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from the archives: bombay

As the holiday travel season is upon us, I thought I would share with you some photos from an incredible trip to India my boyfriend and I took in February 2008.  We stayed with my friend Sejal who was living in Mumbai at the time, in the residential suburb of Bandra.  In addition to living near the Bandstand Beach and in close proximity to the home of Bollywood legend Shah Rukh Khan, staying outside the small tourist area allowed us to experience real life in one of the most incredible urban areas of the developing world.  Glittering wealth sits next to the most abject poverty in the world: just as the city is home to the Bollywood stars, it is also the home of Goregaon, the largest slum in Asia.  The city is the commerce capital of India and as such doesn’t actually receive a lot of tourists, who tend to travel to New Delhi in the North to see the Taj Mahal, or to districts in the South to visit lush rainforests and Hindu temples.  Mumbai is home to Muslims and Hindus and is the Indian home of the Parsees, an Iranian Zoroastrian culture that thrived under British rule and controls much of the wealth in the city.

These cultures usually coexist comfortable in the city, which is often called a place where the religion is Money, but in the winter of 1992-3 it was the site of major Hindu-Muslim riots that killed almost 1000 people.  Since that time a Hindu Nationalist movement has increased in power in the state of Maharashtra in which the city is located.  The name change of the city from Bombay to Mumbai reflects this influence: the new name is for Mumbadevi, the Hindu protectress of the region.  While we were there there was some street violence and unrest incited by the Shiv Sena, a far-right political organization that has several splinter groups.  They incited attacks on local taxi drivers of non-Marathi descent, causing political unrest and a taxicab strike.  I’ll never forget the call I got from Sejal telling us to come home as soon as we could because our trip would pass through the Dadar neighborhood where the Shiv Sena party offices are located.  The leader of the party, Raj Thackeray, was arrested on February 13, the day we left.

Scary as it might have been for a traveler to encounter this kind of urban unrest, the tensions in Mumbai fuel incredible dynamics of the city, which is overwhelming in its array of sensory experiences and surging of human life.  The sounds of Bollywood music, the smells of street food on every corner (which we sadly couldn’t eat), the colors of sarees and scarves…this was the real experience of Bombay.  We loved visiting the mosques and Muslim markets, and hearing the evening call to prayer.  We attended Brian’s friend’s (3-day!) Hindu wedding and watched plays about Krishna.  We went to street markets and watched traditional Indian dancing.  We rode in auto-rickshaws and haggled with salesman over the price of clothing and souvenirs.  We drank chai with the saree salesman and a wholesale silk scarf vendor whose shop was at the top of a narrow set of stairs in a crowded market.  We ate…a lot.  And we never tired of watching cows wander through the streets. 

Hajji Ali, a mosque on a peninsula into the bay.

A temple in the community on Malabar Hill that lives near the Banganga Tank, a holy site in Hindu folklore.

This is what many commuities on the outskirts of Mumbai look like.

A mosque in the Crawford Market.

A cow wanders the food stalls at Juhu Beach.

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