24.08.2014 - 25.05.2014 38 °C
It is said that New York is not representative of America. The same can be said for Mumbai, and oddly enough, Mumbai feels a lot like New York!
Perhaps it's the Starbucks or Le Pain Quotidien that catch my eye as we weave through traffic in the distinctive black, Padmini taxi. Auto rickshaws are not allowed to circulate in the center, but motorcycles and buses are and it's a frenetic scramble for position as everyone rushes to go absolutely nowhere, honking incessantly. Forget the notion that pedestrians have the right of way and do not dare to rely on a traffic signal. It's bad enough that you have to remember to look to the opposite of naturally, but when you do attempt to cross, vehicles pass in front AND behind you hardly slowing down, outright nudging you out of their way. The rule seems to be, the more space you occupy the more priority you have and you always have priority if you're in front if you're bigger! Eventually, you get the hang of this insanity that seems to work though it may be only because Indians seem to have little tolerance for those who cause accidents.
Long avenues lined with tall buildings hide an intricate network of streets. Sprawling neighborhoods of past or booming grandeur, monuments, business districts and slums share tight borders populated by a colorful mix of people. Buildings wear the indelible marks of the intense heat and humidity that engulfs the city before the monsoon and the torrential rains during.
Our separate entrance at the Hotel Moti in Colaba, resembles The Best Marigold. The grand staircase leading up echoes with faded glory. The room, though sparse, is large and clean enough. An A/C screams cold air at us. The place would be a masterpiece if the owner had the means to restore it. The 4-story building stands in the shadow of the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace hotel which itself stands by the imposing Gateway to India at the edge of the Arabian Sea. On nearby side streets, trendy boutiques including Bungalow 8 and upscale restaurants like Khyber occupy renovated buildings with high ceilings and exposed brick. Most establishments have A/C. Even the minuscule barber shop on the sidewalk near our hotel can pull closed a folding plastic door offering a man a cool cut and shave.
The busy Colaba Causeway lined with shops, with sidewalks claimed by vendors leaving just a single-file lane for pedestrians, pulses with activity day and night. Making our way through the throngs of people, we walk to the magnificent, Victoria Station, today called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST). Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the short tour is worth taking just to escape the blur of people rushing in every direction on the platforms. Trains barely come to a full stop as they empty and refill their wagons and it's always a polite fight for a non-reserved seat.
Chor (thieves) Bazaar is a web if small streets packed with antique shops. Exactly how antique is certainly up for discussion, but it's a fascinating place to spend a couple of hours and there are some great finds. We would be in trouble if we had a place to furnish.
In addition to the (as grand as its name) Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum (formerly the Prince of Whales Museum),
on the list of pleasant surprises is the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum. A bit out of the way, It houses a vast collection of artifacts, photographs, manuscripts, and objects illustrating the history of the city. Most appealing is the lavish renovation of this 18th century renaissance building itself.
We head out along Marine drive towards the vicinity of Chowpatty Beach to visit Mani Bhavan, the house where Gandhi sojourned in Bombay. Now a museum, the small rooms are filled with photos, texts and memorabilia. You can see the simply furnished room where he wrote some of his most famous texts, and there is an air conditioned room with nicely constructed dioramas depicting the major events in his life. We linger here on the second floor not only for the A/C but to really get a sense of one man's fortitude and the simple means by which he achieved his goals. It's a humbling visit.
Walking over to Chowpatty Beach, the sun bombards our power umbrella which struggles to deflect the crushing heat. When we arrive at the legendary beach, there is hardly a soul. Well, of course not; it's broad daylight. We wander off in search of Kotachiwadi, a Christian enclave wedged between Hindu and Muslim neighborhoods, famous for its colorful 2-story wood houses on narrow streets where taxis and rickshaws don't venture. Lost in the web of minuscule lanes, we come across a congregation of about 20 sitting on benches and plastic chairs in front of an effigy to the Virgin Mary singing hymns.
As the sun sets on Chowpatty, the beach has morphed into a theme park atmosphere with hundreds of locals picnicking, swimming and socializing. Vendors sell cotton candy, balloons, toys, and all kinds of food including delicious roasted corn on the cob sprinkled with fresh lime and chilly salt. Yum! We are the only foreigners and many, many people want to pose for photos with us. The atmosphere is so festive that I ask someone if this is a special occasion. "No! It's like this every day. We come here to cool off."
Bollywood movie stars are akin to gods and we catch a glimpse of the magnitude of this one afternoon as we stroll along the Bandra West Bollywood Starwalk where the biggest names have earned their star along this seaside strip. There are also statues of actors and plenty of people posing next to them. Many stars live in the modern apartment buildings along the water. We come across a group of adoring fans standing in front of superstar Salman Khan's building waiting for the demigod to appear on his terrace and wave: something we're told he does daily.
As mentioned before, train tickets are not easy to reserve and comfortable seats for long journeys are almost impossible to score last minute. We decide to take an overnight sleeper bus to Hyderabad. The standard seats have been removed and replaced with bunk beds. On one side of the bus the beds fit 2 people on the other side they are single berths. It's important to choose an upper berth away from the pile of flip flops and sandals that cover the narrow aisle. The mattress is comfortable with clean sheets, pillows and blanket. A stiffly pleated cotton curtain offers a modicum of privacy. The only potential inconvenience, aside from heavy snorers, is the lack of a toilet. Anticipating the worst, one of us heads off in search of a solution. Figuring that it will not be easy to aim into a bottle in a moving vehicle, one procures a wide-mouthed container. The irony of course is that in the middle of the night, despite several attempts in some extremely funny positions, he is unable to relieve himself. Naturally, the driver stops every few hours for the rest of us. Sometimes there is a toilet... of questionable cleanliness.
Hyderabad, or Cyberabad, as it's playfully referred to given the recent proliferation of IT companies, is an astonishing mix of old and new. Not a top pick on the tourist trail, the first impression is underwhelming, no, downright ugly. But within a day, we begin to discover the treasures hidden behind tall walls, at the end of winding streets and inside courtyards. In the 16th century, the Deccan, southern plateau, became the Islamic center of India. From the 18th century, the Nizam dynasty ruled Hyderabad, fending off the British and French for control of commerce right up to India's independence (1947). Mineral-rich soil which produced stones like the Koh-I-Noor and Hope diamonds, and the region's strategic geographical location brought inconceivable wealth to the Nizams and noble families who served them. The city is filled with remnants of culture, prosperity and certainly the greatest number of mosques and shrines per square meter. The old city, anchored by the Charminar (gate and oldest mosque) remains firmly planted in the Middle Ages, with endless bazaars selling everything, tiny streets jammed with cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, cows, pigs, and a stream of women draped in black and men in white hugging the edges. In contrast, ultra-modern Segunderabad and Banjara Hills resemble upper middle class neighborhoods in the US. Wide freshly-paved avenues, traffic lights that most respect, gated communities, and shopping malls with valet parking packed with people dressed in jeans and polos. We stop in at the Hard Rock Cafe for our first burger in months! In the 3D theater next door they are showing 1/2 a dozen attraction films from our favorite 3D movie producers!
The Falaknuma Palace, once the 6th Nizam's summer residence, sits about 15 minutes away on a hill overlooking the sprawling city. Today, it's a 5 star hotel that has been painstakingly restored. Getting inside, when you're not a guest takes a bit of maneuvering, but the 100 seat dining room table is a must see. There is hardly a soul to admire the over-polished setting.
On the other hand, Chowmahalla Palace, home to many generations of Nizams is a museum and you can freely roam the beautifully restored grounds The highlight of this visit is the Durbar Hall, Khilwat Mubarak, where all official and religious ceremonies were held. 4 rows of gleaming crystal chandeliers catch the flooding sunlight.
The Purani Haveli, principal home of the 6th Nizam, is most famous for the staggering 73 meter (240 feet) Burmese teak wardrobe. This is the granddaddy of walk-in closets! They say he never wore the same clothes twice.
The city of Hyderabad was built when water ran out at the massive Golconda Fort which was the centerpiece of the region for centuries. It is the soil around Golconda that produced the biggest diamonds in history. The outside wall stretches over 10 km and there are several ingenious security systems: to deter stampeding elephants, large pointed metal spearheads cover the 2 foot thick doors, and the entrance has a diamond shaped structure which rebounds the slightest sound all the way to the highest point of the fort. It takes us an hour to reach there on foot.
Standing as a backdrop for a pick-up game of cricket is the 500 year old Toli Masjid mosque. In addition to the standard 5 arches representing prayer, charity, pilgrimage, fasting and faith, the intricate details of the minarets are bathed in beautiful light at the moment we pass.
The journey to Cochin (today called Kochi) is epic. 12 hours to Bangalore on a sleeper bus; this one is not a modern Volvo which we note for future bookings, but it's comfortable none-the-less. We have just enough time for a cup of tea at a roadside stand, before boarding a semi-sleeper bus for the next 12 hours.
Here, seats have footrests and recline almost completely putting you pretty much in the lap of the person behind you. It's a little tight for our western body frames but thankfully, the bus isn't full. As soon as we get moving, the entertainment system is fired up and one ear-piercing Bollywood film after another plays for the duration. There are no English subtitles, but the plots are simple enough to follow. Our fellow passengers are so thoroughly engrossed that when the DVD jams it nearly causes a riot. Play resumes and the audience returns to fits of laughter and snacking.
The state of Kerala stretches along the southwest, Malabar, coast of India. Cochin is the port town in the center. For centuries a major hub for spice trade, when Vasco de Gama landed here in the 15th century, it opened a new and extremely profitable route to Europe. While the Portuguese, Dutch and British took turns massacring each other for control, a small community of Jews fleeing persecution in the Middle East and Europe settled in and prospered. These Paradesi (white, foreigner) Jews where different from the Malabar (black, Indian) Jews that had arrived centuries before. There are many theories as to when exactly, but the earliest recording in Cochin is on a hotly disputed set of copper plates from around 1000 AD that now sit in the Paradesi Synagogue. While they tolerated each other, the Malabar and Paradesi Jews remained resolutely distinct.
Of the 8 synagogues (7 Malabar and 1 Paradesi) only the Paradesi synagogue, built in the 16th century by Sephardic Jews, remains (somewhat) active today. It has been timelessly restored and is open to visitors for a nominal fee and for prayer though there is no longer a rabbi. The synagogue sits in Jew Town in Fort Cochin. While it, along with Jew street in Ernakulam, sound pejorative, we are quick to learn that the Jews of Cochin were far less persecuted than their European counterparts and enjoyed special privileges throughout history.
We meet a man from Los Angeles who comes to Kerala often on business and who has developed very close ties with the family that maintains the synagogue. It is Friday evening and he has come for the sabbath prayers. After, he invites us to join him for dinner at the home of Queenie Hallegua. Granddaughter of Samuel Koder a wealthy merchant and major benefactor of the synagogue, Queenie continues the Friday night open house dinners made legendary by her grandfather in the early 1900s. The atmosphere is rather somber these days as we are clearly at the end of the line here. Of the few thousand Jews that once lived in the region only a handful remain.
We also visit the synagogues of Chennamangalam and Paravur whose buildings have been restored, but are relatively empty inside.
Clearly the most unusual synagogue is Kadavumbagam, which lies at the back of an aquarium fish and plant shop in Ernakulam. "Babu" the owner of Cochin Blossoms is a Malabar Jew and he explains that when Israel became a nation in 1948, there was a mass exodus from Cochin. By 1972, his temple's congregation no longer had enough men (10) for a minion and by 1977, the synagogue was abandoned. Babu installed his shop in front of and has undertaken renovations of the synagogue, but with little to no funding it's slow-going.
Kathakali is the traditional dance of Kerala. Stories based on the life of Lord Krishna are acted out with very precise movements and facial expressions synchronized to rhythmic beats and melodies. Years of rigorous martial arts training are required to master the art form. Equally impressive is the make-up session that takes hours, every night, before the show. The audience is invited to sit in. Bold lines and colors are used to define the personality of each character.
Coming soon: the rest of southern India...