Thursday, January 31, 2013

Mumbai's Elephanta Island - Heritage, History, Beauty

Elephanta Island is 9 kilometers (some say 7 or 10) northeast from Mumbai Harbour. The island is home to a cave system that has been turned into both Hindu and Buddhist temples, with basalt rock carved into pillars and gods, including a 6-meter tall Sadashiva. In olden times, the island was called Gharapuri  which literally means “city of caves”, kept afloat by an arm of the Arabian Sea.

The larger group contains Hindu images – with rock cut stone sculptures representing Shiva, while the smaller one has Buddhist carvings. Sometime in 1534, the Portuguese explorers came and ruled over the region.

What they found was a behemoth statue of an Elephant “guarding” the island, thus they renamed Gharapuri as such. In the caves, all they found were a few Kshatrapa coins from the 4th century. Nothing else. The aforementioned elephant statue, though still in existence, has since been transferred in the Victorian Garden outside Bhau Daji Lad in Central Mumbai.

Locals believe that these caves aren’t man-made. In fact, some believe that Pandava, a hero (composed of five personages) from Mahabharata, was responsible for the creation of these caves, previously designed as an abode of sorts. Others believe Banasura, the demon devotee of Shiva, was responsible for its construction. Historians however believe that the place served as the capital of the Konkan Mauryas, dating them to the mid 6th century (635 A.D.) Several other rulers made Elephanta their kingdom.

I paid 250 rupees for my foreigner’s entrance fees (locals pay a measly 10 rupees), plus a 5 rupee tax; then hopped into a boat that soon left the jetty. The ride was a pleasant and refreshing glide into the Arabian Seas, which took about an hour to get there. A miniature diesel train, looking more like a Willy Wonka carnival toy (as it’s painted red), awaits those who want to leisurely take their time (for a 10-rupee fee of course). Otherwise, it’s a short walk through rows of makeshift stalls selling souvenir items (shirts, wood carvings, trinkets, etc.). I had my first proper meal for the day before heading towards the caves. The journey would be a bit uphill, but it was hardly strenuous. It reminded me of the road towards the Perfumed Pagodas of North Vietnam.

Bucher (or Butcher ) Island is a fortress-like structure en route to Elephanta Island. 

A short train ride costs 10 rupees. I didn't bother.

A short walk from here to those establishments. At the back of those structures are the caves. If walking is "too much" for you, you can take the 10-rupee train (above).
Affordable meals at the Elephanta Port Restaurant

Map of Elephanta Island

Though there are close to 10 caves in the complex, tourists gets to practically experience the two cave systems containing intricately carved statues. Taking photos of some of them without people was almost a challenge because of the big throng wandering around. It didn't take me more than an hour to see what had to be seen. There was also a little pictographic museum near the caves: Asi Site Museum, though I feel this was too simplistic, if not misplaced, beside these spectacular rock sculptures.  

It’s easy to understand why the Elephanta Caves have been bestowed the title of a UNESCO World Heritage Site as early as 1987, but India has so many of these grandiose sites. I’d favor many other sites than this one. I loved the boat ride though. In fact, one of my most favorite moments in Mumbai was this boat ride back to the Gateway. It felt peaceful, with most passengers keeping mum and enjoying the gentle late afternoon breeze.

The elephant statue found by the Portuguese guarding the cave. This photo only courtesy of wikipedia.

From a distance, the sun glistened like a fierce bowl of fire, deep orange and seemingly burning. It was a sight to behold. 

Bucher Island looked like a sleeping fortress, with a flag waving languidly in the middle of the island, flapping gently against the wind. While the day seemed like a brisk series of slide shows, the boat disallowed any more movement outside the boundaries of the moving ship. For once, I was stationary. And it wasn't so bad.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Shiva as Nataraja, the Cosmic Dancer.

Trimurti (right)

Asi Site Museum

Souvenir shops 

Fiery sun reluctantly sets over Mumbai.

Mumbai Walk -

Mumbai Tales, Greedy Drivers and Losing Cool

A Rickshaw Ride in Delhi One Lazy Morning

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Mumbai Tales, Greedy Drivers and Losing Cool

At half past 4 in the afternoon, I was seated comfortably in my upgraded train ride, bracing myself for a 17-hour travel that would take me from New Delhi to Mumbai Junction. This covers a distance of 1,384 kilometers (865 miles), running between 4:30 PM until after 9AM the next day. There was a buzz of excitement humming in my head . Mumbai, formerly Bombay, is conveniently India’s most cosmopolitan city; the capital of the state of Maharashtra; the land of Bollywood dreams, flashy cars, beautiful women, stately buildings, and a metropolitan population of more than 21 million – easily making it India’s largest city. With such density, you can also expect the country’s biggest slum population, inspiring films like Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire”. 

Rajdhani Express waited with nonchalant demeanor. This train service links New Delhi to many state capitals. Seats are a bit more expensive here since the different carriages are fully airconditioned. I got myself a 2AC seat, a far cry from the chaos of a Sleeper Class. A bunk has 4 couches; two-tiered foldable seats/beds facing each other; and a curtain providing privacy from the manual traffic on the aisle.

My 2,210 rupee (US $41) fare, almost 4x the price of a Jaisalmer sleeper class, provided meals (there’s a choice for vegetarians and otherwise) and a dash of serenity. The first class seats were a limiting option (4,135 rupees or $77) that if I were to purchase a ticket and still endure a 17-hour travel, it would be wiser to fly instead (for a 2-hour flight). Needless to say, this ride was painless although at some point, the enclosure and the utter indifference of my bunkmates were stifling.

What’s interesting is how this ride had very few stops between New Delhi and Mumbai, encompassing 5 important stations of 5 Indian states (my train from Jaisalmer had 35): Kota (Rajasthan), Ratlam (Madhya Pradesh), Vadodara and Surat (Gujarat) and, finally, Mumbai (Maharashtra). My roaming cell phone intermittently blasted erratic messages as we glided between stations, informing me that I’d been “unsubscribed”, then welcoming me later as I entered a new state. A couple of times, it would ring and upon receipt, there’s nothing there but a “Hindi song” – and I am suddenly charged for a call I didn’t make. How convenient is that for a telecom business, earning something for making spam calls and music? Welcome to India.


It took me awhile to decide where to get accommodation, but I kept vacillating between Colaba and Fort Area. The Fort is in the heart of the financial district. It has the Bombay Stock Exchange and street shopping, most especially of softwares. Colaba, on the other hand, has the Gateway of India, Regal Theatre, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, high-end boutiques and a baywalk filled with gaudily-decorated, lavishly-lit chariots. It’s an easy choice, really. Unfortunately, not a lot of tourists get this sense of the place. On point of practicality, Colaba – situated almost at the tail end of the city – has a relatively more expensive row of accommodations, and the cheaper ones leave much to be desired. If you’re a budget-conscious backpacker, Colaba is restrictive. Correct that: Mumbai is! This city has rates 3 to 4 times the going rate of other Indian cities so your choice is mostly between a 5-star hotel or a ramshackle guesthouse. Sadly, there’s almost no in-between. But I am getting ahead of myself so let me backtrack.

Mumbai Central platforms

Chips, anyone?

Rajdhani Express arrives at the eastern half of Mumbai Central.

Meal time on the train.

 I arrived in Mumbai after 10 AM. Hundreds of black-and-yellow taxis, pathognomonic of the commercial capital, greeted me as I got out of the station. The drivers flocked around me. A few of them started pulling the strap of my baggage, it was intimidating. You'd think cosmopolitan living should rightfully translate to some urban grace, but that's wishful thinking. You can talk to me, but unhand my belongings, mate, or I get ballistic.


Now this part becomes hairy. I started haggling, an activity I don’t have much patient of. A fellow traveler stated that the fare from the train station to Colaba should be around 200 rupees, but since I was a tourist, I should expect more. Don't I know that? I wanted them to use the meter, but no one was willing to. And where was the pre-paid taxi booth? You see, "arguing with touts and errant taxi drivers" has been a common occurrence in Mumbai travels. Travelers have huffed and puffed about it, but for years, taxi operators in this bustling city have mostly been dismissive of such booths until recently. Why a government arm is hard pressed to implement this is a mystery.

It must have taken me 45 minutes, dealing with a sundry of drivers until I almost gave up. Everyone was quoting a price of 500 rupees which was ridiculous since these taxis were non-AC. A driver finally agreed with 250 rupees. I emphatically repeated thrice just to be sure: "250 rupees to Colaba, right?" “Get in,” the driver ordered. I did so. I was already feeling harassed and tired. I don’t get sound sleep in trains. What if I wake up divested of my baggage? Not quite a minute into the ride, the driver suddenly uttered, “You pay 700 rupees to Colaba!” What?! “But we already shook hands on 250 rupees and you agreed,” I said. “No, it’s 700 rupees,” he insisted. Suddenly, an unexpected demon came into me and from out of nowhere, I just erupted, “Stop the car.” He refused, but we were still within station premises. “Stop or I’ll call the police!” I opened the door, got off the car, and started shouting invectives like a raving lunatic. It wasn't my most graceful moment. In fact, I had never been that infuriated. When  in such state, I usually walk away. I banged the door behind me, stomped away from the crowd of drivers still milling around me, and out of the station. I was simmering.

I walked out the station and allowed myself to calm down. I wasn't proud of myself. I've never acted that way before. I am usually emotionally controlled. It was interesting how the Indian taxi drivers succeeded to push my button. Who looked the fool, the uncouth or the uncivilized? Not the greedy drivers. At the end of the day, I am quite sure they enjoyed a restful sleep back in their miserable homes. There are lessons that one learns from experience and outside the university. I hailed a taxi plying the highway. Moving taxis are safer to use than waiting ones. My taxi driver started the meter, and off we went into Colaba sunset, so to speak. Finally!

Kamal Mansion houses SeaShore Hotel and India Guesthouse.

Gasp! Entrance to the hotel

There were three hotels on my list of choices. The first one was called Maria Lodge housed by “Grand Building” along Arthur Bunder Road. I asked my driver to wait while I check out the lodge for a room. But a couple of guys by the entrance were telling me that the lodge “was finished”; that it had closed shop. Hmmm, this was a familiar scenario, and rightfully mentioned by Lonely Planet: of touts and hotel wallahs turning tourists to their hotel of choice. I didn't pursue because, to be honest, the building was far from being “grand”. In fact, it was far from being “habitable”. In India, several hotel buildings are grandiosely, albeit misleadingly bestowed welcoming names though they’re far from being abodes of comfort or luxury. This was a subject of an adorable British film called “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (BAFTA-nominated for Best Film, starring Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy and Dev Patel). In the film, half a dozen British retirees from London leave their comfortable, albeit boring lives and travel across the globe to live in a luxurious home-for-retirees in Jaipur, only to find a “hotel” more derelict than decent. What follows is a series of adventures so engrossing and heart warming. But why am I talking about the movies? Anyway, from Maria Lodge, I told the driver to take me to my next choice.

Hallway of SeaShore Hotel
SeaShore Hotel is inconspicuously located along Arthur Bunder Road at a seemingly rundown building beautifully called “Kamal Mansion”. But “mansion” it clearly wasn't  The edifice stands a couple of blocks from the bayside, and a few more blocks south of the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Gateway of India. There’s a restaurant at the corner of this white building with chipping off paint. The entrance was partially hidden by some scaffolding. Once inside, you climb on narrow stairs (no lifts) until you reach India Guesthouse at the 3rd level (4th floor really since the counting of stories/floors in India doesn't include the ground floor). Proceed to the 4th level (5th and top floor) until you reach the reception.

The front desk is manned by a hospitable staff. Many of the rooms are non-AC rooms, but since it was the cold season, who needed AC? For a measly 600 rupees, I got a single room with a window. There’s a television with English channels, a comfortable bed with clean sheets, and more importantly, a window with a view of the Mumbai Harbour. This sprawling view of the serene Arabian Sea would suffice for the dearth of amenities of the hotel. Bathroom is shared, but there’s hardly a queue; and the bathroom’s newly renovated and spotless. Check out time is ridiculously early at 10 AM which is probably similar in other hotels in Mumbai. The hotel, which also manages the guesthouse a floor below, doesn't have a restaurant of its own. If you’re on a budget, it’s probably hard to find anything more decent than SeaShore Hotel.
It had been an unpleasant welcome in Mumbai so I wanted to shake off the negativity briskly; soak in the heady beauty that the city offers. But I couldn't do that right away. My door wouldn't lock, and I can't just leave my baggage like that. I informed the front desk and this was hastily fixed.

View from my SeaShore Hotel room


Before long, I was walking by the bayside. Sometimes one has to go through a piece of hell to get a piece of heaven. This side of Colaba was gorgeous. Each block seemed to reek of colorful stories from an eventful past. The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (which is actually two hotels) had been standing there since 1903. With its 565 rooms, it has welcomed dignitaries like the Obamas, the Clintons, Oprah Winfrey and jetsetting couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. There is a delectable story behind its construction.

According to the grapevine, Indian industrialist Jamsetji Tata, regarded as the "Father of Indian Industry" and founder of the behemoth Tata Group of Companies, was once refused entry to a posh hotel (Watson's Hotel, now Esplanade Mansion) in colonial India because it was for "whites only". What better way to avenge embarrassment than build your own hotel twice grander and bigger than Watson's? 127 million British pounds later, Tata owned a hotel that boasted of India's first steam-operated German elevators, electric fans imported from the Americas, baths from Turkey and, to complete the ambiance, British butlers with their aquiline noses in the air. How's that for revenge? The view is nothing short of jaw dropping. But all these trivialities  were nearly relegated to mere history when the terrorists bombed the hotel one crazy November day; when various places around Mumbai were similarly pilfered and sabotaged. Post-bombing restoration cost $40 million. The face of Mumbai has since been  transformed into a circumspect, if vigilant demeanor. Terrorism has transformed the world into a less friendly, distrustful, and wary place.

These days, a double room with a view of the ocean could be had at an unbelievable rate of just 9,000 rupees ($167). That's a lot cheaper than matchbox ratholes I've recently booked in Sydney or New York. 


Beautifully nestled by the waterfront, just a few hops from the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel stands the regal Gateway of India, a monumental basalt-and-concrete arch built (21 years after the founding of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel) during the British Raj in 1924. Designed by architect George Wittet, it was erected to commemorate the visit of King George and Queen Mary in 1911. It took 4 years and $38,200 to complete; now it is Mumbai's most visited site.

Mughal-inspired arch with Hindu accouterments

The gateway is the center piece of a pedestrian plaza overlooking the Arabian Seas. It is a landmark where Mumbai Harbour is located, which is rather important when you've plans of visiting Elephanta Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site just off the coast.


I loved just standing around watching people wander around, but this isn't a place if you're in search of serenity. There are hundreds of touts selling you stuff: balloons, candies, local photographers, and a bevy of souls peddling whatever it is they can make a few bucks with. My encounter was with a turbanned fellow who, from out of the blue, came from behind me, picked my right ear in a split second then came up with a scoop supposed filled with ear wax ("ewww...") purported to be mine. While it is true that I don't necessarily clean my ears every single day when I am on the road, I couldn't believe that I've accumulated that much either. You see, cleaning the ear with cotton bud on a daily basis (while a hygienic practice) is not medically sound because you lose the intended oily environment of the internal ear. This turns into a dry, scaly, and ultimately itchy environment. The person becomes susceptible to ear irritations, infection and Otitis Externa. So... Did I just have my ear cleaned off a gargantuan scoop of ear wax? I'd say, no thank you. I can clean them adequately without the need of a spatula.

Meanwhile, there was this place I wanted to visit before sun sets over Mumbai. There are no elephants there, but they may as well be here:

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Gateway of India. This photo only courtesy of Chris Haigh of Brittanica. 

Balloon wallahs

Swami Vivekananda. He was an aristocratic Indian Hindu monk from Kolkata credited for the introduction of the philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga in the western world, thereby raising interfaith awareness. This statue reads: "Born 12th January 1863, Left for America from Bombay 31st May 1893, Mahasamadhi 4th July 1902".  Believed to have died with a ruptured blood vessels in the brain, he expired while meditating. 

 A Mumbai Walk