It was so wet even the dhobi wallahs had given up. As rain lashed Mumbai, the must-see spectacle of thousands of laundry men washing millions of garments proved a damp squib.
Bollywood film studios, meanwhile, were disappearing underwater, and I tried promenading along Chowpatty seafront where love-struck couples mooch arm-in-arm but was nearly blown into the briny by galeforce winds. Mumbai was gripped by monsoon.
Choosing India’s largest city during monsoon may sound rather daft but there are definite advantages. There are fewer tourists, flight prices are competitive, hotel prices can be haggled and skies are broodingly magnificent.
Like most travellers I based myself in the lively Colaba District, the southernmost tip of Mumbai’s massive megalopolis of 15 million people. Besides imperious Victorian architecture and London double-decker buses, Colaba has numerous bars and restaurants to dodge the showers. Shopping’s fun too.
Along Colaba Causeway you can buy made-to-measure saris or treat yourself to DVDs or watches of dubious authenticity. “Twenty pounds for a Rolex?” I questioned one street trader, “That’s got to be a fake.”
“Oh no sir, labour is very cheap in India,” he replied. Well, I wasn’t born yesterday.
Raindrops the size of golf balls continue hammering my brolly as I set off for Mumbai’s number-one attraction, Elephanta Island’s caves. Ferries leave in all weather from the Gateway to India – the place where the British military finally abandoned India in 1948.
The hour-long trip is exhilarating. I look back at Mumbai’s contrary skyline: the skyscraper homes of multi-millionaires and nightclubs frequented by Bollywood glitterati juxtaposed with sprawling slums roofed by blue tarpaulins. Minarets and church steeples sit comfortably alongside Hindu temples.
Elephanta’s caves are eventually reached by steep steps running the gauntlet of monkeys so bedraggled they can’t be bothered to hassle tourists for goodies. But the fantastic caves are well worth the effort. Between the 4th and 10th centuries a single monolith of rock was painstakingly hollowed out by devotees into a giant cavern adorned with lavishly beautiful bas-reliefs of Hindu gods such as Shiva and Vishnu.
Back in town it continues raining cats and dogs. By now, like a chapatti soaking up a prawn vindaloo, I’m wet through and have enough Gene Kelly moments to last a lifetime. Fortunately Mumbai’s moreish cuisine lifts the spirits: street-sellers serve bel puri (spicy puffed wheat) and delicious wada pav (chickpea butties) and elegant seafood restaurants such as Trishna’s deliver sumptuous buttered lobster.
My favourite haunt is Café Mondegar where I can get a cold Kingfisher beer and the jukebox pumps out anything from bhangra to Blur.
Ankle-deep in water I slosh around the streets to visit myriad indoor attractions. I make a note to return to see the spectacle of the dabbawallahs who in their thousands deliver more than 200,000 lunch or tiffin-boxes daily to Mumbai’s city workers from Churchgate Rail Station. But most of the railway network is flooded so nobody is working.
The awe-inspiring World Heritage-listed facade of Victoria Station is nearby: a Gothic vision of gargoyles and oriental arches and domes.
On a typical day half a million commuters pass through Victoria’s 19th-century interior.
I also squelch my way to Ghandi’s former home, Mani Bhavan, where a collection of his letters includes one asking ‘Dear Mr Hitler’ to respectfully refrain from invading Europe; then to the fabulously colourful fruit and vegetable Crawford Market, built in the 1880s; and to a white marble Jain Temple on Malabar Hill. If you’ve never experienced Jainism’s exotic rituals (jade elephants, clanging bells, and devotees drawing rice-patterns) it’s a must-do visit.
But I can’t depart Mumbai without paying homage to the industry that has bestowed the city with international cool and acclaim. Colaba’s wonderful art deco Regal Cinema shows some of the one thousand Bollywood movies made each year. As matinee idols go I can’t profess to know Amitabh Bachchan from Hrithik Roshan but I’m swept along by an implausible plot and the crowd yelling what seems to be the Hindi equivalent of ‘behind you’. Monsoon madness has moved indoors.
Kumbh Mela is a sacred pilgrimage that washes away Earthly sins. It occurs on a rota at four sacred river destinations over a 12-year cycle. Every 12th year is the Grand Kumbh Mela. 2001’s gathering attracted 30 million people – a chaotic mind-blowing crush of Naga (naked) Sadhus and dreadlocked holy men. The Hardiwar Kumbh Mela is scheduled March-April 2010.
Mumbai’s biggest bash celebrates Ganesh, Shiva’s elephant-headed son. He’s revered during 10 colourful days of processions, music and dance. Next year’s event takes place on September 3.
A touristy yet photogenic spectacle as Rajasthanis trade cattle, camels and horses. Tiny Pushkar dazzles with colour, religious ceremonies, doped-up Sadhus and dancers. Plan for November 10-13, 2008.
It’s a mad, vivid, celebration marking spring’s arrival. I first discovered it in Delhi by being covered in a purple powdery dye and given a big hug. You’ll find people going slightly ape across India. Don’t miss the symbolic burning of Holika, the selfish spirit. Takes place on March 22, 2008.
Rajasthan is a gentle acclimatisation. From Delhi the ‘Golden Triangle’ involves a train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal then onwards to Jaipur, gateway to Rajasthan. Udaipur’s palaces, Jaisalmer’s fortified desert city and laid-back Pushkar, are long-discovered but exotic and easy introductions for India virgins.
Those craving sun, sand and seafood should head south from Mumbai to Portuguese-influenced Goa. The Sixties hippy and Nineties rave scenes are somewhat passé these days, but tranquil enclaves such as Benaulim remain chilled (although party-animals should keep tabs on www.indiamike.com). Finally, mosey south to Kerala’s beaches for creamy coconut curries and great surf.
Tamil Nadu’s spell-blinding temples are a must. From Chennai (Madras) head to Mamallapuram and Tiruchirappalli to explore the soaring gopurams (towers) of elaborate Hindi temples. En route, chew on a baguette for a few days in the French colonial surroundings of Pondicherry before attaining enlightenment at Madurai’s magnificent 2000-year-old Sri Meenakshi complex.
India’s Himalayas offer dramatic scenery and cultural diversity. Leave Delhi for Himachal Pradesh’s charming colonial hill station of Shimla then onto McCleod Ganj, long-time base of the exiled Dalai Lama. Kashmir is still a little risky, but the alpine journey into Tibetan-influenced Ladakh is ample compensation. The breath-taking Manali to Leh road tops a dizzying 5000m in places.
A pilgrimage along the River Ganges across Uttar Pradesh beckons. The Beatles first put Rishikesh on the map and today it’s packed with ashrams offering yoga and meditation. Downriver is wonderful Hardiwar where pilgrims wade into the Ganges
Rail survival guide
The first time I stepped inside an Indian railway station it looked as if World War III had broken out. Besides turbaned porters, hawkers, and family picnics, there was enough luggage to sink the Titanic. But don’t be fooled, the Indian Railway network
(www.indianrail.gov.in) is extremely well-organised. It’s also the most relaxed and economical way to travel India’s vast distances.
An overnight sleeper from Delhi to Mumbai, for instance, costs just £16.
• Your first decision is what class to travel. It’s important to book your ticket as far in advance as possible. Some popular routes have reserved tourist quotas so you can theoretically book last-minute. But this is Russian roulette and you may end up with nothing.
It’s now possible to book online outside India on www.irctc.co.in, or if you’ve plotted your itinerary to the nth degree, reserve all your trains in advance by purchasing an Indrail Pass (www.indiarail.co.uk). They work out fractionally more expensive than booking along the way.
• There is a bewildering array of different classes and train types to choose, from Darjeeling’s narrow-gauge toy train to Rajasthan’s Palace-on-wheels blow-the-budget special. For comfort it’s better to hop onto the all-seated air-con Shabatdi expresses or first-class Radjhani a/c sleepers. Meals and bedding are included. I’ve often heard it said there are ladies-only carriages but have scarcely ever seen them. If you prefer a little privacy, book an air-con cabin.
• Don’t rule out the (cheaper) experience of second-class sleepers for longer journeys. It’s a great chance to mix with locals and is often fun. Meals are dirt cheap and will be brought to your bunk. An endless supply of masala chai (tea) is usually available, which can be problematic as it will lead to multiple trips to the squat loo. A clothes-peg sometimes comes in handy.
• For those foolhardy enough to try a long journey in second-class non-sleeper, get to the station early, sharpen your elbows and don’t forget the Valium. Otherwise everything you need to know about Indian rail travel can be found on the brilliant www.seat61.com. For planning, pack the biblical Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable.
When to go: It’s monsoonal in Mumbai between May and September. Cooler, drier weather falls either side of Christmas.
Getting there: I flew with Finnair (www.finnair.com) which has great priced returns from London to Mumbai and Delhi for £408.30, all taxes included.
Visas: Most nationalities require them; £30 from High Commission of India at Aldwych in London (see www.hcilondon.net).
Money: Current exchange rate: 81 Indian Rupees (INR) to 1GBP. Sterling cash or traveller’s cheques are fine and there are plenty of ATMs.
Language: Besides Hindi, most Indians speak excellent English.
Getting around: Colaba is easy enough to walk around but Mumbai’s ubiquitous 1950s-style Fiat taxis are inexpensive.
Remember to agree on the price first. Ferries to Elephanta Island cost as little as 120 rupees return.