On track to becoming the world's largest city within the next decade, Mumbai will do no less than bowl you over. It is a mind-boggling megalopolis -- for some, a fantastic whirlwind of chaotic, exuberant energies; for others, a disorderly mess, frightening in the way of some biblical Gomorrah. There's no doubt about it -- Mumbai will not leave you unaffected.
Teetering on the edge of the Arabian Sea, its heaving population barely contained by palm-fringed beaches, India's commercial capital, formerly known as Bombay, is a vibrant, confident metropolis that's tangibly high in energy.
Originally home to Koli fisherfolk, the seven swampy islands that today comprise Mumbai originally commanded little significance. The largest of the islands was part of a dowry given by Portugal to England, which promptly took control of the six remaining islands and then leased the lot to the East India Company for a paltry £10. Massive land-reclamation projects followed, and by the 19th century all seven islands had been fused to form one narrow promontory and India's principal port.
Today the city continues to draw fortune-seekers from across the subcontinent. Thousands of newcomers squeeze their way in every day, adding to the coffers of greedy slumlords and placing the city, which already has a human density four times greater than New York City's, on target for a population of 22 million by 2015. As India's economy booms, Mumbai's real estate prices have soared through the roof as investors continue to scour every acre for viable new projects, rapidly transforming the city into an incredible futurescape of remarkable high-rises. And in the midst of it all sprawls Asia's largest slum, a relatively flat and sodden terrain that is home to a million poor -- yet extremely industrious -- souls. In a bid to show the world how Mumbai's vivacious spirit exists in even the most trying circumstances, there are now a few riveting tours that take you under the belly of the city, into the vast shantytown that shook the world with vivid scenes in Slumdog Millionaire and Shantaram. A city with a dual identity, Mumbai is as flamboyantly materialistic as it is downright choked by squalor and social drudgery. The citizens of Mumbai pay almost 40% of India's taxes, yet half of its 18 million people are slum dwellers. While the moneyed groovers and label-conscious shakers retire in luxury behind the security gates of their million-dollar Malabar Hill apartments, emaciated survivors stumble home to cardboard shacks in congested shantytowns or onto tiny patches of open pavement. At every intersection these destitute hopefuls stand, framed against a backdrop of Bollywood vanity boards and massive billboards selling supersexy underwear and sleek mobile-phone technology. Feeding into this social schizophrenia are the one-dollar whores, half-naked fakirs, underworld gunmen, bearded sadhus, globe-trotting DJs, and, of course, movie moguls and wannabe starlets.
Many believe that is the city's unputdownable prosperity that has made it a target for such tragic incidents as the 2008 attacks in which the main train terminus as well as two of the city's finest hotels -- the Taj Mahal Palace and The Oberoi -- were besieged by terrorists. True to its spirit, however, following this and other violent assaults, Mumbaikers have always bounced back with spectacular vigor. The city is once again pumping with energy, and while there's a noticeable security presence, spirits are definitely on the up. Even as the world recoils in economically uncertain times -- and some of Mumbai's myriad building projects did seem to pause for a while -- there seems to be no stopping the pace of development. Touch down here and you'll discover a metropolis that's comfortably on the move.
It's not just the economic disparities that are bewildering: Looking down from the Hanging Gardens on Malabar Hill, you see the assertively modern metropolis of Nariman Point -- but just a little farther south, on Malabar Hill, is the Banganga Tank, one of the city's holiest sites, where apartment blocks overlook pilgrims who come to cleanse their souls by bathing in its mossy waters. Twenty-first-century Mumbai is brassy and vital, yet it can also transport you to another epoch. It is, in this sense, a quintessentially Indian city, encapsulating the raw paradoxes of the entire subcontinent.
Your plane will almost certainly touch down in Mumbai -- it's the most common point of arrival for visitors, and well connected to the rest of the country (including the magnificent Ajanta and Ellora Caves, located in northern Maharashtra, and described later in this chapter). If you're looking for peace and quiet in meditative surroundings, you should definitely consider heading to the nearby city of Pune where the Osho International Meditation Resort (also discussed in this chapter) is a major draw for global citizens on the search for New Age enlightenment packaged in its most upmarket avatar. If Mumbai is to be purely a transit hub, there are more than enough connections -- by plane, train or road -- for you to move on as fast as jet lag and arrival times dictate. But if you want to experience modern India at its vibrant best, and dine at what are arguably some of the finest restaurants in the country, tarry for at least 2 days. You may arrive appalled by the pitiful faces of the poor, shocked by the paradox of such wealth and poverty, and overcome by the heavy, heady stench and toxic pollution. But give India's dream factory a little time, and you'll discover it has a sexy, smoldering soul, and a head-spinning groove worth getting hip to.
You Say Mumbai, I Say Bombay -- In 1995, Bombay, the name the British bestowed upon the city, was renamed in honor of the local incarnation of the Hindu goddess Parvati, "Mumba Devi." The city's name change (along with a host of others that harked back to its colonial past) was enforced by the ruling Shiv Sena, a Hindu fundamentalist party that eschews the presence of any other than the Marathi people, a glaring irony given that this is a city of immigrants -- a cocktail influenced as much by the grand Gothic monuments left by the British as by the many cultures who've set up shop here. Although it's difficult to understand how goodwill can prevail in a city led by politicians bred on xenophobia, Mumbai's well-intentioned optimism and its social cosmopolitanism prevail, and many of Mumbai's English-speaking inhabitants still refer to it as Bombay.
When to Go
Mumbai's humidity -- even in the small hours of the morning -- is felt instantly, and the sun shines year-round, except in the monsoon months. You always seem drenched in warm sweat, and the heat can be terribly cruel, making sightseeing far less agreeable than a tour of the city's wonderful restaurants and drinking holes. Winter (Nov-Feb) is still hot, although not so entirely unpleasant; the sultry sea air sets the tone for an adventure in exotic dining and an intoxicating jaunt through lively, Victorian-era streets that are constantly crammed with people. The only real relief from the heat comes for brief periods in December and January, and midyear, when the annual monsoon drenches the city with heavy, nonstop tropical rains. Although the monsoon can be a difficult time to explore the city (and has in the past brought life-threatening floods), it can also be beautiful to watch the downpour from the safety of a well-located terrace or from under a sturdy umbrella.
By Plane -- Mumbai's sprawling Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (www.csia.in) is looking a whole lot better than it did just a few years ago, and continues to undergo renovation; things may not seem world class just yet, but they're definitely getting there (there's even a Disney-themed children's corner designed to stave off boredom during long waits between flights). The International Terminal (2A and 2C; tel. 022/2681-3000) is located in Sahar, 29km (18 miles) north of Colaba, the touristy enclave in the city's far south. Flights typically arrive and depart between midnight and dawn, which can make finding your feet difficult; catch the evening flight on Kingfisher Airlines (www.kingfisher.com) from London, however, and you'll land midmorning (after a spectacularly comfortable flight, by the way). A Government of India Tourist Office (tel. 022/2682-9248) at the airport should be open 24 hours but -- as is the case in most of India's tourist offices -- it's certainly not the best place to obtain advice; you'll find the contents of this guide far more useful.
Although there is now at least one ATM at arrivals, it's usually run out of money, so if you intend catching a taxi from the airport, arrive with some cash in order to buy local currency from one of the fast and friendly foreign exchange booths located near the exit. However, if you're new to the city, it's advisable to arrange an airport transfer to meet you -- primarily because you will be accosted by a loud, expectant mass of touts and taxi drivers the minute you exit the terminal doors; it can be a bit overwhelming for first-time visitors and some of these characters need to be treated with a degree of caution. If you are expecting a pickup, don't get sidetracked or deterred from boarding the correct hotel shuttle -- ignore strangers offering help.
Hiring a taxi on the spot needn't be too much of a chore. Simply make use of the convenient (if overpriced) prepaid taxi service (tel. 022/2682-9922) located in terminal 2A (accessible by foot from 2C); a trip to a Colaba hotel should cost in the region of Rs 400 to Rs 480, plus an additional Rs 10 per luggage item; a trip in a superior Cool Cab will be Rs 150 more (although there have been reports that these taxis aren't as clean as they should be), and you might just get a better deal on a metered taxi (although finding one here has become near-impossible). Expect to pay well over double these rates for a hotel airport transfer, but you'll also get a much better vehicle to travel in; the Four Seasons sends a luxurious BMW for around Rs 3,200, and the Taj Mahal Palace now even has two Jaguars in its fleet. Because many international flights arrive late at night, traffic delays are usually not a problem, and you should be at your hotel within an hour even if you're staying downtown. If you arrive by daylight, don't expect to get anywhere quickly (unless you're staying at one of the hotels near the airport).
If you are flying direct from Mumbai's international airport on to the next destination, note that you will have to transfer (there is a free bus every 15 min.; make sure you get on it) to the Domestic Terminal (1A and 1B; tel. 022/2626-4000 or -4001) located in Santa Cruz some 4km (2 1/2 miles) from the international terminal and 26km (16 miles) north of the city. If you have a long wait before your flight, you will have to spend it in a very uncomfortable airport seat -- another good reason to rather spend some time in Mumbai itself. If you have arrived at the Santa Cruz terminal from another part of the country and plan to spend some time in Mumbai, you can either use the prepaid service (Rs 330 to Colaba, plus Rs 10 per luggage item), or use the phone hot line to get a metered Meru cab and pay only Rs 270 (the outlandish markup on the prepaid service a result of serious union politics, and metered taxis being denied parking space at the airport -- go figure!). Since domestic flights are likely to arrive during the day, be prepared for a long, congested, frustrating journey into Mumbai. There's also a tourist office at the domestic airport (tel. 022/2615-6920; daily 7am-11pm), but there's little need to dally here.
Note: Auto-rickshaws are banned from the city's center, so don't rely on these for trips originating from either of the airports unless your hotel is located in their immediate vicinity. Technically, you could use a rickshaw to get to the hotels in Juhu (the city's favorite beach precinct), but the trip is a long one and you'll inhale noxious traffic fumes along the way. Besides, unless you're traveling extremely light, there won't be much space for you to stow your luggage
By Train -- Good railway connections link Mumbai to all parts of the country, although journeys are long and, unless you opt for one of the smoother semiluxury services, likely to be extremely grueling. Since the terrorist attacks at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, or CST (otherwise known as "VT," Victoria Station), in late 2008, most of the smarter trains that once terminated there now curtail their journeys at stations farther north. This inevitably affects trains arriving from Central, South, or East India, which may terminate at Dadar (pretty much in central Mumbai) or the Lokmanya Tilak Terminus at Kurla (more north). From the north, you'll arrive at either Mumbai Central Station (most southerly), Dadar, or Bandra; check with your hotel to determine the best disembarkation point. After an inevitably lengthy train ride, you'll probably want to grab a taxi to your hotel; check first with your hotel to hear what the taxi fare should be.
Exploring Maharashtra on a Moving Palace -- Western India's version of the famous Palace on Wheels train is a lavish 21-car luxury train called The Deccan Odyssey, which traverses Maharashtra's stunning coast. The 7-day journey begins in Mumbai and wanders down the coast to Goa via gorgeous beaches untouched by commercialization. It then stops in the historic city of Pune before moving on to Aurangabad (where you can visit the Ajanta and Ellora caves), and finally returns to Mumbai. You'll travel by night and sightsee during the day, all the while getting the royal treatment, with luxurious cabins and high-end service (included are a personal valet, on-board gym, and Ayurvedic spa) -- food is outstanding. If you intend seeing Maharashtra in style, there really is no better way to go; contact Deccan Odyssey: in the U.S. call tel. 888/INDIA-99 [46342-99]; in the U.K. call toll-free 0125/8580-600; in India call 011/2332-5939 or 011/2335-3155; www.thedeccanodyssey.com, www.thepalaceonwheels.com, or www.deccan-odyssey-india.com; a deluxe cabin costs $320 to $390 per person sharing per night and includes everything except service tax; discounts are sometimes available.
Mumbai city lies on the western coast of India, on a thin peninsula that extends southward almost parallel to the mainland. At the southern end of this peninsula are Colaba and the adjoining Fort area, on the east of which lies Mumbai's deep, natural harbor and India's busiest port. West of Fort, hugging the Arabian Sea, is the popular promenade Marine Drive, which begins at the business district of Nariman Point and terminates at Chowpatty Beach and Malabar Hill. These are the focal nodes for tourists who, unlike the locals, often refer to the area as downtown. In fact, locals say they are going "into town," by which they mean they are going toward South Mumbai, the area stretching south from Mahim Creek to Colaba. South Mumbai is where most tourists base themselves -- it's especially convenient if you'd like to explore the historic heart of the city on foot. Here you'll find attractions like the Gateway of India and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (aka Prince of Wales Museum), and the thickest concentration of restaurants and accommodations that are geared for foreigners. The South Mumbai neighborhoods are described in detail below. There are, however, many enticing reasons to stay in less overtly tourist-centric areas like Worli, Bandra and Juhu -- for one, you'll get to see where many Mumbaikars (or Bombayites) live (whereas south Mumbai is pretty much a business zone that quiets down considerably after dark) -- Bandra is a particularly upbeat area plumb with homes belonging to jet-set Bollywood stars and a real magnet for some of the trendiest crowds in town. Even if you don't stay here (or along the hip beachfront strip at Juhu, slightly north of Bandra), it'd be a real shame not to take at least one trip into the suburbs, even if your sole mission is to shop till you drop (in which case, definitely put Worli on your itinerary, too). Bandra and Juhu are also close enough to the airport (without being flush up against the runways) to make them convenient for making a relatively quick getaway when your departure rolls around.
For the best listings of the city's current events and what's hip and happening, look no further than the twice-monthly magazine Time Out, widely available. You could try the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (Madame Cama Rd., Nariman Point; tel. 022/2202-4627 or -7762; www.maharashtratourism.gov.in; Mon-Fri 10am-5:30pm and Sat 10am-3pm), or the main Government of India Tourist Office (123 Maharishi Karve Rd., Churchgate; tel. 022/2203-3144, 022/2207-4333 or -4334; Mon-Fri 8:30am-6pm, Sat 8:30am-2pm), both of which should be able to assist with general tourist-related information. However, if you're staying at one of the city's better hotels, your concierge will be a better source of information on sightseeing, performances, events, and activities (although you may need to negotiate hard to get the lowdown on truly local restaurants and more offbeat attractions -- our prize for the best concierge advice in the city goes to the folks at the Four Seasons). Another excellent source of information -- as well as assistance with just about any kind of query, problem or emergency -- is Reality Tours & Travel (tel. 022/2283-3872; 24-hour line tel. 98-2082-2253; www.realitytoursandtravel.com). Krishna, one of the founders of this community-oriented tour company, knows the city inside out and is particularly astute at interpreting it for outsiders. His team will go so far as to source magazines, clothing and other essentials for you if you end up in the hospital, so can definitely also answer more mundane questions.
Dealing with Beggars
When long-time BBC India Bureau Chief Mark Tully was asked: "How do you cope with the poverty of India?" he responded, "I don't have to; they do." As a first-time visitor, you will no doubt be struck first by the seemingly endless ordeal of the impoverished masses. Families of beggars will twist and weave their way around the cars at traffic lights, hopping and even crawling to your window with displays of open wounds, diseased sores, crushed limbs, and starving babies, their hollow eyes imploring you for a few lifesaving rupees. Locals will tell you that these poverty performances are Mafia-style rackets, with protection money going to gangs, and sickly babies being passed around to gain more sympathy for their "parents." In the worst of these tales of horror, children are maimed to up the ante by making them appear more pathetic (a reality, you will recall, that is dealt with on quite a visceral level in the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire). Begging is now officially outlawed in Mumbai, and for anyone returning to the city there are noticeably fewer taps at taxi windows -- sadly, though, nearly all begging that happens at traffic lights involves children. Many of the kids who might otherwise be outright begging for money are now selling low-priced literary paperbacks at intersections; surely you can spare a few dollars for a good book? But, if it's just a hollow-eyed face staring through the glass, the choice is stark: Either lower the window and risk having a sea of unwelcome faces descend on you, or stare ahead and ignore them. To salve your conscience, tip generously those who have made it onto the first rung of employment.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.