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.