India – Mumbai – Morning trip to Elephanta Island, afternoon stroll downtown

Elephanta Island monkeysOne of the must-see sights near Mumbai is a half-day trip to Elephanta Island. Protected by UNESCO it is famous for its 6th century cave temples, and boats make regular round trips from the Gateway of India all throughout the day. Amish, our guide, had other commitments that day, so instead we were accompanied by Mobin, who ensured we got on the right boat and kept us company during the crossing.

leaving the Gateway of IndiaThus it was that for the third day in a row, we visited the Gateway of India! You really can’t see it too often, though, in all its sunshiny glory. The boats depart directly behind it, from an area that looks as though a mish-mash of boat-parking skills were employed to get the boats in that particular arrangement, all jostling for position in a higgledy-piggledy sort of way. Nevertheless, you trust in your guides and in your Captain, and slightly nervously get on board. The boats are all the same style and shape, with a covered downstairs and an open air upstairs. We plumped for upstairs, oil refineriesso you take some rather steep and narrow steps up through what appears to be a gap in the roof and emerge on top, and hope to find an unbroken plastic chair to sit on. The trip across to the island is a little over an hour, and two main sights can be enjoyed en route. The first is the majestic Gateway of India, seen as it was designed to be seen, from the sea, gently getting smaller against the horizon as your journey progresses. Also as you near the island, you get quite close to some oil refineries, and with a good lens you can get some interesting pictures; if oil refineries are your thing, of course.

Land train to the cavesYou know you’re arriving at the island when you see this massive long jetty spurring out into the sea. I’m not sure why the boats dock so far away from the island itself, other than to give passengers a long walk, or more likely to pay for a trip on the little land train that takes you to the “village”. The village is basically a row of stalls, selling the usual tourist stuff, no outstanding purchases to be made, but exotic nonetheless, and colourful canopies over the walkway produce atmospheric light effects as you walk through. By now Mobin had introduced us to our guide on the island, Avinash. He actually lives on the island and knows the caves like the back of his hand – and why wouldn’t he, he takes people round them every day of his life.

Ticket officeThe first thing they tell you when you start walking round the island is to beware of the monkeys. What, you mean those cute tiny little things who jump around in the trees and look so adorable? Yes them. They go for your food, they go for your water. If you’re not careful they will knock them out of your hands, scavenging little so and so’s. Whilst we watched some monkeys cavorting in the trees, Avinash got our tickets: 10 rupees for Indians, 250 rupees for foreigners. At least that was written on the board in numbers. When we went to Prague in 1997, the cost to get in to the Old Jewish cemetery was very expensive for tourists and ridiculously cheap for locals, but the actual amount payable was written out in words, in Czech, so 99% of the tourists couldn’t tell that they were being ripped off. We had a Czech friend though, who got us in as locals, and we had to spend the next half hour not making eye contact with anyone or speaking, or else we would have been chucked out as undesirable aliens.

ShivaMeanwhile back in Mumbai, there are three major temple complexes at the Elephanta site. The main, extensive, area has hundreds of extraordinary old carvings of Hindu gods, many of them still in superb condition. The star attraction is the three headed statue of Shiva, which is breathtaking in its grandeur. Avinash took us all round the complex and explained who each of the gods were, and in what guise they were appearing – as you may know, Hindu gods get up to all sorts of exciting and unexpected activities. Alas I can’t remember the intricate details today. The overwhelming feeling is that you’re in a place of great history, superb artistry Temple complexand creativity, and that man, 1500 years ago, chose this natural environment as a home for his devotion to his gods. It’s a great place for photo opportunities too; not only of the sculptures, and the light and shadow effects created by the sun beaming into the darkness (if you were a little kid it would be the most brilliant place to play hide and seek), but also outside in the sunshine with the banyan trees and the monkeys. Ah yes, the monkeys. Guess who forgot the warning about the little buggers and had his bottle of water grabbed right out of his hand? I guess I was lucky not to get scratched and then spend the rest of the week worrying about rabies.

Another cave viewpointAfter a detailed guided tour, and then a more relaxed, independent walk around the complex to discover little nooks and crannies you missed the first time round, and to try some more experimental camera shots, it’s time to head back to the land train and the boat back to BOM. On the way back we got chatting to a very nice Indian couple who recognised our accents, and they talked about their lives spending half the year in India and half in UK – seems like a pretty good lifestyle. Arriving back at the Gateway of India, Mobin was just taking us to our car when we bumped into Amish taking an American chap on a tour of the city. They were both obviously enjoying their day, and it was a cue for a lot of teasing conversations as to who was the best guide! Guys, you’ll just never know…

lunchBack at the Oberoi and time for a late lunch. We decided to hit the Eau Bar because we didn’t really want a huge meal, just some Indian snacks and a refreshing glass of white wine. I tell you, that is such a glorious experience. The snacks were like Indian tapas – utterly delicious, and surprisingly filling. With the view over the bay, the terrific service and contented tummies, we were in seventh heaven. There were only two other people in the bar – an English couple who, from the loud conversations they were having on their mobiles, we deduced were obviously going to attend a big Indian wedding later in the afternoon; and they were pre-loading for Dutch courage!

local walkWe could have just flumped down afterwards and rested – every day that week it was between 32 and 34 degrees so it was hot, but not so much that you couldn’t go out and do things – but instead we decided to go for a little wander around the district by ourselves. I had my Eyewitness Travel book of India, and a couple of relatively useless maps taken from the hotel room. We planned a very simple circuit around the hotel and thought we’d see what happened.

Nariman PointThere’s a path at the water’s edge that takes you to the farthest tip of Nariman Point. So we wandered down there, and discovered that it’s the place where everyone likes to be seen walking. Young families, groups of friends, students; they all clamber about on the concrete blocks that are scattered at random to the side of the footpath as an additional barrier between it and the sea. Lots of soft drinks and ice creams get consumed along that stretch. We doubled back up, walked further along the water’s edge until we turned right onto Madame Cama Road. This takes you past the back entrance to Churchgate cricket ground where we saw members of a ladies’ cricket team (either England or New Zealand we think) getting on board an official World Cup 2013 bus.

Oval MaidanFor the sight of more cricket, we walked on, until we got to the Oval Maidan. It’s a large expanse of park in the middle of the city – you couldn’t really call it green though, as the heat of the sun has made the grass brown. And on this empty patch of land, as far as your eyes can see in both directions, take place dozens of cricket matches. Some of the players were wearing traditional white, but the majority were just in shirts and jeans. It was great just to watch people enjoying themselves, and if you were ever in any doubt as to how much your average Indian loves cricket – this will make it abundantly clear.

Traffic!On the other side of the Maidan is the Rajabai Clock Tower – by day looking more like part of a Victorian railway station or church tower; it stands out as a very refined looking piece of architecture. We negotiated some busy roads – traffic not only nose to tail but nose to side as well, there’s not a lot of space on those roads for that many vehicles – until once again we made our way to the Gateway of India. Still busy with tourists, locals and tradespeople, we noticed a number of guys sitting by the side of the square with loads of containers – we never did find out what that was all about. Perhaps you know?

container guysWe spent a little while people watching and reflecting on the terrific day we’d had. From there it was just a simple wander back to the hotel for a rest, a shower and a quiet evening. We decided to return to the relative informality of the Oberoi’s Fenix restaurant, which was very relaxing, and later on we heard the call of the Eau Bar yet again, where we swapped Northamptonshire Cricket stories with our knowledgeable wine waiter. Tomorrow was to be another fun-packed day, going round markets and meeting the real Bombay people.

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