malabar’s hanging garden, towers of silence, victoria terminus, and jain temple

Being a flower lover, the first time I visited Bombay and heard “hanging garden,” my imagination went wild trying to imagine a garden filled with hanging baskets of flowers. We went by ourselves, sans guide, while I loved the peace and quiet, I never did figure out why it was called the “hanging” garden. I saw lots of beautifully manicured lawns with flower borders, then as now, ringed with flowering fruit trees with exotic names, and in the distance there were views of the city, as well as Chowpatti Beach along Marine Drive if you found the right spot. I remember also the displays of topiary animal shapes cut into the hedges much like those we had seen at Disney World in the U.S.

This time was different. Our guide Sudha–seen here strolling along with Hubby–explained the name. This terraced garden is laid out over the top of the three water reservoirs that supply Bombay its water. The soil the garden is layed out on is only 6 to 30 inches thick spread over the surface. That’s why the trees grow only on the slope of its perimeter. The reservoirs, constructed in 1880, were renovated in 1921 and the capacity increased to store 30 million gallons of water. Besides providing a storage place for the city’s water, the garden is a popular destination for quiet walks and contemplation for both tourists and locals alike. It’s design is also believed to be a practical application constructed to deal with the contaminated waters from a nearby tower of silence you’ll learn more about below.

The towers of silence are located in secluded gardens in the Malabar Hills on land donated by a Zoroastrian (Parsi) industrialist and chairman of the Bombay Stock Exchange from 1966 until his death in 1980, Sir Jamshetji Jeejeebhoy. It’s off-limits to tourists, but I caught this glimpse of the steps that lead to the tower where the centuries-old custom of exposing  remains of the dead to the sun–to be picked dry by scavenging vultures–takes place.Because they regard the elements of nature as sacred, they neither cremate–as Hindus do–nor bury underground–as Muslims do–because they believe such practices corrupt the natural element of fire and earth and thus defiled by the dead.

As urbanization spread, more and more high-rise apartments were erected in Malabar Hill. Soon it was too easy to catch a glimpse of the tower’s interior. One day a citizen was horrified to see shrunken corpses stacked in piles inside the tower. He was so disturbed that he complained, and soon a wall was built to screen the tower from anyone other than those tower attendants who worked there. I must add another cautionary tale of modernity here regarding still more influence of changing times. Sometimes, as the old saying goes, you gotta do what you gotta do! As the numbers of the Zoroastrians, or Parsis, began to decline and possibly a result of pollution as well, fewer vultures are around to flock to the tower for their ghastly task. Also, for  reasons not quite so clear–those that do come seem less inclined to touch the corpses anyhow. Hence the bodies take far longer to deteriorate than they did in the past. In time, naturally, bodies begin to accumulate. In what could be referred to as a “green” attempt to assist nature, solar panels were installed. Many in the community have had enough grisly experiences, however, and continue to press for changes to the old custom. Note to self: you can’t escape change–not even when you’re dead!

In the photo below, if you look hard at the top of the dome slightly right of the gable in the center, you’ll see a statue of Queen Victoria (the white one), for whom this impressive example of Victorian Gothic architecture spectacularly infused with stone domes, turrets and pointed arches of traditional Indian architecture, was built in time for opening in 1887 on the date of her Golden Jubilee. It took 10 years to build.

If memory serves, it was the explosions from a few years ago in the Victoria Terminus, Taj Mahal Hotel and other Bombay sites that led to a policy of NO photography inside the terminal, which is a crying shame as I’ve seldom seen such a magnificent interior, especially in a train station. There were ornamental iron and brass railings, tiles, and wood carvings–angels to elephants–everywhere. I remember wishing I were skilled at sketching so I could make sketches and remember things in more detail, especially the jungle-themed facade with peacocks, gargoyles, monkeys and lions. Historian and author, Christopher London, wrote in Bombay Gothic that Victoria Terminus is to the British Raj what the Taj Mahal was the the Mughal empire.

As beautiful as it was inside, however, it was one of the noisiest, busiest places–with people swarming like bees everywhere–the noise was phenomenal. I was particularly impressed that women all ages and alone were briskly moving in and out of trains. Since I’d read in local newspapers about vicious rapes, even numerous killings of young women in Delhi’s train terminals, I had wondered how safe they felt in the chaotic confines of Victoria Station. Sudha assured me that–not only was it safe, but it was easy as well to learn the system. Women of Bombay apparently feel free to move about quite freely at any time or day in Bombay.

Like everyplace else in India, the trend of renaming important locations with Indian names in response to demands of a political organization, the station was renamed after a famed 17th century Maratha King. It’s now officially called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, although I suspect most Indians–as I–will always think of it as Victoria Station.  Whatever you want to call it, it’s still the busiest railway station in Asia.

Another tour, and yet another temple! I expect my readers are getting used to finding temple notations throughout our India tour this year. How better to learn about the people than to explore the institutions they erect. The last temple we would visit was the Jain Temple located nearby in Malabar Hill. It’s relatively new, built in 1903. One of the significant differences in the Hindu sect of the Jains is that their followers are not only strict vegetarians, as are most Hindus, but they go to great lengths to avoid killing any living thing. Flowers are used as offerings in most Hindu temples, but not here at the Jain Temple, lest a bug inside the petals inadvertently be killed. Some sweep the path ahead of them while walking, and often wear masks so they won’t accidentally inhale insects. The most devoted among them will not eat any root vegetable like carrots or potatoes for fear of killing bugs when pulling the roots from the ground.

The entrance to this Jain temple is flanked by two stone elephants, like the one in the picture above.

One of the main tenets of the Jain community is charity. In this temple, a group of volunteers from the temple assist the poor by providing the means to purchase medicine they might not otherwise be able to afford. Each worker carefully looks over the individual doctor-issued prescriptions to verify their legitimacy, then the prescriptions are filled at the pharmacy, and dispensed afterwards to those who need them.

One final note for this post. I kept noticing bamboo scaffolding around construction and buildings of all sizes–skyscrapers, and modern office buildings alike–during our stay, like this one:

I kept thinking it couldn’t possibly be a scaffold assembly because the bamboo poles looked far too flimsy, but I asked the guide about it anyway. I’m so glad I don’t let the risk of sounding ignorant outweigh my desire to know things! She was quick to point out sound reasons to use old-fashioned albeit flimsy looking bamboo rather than the metal I was used to see in the U.S. (1) it’s strong–in spite of its skeletal look, and (2) it’s extremely lightweight and easy to handle, and very flexible as well, plus another decided advantage in what would soon be a very hot Bombay summer–it stays cooler than metal and thus less likely to burn bare foot workers. Sometimes simple is just better and a lot less expensive.

Next we’ll visit an art festival and have tea in the newly renovated Taj Mahal Hotel. Hope you’re able to come too.

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4 thoughts on “malabar’s hanging garden, towers of silence, victoria terminus, and jain temple

  1. Wonderful! I really enjoyed that ans learned quite a bit too. Now I am off to find a suitable outfit for the art festival and tea at the Taj Mahal Hotel!

  2. These tours are not only informative and delightful, they are VERY “cool” as I can enjoy them in the comfort of my air-conditioned home-office. =)

    The Zoroastrian practices for tending their dead was extremely interesting, if not a tiny bit shocking.

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