Mumbai to the world at large, is also referred to as Bombay, Mambai, Bambai by the diverse inhabitants of India’s definitive melting pot. Most of whom are united in their spirit of enterprise! From the high-rises of Nariman Point to the cardboard and tin shacks of Dharavi, Mumbai contributes close to 40% of India's income tax. And has thrown up many a ‘Slumdog Millionaire'.
From a cluster of seven fishing villages in the 14th century, to a bustling trading port after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, to the commercial and entertainment hub of contemporary India, Mumbai is the country’s driving engine in more ways than one. Most visitors love its frenetic pace of life and palpable energy. Suketu Mehta aptly observes in his book ‘Maximum City' on Mumbai, ‘the greatest luxury of all is solitude.’ Mumbai is India’s undisputed Alpha City.
The history of Mumbai can well be narrated through the story of its many names. Present day Mumbai gets its name from a combination of two words – ‘Mumba’ and ‘Aai,’ – the former is the name of the Koli mother goddess, Mumbadevi, and the latter means mother in Marathi. This name was officially adopted in 1995. In its previous avatar, the city was known as Bombay. When the Portuguese arrived in 16th century, after the area was ceded to them by Sultan Bahadur of Ahmedabad, they called it Bombaim. It means ‘Good Bay’ in Portuguese. The area was then a cluster of seven islands inhabited by a fishing community called the Kolis. In 1661 CE, the Portuguese handed over the largest of the seven islands to England, as the dowry of Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza on her marriage to Charles II, King of England. The English soon anglicized the name to Bombay. This event firmly established the English in India as till then they’d only been granted the right to set up trading posts in India. The East India Company, based out of Surat then, soon leased Mumbai from King Charles.
Its strategic position was ideal for commerce and the natural harbor helped the English cause in no small measure. This brought Hindu traders from Gujarat, Christians from Goa, the Marathi speaking people from the hinterland, Muslims especially from the Bohra community, and the enterprising Parsis. The city soon came to be known by different names - Mumbai to the Marathi speaking, Mambai to the Gujaratis, and as Bambai in Hindi, Persian, and Urdu. And anglicized Indians called it Bombay.
The 19th century saw the city getting catapulted to the world stage as an important center of commerce, culture, and politics. The opening of Suez Canal in 1869 considerably reduced the distance between Europe and India, and Mumbai soon had ships docking from all over the world. The growth of the city was further helped once the Great Indian Peninsular Railway started operations. The buzz and lure of new opportunities attracted thousands from the hinterland, who came to the city looking for something greater than the mundane existence offered by their farmlands. The cotton crisis that hit America in the 1860s, following the Civil War gave further impetus to Bombay. To keep up with the growing needs of the city, massive land-reclamation projects were undertaken. The seven islands were fused to form one narrow promontory.
The city also played a stellar role in the Independence Movement. The house used by Mahatma Gandhi to co-ordinate the struggle, is now a museum. And by some quirk of destiny the last contingent of British troops passed through the Gateway of India in February 1948 to set sail back home. The very city from where they set about colonizing India!
Mumbai has the best local transport system in India. From efficiently run suburban trains and BEST buses to taxis and auto rickshaws, it is seldom an issue to get across from point A to point B. Most locals rely on public transport to and from their workplace due to parking constraints, traffic congestion, and long distances (a fallout of Mumbai's linear layout).
Local trains are the most effective way of traveling within the city. The extensive suburban rail network runs on three linear routes —Western Line, Central Line, and Harbour Line (along the eastern coast). The Western Line runs from Churchgate to Virar, covering stations along the city’s Western Suburbs. Likewise the Central Line operates from CST (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) to Kalyan. Some trains go beyond city limits to places further on like Karjat. Dadar is the common station where people change from Central to Western and vice-versa.
The Harbour Line is by far the least used. Services are not as frequent on this line. Starting from CST, it branches off into two at Vadala station. The main line covers the Eastern Suburbs and leads further on to Navi Mumbai. Kurla station is the interchange point of this line with the Central Line. The second branch of the Harbour line leads to Mahim on the Western Line.
The train service closes for barely 3 hours, from 1 am to 4 am. Having said that, try and avoid the rush hours between 8 to 10.30 am and 5.30 to 7.30 pm. Braving that crowd is not for the faint of heart.
After train, bus forms the next line of local transport. BEST buses work at two levels. At the first level they act as feeders to the suburban rail stations. Many bus depots are adjacent to stations. At the second level, BEST buses connect the smaller of the suburbs to the city. Services begin at 5 am and operate till midnight. Selected routes run beyond these timings.
Along with buses, taxis and auto rickshaws play a pivotal role in Mumbai's mobility. The black-and-yellow taxis form the first and most basic rung in the taxi services hierarchy. Most cars in this fleet do not have air conditioning. ‘Cool cabs’ in their distinctive white and blue colors are next in the taxi hierarchy. These air-conditioned cab can be flagged down on the city roads and are easily available. On top of the taxi services hierarchy are the branded cab services. Trained drivers, well maintained air conditioned cars of varying sizes fitted with GPS installed make this the preferred service by the well heeled class. First Cars, Mega Cab, Meru Cab and Priyadarshini Cabs are the keys players in this segment. They are best booked in advanced or else require a lead time of at an hour to reach the passenger.
Auto-rickshaws form a vital links in the suburbs. They do not operate in town, and start their services from Bandra and Sion in the western suburbs and central suburbs respectively. Cheaper than cabs, they are hugely popular and available at the doorsteps in most areas.
Ferry services form the last (and fascinating especially for travelers from the hinterland) line of local conveyance. Gateway of India connects Elephanta caves and Alibaug with town. Gorai Jetty in Borivali offers cheap ferries to Gorai Beach and Esselworld. Versova Jetty near Andheri is popular for getting across to Madh Island, Marve and Aksa.
‘Cutting Chai’ is a Mumbai special. Go to any roadside chaiwala, small restaurant or dairy stall/kiosk, and the term is all pervasive. It means half cup tea (chai) served in a serrated glass.
Mumbai has a plethora of restaurant serving everything from international to local to regional specialties. Tipping in restaurants is optional, but 10 % of the bill is the thumb rule.
Being a premier port city, Mumbai has always been a great shopping destination. From traditional bazaars to pavement shopping to swank malls, Mumbai offers a wide variety. Colaba Causeway is popular with tourists for its buzz and colorful atmosphere. Full of hawkers, stalls and shops selling garments, shoes, perfumes, knick-knacks, imported electronics and mass-produced gizmos, this is a must visit if only to take in the atmosphere. Flora Fountain to Kala Ghoda area is another great place for books, music, art and antiques.
For more traditional options Mangaldas Market near CST is popular for fabrics. Zaveri Bazaar is the place for jewelry while intricate embroidery work can be sourced from Mohammed Ali Road. Look no beyond Linking Road in Bandra and Fashion Street near Azad Maidan if street fashion beckons. Export reject garment can be picked up at throwaway prices.
Crossroads near Haji Ali Dargah was the first of Mumbai's malls that came up in the late 90s. Among the newer ones, Phoenix Mall and In-orbit Mall offer great experience with restaurants, designer stores, nightclubs, and a bowling alley. Oberoi Shopping Arcade is the place for leather goods. While the stretch from Bandra, Khar, Santa Cruz to Juhu is full of trendy home décor shops such as Tresorie. For haute couture, Kemps Corner and surrounds are ideal.
On a visit to Mumbai do not forget to pick a good luck charm in the form of a little clay Ganesha, the patron deity of the city.