Bombay is India’s port city extraordinaire; the most glittering of the glittering port cities dotting the never-ending coastline of the Subcontinent; a city of extremes.
Once, the city was split into seven islands – seven puny and peripheral landmasses at the north-eastern edge of the Arabian Sea; variously under the jurisdiction of successive Buddhist and Hindu dynasties – the Mauryas, the Satvahanas, the Abkhiras, the Silharas, the Chalukyas and more… followed by the (Muslim) Gujarat Sultanate.
The islands fell into Portuguese hands in 1534, with Portuguese settlements established in Mazagaon, Salsette, Andheri – suburbs of the city today. They called the city Bombaim – which could have meant “good harbour”; or could have more likely been derived from the Portuguese pronunciation of the name of the city’s Patron goddess – Mumba-devi (the local version of the Mother Goddess).
Bombaim was neglected, however, in favour of Goa, the capital of the Estado da Índia. So for a hundred years, the islands slumbered.
The city’s fortunes took a turn on 8 May 1661, when, as part of the marriage contract between Charles II of England and Catherine of Braganza (in Portugal), Bombay (and other Portuguese possessions) were turned over to the English as part of Catherine’s dowry.
Between 1782 and 1845, the English undertook and accomplished an ambitious and unprecedented feat of engineering and land reclamation, linking all seven islands of Bombay into one island – today’s Old Bombay – with a deep, natural harbour. This exercise is known as the Hornby Vellard, after William Hornby, the Governor who initiated it.
City and port grew swiftly from the mid-1800s on, particularly in the aftermath of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which made Bombay THE port-of-call par excellence in British India. By the turn of the 19th century, Bombay had become the most important port in India, and one of the wealthiest cities on earth.
This wealth was built into the very fabric of the city, which boasts some of the most monumental and monumentally over-the-top buildings of the colonial era this side of London. Almost all of these buildings still stand today, and are concentrated around the iconic Flora Fountain, built in 1864 and named after the Roman Goddess of Spring, Fertility and Youth.
From the very beginning, Bombay, unlike Calcutta, was seen as a European, rather than an Indian city. It was westward-facing – one of the first stops for any vessel coming from Europe and Suez. And certainly, without the British, there would not have been Bombay the metropolis. And so in terms of architecture – it was the Imperial City of London, and none other, that offered inspiration.
Bombay’s heyday was during the Victorian era, and the city is (still) known for having quite possibly the largest collection of Victorian Gothic Revival buildings anywhere on this planet.
The most important, most stunning and most extreme of these is the Victoria Terminus (known as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus today), completed in 1888 as a symbol of Bombay’s opulence and importance to the Empire, and echoing St Pancras Railway Station in London.
The message was clear: after London, it was Bombay that claimed the title of second city of the British Empire.
The 1920s and ‘30s brought another economic and thus building boom to Bombay. Then it was that another icon of the city was completed – the Gateway of India, 1924. But another, thoroughly modern architectural form would define Bombay for what it was – a glittering, and thoroughly modern port of the 20th century.
Art Deco took the world, and particularly Bombay, by storm. Even today, Bombay boasts the second largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the world, after Miami. In fact, Bombay has its own version of Miami Beach – this is Marine Drive, a 3.6 kilometre long waterfront boulevard framing a magnificent bay, and flanked by a seemingly endless row of Art Deco buildings.
At the northern end of Marine Drive is Bombay’s popular Chowpatty Beach and (in)famous Malabar Hill – the exclusive, rarefied residential district of Bombay’s super-rich and famous. In their palaces in the sky, the city’s elite sequester themselves, keeping their distance from everyday Mumbai-kers blissfully at play in the water.
Bombay wasn’t built by the British only. Like many other Indian port cities, it had (and still has) a cosmopolitan population, including Jews, Arabs, Armenians and of course, Indians of all religions (Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jain) from all over the Subcontinent.
Its Roman Catholic, Portuguese residents continue to live and worship in the old Portuguese settlement of Mazgaon, today a suburb to the north of Old Bombay, and with an atmosphere redolent of Goa. A stroll through the suburb takes one to a few outstanding places of worship, including Gloria Church and Hasanabad – a mini Taj Mahal-like mausoleum believed to be the resting place of Aga Khan I, the 46th Imam of the Ismaili Muslims.
In Mazgaon too, lived the city’s resident Chinese population, reduced to a few individuals and a single Chinese temple today. A visit to this temple – dedicated to Kwan Kung, or the God of War, is a must, if one can find it.
Bombay is perhaps best known for being home to the largest population of Parsis in world; in particular, one Jamshedji Tata, who in 1868, formed Tata Group, India’s biggest business conglomerate today, owning interests in many industries including power, steel, automobiles, real estate and hospitality.
Jamshedji Tata is known for yet another icon of the city’s — the fabulous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, on the banks of Apollo Bunder, beside the Gateway to India. Tata was believed to have commissioned the Taj Mahal Palace in 1903 after having been refused entry to the leading hotel in Bombay at the time, the British-built and “whites-only” Watson’s Esplanade Hotel.
The Parsi community in Bombay is known also to be fabulously wealthy, and many of them live, naturally, in Malabar Hill. On the hill today still stands a Towers of Silence – the Parsis are Zoroastrian, and they practice sky burial: leaving their dead exposed in circular towers to decompose while exposed to the elements and to be devoured by vultures.
[Unfortunately, the city’s vulture population has plunged dramatically due to the birds being poisoned by insecticides. As such, the viability of sky burial has been called into question.]
Also on Malabar hill stands another landmark – the surreal, unmissable, towering Antilia, a 27-storey residential home of Indian tycoon Mukesh Ambani, complete with 600 staff, 6 levels of underground parking and 3 helipads.
It is an indication of the phenomenal and almost absurd wealth that continues reside in the city, alongside squalor and poverty; a sign of how Bombay – now Mumbai – remains a city of extremes.