The streets of Mumbai casts a dizzying spell even to this third world traveler used to seeing voluminous crowds and long queues of people rushing to and from various errands. It reminded me of our first stop in India; the city of Kolkata where all noises came to us like cannon blasting from all direction; the relentless honking of automobiles and the incessant yell from vendors among dozens of other reverberations all comprise a mix tape of mother of all audible uproars.
After Kolkata we see the same kind of overwhelming street scenes at Varanasi before tapering off by minuscule in New Delhi and unto the desert state of Rajasthan – where long stretches of desert and dry mountains serve as space fodder for its large population. Here in Mumbai, as what a Caucasian traveler described to us at the bus terminal in Jaisalmer “you won’t see an empty space, almost each spot is occupied by someone”. Of course it was an exaggerated statement but hearing the noise now and almost getting lost at the sea of humanity on our way to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus while we try to reserve a train ticket to Kochi, we get what he meant.
Amidst the multitude of humanity however, an impressive set of buildings also crowd the streets of Mumbai – in an eye popping manner especially for an architecture-junkie like me. Leading the pack is the Gothic Victorian architecture design of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus – which is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, fortifying the centerpiece of Mumbai’s complex but effective railway system.
Aileen and I sauntered inside looking for the booth that sell train tickets to Cochi, unmindful of the thick crowd we pushed our way inside a large air-conditioned room filled with ticket outlets before finally locating the correct cubicle selling train passes to our next destination. With the dark air brought upon by the harrowing terrorist attack during the infamous Mumbai attack of 2008 all gone; the iconic train station has now washed all overtone from that unfortunate event and has become a must-see for travelers from different parts of the world. The terminus operates as the main artery that usher the boundless wave of commuters to other cities in India.
Outside the terminus and a few steps away, one is quickly dazzled by an array of art deco buildings that earns the city of Mumbai the distinction of being the second city – next to Miami, to have the most numbers of surviving Art Deco buildings in the world. Your architectural visual feast doesn’t stop there as Gothic, Victorian, Indo-Saracenic, Modern and Contemporary architectural styles blending charmingly with historical landmarks from the British colonial era stands beautifully behind the swarming sidewalks of the city.
The wave of optimism that flourished at the turn of the 20th century and after the First World War attracted many local businessmen to set up residency here and along came; a rich fusion between traditional architectural styles and the deco design emanating from the cities of Paris and London. Not long after, rows of lavish offices and glittering residential apartments started appearing and adorning the huge city blocks that earned the city’s “Bombay Deco” reference. While many of these buildings stands at the mercy of passing time as characterized by the peeling paints, broken glass and unkempt façade, the character it expresses are hard to miss. I do hope that the Indian Government would implement a city-wide restoration program the soonest of time or it risk repeating the same mistakes we committed here in Manila – of surrendering our city’s architecture heritage to modernity.
Other than the aforementioned Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, we pass by the stand-alone Art Deco Regal Cinema which was constructed during the ‘cinema boom’ of the 1930’s. Currently showing the Bollywood film about a solo female traveler, the box-office smash “Queen” it is one of the many cinemas from its era that still operates up to this day. The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel situated near the Gateway of India is another eye candy of an architectural marvel. Built in 1903, it still retains the flavor of its visual elegance represented by the Florentine, Moorish and Oriental architectural style. Like the Chhatrapati Terminus it also became an infamous site of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
As the afternoon crowd started to thicken at the water’s edge of Mumbai Harbor to take photographs of the Gateway of India, we inch closer until coming within a few meters of it. I lift my head and my eyes gaze at the sheer size of its magnificent Indo-Saracenic architectural flair that blend beautifully with Hindu and Muslim design influences. Often compared to the Arc de Triomphe in the city of Paris, the Gateway of India was built in 1911 to commemorate the visit of King George the fifth and Queen Mary. Encircled by the many architecture wonders facing the waterfront, I stood out and stare at the opposite direction towards the sea where I saw countless swaying docked yachts and small boats dotting the blue waters of the Arabian Sea.
I feel the cool breeze of the wind and smell the aroma of curry it blows, I suddenly develop an instant desire for more Indian food. My friend Aileen and I walk towards a street lined up with interesting hole-in-the-walls establishments sandwiching a lone Starbucks branch and unto another street filled with bazaar stalls, until we settled for a café serving local and western breads. For an hour we sit by the window as I observe the hectic pace at which the locals dart in and out of my sight. With the many old heritage structures standing broodingly at the background, I feel a throwback vibe to decades past all thanks to the olden sentiment the classic architecture of Mumbai brings.
Staying true to the diversity of Mumbai’s populace, the aesthetics of the city’s stellar architecture presents a glimpse into the quixotic footprint that thrived once upon a time in a now frenzied and crowded environment. The city where much of the film “Slumdog Millionaire” was filmed showed me that there is more to it than endless shanty towns – all of which are visible at each edifice, that up to this day battles the rigid curse of decay and abandonment, in an attempt to preserve the opulent heritage and storied past of Mumbai. Just before the night’s darkness totally bite out of the remaining daylight, we flag down one of the iconic Premier Padmini cab to cap of our metaphoric time travel through Mumbai’s architecture wonders.