Another early start? I don’t believe it! So much for having a relaxing holiday. But we had so much to pack in to our next day, and we had arranged a lunch reservation for 2 pm, so 9 am was the latest we could get going. Anyway, who am I kidding? When did we last do a relaxing holiday?
Religion is everywhere in Mumbai. It seems to me in India there’s no such thing as a non-believer. Unlike in the UK, where we basically don’t particularly care much one way or the other, and if we do it tends to be a private and personal thing, in Mumbai you’re definitely classified as to your faith. You’re either a Hindu or a Muslim, a Jain or a Buddhist, a Jew or a Christian, a Sikh or a Parsi, maybe even a follower of Bahá’í. Not only are temples and mosques found everywhere, but each shop has its own shrine, and each street corner its own little religious refuge. Cows roam the streets; incense pervades the air; people wear clothes that make their faith instantly recognisable. Of course, different religions do things differently. So it was an excellent opportunity to visit a few temples with our guide Amish to get an insider’s view on the buildings, the services and the adherents, and to get a feel as to what it would be like to be a follower of any of these faiths.
Our first stop on this morning of hobnobbing with the Gods, was to visit a Hare Krishna temple. This was the Radha Gopinath temple in Chowpatty. As soon as you see the orange canopy stretched out over the open courtyard, you just know this has to be a monument to Hare Krishna. Around the courtyard are little shops and stalls, display cabinets, and slightly surprisingly, to get inside you have to get past the security staff. At the centre of the courtyard is a two storey building – it reminded me slightly of what an Indian Alpine chalet might look like. Downstairs there isn’t much – just some storage areas – but all the action takes place upstairs.
Having made our way upstairs, a service was just about to start. I don’t know about you, but I always associate worshippers of Krishna to be dressed in orange gowns, banging drums, dinging cymbals, and chanting as they go. Just one look inside the temple shows this is not the case. At the front, an ornate gilded screen was attended by an orange clad man with what looked like a large furry lollipop. At the back, a very lifelike statue of a priest sat on a golden throne. However, that ornate and colourful framework did not extend to the congregation. The room was packed out with men who looked like they had just come in from a business meeting, had removed their jackets, and were all seated on the floor to take part in a service that was being delivered by a visiting monk from Canada. So although the building and decoration felt very “Indian”, the service itself was extremely cosmopolitan.
It all looks very sexist; the men are all seated, agog to hear the message of Krishna, whereas the women are all in a side room, chattering, creating garlands, preparing some food, looking after their kids. Like so many religious institutions it serves more than one purpose.You’re getting your spiritual nourishment yes, but at the same time family business gets sorted out, social events are arranged, and gossip gets done.
It’s an evangelical place – we were welcomed, but as prospective new recruits of the future rather than simply as curious visitors. We were obliged to take away with us a list of all the places in the UK where we could worship at a Hare Krishna temple. The young chap who befriended us there seemed so hopeful of a conversion that it would have been like kicking a puppy not to have looked interested. It was a fascinating place to visit, but to me it didn’t feel remotely spiritual.
Unlike our next port of call, which was the Hindu temple at Babulnath, dedicated to Shiva. The approach to this temple is rather like going through a market, then into a quieter back street behind blocks of flats. Halfway up the hill (it is a bit steep) you are greeted by the reassuring sight of Ganesh, in quite a large street side shrine with its own electric power. At the top of the hill is the entrance to the temple, and to the side, another shrine, this time to Hanuman, the monkey god, which, on close inspection shows the god crushing his enemy beneath the weight and power of his foot. This is a god in destructive mode.
Unfortunately it is not permitted to take photographs inside this temple so I cannot show you what happened, but I can tell you it is an extraordinary little place. There is a small area, and in the centre is a lingam, about three feet high, that represents Shiva. Surrounding it is a small moat, and devotees quietly walk round the lingam in a circle, pouring water and milk over it. Amish asked us to sit on a nearby bench and observe whilst he went to prepare for the worship. It’s a strange, but mesmerising sight; and it was another welcoming temple – this time genuinely so, we felt. One man, having poured the milk and water over the lingam came back to where we were sitting to ask us where we were from; he told us he had relatives in Reading and hoped we would enjoy our visit. By now Amish had returned with two small pots of water, one for each of us, so we joined the circle of visitors, and when it came to our turn, gently poured the liquids out over the lingam. You have to pour it slowly, thoughtfully, kindly, reflectively, to get the benefit of the experience. And although it sounds like a very straightforward procedure, I found it extraordinarily spiritual. Whether it’s the symbolism, the simplicity, the sight of the flowing water, or the shared experience, I don’t know. But I felt really refreshed afterwards! And a bit wet. Fortunately in the Mumbai sunshine no moisture lasts long.
Our third and final temple of the morning was the Chandanbala Jain Temple. It was very interesting to note the difference of decoration from the Hindu temples. Firstly, at the entrance, there is an abundance of swastika decorations; nothing sinister about this age-old pattern representing good fortune, which plays a significant part in Jain symbolism. Instead of the oranges and golds of the Hindus you have alabaster and cream colours, presenting a much calmer, more serene appearance. Carvings of elephants and stylised peacocks predominate. As at the Hare Krishna temple, the main emphasis is upstairs. The stairs themselves are lined with flower petals making a rich splash of natural colour. They lead to an open air landing, where the men gather to talk about all those things that men do, whatever their religion. Then there is a door to an inner sanctuary.
And what did we find inside this sanctuary? Yes, there were religious icons and statues, shrines and altars. But chiefly we saw a family group of around 20 men, women and children, sitting on the floor in front of a vast vegetarian picnic laid out on bowls and patterned boards. The food had obviously been prepared by the women whilst the men sang and played their musical instruments. I don’t think the picnic had any greater significance than being just a simple family get-together (probably by relatively important people within that temple’s community), using the space communally to share and basically have fun together. They didn’t seem to mind at all that they had onlookers gatecrashing their party, and in fact the man playing the bongos was keen for us to appreciate their music. It was really fascinating to see the temple being used in this way, more people-oriented than god-oriented.
Back on Day One – or rather Night One – we’d had a brief trip to see Victoria Terminus from the outside, all lit up and sparkly. Now was our opportunity to go back and see it by day. From the outside it looks big and grand, but you’re honestly not expecting it to keep on going back and back in the way it does, once you’re inside. It’s massive; no wonder it can accommodate all Mumbai’s millions of daily travellers. The elegant area at the front by the ticket offices and information desks would not look out of place in any Oxbridge college or South Kensington museum, with animal gargoyles nestling in the pseudo Greek carvings atop pseudo Doric columns. Not surprising that UNESCO wanted this place as a World Heritage Site. The immaculate gardens to the side of the station are a beautiful ornamentation for the railway company’s offices, but woe betide any stray tourist who wants to muscle in and walk around, security will be on to you like a shot.
We also went further into the station and basically played at getting in and out of trains, posing as hangers-out-of-doors much to the amusement of local onlookers. They were empty trains, mind you, so we had no chance of the doors suddenly closing and whisking us away to Pune or somewhere. We would see the trains properly in action a couple of days later.
We returned to the Oberoi just in time to meet our friend the Food and Beverages manager who had booked us a table at the restaurant of the sister Trident hotel. The Oberoi and Trident are linked by a little shopping mall, and in fact the Trident used to be the Oberoi until the Oberoi was built – I hope that isn’t too complicated for you. As residents of either hotel you can use the facilities of the other one if you wish, and we were strongly recommended to visit the Frangipani restaurant. As we had become accustomed, the chef came out and gave his solemn oath not to let any gluten accidentally worm its way on to Mrs Chrisparkle’s plate. It was a delicious lunch, very relaxed; fractionally less formal and fractionally less classy than the Oberoi.
We definitely needed a rest after all that, so took to our spacious suite for a well deserved kip. I think it lasted longer than we’d anticipated, so all we had time for later was a briefish walk along the water’s edge to Nariman Point and back, just to get some air and a little exercise. Dinner that night was to be in the Oberoi, at their Italian restaurant, the Vetro, which was very elegant and exclusive. The only thing that could finish off such a delightful evening was another session in the Eau Bar. I love sophisticated travel!
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