malabar’s hanging garden, towers of silence, victoria terminus, and jain temple

Being a flower lover, the first time I visited Bombay and heard “hanging garden,” my imagination went wild trying to imagine a garden filled with hanging baskets of flowers. We went by ourselves, sans guide, while I loved the peace and quiet, I never did figure out why it was called the “hanging” garden. I saw lots of beautifully manicured lawns with flower borders, then as now, ringed with flowering fruit trees with exotic names, and in the distance there were views of the city, as well as Chowpatti Beach along Marine Drive if you found the right spot. I remember also the displays of topiary animal shapes cut into the hedges much like those we had seen at Disney World in the U.S.

This time was different. Our guide Sudha–seen here strolling along with Hubby–explained the name. This terraced garden is laid out over the top of the three water reservoirs that supply Bombay its water. The soil the garden is layed out on is only 6 to 30 inches thick spread over the surface. That’s why the trees grow only on the slope of its perimeter. The reservoirs, constructed in 1880, were renovated in 1921 and the capacity increased to store 30 million gallons of water. Besides providing a storage place for the city’s water, the garden is a popular destination for quiet walks and contemplation for both tourists and locals alike. It’s design is also believed to be a practical application constructed to deal with the contaminated waters from a nearby tower of silence you’ll learn more about below.

The towers of silence are located in secluded gardens in the Malabar Hills on land donated by a Zoroastrian (Parsi) industrialist and chairman of the Bombay Stock Exchange from 1966 until his death in 1980, Sir Jamshetji Jeejeebhoy. It’s off-limits to tourists, but I caught this glimpse of the steps that lead to the tower where the centuries-old custom of exposing  remains of the dead to the sun–to be picked dry by scavenging vultures–takes place.Because they regard the elements of nature as sacred, they neither cremate–as Hindus do–nor bury underground–as Muslims do–because they believe such practices corrupt the natural element of fire and earth and thus defiled by the dead.

As urbanization spread, more and more high-rise apartments were erected in Malabar Hill. Soon it was too easy to catch a glimpse of the tower’s interior. One day a citizen was horrified to see shrunken corpses stacked in piles inside the tower. He was so disturbed that he complained, and soon a wall was built to screen the tower from anyone other than those tower attendants who worked there. I must add another cautionary tale of modernity here regarding still more influence of changing times. Sometimes, as the old saying goes, you gotta do what you gotta do! As the numbers of the Zoroastrians, or Parsis, began to decline and possibly a result of pollution as well, fewer vultures are around to flock to the tower for their ghastly task. Also, for  reasons not quite so clear–those that do come seem less inclined to touch the corpses anyhow. Hence the bodies take far longer to deteriorate than they did in the past. In time, naturally, bodies begin to accumulate. In what could be referred to as a “green” attempt to assist nature, solar panels were installed. Many in the community have had enough grisly experiences, however, and continue to press for changes to the old custom. Note to self: you can’t escape change–not even when you’re dead!

In the photo below, if you look hard at the top of the dome slightly right of the gable in the center, you’ll see a statue of Queen Victoria (the white one), for whom this impressive example of Victorian Gothic architecture spectacularly infused with stone domes, turrets and pointed arches of traditional Indian architecture, was built in time for opening in 1887 on the date of her Golden Jubilee. It took 10 years to build.

If memory serves, it was the explosions from a few years ago in the Victoria Terminus, Taj Mahal Hotel and other Bombay sites that led to a policy of NO photography inside the terminal, which is a crying shame as I’ve seldom seen such a magnificent interior, especially in a train station. There were ornamental iron and brass railings, tiles, and wood carvings–angels to elephants–everywhere. I remember wishing I were skilled at sketching so I could make sketches and remember things in more detail, especially the jungle-themed facade with peacocks, gargoyles, monkeys and lions. Historian and author, Christopher London, wrote in Bombay Gothic that Victoria Terminus is to the British Raj what the Taj Mahal was the the Mughal empire.

As beautiful as it was inside, however, it was one of the noisiest, busiest places–with people swarming like bees everywhere–the noise was phenomenal. I was particularly impressed that women all ages and alone were briskly moving in and out of trains. Since I’d read in local newspapers about vicious rapes, even numerous killings of young women in Delhi’s train terminals, I had wondered how safe they felt in the chaotic confines of Victoria Station. Sudha assured me that–not only was it safe, but it was easy as well to learn the system. Women of Bombay apparently feel free to move about quite freely at any time or day in Bombay.

Like everyplace else in India, the trend of renaming important locations with Indian names in response to demands of a political organization, the station was renamed after a famed 17th century Maratha King. It’s now officially called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, although I suspect most Indians–as I–will always think of it as Victoria Station.  Whatever you want to call it, it’s still the busiest railway station in Asia.

Another tour, and yet another temple! I expect my readers are getting used to finding temple notations throughout our India tour this year. How better to learn about the people than to explore the institutions they erect. The last temple we would visit was the Jain Temple located nearby in Malabar Hill. It’s relatively new, built in 1903. One of the significant differences in the Hindu sect of the Jains is that their followers are not only strict vegetarians, as are most Hindus, but they go to great lengths to avoid killing any living thing. Flowers are used as offerings in most Hindu temples, but not here at the Jain Temple, lest a bug inside the petals inadvertently be killed. Some sweep the path ahead of them while walking, and often wear masks so they won’t accidentally inhale insects. The most devoted among them will not eat any root vegetable like carrots or potatoes for fear of killing bugs when pulling the roots from the ground.

The entrance to this Jain temple is flanked by two stone elephants, like the one in the picture above.

One of the main tenets of the Jain community is charity. In this temple, a group of volunteers from the temple assist the poor by providing the means to purchase medicine they might not otherwise be able to afford. Each worker carefully looks over the individual doctor-issued prescriptions to verify their legitimacy, then the prescriptions are filled at the pharmacy, and dispensed afterwards to those who need them.

One final note for this post. I kept noticing bamboo scaffolding around construction and buildings of all sizes–skyscrapers, and modern office buildings alike–during our stay, like this one:

I kept thinking it couldn’t possibly be a scaffold assembly because the bamboo poles looked far too flimsy, but I asked the guide about it anyway. I’m so glad I don’t let the risk of sounding ignorant outweigh my desire to know things! She was quick to point out sound reasons to use old-fashioned albeit flimsy looking bamboo rather than the metal I was used to see in the U.S. (1) it’s strong–in spite of its skeletal look, and (2) it’s extremely lightweight and easy to handle, and very flexible as well, plus another decided advantage in what would soon be a very hot Bombay summer–it stays cooler than metal and thus less likely to burn bare foot workers. Sometimes simple is just better and a lot less expensive.

Next we’ll visit an art festival and have tea in the newly renovated Taj Mahal Hotel. Hope you’re able to come too.

mani bhavan (Mahatma Gandhi Museum)

This is Sudha, our guide for the day.

As we arrive at the Malabar Hills residence where Mahatma Gandhi lived from 1917 to 1934 during his visits to Bombay, I couldn’t help thinking about all the things I’ve read over the years about western women’s attraction to Gandhi, particularly one American woman–whose name completely escapes me now–who would likely have lived in my grandmother’s generation. I could hardly imagine my mother, and certainly not my grandmother (!) traveling alone to India to live and work with a little brown man–prophet or not–and I wondered if I would see any allusion to her now.

The house belonged to Shri Revashankar Jhaveri, Gandhi’s friend. This is what the neighborhood looks like now. (That’s the museum grounds behind the concrete wall on the right.) In the series to come of other tourist attractions in the Malabar Hills, it will become very evident that this part of Bombay is a very exclusive area with property values of more than $1200 per square ft, which only the wealthiest Bombay citizens can afford.

Gandhi’s lifetime spanned October 2, 1869 when he was born, to January 30, 1948 when he was assassinated. Everything commonly known about him casts him as a very simple man dedicated to equality and justice, but a closer look reveals a much more complex man. I knew from my reading, for instance, that as his father lay dying, a 16-year-old Gandhi was having sex with his wife Kasturba (whom he had married at age 13) in a nearby room. When a servant came to inform him of his father’s death, the guilt he felt was overwhelming. Indeed, at age 39, while still married to Kasturba, he made the decision to become celibate until he learned to truly love, not just lust. I don’t know what is true, nor what is untrue, but like any man of great notoriety, many things have been written about the Mahatma. In fact a book published just this spring alleges that actually he forsook his wife for a relationship with another man–and was indeed bisexual. In terms of what he accomplished during his lifetime, I don’t think it much matters at this point. Gandhi himself said once that truth alone will endure; all the rest will be swept away in the tide of times.

Be that as it may, these things were much on my mind as I entered the museum, and I confess I wished that (1) I were psychic or at least truly believed in it, and (2) that I would be able to sense what was real and what wasn’t. I came out knowing very little more than when I entered, but still thinking of the Mahatma as a very interesting man. There were absolutely no references to any feminine relationships, western women or otherwise.

In the library, because these are the things I like to know about people, I checked to see what kinds of books he’d collected and read. I noted a lot of Tolstoy–even a collection of short stories.

There were also copies of letters to he’d written to famous people like Roosevelt and Einstein–as well as Tolstoy–but the one that drew my attention most firmly was the one he wrote to Hitler, in which he addresses the recipient as “Dear Friend.” The letter goes on to say “Friends have been encouraging me to write to you for the sake of humanity. But I have resisted their request because of the feeling that any letter from me would be an impertinence. Something tells me that I must not calculate and that I must make my account for whatever it may be worth.” The next paragraph continues with “It is quite clear that you are the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to a savage state. Must you pay that price for an object however worthy it may appear to you to be? Will you listen to the appeal of one who has seliberately [sic] shunned the method of war not without considerable success. Any way I appreciate your forgiveness, if I have erred in writing to you.” Signed M.K. Gandhi and addressed to Herr Hitler of Berlin, Germany.

I’ve always been obsessed by all things in miniature, so naturally the dioramas  depicting important civil disobedience protests Gandhi led during his lifetime became my immediate focus. This one demonstrates boycotting of foreign cloth that resulted in an immense bonfire in Bombay that kindled India’s economic emancipation in 1921.

This is the bedroom with a portrait of Gandhi on the wall, and various antiquated spinning wheels lining the walls. The simple cot, on which we assume he slept while staying here, seems almost an afterthought . . . and–try as I might–I couldn’t, and can’t, see a single ghost or spirit to tell me who the real Gandhi was, can you?

Next post:  continuation of Malabar tour with stories from the Towers of Silence.

first, a bit about bombay

If pressed for a one-word impression of Bombay, I would choose cosmopolitan, or to expand a little further, it’s the financial and entertainment capital of India, much like New York City here in the U.S.   First of all, let’s get the name out of the way. With the limits of history taught in my country grammar school added to the disinterest I showed in my high school days, I’d always assumed Bombay was named by the British after they arrived in the 17th century. In the beginning, or at least before written history, much of the west coast of India was pretty much owned and controlled by the Mughal Empire who didn’t call it anything as far as I know. In actuality it was named by the Portuguese–those same adventurers who invaded most of the western coast of India fairly early in the 16th century. It looked to them like a beautiful bay so they called it that. BOM, meaning or “beautiful” and BAHIA meaning bay. In 1995, it was renamed Mumbai from Bombay but many of us, even those who live there, still refer to it as Bombay.

Throughout much of history, marriage arrangements have determined who gets what in the territorial department. That’s how Britain was added to Bombay’s picture in 1661–through the marriage treaty drawn between Charles II of England and Catherine of Braganza, the daughter of King John IV of Portugal.  As part of Catherine’s dowry to Charles, the islands along the coast that made up Bombay was turned over to the British Empire. Of course we all know how the British, and since then, the rest of us, grew  quite fond of India’s tea and spices. Not too long after that, it was turned over to the East India Company. A self-taught artist by the name of Robert Melville Grindlay served with the East India Company’s military service from 1804-20 and during this period produced a large number of sketches and drawings recording the life and landscape of India. A copy of one, done in 1826, shows the early cosmopolitan culture of the city, which endures to this day.

The Gateway of India was built in 1914-18 to commemorate King George V’s and Queen Mary’s visit in 1911. The arch is Muslim style and the decorations Hindu style. It’s probably the most visited attraction in Bombay because it’s a good place to hang around. The last of the British troops to leave India–after independence on August 15, 1947–ceremoniously passed through the Gateway for the last time in 1948 on the 28th of February.        

The beautiful Venetian Gothic style building on the far left , the David Sassoon Library, is located on Mahatma Gandhi Drive. Sir Sassoon was a wealthy Jewish Bombay banker.

From my first Bombay visit, in 1980, I have many memories of thousands of virtually homeless people living in slums like those portrayed in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Those shadow city slums are still there, but I didn’t see so many this time. In talking to local family members, it seems some of them could afford to live in better digs, but prefer not to–for reasons I can only imagine. These pictures show how a large majority of the lower classes still live . . .

but they are located within the city adjacent to major highways but well away from the commercial center.

Things look decidedly better the nearer you get to the city.

Then there’s the famous harbor area near the Taj Mahal Hotel. Yachts, fishing boats, commercial cruise lines, sailboats–you can see them all here. Thirty years ago, on a far less crowded day, we were waiting to board a ferry to the Ghandupuri Island there the Elephanta Caves are. A Saudi Arabian man stood on the top deck of a yacht similar to the one below drinking a bottle of Coca Cola. As I looked directly at him, he turned to look at me and offered me one, which I declined.

The haves (as opposed to the have nots) will most probably be found in a highrise like this one along Marine Drive.

The middle class nature of this old-looking condominium is apparent where laundry is hung out to dry every morning, just as you can see along the balconies of many of the high rise condos in the suburbs. People seem to own fewer clothes and wash each day’s soiled clothes every morning. There are views for awhile, but they often disappear when another high-rise rises in front of you. Imagine living in a unit in the middle building. The view from there will be the window of another unit across from you.

Here we enter one of the high end malls, the Palladium. Known as one of THE places for the ultimate experience in high end shopping, its elegant interiors spread across four levels with premium and luxury brands mixed in with small gift shops and boutiques. I checked prices in one of the less expensive stores and found they were no cheaper in India than the U.S. Any westerner would feel comfortable shopping or spending an afternoon here, even if he/she can hardly afford to buy anything . . . unless it’s on sale of course! India’s merchants caught on very quickly to the western mode of inducing people to buy things they probably wouldn’t otherwise with those gigantic 51% OFF signs.

When I return, we’ll have a look at some of the unique sights and attractions of the city, such as the Dhobi Ghats, the Hanging Gardens, the house where Gandhi lived during some of his more tumultous years between 1917-1934, and of course another temple–the one a fascinating look at the Jain religion. Hope you’ll be here too.