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Published: November 25th 2007
The Gateway to India
This monolithic structure was intended to be the first building to greet newly arrived travellers to the empire. Ironically, it was only just completed in time to witness the end of the Raj and the departure of its last troops.
© L. Birch 2007
There can't be anywhere else quite like India. It becomes apparent, almost as soon as you arrive, that this country of around 1.25 billion people marches to a very different drum to that of the rest of the world. It is a place of extremes and massive contradictions where the sheer diversity of human experience and emotion may overwhelm, delight, shock or suffocate you - sometimes, all in the same moment. Nothing seems to work quite the way you expect and the cultural divide is so great that - upon arrival - you can feel as if you have somehow, been transported to a different planet.
Experiencing this cultural difference is one of the main reasons we travel and it is because India is so different
, that we keep coming back. A journey through the sub-continent can challenge you in unexpected ways and we were both excited and more than a little anxious to see how it would affect us this time around. For us, the onslaught began on touchdown at Bombay's international airport. Even here at southern India's most important gateway, there is a certain shabbiness to everything, a look that is unique to India. There was an abnormally
Colonial Architecture, Mumbai
Grandiose buildings - like this one opposite Victoria Terminus (CST) - still survive as nostalgic reminders of British rule in India.
© V. Birch 2007
large contingent of staff at the airport when we arrived but the place was filthy and you couldn't help but wonder what they were all doing. I was not surprised to find that the airport toilets were of the Asian squat variety but was mildly taken aback to discover that they were incredibly grubby, had no loo paper (ladies and gentlemen, it's what your left hand is for, welcome to Asia!), no soap and nowhere to dry your hands after you had gotten them wet. But after all, it was only the country's second largest airport.
An aged Premier taxi - india's version of a 1950s Fiat - took us into the heart of downtown Bombay (now more correctly known as Mumbai) as dawn's first light cut through a dusty haze hanging above the city. It was a journey back in time, to the middle-ages in fact, where the shattered streets were filled with people, cows, bullock carts and all manner of vehicles through which our driver wove at great speed and with a great deal of horn blowing. The approaches to town were cluttered by the sprawl of an impressive slum that seemed to spill away from the
Business as usual in the busy Colaba market, Mumbai.
© V. Birch 2007
road in a great tide of corrugated tin and polythene sheeting. It was one of those distressing contradictions that make India so fascinating, for although Bombay has some of the world's most expensive real estate, it is also home to Asia's largest slums. Feeling like voyeurs, we watched from the taxi window as the sun rose and whole families - most of whom had spent the night sleeping on city pavements, their few belongings scattered around them - woke, stretched and prepared themselves for the daily struggle to survive and make a living. For most, it would be a meagre living at best, since Bombay's population of 16.4 million was swelled by an ever growing number of the rural poor and there simply weren't the jobs to go around.
Alighting in the Colaba district, we picked our way through shattered streets to one of Bombay's cheapest hotels and longest running institutions - the Salvation Army Hostel in Merewether Road. An institution it may have been - once, but the Salvo's Hostel had definitely seen better days. Billeted in separate dorms, I inspected mine with dismay. Nothing had been cleaned for months, including the shared bathroom, and the walls were
Outside the 'Salvo's Hostel'.
Having heard that we were staying in Mumbai, an excited crowd of Punjabi students waits expectantly outside the hostel.
© V. Birch 207
blotched with indeterminable stains... where the paint wasn't peeling off in great strips already, that is. Cockroaches scuttled under a bed when I entered and I couldn't help but notice the faint smell of old socks lingering in the heat heavy air.
Regardless of its present condition though, many an expedition had started out from here, including that of the writer, Dervla Murphy whose book, "On a Shoestring to Coorg", chronicles a journey to a remote and little visited part of southern Karnataka. Despite feeling close to exhaustion after our long flight and a sleepless night 'camped' in plastic chairs at the airport, we checked in, dumped our packs and set off to find Bombay's Victoria Station. We wanted to get out of the city as soon as possible and - since trains were often booked up days in advance - it made sense to try and make a booking sooner rather than later in order to avoid a protracted stay in the capital. A crowded No. 6 bus from Colaba Causeway took us to the station where we were greeted by the sight of Bombay's most exuberantly decorated gothic edifice - Chhatrapatri Shivaji Terminus, formerly Victoria Station but
Street Market, Mumbai
Vegetables for sale in a Mumbai market.
© V. Birch 2007
often more simply known as CST. Built by the British and completed in 1887, this magnificent building looks more like a fantastically ornate cathedral than a railway station with its domes, turrets, gargoyles and stained glass windows. The fact that it survives in such wonderful condition must prove that - occasionally - the British could do something right!
Braving the incredible crowds at CST, we made enquiries at a couple of ticket booths before being directed to counter 52 upstairs. With an ease that surprised us, we managed to book tickets on a night train heading south in two days time and retreated feeling rather pleased with ourselves. The next two days passed quickly with visits to a colourful local market, Elephanta Island and Bombay's most iconic sight - the Gateway to India. In between, we were accosted by all manner of beggars, offered bit parts in a Bollywood movie (which we hope to take up at a later date) and tried hard to adjust to the heat, the sights and the smells that are so much a part of the India experience.
The smells are often what you first notice; the richly mingled aromas of incense and
A sculpted motif decorates the wall outside a Hindu temple, Mumbai.
© L. Birch 2007
spices, dust, decay and human excrement. But perhaps the most difficult thing to deal with was the begging. It assaults our western-bred sensibilities and fills us with a sense of guilt that we find difficult to deal with. Everyday brought numerous new demands - from children with matted hair to arthritic old ladies, and lepers with blood-stained bandaged wounds and no fingers on the hands they held out to you in supplication. It was often distressing and heartrending at the same time but things were not always what they seemed. We had learned that there were cartels that 'owned' stables of beggars who would be placed on strategic street corners throughout the city each day. Takings were handed over to a bossman who made regular rounds to collect money and see that each beggar was working to their fullest capacity. In return, the beggar was clothed, fed and housed - albeit as cheaply as possible. The best takings were often made in those places where foreigners gathered and the most lucrative beggars were those that displayed the severest of disfigurements. Of course, this meant that a beggar with a disease or disfigurement of this kind stood little chance of being
Ferry Boats at Rest
Ferry boats await customers for the trip to Elephanta Island below the imposing edifice of Mumbai's Gateway to India.
© L. Birch 2007
cured, since their money making potential would be lessened as a result. And while we might condemn such practices, it is as well to remember that there is no system of social welfare and many of the people forced to beg in this way have no hope of finding work. Not every beggar you see works for a cartel but in India, nothing can be taken at face value.
Beggars and touts often made a beeline for us whenever we visited the Gateway to India. As foreigners, we were an obvious target and it was not always easy to stand back and admire this monolithic structure that so epitomises the last days of the British in India. The Gateway to India was originally built to commemorate a visit by King George V and was officially opened in 1924. Ironically, the British had begun to lose their grip on India and the King's proposed visit was never made. Instead, the archway stood as mute testament to the end of the Raj: a silent witness to the last departing troops of the empire. It was also from the gateway that we took a boat to Elephanta Island.
The boat trip
The entrance to the main temple complex on Elephanta Island.
© L. Birch 2007
lasts an hour and provides views of the harbour and skyline of Bombay before docking at a boat pier where the island's muddy shoreline is dotted with partly submerged mangrove trees. Like vultures, brahminy kites circle languidly overhead as you make the long, hot walk up and into the interior. On the way, you must brave a never-ending sea of souvenir stalls, shoulder to shoulder along either side of the path. "Yes, Sir - Madam... please looking at my stall. Very cheap price, no charge for looking". Of course, if you relent, you face the hard sell and only the most determined walked away unscathed.
Eventually however, you reach your destination at the top of a flight of steps that affords views out over the Arabian Sea and back toward Bombay. The reward for getting this far, is a peek into a magnificent past - a look into the rock cut Elephanta caves. Little is known about the origins of the caves or their carvings - hewn out of solid rock - except that they were believed to have been created between 450 and 750 AD. The Portuguese named the Island "Elephanta" after the discovery of a large stone
Exploring Cave Temples
Domestic visitors explore some of the numerous cave temples to be found on Elephanta Island.
© L. Birch 2007
elephant near the shore. The statue was later relocated by the British to Victoria Gardens in Bombay, where it has remained ever since. There are several caves to explore on Elephanta. Many have incomplete carvings or statues that have been damaged by earthquakes. The most spectacular are those of the largest cave which, aside from a number of dancing figures, also has as its centrepiece a huge carving of Shiva's face, rendered in exquisite detail - eyes closed in peaceful meditation.
Our Bombay experience came to an end all to soon and to our surprise and delight, we realised that we had enjoyed it immensely. Now, if only we could enjoy the rest of India as much.... it was something to hope for as we bedded down for the night on the long train journey south. Lulled to sleep by the rocking motion of the train, we dreamt of wonderous things; Indian gods with tridents and swords, rickshaws and beggars in crowded Bombay streets. In a few days time, we would be more than 300 miles away, exchanging the city hustle for the chaos and charm of rural India.
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