entry and exit of devotees. The roof of the sanctum is plated with gold. The deity is depicted with four arms, bearing a lotus, an axe, modaks and a garland of beads respectively. The idol is built of black stone, has a third eye in the middle of the forehead and has a serpent around its shoulders.