Mumbai has been India’s busiest port and industrial centre since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1969. As famous today for its traffic jams as its record-breaking movie industry, the Maharashtrian capital tends not to feature high up most visitors’ ‘must see’ list, but as a point of arrival has a lot to recommend it.
Before the last British troops garrisoned in the country slow-marched past it to board their ships back to Blighty in 1947, the Gateway of India – a huge triumphal arch in the colonial Indo-Saracenic style – was the first landmark most new arrivals from Britain set eyes on. The second was the famous Taj Mahal Hotel beside it. Both still stand tall on the waterfront, as emblematic of the city today as they were in Victorian times.
Still more impressive monuments of the empire dominate the Kala Godha and Fort districts beyond the Gateway, among them Victoria Terminus, the world’s grandest railway station, and white-domed Prince of Wales Museum (both nowadays renamed after the 17th century Maharashtrian warlord, Shivaji). Nearby, the vast High Court and University buildings line the palm-fringed Maidans where cricketers in their whites play through the afternoons, as commuters stream home through Churchgate Station.
Aside from the behemoths of the British era, Mumbai’s other unmissable sight is the ancient rock-cut cave temples of Elephanta Island, a boat ride across the bay. Hollowed from a hill of brown-black basalt 13 centuries ago, the pillared shrines contain a series of awesome bas-reliefs, the most iconic of them the three-headed ‘Trimurti’, representing the three aspects of the God Shiva. This ranks among the finest specimens of ancient rock-cut cave art in India, and serves as a perfect primer for the archeological sites further north in Maharashtra.
Wind down after the boat ride back to the city with tea in the 1930s-style Sea Lounge of the Taj Mahal Hotel, located a stone’s throw from the ferry landing stage.