We arrived in Mumbai, the native name for Bombay, at 5am after a long, sleepless night. This was a unique experience for myself and for our two daughters, 11 and 13-years-old. The weather was warm and wet, and I walked around everywhere outside the airport. This was India! Outside the main part of the airport, everything was so different – not the vision we have from richer countries; instead, something so contrasting.
Long Ago in Mumbai
This was my first contact with this city in 20 years. Many things had changed, but not the climate or the poverty. Mumbai is a very large city and the richer and more westernized part is at the opposite end of town from the airport, near the India Gate and the Taj Hotel, in an area called Colaba. We took a taxi to our hotel in Colaba.
After a light rest, we decided to discover the famous Elephanta Caves (full of sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses), a one-hour ferry ride from the India Gate. Once we reached the island, we walked up many steps, with tropical scenery and monkeys around us. It was a peaceful spot opposite Mumbai. The caves were like stepping into another time.
The Marine Drive is another attractive place. This starts at the Taj Hotel and continues for two miles of busy road along the sea. The children enjoyed walking through the crowds on the sidewalk.
I reserved tickets to go south for our first adventure on the Indian Railway, which was an interesting experience: For those who want to engage in the Indian way of life, train travel is a suitable way to learn as everyone speaks with you and offers you the chance to share their meals before eating. Do be careful of all your belongings.
In the south, we visited Chennai (formerly called Madras) in the center of the Dravidian region. One way to get around in Chennai is to take an “autorickshaw,” a motorized version of the traditional human-powered rickshaw. There is much pollution and traffic and you have no way to move at a red light.
During our time in Chennai, we were surprised by a last minute invitation to attend a Hindu wedding. The Brahmin priest made the couple turn seven times around the ritual fire and the bridegroom tied a sacred strand around his bride’s neck as they became husband and wife.
The famous Merina Beach on the Coromandel Coast is 13 kms long, and we had nice weather for our walk. We stopped to watch fisher families cleaning and drying their nets. Also, there were crows everywhere. Was this a Hitchcock film?
Another cultural experience that we witnessed in Chennai was the Feast of Lakshmi (goddess of wisdom and beauty) in August. This lasted 10 days, including the preparation, and for the last three days there was music all day and all night. There was also the Pongal (boiled rice) Agricultural Feast in January, when cows were covered with brightly colored designs. Chennai is known as a center for making musical instruments, and the children enjoyed visiting the sitar (guitar) and tabla (drums) workshops.
Other sights around Chennai include Thomas Mountain hanging over the large city, the “Bollywood” places where actors are nearly scorched in the heavy noon sun, and the Theosophical Society Park where you can picnic under the old banyan tree.
Pondicherry, Cochin & Mysore
And then there’s Pondicherry, a very different city: clean, with big French-style bungalows and so many fragrances and colors. The main bazaar road is called Jewaharlal Nehru Street. The famous Aurobindo Ashram, where travelers interested in yoga and ayurvedic medicine can stay, sits in the French part of town. There is also the Ganesha Temple in the center of town, busy every day.
The blue Nilgiris Mountains have hill stations at various altitudes. We climbed through this beautiful area, from tropical temperatures up to a cooler climate, in a little train. At 1800 m the train stopped, and the air smelled fresh and pure. We visited a tea factory in the Nilgiris and the director kindly received us. We also visited Todas’ Temple, where horned beasts are venerated.
Next, we headed to Cochin on the Malabar Coast. To get there, we took a bus through the Tekkadi area, where elephants roam freely. It was fun to watch the monkeys playing with coffee nuts and doing acrobatics in the trees. In Cochin, we enjoyed a backwaters cruise where kingfishers crossed the sky so quickly in front of us that we almost missed them. We also enjoyed touring the Old Town streets, home of one of the oldest synagogues in the world. It was a successful trading port for centuries. The Cochin Harbour is often rented for film productions. It’s a good place to get fast fish food at tourist prices, but for Indians, times have changed and fish are getting scarcer.
We continued by bus up to Mysore, where the Maharaja’s Palace was more beautiful than ever, especially when illuminated on weekend nights. The zoo in Mysore is interesting for children. Some elephants and a white tiger live there.
Mysore’s main feast is The Dasara, typically celebrated in October. During this time, elephants wear splendid ornaments and music plays in the main entrance of the palace. After a long day walking around the city, the elephants return to the palace. We were in Mysore for another period of feast: the Muslims’ Ramzan in February. All the mosques were full of men praying, and they spilled out into the road.
Ganesh (the Hindu elephant-headed god) is always present and very busy during any feast period. He is present not only in big temples, but also in jungles and forests. Sometimes, when we took night buses crossing jungles and forest, there were mad elephants stomping in the middle of the road. These were nothing like the domestic elephants we had seen, and the bus driver could do nothing until the elephants decided to move.
For more information about India and to plan your own visit, contact the Government of India Tourist Office:
In New York: 212/586-4901
In Toronto: 416/962-3787
For a free brochure: 800/GO-INDIA
Or visit the official tourism web site: www.tourindia.com
Other helpful web sites:
Indian Railways: www.indianrail.gov.in
Nilgiris/Blue Mountains: www.nilgiris.com
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.