If pressed for a one-word impression of Bombay, I would choose cosmopolitan, or to expand a little further, it’s the financial and entertainment capital of India, much like New York City here in the U.S. First of all, let’s get the name out of the way. With the limits of history taught in my country grammar school added to the disinterest I showed in my high school days, I’d always assumed Bombay was named by the British after they arrived in the 17th century. In the beginning, or at least before written history, much of the west coast of India was pretty much owned and controlled by the Mughal Empire who didn’t call it anything as far as I know. In actuality it was named by the Portuguese–those same adventurers who invaded most of the western coast of India fairly early in the 16th century. It looked to them like a beautiful bay so they called it that. BOM, meaning or “beautiful” and BAHIA meaning bay. In 1995, it was renamed Mumbai from Bombay but many of us, even those who live there, still refer to it as Bombay.
Throughout much of history, marriage arrangements have determined who gets what in the territorial department. That’s how Britain was added to Bombay’s picture in 1661–through the marriage treaty drawn between Charles II of England and Catherine of Braganza, the daughter of King John IV of Portugal. As part of Catherine’s dowry to Charles, the islands along the coast that made up Bombay was turned over to the British Empire. Of course we all know how the British, and since then, the rest of us, grew quite fond of India’s tea and spices. Not too long after that, it was turned over to the East India Company. A self-taught artist by the name of Robert Melville Grindlay served with the East India Company’s military service from 1804-20 and during this period produced a large number of sketches and drawings recording the life and landscape of India. A copy of one, done in 1826, shows the early cosmopolitan culture of the city, which endures to this day.
The Gateway of India was built in 1914-18 to commemorate King George V’s and Queen Mary’s visit in 1911. The arch is Muslim style and the decorations Hindu style. It’s probably the most visited attraction in Bombay because it’s a good place to hang around. The last of the British troops to leave India–after independence on August 15, 1947–ceremoniously passed through the Gateway for the last time in 1948 on the 28th of February.
From my first Bombay visit, in 1980, I have many memories of thousands of virtually homeless people living in slums like those portrayed in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Those shadow city slums are still there, but I didn’t see so many this time. In talking to local family members, it seems some of them could afford to live in better digs, but prefer not to–for reasons I can only imagine. These pictures show how a large majority of the lower classes still live . . .
Then there’s the famous harbor area near the Taj Mahal Hotel. Yachts, fishing boats, commercial cruise lines, sailboats–you can see them all here. Thirty years ago, on a far less crowded day, we were waiting to board a ferry to the Ghandupuri Island there the Elephanta Caves are. A Saudi Arabian man stood on the top deck of a yacht similar to the one below drinking a bottle of Coca Cola. As I looked directly at him, he turned to look at me and offered me one, which I declined.
The middle class nature of this old-looking condominium is apparent where laundry is hung out to dry every morning, just as you can see along the balconies of many of the high rise condos in the suburbs. People seem to own fewer clothes and wash each day’s soiled clothes every morning. There are views for awhile, but they often disappear when another high-rise rises in front of you. Imagine living in a unit in the middle building. The view from there will be the window of another unit across from you.
Here we enter one of the high end malls, the Palladium. Known as one of THE places for the ultimate experience in high end shopping, its elegant interiors spread across four levels with premium and luxury brands mixed in with small gift shops and boutiques. I checked prices in one of the less expensive stores and found they were no cheaper in India than the U.S. Any westerner would feel comfortable shopping or spending an afternoon here, even if he/she can hardly afford to buy anything . . . unless it’s on sale of course! India’s merchants caught on very quickly to the western mode of inducing people to buy things they probably wouldn’t otherwise with those gigantic 51% OFF signs.
When I return, we’ll have a look at some of the unique sights and attractions of the city, such as the Dhobi Ghats, the Hanging Gardens, the house where Gandhi lived during some of his more tumultous years between 1917-1934, and of course another temple–the one a fascinating look at the Jain religion. Hope you’ll be here too.