This was the third time we’d been to Jaipur. The first was way back in 2006 on our first trip to India, when we crammed the Golden Triangle into six days of sheer excitement. The second was a fleeting drive through with Professor and Mrs Plum when we were both in India at the same time, in November 2015. That’s the thing about Jaipur, it gives great value for money. You only have to drive into the town and – bingo – you get an instant “pink hit”, with all the beautiful coloured buildings, the like of which you’re not going to find anywhere else in the world. It’s such a vibrant, lively place, and it’s a pleasure to spend any time there. We thought we’d reacquaint ourselves with the big sights on a full day’s sightseeing on our second day. But for this first afternoon, we decided to try something completely different – a Bazaar, Crafts and Cuisine Walk through the old town that our travel agent arranged through Virasat Experiences.
But first – check in to the Oberoi in Jaipur. We stayed here in 2006 and it’s still a lovely hotel, although, to be super-critical, there are just one or two areas where it’s beginning to show its age. That’s inevitable, of course; the Oberoi in Delhi was closed at the time while it received a facelift to bring it back to the immaculate condition we’ve enjoyed there before. Maybe it’s time for the same to happen to the Rajvilas. We stayed in a Premier Room, with its amazing bath that appears to be open to the garden; we remembered from last time there’s no point having a bath unless you start running the water about two hours beforehand, because it’s so deep! We dined at the Surya Mahal on the first night but had the extra special treatment at the Raj Mahal on our last night. Absolutely stunning venue, superb food and service, and it was a real wrench to get up and leave our table at the end of the evening because we’d had such a lovely time. Our waiter Rakesh was absolutely the best.
Enough food and drink memories, let’s get back to old Jaipur, and Pratik, our guide, who was a fun kinda guy who knew exactly when to be formal and polite and when to risk mixing it with a little matey banter. His itinerary was designed to show the heart of the people of the city; their way of life, their trades, their shops, their craftsmanship; and not to be afraid of trying a little to eat and drink on the way. So we spent the majority of our time in the old market area of Jaipur, around Tripolia Bazar Road. We saw the men who sold the big steel trunks – presumably very heavy but no airline is going to damage those in a hurry. We saw all the brassware, and the trinkets; we saw shrines, we saw the stores where they create the most elaborate wedding invitations (it’s de rigeuer for your invitations to be as sassy as possible in India).
We went inside an old haveli; we saw jewellers, and shoemakers, and dressmakers; we watched as a number of all-female parties bundled themselves into these tiny stores for one of them to try on wedding dresses and for the others to coo in approval. I tried some lassi (Mrs Chrisparkle wasn’t keen) and it was absolutely gorgeous. I didn’t bother with the betel leaf. We pretty much took a look at every trade on offer and it was all fascinating. Pratik was both very knowledgeable and very humorous in his descriptions and the few hours we spent together passed extremely quickly.
Next day – and the final full day of our trip. We started off, like most tourists would, visiting the Amber Fort. It takes about forty minutes to drive there from the Rajvilas, and when you get near it looms out at you from the top of the horizon, like the God of Forts, as it’s so impressive and huge. You’ve got two choices for reaching the top – take a landrover like our guide Seema (dull) or ascend by elephant (touristy). You have to do the elephant thing really. There’s absolutely no dignity to it whatsoever as you fall back into your howdah, legs flailing about in the sunlight, more moron than Maharaja.
Your Heffalump-wallah (there must be a technical term for the man who leads your elephant) occasionally shouts instructions at you, which often include parting with cash for some reason, but it’s very hard to hear and we just play the Stupid English Tourist. It can get you everywhere, that act. After a not very comfortable but rather funny twenty minutes or so, your elephant sidles up to a kind of docking station where you have to jump off rapido, thereby losing any final vestiges of dignity you might still have had left. Then it’s down some steps, avoiding eye contact to prevent requests for bakshish from hangers-on who did absolutely nothing to deserve it, and you’re in the main square at the entrance to the fort.
Once you get inside the complex you’re greeted by the amazing Diwan-i-Aam, the space for public audience, and the Sattais Katcheri, a beautiful space dominated by dozens of pillars and arches, where the scribes would write the revenue records. From the arches at the side you have a stunning view of the Maotha Lake down below, with the endless lines of elephants trudging up and down. Go through another gateway and you reach the pleasure garden, the Aram Bagh, and on the left, maybe the fort’s most eye-catching sight, the Sheesh Mahal, made up of thousands and thousands of tiny mirrors, glittering across the ceilings and walls. It’s a truly awe-inspiring construction.
There’s an area inside where we couldn’t go – but could look through a gap – and Seema told us the man sitting inside working on restoring the pieces of glass comes from a long line of people who have done the same work for generations; he’s now continuing the restoration and also teaching others how to do it. It’s very important for the long-term future of the palace! Elsewhere at the fort you can find a collection of weapons, beautiful inlaid balconies, secret views through star-shaped windows, and many other stunning aspects. It’s a glorious place to wander around at your own pace and just drink in the artistry and the history.
On the way back into Jaipur, we made the customary stop to look at the Jal Mahal Palace in the middle of the freshwater Man Sagar Lake. The palace was restored in 2008 and now looks stunning and triumphant, a serene island in the middle of all that water. It’s a popular viewpoint and is always crowded with ice-cream and trinket sellers, but it’s really worth taking the time to enjoy the view.
Jaipur is very famous for its jewellery, and it is almost compulsory to take time to visit a factory shop. When Professor and Mrs Plum came in 2015, we witnessed her purchasing a beautiful ruby ring, with which she is still very pleased. Mrs C is surprisingly uninterested in expensive jewellery (phew!) but nevertheless you never know when you’re going to see Absolutely The Perfect Item That You Cannot Refuse. So we trooped around this factory, and were treated to a description of the process that takes a rough gem and makes it into a beautiful item of jewellery. Interesting terminology; the man described one process as taking the unfinished item and giving it a “blow job”. I think he meant cooling it down. But I’m not entirely sure.
One more major sight to see – and one we remembered fondly from our 2006 visit – the Jantar Mantar. Only in India could you find a place with such a singalong name. And it’s a memorable and extraordinary place. The largest and best preserved observatory built by Sawai Jai Singh II between 1728 and 1734, it has sixteen instruments which can still be used for forecasting summer heat and the monsoon conditions. One of them is made up of twelve pieces, each one representing a sign of the zodiac, which is used by astrologers to draw up horoscopes; and it is traditional for people to have a photograph taken next to their zodiac sign. I did the touristy thing, and posed next to Taurus; Mrs C pooh-poohed the idea when I suggested she stood next to Sagittarius. Honestly; typical Sagittarian! Although there are other Jantar Mantars in India, there’s nowhere quite like this. It’s like an astronomical theme park, and it’s enormous fun to check the sundials and measure the angles of the stars. Fantastic!
And that was the end of our final day in Jaipur. The next morning we drove back to Delhi, where Mr Singh had arranged for us to have a massage in a place he recommended. It was very good – we both opted for an Indian Head Massage combined with back and shoulders. As is always the case with me, I fell asleep during the massage, so relaxed did I feel. However, I was rudely awakened at the end when the man who had been pummelling me decided to wash my hair in the most boiling water you can imagine. I felt like my scalp was on fire. They obviously breed them tough in Delhi.
The drive from Agra to Ranthambhore is about 180 miles and including the odd comfort break and photo stop takes a good six hours. So it was no surprise when we arrived at the Oberoi Ranthambhore that we simply wanted to unpack and have a rest. However, we didn’t take into account just how beautiful the hotel was going to be, and how friendly all the staff were, and how we wanted to explore the grounds, and how we just wanted to gawp in amazement and gratitude that this was where we were going to be spending the next two nights.
On arrival we were greeted by the hotel manager, a charmingly hearty lady named Ratna, whose enthusiasm for her job and her hotel spreads infectiously throughout all the staff. The next day we would meet her Customer Services Manager – Lakshmi, the elephant. Yes, this hotel has its own elephant, on duty for a couple of hours every morning to wave visitors off on their morning tiger safari, or to welcome them back safely afterwards. The hotel also has its own naturalist, who gives a different lecture every evening about the local flora and fauna. Normally that kind of thing strikes dread into the hearts of Mrs Chrisparkle and me, but he was actually a really interesting and funny presenter, and you wouldn’t want to miss his talks before going in for dinner or drinks every evening.
A helpful, funny and friendly young lady by name TJ took us to our room. I say “room”; it was – as they almost all are – a luxury tent. I expect some are a little more luxurious than others, but ours had absolutely everything you could possibly wish – and all exquisitely furnished with that special Oberoi taste. Dinner could be taken in the restaurant or out in the sunken courtyard – outside was just too irresistible – and the words “feast” and “veritable” come to mind. And whilst they have a comfortable looking old-fashioned Last Days of The Raj type bar, nothing could keep us away from having a drink outside round the campfire, listening to local musicians. It was simply heavenly. The Oberoi in Agra remains my favourite hotel in the world – but the Vanyavilas in Ranthambhore runs it a very, very close second.
It may come as a surprise, but the reason we took two nights to stay in Ranthambhore was not simply to drink gin round the old campfire and be spoiled rotten in the restaurant. We were booked on two tiger safaris, one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. For a relatively tiny place, there’s a huge local industry that stems from the Ranthambhore National Park; home to much wildlife including the famous Bengal Tigers. The hotel lobbies are full of people recounting their “we saw a tiger! It came up right this close!” stories to anyone who will listen; the other people with whom you share your jeep will doubtless have been on other safaris and will explain precisely why the one you missed was the one you really should have been on. But do the maths; Ranthambhore National Park is home to (at the time) sixty tigers. It covers a vast area which is split into ten zones. That works out as 6 tigers per zone. The park advises each jeep which zone it will visit on each safari trip. So you will only visit one zone at random. Each zone is large enough to drive around for hours on end, so in a two to three hour drive you’re probably only ever going to be in the vicinity of one tiger, two at a push. And your job, or your driver and guide’s job, is to go find him!
We visited zone 6 in the morning, an area with a lot of open grassland, which, when you think about it, is probably not the kind of terrain a tiger is going to mooch around in. We saw plenty of blue bulls (Nilgai), deer, storks, antelope, and some extremely tame Rufous Treepies who will eat from your hand. But no tigers. It was a fascinating experience though, and after we popped back to the hotel for lunch, and to feed Lakshmi some apples, camera whore that she is, we went out again with renewed vigour for our afternoon safari. This time we called on zone 4, which is much more stereotypically jungly; at times I thought we might bump into Mowgli. Again, plenty of nilgai, antelopes and crocodiles silently floating in the lakes, but no tigers.
We did all the right things – stayed silent whenever possible; watched for their tracks, signs of a kill, their faeces (sorry if you’re having lunch) – and we found all these. We were very hopeful at one stage because the peacocks had flown into the trees and were making nervous cries – a sure sign that they didn’t feel safe on the ground, so maybe a tiger is prowling and they’re getting the word around to all their peacock pals. But no tigers.
Even so, it was a magical experience. Just parking up your jeep in a jungle and silently observing all the life going on around you was absolutely brilliant. And as the light started to fade, and sunset started to loom, the views took on an exciting life all of their own. Staying late behind in the jungle, maybe being one of the last vehicles to leave, felt surprisingly daring. I really loved it. So did my chiropractor, when I returned to the UK a few days later. Spending six hours getting tossed around in a bumpy jeep isn’t great for your back, so please be careful! However, I’d do it again in an instant – and hopefully spot my first tiger.
When we left the next morning, there was an apologetic letter for us to read on departure, personalised, and on Oberoi Vanyavilas notepaper: “Thank you for visiting Ranthambhore and staying at the Oberoi Vanyavilas. We are sorry we were unable to meet you in the jungle. But we hope to see you again soon. Warm regard, Tigers of Ranthambhore.” On the reverse was a splendid pen and ink drawing of a tiger, signed by the hotel’s naturalist. I suspect he might have something to do with it.
All week so far we had been transported around the city in style. From the elaborate limousine provided by the Oberoi to transfer us from the airport, to the luxury cars provided by our guide Amish for our general sightseeing, we had travelled in air-conditioned comfort. But for today he thought we ought to try an alternative, so we went back to Crawford Market by taxi. A Mumbai taxi isn’t quite like a British one. It was small, bumpy, had a lurid mock leopard-skin fabric tacked on to the roof, and a gaping hole just to the left side of the clutch pedal. It also had quite the friendliest taxi-driver you could ever hope to meet.
He dropped us off outside Crawford Market, which we had visited two days earlier, but it has so many nooks and crannies that it was well worth a revisit. It was the first real opportunity we’d had to appreciate its structure from the outside. Its windows and archways are decorated with alternating red and white bricks in a very Moorish style – you could be in Cordoba. We went in, to discover we were in the fruits district. Rows and rows of highly polished colourful apples gleamed in their boxes, piles of grapes overflowed their bowls, the pineapples, mangoes and oranges all looked highly delectable. Stacked above them, massive baskets lined with the brightest colour foil paper making outstanding diamond shaped designs – presumably to display future produce.
In the outside area too, the fruit market continues. Under tattered tarpaulins, traders spend the day stacking, chatting, displaying, and putting the world to rights while the good citizens of Mumbai carefully select the prize items. It’s fascinating to see all the different people here going about their business – an incredible hub of activity. The paths can be quite narrow, so the porters have perfected the ability of carrying a basket with one hand over their head, so as to squeeze through with a full load. Others simply stack baskets on their head. Alongside the fruit, the other popular items for sale in this area are caged birds. In some locations they are for sale so that you can release them for good karma. I’m not quite so sure here – some of them are rather exotic looking creatures, and they also sell birdcages too. Still, no doubt if you are wealthy, you can release an expensive bird for a much classier kind of karma.
The last time Mrs Chrisparkle and I went to India, in 2006, we visited a shop in Agra and bought a few reasonably priced, reasonably smart clothes that still survive in our wardrobes today. We had mentioned to Amish that we wanted to go to a decent shop for a little clothes-hunting, and he suggested Dia. Great choice! We spent the best part of an hour trying on shirts and trousers, checking out belts and bags, and looking at costume jewellery, all of it very good quality at sensible prices. Mrs C took to the process like a woman possessed. She was in and out of the changing room appearing in different colour trousers each time, asking our opinions of each colour and style. After a while something happened, and Amish and I just started to laugh. I can’t quite remember why, but we ended up giggling like schoolgirls. As Mrs C was failing to attract our attention for the next couture critique, the lady trying to assist simply said to her “let them play” and so she carried on the important task of fashion consultant. Well, there’s only so much clothes shopping a guy can take, after all. But we bought wisely in that shop – and we’re still very pleased with our purchases.
Back out on to the streets, and they really were thronging. Pedestrians, taxis, motorbikes, cars, carts and buses all compete for enough space to carry out their business. You need to be aware of your surroundings at times to be safe, as any kind of vehicle can suddenly sneak up on you from any angle without your realising! Street sellers wander around offering you bags, sunglasses, watches; there was one very friendly lady from whom we had bought a couple of bags two days earlier, who we subsequently kept on bumping into. Every time we crossed a road in Mumbai, she seemed to be there! She was happy to pose for a photograph. There was another seller offering “Genuine Ray-Bans”; extraordinarily good value for Genuine Ray-Bans, I must say. I guess there’s no rent to pay when you’re just wandering around with the goods. We couldn’t resist the bargain; and for the rest of the day Amish and I roamed around looking like a transcontinental version of the Blues Brothers.
Into another market now, this time the Clothes Bazaar at Mangaldas Market. Not only clothes, but all fabrics – sheets, towels, tablecloths, and more. There’s a huge range of products and I’m sure you could spend hours delving through what’s on offer; but we sensed that it was the kind of place that if you stopped and looked interested you would be pounced upon. In comparison to the bright hustle and bustle of Crawford Market it felt quite dark and oppressive, and I think we preferred our clothes shopping experience that we enjoyed earlier.
Outside it was a good opportunity to observe two different forms of street refreshment. One was a fruit stall – where the brightest red watermelons were cut into triangles and stacked to form a little melon mountain on a plate, and it looked so refreshing in the Mumbai heat. The man running it also had golden pineapples and orange coloured mangoes – a really healthy snack option. Almost next door to him was one of these strange contraptions, the mobile sugar cane juice stall. On demand the man feeds sugar canes into this thing that looks like a cross between a mangle and a shredder, and out pours this sweet drink to which everyone in Mumbai appears to be addicted.
We stumbled across yet another market – the Zaveri Bazaar, where you will find all the jewellery you could want, from the cheap and cheerful costume stuff to top of the range ultra-exclusive. Mrs C was looking dangerously interested in some of these shops – I had to try diversionary tactics like “someone as beautiful as you doesn’t need such fripperies” and “oh look there’s a cow obstructing the entrance to that expensive jewellers.” It kind of worked. It was fascinating to see the contrast between scruffy hard-working street life and the high value glamour actually inside some of the shops. It was as though Cartier had just opened up in Skelmersdale.
Heading under a sign that reads “Bombay Panjrapole, established 1834” you enter an area given over to the welfare of animals. Primarily, it’s a place you can go to feed the cows. We went to inspect the healthy-looking sacred beasties whilst Amish went off in search of leaves and grass (to feed the cows, I should add). The office marked Veterinary Dispensary was overflowing with the stuff – it’s obviously the cure for all bovine diseases. He returned a few minutes later with half a tree in his hand, which we then used to feed about twenty cows who were all contentedly awaiting a repast in their compound. It was a little like playing at a Children’s Zoo, but with added religious significance. You could almost hear the cows muttering, “that’s good grass, man”.
From there it was but a short walk to another Jain temple, the Madhavbaug temple, with its lucky decorative swastikas and its delicate marble carvings that looked like intricate icing on a cake, which were being renovated by a team of skilled craftsmen. Nearby was the Icchapurti Ganesha temple, where there were a number of men sat around to make sure that a holy fire remained burning constantly; another interesting feature there was a large bell to the side of the fire which you happily ding to let the gods know you’re ready to worship. At yet another temple, the Madhavbaug Shiva temple, Amish encouraged us to approach a young priest sitting cross-legged on the floor, who said a little prayer for us and daubed a red mark on our foreheads. For a few minutes I felt Officially Indian.
One last charge back into the shops and markets area, as we now found ourselves in the stationery sector. Loads of shops whose sole purpose is to create the most beautiful and elaborate wedding invitations you could imagine. The shop windows are crammed with stunning calligraphy and superb decoratively carved cards that are works of art in themselves. A decent set of invitations is obviously de rigueur at a proper Indian wedding.
After all that exposure to art, temples, markets and more, it was definitely time for a late lunch. In an uninspiring looking building, we climbed up some stairs to a restaurant called the Bhagat Tarachand and the food was absolutely excellent. We returned, shattered, to the Oberoi for a much needed late afternoon nap, and then headed out again later to meet Amish for dinner. We went to the Status restaurant, very close to the Oberoi, that has a relaxed outside eating area and a slightly more formal inside area. We sat outside and consumed Marsala Dosas and lots of other yummy goodies. It was a fantastic place to while away a tasty hour or so in great company. Tomorrow was to be our last full day in Mumbai, and very exciting it was to be too. So we needed our beauty sleep, but not until we’d drifted back to the Eau Bar for one last nightcap.
If you would like Amish to help you discover Mumbai visit mumbaimoments.com
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!
If you would like Amish to help you discover Mumbai visit mumbaimoments.com
Another beautiful sunny day, and, despite our protestations, Amish wanted an early start as we were going to explore the markets. “But we’re on holiday”, Mrs Chrisparkle whimpered, “I’d love a lie-in”. “If you get up late, then there’ll be nothing to see at the markets”, he insisted. Sigh. So we were all breakfasted and bathed by 9am and waiting by the red piano. Yes there really is one, right in the centre of the Oberoi lobby.
Into the car we got and headed straight off for Crawford Market. This massive structure is named after Bombay’s first Municipal Commissioner, Arthur Crawford, and the central fountain and other decorative sculptures were carved by Lockwood Kipling, father of Rudyard. It was built in 1869 and it houses hundreds and hundreds of stalls selling everything you could possibly imagine.
They say to understand a place you don’t go to the museums, you just experience life on the street. Well, I say that, even if no one else does. The teeming life that takes place inside Crawford Market begins on the streets outside. Smaller stalls that can’t get a look-in inside pitch up on the pavement; delivery vehicles park up anywhere and everywhere, with guys loading up little trolleys with lolloping uneven wheels to bring new goods to the waiting thousands inside. There’s clearly an order of seniority in the market, which you can tell from how the men are dressed – I say men, because there are hardly any women working there. There are smart men – normally looking like they’re very well fed – in business shirts and trousers, who are obviously the movers and shakers, dealmakers and traders, employers and owners. Then you have another status of guys – the majority – who work on the stalls and wear scruffier work clothes, maybe colourful short sleeved shirts and sports shirts, and well-worn trousers. You also have all those who are doing all the cleaning up and dealing with the rubbish, but everyone has their part to play – and those doing the menial work show equal pride in doing a good job as any of the wealthier businessmen. Any women there are rather no-nonsense older ladies in elegant saris whose expressions show they have spent a lifetime identifying the best quality produce and buying it at the best price.
It’s a monument to hard work and long hours, but it’s also an incredibly cheery place. Everyone is delighted if you take their photo – they like to check it afterwards for approval, and inevitably it results in a satisfied head-wobble. Some people smile for the camera, others – they tend to be older, more senior types – like to look Victorian grandees, all respectable and serious. You wonder briefly if they are not so happy having their picture taken – but the satisfied head-wobble afterwards reassures you they are. The variety of colours assaulting your senses, particularly in the flower market area, is overwhelming. Huge bowls of colour co-ordinated flower heads, yellows, pinks, oranges, whites, are everywhere; all primarily for sale to make temple offerings. You can observe the skill of the guys painstakingly assembling garlands from the raw materials – serious, diligent workers kneeling together in a mini-production line producing creations of exquisite beauty. After an hour or so wandering round here, we got a feeling of incredible privilege to be able to share in this extraordinary community.
A pause to refresh ourselves with a drink at a local restaurant, and to reflect on the extraordinary sights we’d just seen, then it was off to look at the cows in the middle of the street. These weren’t the ordinary kind of “stray” cows that wander all over India, getting in the way of cars and joining shopping queues, but an actual compound in what is basically a traffic island in the middle of the road. It’s like a farm the size of a living-room, with just two or three very healthy animals that you can feed with lush grasses supplied by some very elegant ladies who look far too well dressed to be farm girls. When we got there, however, all we could do was pat the cows as they had already had more than enough to eat. Mrs C breathed a sigh of relief as she’s a serious bovinophobe.
Across the road is where the Chor Bazaar starts. Literally the “thieves’ market”, this is an area of antique and bric-a-brac shops, great for very individualistic collectors and hoarders. Amish took us round three or four specialist shops. The first was full of clocks and watches, all mounted on display so you could barely see the wall behind; mainly grandmother clocks and pocket watches, and it’s a genuinely beautiful sight. We went into a very expensive looking antiques shop, which had some rather large works of art – huge Buddhas and great big ornamental lions – apparently a number of the TV and film companies hire them from this shop to appear in their productions. Talking of films, there was also a Bollywood Poster shop, featuring all things collectable from the world of Mumbai movies.
The area is a hive of industry in other ways too. Walk on, and the collectable shops thin out and you come across a few roads where all you see is wrecked cars. This is where Mumbai cars go to die; but fortunately they all have donor cards. Here hard working teams assault a car and break it down into tiny individual pieces. No part is wasted – tyres, mirrors, windscreen wipers, radios, seats, panels are all cut out of the old car and stacked up in the hope of being resold and reused. Men perch on plastic crates surrounded by auto wreckage; reflector lights dangle from the tops of awnings; dogs sleep under mounds of tailgates. Other businesses whose proprietors kindly allowed us to wander round and photograph included a busy working bakery, where sheets of dough were laid out on sacks over a stone slab floor before being fired up inside a fiercely hot oven; and a fabric repair workshop where second hand clothes were re-stitched and revived with care and made to look new. The men working at this mini-factory were curious to know why two middle-aged holidaymakers from England would be remotely interested in their way of life. We said that we were humbled by their endlessly positive and generous nature, that everyone makes us welcome all the time, that their country is beautiful, and also that we’re not quite middle-aged yet, thank you very much.
We could have stopped for lunch – but some days are just too exciting and engrossing to waste time with food. The sights, sounds, and smells of downtown Bombay were nourishment enough. So we crossed back to Crawford Market, this time to check out the vegetable market area. Whether it was because it was later in the day or because it was a different part of the market, I don’t know, but this area seemed a little more relaxed and laid back. It’s less colourful than the flower market – obviously – but the work that goes into the presentation of the produce is no less diligent or skilful. Each vegetable or piece of fruit is inspected, graded and arranged in patterns to make it look as visually appealing as possible. Leaves are washed and delicately displayed; garlic bulbs are pared down so that the shavings create a garlicky carpet on the floor; stallholders sit with huge old-fashioned scales surrounded by wide round wicker baskets containing beans, chillis, potatoes, herbs, and tomatoes, and the smells are sensational. There’s a great sense of community here – yes, to some extent the traders are in competition with each other to sell their wares but also they spend loads of time just chatting to each other, helping each other, sharing food and tea. On the way out of Crawford Market we passed by the spices section – a few shops and stalls crammed with jars and jars of dried spices and mixed herbs. But there are loads of other parts of the market that we would return to later in the week.
So it was rather tired but really exhilarated that we returned to the Oberoi for a much needed rest. The previous evening we had tried to go to their Ziya Indian restaurant but it was fully booked, so we had reserved a table for the following evening. It was the same kitchen that prepared our gorgeous Vegetarian Thali for Valentine’s night, but this time we were in the comfort of the restaurant itself. The food and drink manager introduced us to the chef, Mr Prashant Penkar, who personally assured us that providing Mrs C’s tasty and gluten-free dinner would be his main task, nay pleasure, of the evening. The food was a complete delight – spicy but subtle, superbly presented, a fabulous wine, and a memorable occasion in very attractive surroundings. I can’t recommend it too highly! And of course, an evening in the Oberoi isn’t complete without a glass or two in the Eau Bar to relax even more before bed.
If you would like Amish to help you discover Mumbai visit mumbaimoments.com
One of the must-see sights near Mumbai is a half-day trip to Elephanta Island. Protected by UNESCO it is famous for its 6th century cave temples, and boats make regular round trips from the Gateway of India all throughout the day. Amish, our guide, had other commitments that day, so instead we were accompanied by Mobin, who ensured we got on the right boat and kept us company during the crossing.
Thus it was that for the third day in a row, we visited the Gateway of India! You really can’t see it too often, though, in all its sunshiny glory. The boats depart directly behind it, from an area that looks as though a mish-mash of boat-parking skills were employed to get the boats in that particular arrangement, all jostling for position in a higgledy-piggledy sort of way. Nevertheless, you trust in your guides and in your Captain, and slightly nervously get on board. The boats are all the same style and shape, with a covered downstairs and an open air upstairs. We plumped for upstairs, so you take some rather steep and narrow steps up through what appears to be a gap in the roof and emerge on top, and hope to find an unbroken plastic chair to sit on. The trip across to the island is a little over an hour, and two main sights can be enjoyed en route. The first is the majestic Gateway of India, seen as it was designed to be seen, from the sea, gently getting smaller against the horizon as your journey progresses. Also as you near the island, you get quite close to some oil refineries, and with a good lens you can get some interesting pictures; if oil refineries are your thing, of course.
You know you’re arriving at the island when you see this massive long jetty spurring out into the sea. I’m not sure why the boats dock so far away from the island itself, other than to give passengers a long walk, or more likely to pay for a trip on the little land train that takes you to the “village”. The village is basically a row of stalls, selling the usual tourist stuff, no outstanding purchases to be made, but exotic nonetheless, and colourful canopies over the walkway produce atmospheric light effects as you walk through. By now Mobin had introduced us to our guide on the island, Avinash. He actually lives on the island and knows the caves like the back of his hand – and why wouldn’t he, he takes people round them every day of his life.
The first thing they tell you when you start walking round the island is to beware of the monkeys. What, you mean those cute tiny little things who jump around in the trees and look so adorable? Yes them. They go for your food, they go for your water. If you’re not careful they will knock them out of your hands, scavenging little so and so’s. Whilst we watched some monkeys cavorting in the trees, Avinash got our tickets: 10 rupees for Indians, 250 rupees for foreigners. At least that was written on the board in numbers. When we went to Prague in 1997, the cost to get in to the Old Jewish cemetery was very expensive for tourists and ridiculously cheap for locals, but the actual amount payable was written out in words, in Czech, so 99% of the tourists couldn’t tell that they were being ripped off. We had a Czech friend though, who got us in as locals, and we had to spend the next half hour not making eye contact with anyone or speaking, or else we would have been chucked out as undesirable aliens.
Meanwhile back in Mumbai, there are three major temple complexes at the Elephanta site. The main, extensive, area has hundreds of extraordinary old carvings of Hindu gods, many of them still in superb condition. The star attraction is the three headed statue of Shiva, which is breathtaking in its grandeur. Avinash took us all round the complex and explained who each of the gods were, and in what guise they were appearing – as you may know, Hindu gods get up to all sorts of exciting and unexpected activities. Alas I can’t remember the intricate details today. The overwhelming feeling is that you’re in a place of great history, superb artistry and creativity, and that man, 1500 years ago, chose this natural environment as a home for his devotion to his gods. It’s a great place for photo opportunities too; not only of the sculptures, and the light and shadow effects created by the sun beaming into the darkness (if you were a little kid it would be the most brilliant place to play hide and seek), but also outside in the sunshine with the banyan trees and the monkeys. Ah yes, the monkeys. Guess who forgot the warning about the little buggers and had his bottle of water grabbed right out of his hand? I guess I was lucky not to get scratched and then spend the rest of the week worrying about rabies.
After a detailed guided tour, and then a more relaxed, independent walk around the complex to discover little nooks and crannies you missed the first time round, and to try some more experimental camera shots, it’s time to head back to the land train and the boat back to BOM. On the way back we got chatting to a very nice Indian couple who recognised our accents, and they talked about their lives spending half the year in India and half in UK – seems like a pretty good lifestyle. Arriving back at the Gateway of India, Mobin was just taking us to our car when we bumped into Amish taking an American chap on a tour of the city. They were both obviously enjoying their day, and it was a cue for a lot of teasing conversations as to who was the best guide! Guys, you’ll just never know…
Back at the Oberoi and time for a late lunch. We decided to hit the Eau Bar because we didn’t really want a huge meal, just some Indian snacks and a refreshing glass of white wine. I tell you, that is such a glorious experience. The snacks were like Indian tapas – utterly delicious, and surprisingly filling. With the view over the bay, the terrific service and contented tummies, we were in seventh heaven. There were only two other people in the bar – an English couple who, from the loud conversations they were having on their mobiles, we deduced were obviously going to attend a big Indian wedding later in the afternoon; and they were pre-loading for Dutch courage!
We could have just flumped down afterwards and rested – every day that week it was between 32 and 34 degrees so it was hot, but not so much that you couldn’t go out and do things – but instead we decided to go for a little wander around the district by ourselves. I had my Eyewitness Travel book of India, and a couple of relatively useless maps taken from the hotel room. We planned a very simple circuit around the hotel and thought we’d see what happened.
There’s a path at the water’s edge that takes you to the farthest tip of Nariman Point. So we wandered down there, and discovered that it’s the place where everyone likes to be seen walking. Young families, groups of friends, students; they all clamber about on the concrete blocks that are scattered at random to the side of the footpath as an additional barrier between it and the sea. Lots of soft drinks and ice creams get consumed along that stretch. We doubled back up, walked further along the water’s edge until we turned right onto Madame Cama Road. This takes you past the back entrance to Churchgate cricket ground where we saw members of a ladies’ cricket team (either England or New Zealand we think) getting on board an official World Cup 2013 bus.
For the sight of more cricket, we walked on, until we got to the Oval Maidan. It’s a large expanse of park in the middle of the city – you couldn’t really call it green though, as the heat of the sun has made the grass brown. And on this empty patch of land, as far as your eyes can see in both directions, take place dozens of cricket matches. Some of the players were wearing traditional white, but the majority were just in shirts and jeans. It was great just to watch people enjoying themselves, and if you were ever in any doubt as to how much your average Indian loves cricket – this will make it abundantly clear.
On the other side of the Maidan is the Rajabai Clock Tower – by day looking more like part of a Victorian railway station or church tower; it stands out as a very refined looking piece of architecture. We negotiated some busy roads – traffic not only nose to tail but nose to side as well, there’s not a lot of space on those roads for that many vehicles – until once again we made our way to the Gateway of India. Still busy with tourists, locals and tradespeople, we noticed a number of guys sitting by the side of the square with loads of containers – we never did find out what that was all about. Perhaps you know?
We spent a little while people watching and reflecting on the terrific day we’d had. From there it was just a simple wander back to the hotel for a rest, a shower and a quiet evening. We decided to return to the relative informality of the Oberoi’s Fenix restaurant, which was very relaxing, and later on we heard the call of the Eau Bar yet again, where we swapped Northamptonshire Cricket stories with our knowledgeable wine waiter. Tomorrow was to be another fun-packed day, going round markets and meeting the real Bombay people.
If you would like Amish to help you discover Mumbai visit mumbaimoments.com