2/17/2014 – Spices, sweat and smog: the smell of Mumbai is perhaps its one constant feature. Not unpleasant just strange, new, foreign, both good and bad all mixed together. It’s very true what everyone says about Mumbai—that it is a study in contradiction. At once desperately poor and fabulously wealthy (home to Asia’s largest slum and also a 27-floor, billion-dollar, personal apartment), overflowing with decaying colonial architecture, yet also humming with modernity. This was fascinating to see in person but certainly not a shock considering everything I’d heard of the city. What surprised me was not the disparities of the city, but its unity. With over 20 million people living so close together, it perhaps not surprisingly that they have found a way to peacefully coexist. No matter where we went, we were treating with the same decorous kindness that we saw the locals use with one another. The kind of behavior that might make a train ride wedged between two strangers bearable. No matter their station or age, the people went about their lives with great dignity, all crew members of this great ship of a city sailing into the unknown.Here are a few of the highlights of our visit:
The day we arrived we visited these 7th-century man made caves carved by hand from the rocky interior of Elephanta Island, just an hour-long boat ride across Mumbai harbor. The caves had been started many times, then abandoned after what must have been many years, maybe even decades of hard work when the stone proved too brittle. The very size of the cave that proved successfully is staggering and to think it was carved with nothing more than a simple hammer and chisel is nearly unbelievable. That’s not even mentioning the huge, intricately carved sculptures and perfectly round columns that grace the cave. Conceived of as a temple dedicated to the Hindu god shiva, the statues depict the god in his various manifestations. Our guide explained that though in Hindu belief the divine is unlimitedly all one, each of a god’s avatars encompass a particular part of his power, creating a deity to which humans can easily relate. Sort of how all humans have multiple identities (ie. wife, mother, aunt, architect, traveler, etc.) Shiva is there for his devotees as both a devoted husband and mover of mountains, depending on what they are praying for. The cave’s centerpiece is an enormous, beautiful sculpture of Shiva with three faces–for he is the god of creation, existence and destruction. It was a perfect introduction to both the complexity and beauty of Hindu theology.
Babu Amichand Panalal Adishwarji Jain Temple
Of course, not all Indians are Hindus. The country has sizable Muslim, Jain, Jewish, B’hai, Christian and Zoroastrian populations, all coexisting in relative harmony. We were welcomed to the Jain temple warmly. A brides’s family was preparing the temple for her wedding and carefully applying gold and silver leaf to plates of fruit to be offered to the sacred icons and to a crown and breastplate that he would wear. The temple swirled with color–brilliant paintings covered the ceiling and walls, lesser red-lacquered icons sat at regular intervals around the main temple room, garlanded with strings of fresh flowers and women in brilliant, sequined saris milled about. The smell of fresh jasmine flowers, ground sandalwood and incense wafted through the temple and the reverberating sound of heavy bells rung as devotees entered (a custom meant to ground the person in the holiness of the temple and release their cares). It was an astounding assault on the senses but in the very best way.
Twenty million people wear a lot of clothes and millions of those items find their way here to the dhobi(washerman’s) ghats to be scrubbed, washed, dried and ironed before making their way back to their owners. It’s backbreaking work, done mostly by villagers who have come to Mumbai to earn some quick money for their families. For up to 14 hours a day these incredible washerman work in shockingly close quarters full of untold hazards. Industrial washing machines rumble, water pours across walkways, repurposed oil drums full of clothes and disinfectant boil over smokey wood fires and old-fashioned irons filled with glowing charcoal sizzle. In tiny alleys and tinier rooms above the washbasins, the washerman live, eat, drink chai and socialize with incredibly good humor. Despite the illusion of chaos in the dense twisting lanes, such care is taken in their work that it is extremely rare for a garment to be returned to an incorrect owner–only one out of millions is misplaced. …I will never complain about doing laundry again!
On the flight to Chennai right now and onto the next adventure!